The Path Not Taken

In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory or an unjust interest. Endeavour to gain, rather than to expose thy antagonist.
– William Penn

At points in our lives we have decisions to make which can take us down any multiple of roads, and result in a major redirection of the course we are currently taking. This was the situation Napier found itself in at the beginning of the 20th Century; to utilise and expand upon the natural harbour of the Ahuriri Lagoon or construct a breakwater port near Bluff Hill, both at considerable expense. It was a decision which divided not only the growing town, but the entire region. In the end the issue was resolved by natural forces. This lengthy conflict is well documented within our collection through detailed maps and heated opinion pieces.

By 1900 Napier had recovered from a deep depression. Freezing works, sheep scourers and blacksmiths began to establish themselves in the region. Coupled with an influx of residents and other growing towns in the region, Napier’s export and import market began to grow at an exponential rate. In order to service this sector, a major new port was needed. Napier was in the enviable position of having a choice of harbours; it not only had a suitable coast line for a breakwater harbour, but also a sheltered harbour free of the open ocean.

A public vote was taken in 1885 with 96 percent of ratepayers voting in favour of accepting a loan to build a breakwater harbour. While the Inner Harbour around Westshore was considered a natural harbour, considerable dredging of the bottom was needed in order to accommodate larger ships. While those ships that could not enter the Inner Harbour unloaded from the roadstead quite safely, the need for a deep water harbour had been highlighted in 1887 by the fatal beaching of the Northumberland and Boojum while unloading goods near Westshore. While work was undertaken after this tragedy, storms in 1894 and 1896 lashed the partially completed breakwater harbour causing considerable damage and forcing the Harbour Board to redirect what little money it had left to repairing the damage. By 1905 a report by Charles Ellison showed that public opinion had swayed towards developing the Inner Harbour as costs continued to spiral upwards at the breakwater with little return being visible.

Photograph by W H Neal of the breakwater port taken from Bluff Hill on 10 February 1899. Glasgow Wharf and the partially completed breakwater running towards Auckland Rock are visible. 1928,Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 77628

One of the proponents of completing a breakwater harbour was F W Marchant. He put forward a plan to build a massive breakwater and harbour at the entrance to the Inner Harbour but later admitted in a report to the Harbour Board that continuing work on the breakwater at Bluff Hill would cost nearly half of the estimated £325,000 for his “Spit” harbour. It was seen as an unnecessary expense to local ratepayers that two separate harbours should be built so close together, and the idea was scrapped.

A plan, presumably by George Nelson, showing his own Inner Harbour plan and F W Marchant’s schemes for the breakwater and “Spit” harbour with costs included. Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, m65/19

While the breakwater port may have been the most feasible plan from an economic perspective, the fate of it was determined by regional poll on 9 February 1909, with a slim majority voting against accepting a new loan to complete the work. Within a month of this rejection an entirely new plan was submitted by George Nelson which utilised only the Inner Harbour. This plan envisaged dredging over 1.5 million yards of material from the area and using it to fill in the North and South Ponds upon which factories, sheds and rail yards would be built to service the port. Land belonging to the Harbour Board that was once swamp could be reclaimed and sold to finance the work. Although this bold new concept appeared favourable, the Harbour Board approached it with caution and it was not long before a furious debate ensued.
George Nelson’s original plan for the development of the Inner Harbour.
Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, m65/19

The opposition to this plan was led by engineers J P Maxwell, Cyrus Williams and J B Mason of Sydney who had been contracted in by the Harbour Board to assess the feasibility of plans. Leaflets exposing Nelson’s plan as ill-conceived and misleading were circulated throughout the region. The engineers claimed that Nelson had manipulated data previously collected, claiming that the Inner Harbour bottom was soft ground that could be easily dredged when in reality it was very hard rock that would cost three times as estimated by Nelson to move. This exposed Nelson to harsh criticism as a developer who had not only cherry-picked data, but stolen a fellow engineers work.


The leaflet which exposed George Nelson’s Inner Harbour plans to harsh criticism. Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, m73/38

In addition, Nelson had paid lip-service to the breakwater in his plan by admitting that it had stopped shingle from accumulating in the Inner Harbour, but this appeared to be overstated. Maxwell, Williams and Mason commented that Nelson’s plan of “the construction of a navigable channel through a perpetual sand drift in the open ocean would be so difficult that a mere statement to make one scarcely demands the opinion that the idea is not a reasonable one”. A modified version of Nelson’s plan was made by Australian engineers T W Keele and E A Cullen in 1912, but after finding that they had been supplied with false information, changed their views on the viability of the Inner Harbour.
Although the rejection of these plans was a major setback for the Inner Harbour faction of Napier, there continued to be ongoing debate over which type of port was best suited for shipping purposes. Another poll in 1920 swayed in favour of further loans for development of the Inner Harbour, while the Harbour Board continued to retain a majority of Inner Harbour planners in its seats. Friends and enemies were said to be made throughout the town depending on an individual’s preference for one plan or another.


Before and after: a map contrasting the Inner Harbour’s initial underwater reach in 1865 and the final shape it took after the 1931 Earthquake and years of reclamation work. Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 56/28 and m2002/8/9

However, where the citizens and Harbour Board could not decide, Mother Nature intervened decisively. The February 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake raised the bed of the Inner Harbour to a point where draining and reclaiming the land was a more feasible option than dredging the hard bottom and turning it into a port. The Inner Harbour idea was finally shelved and construction of the breakwater port continued apace. The area that was once such a contentious issue for the people of Napier is now home to flocks of grazing sheep and a more modern form of transport, the aeroplane.

Evan Greensides
Collection Assistant
January 2013

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