Before a rail link was established to Wairoa from Napier in 1939, travel was either a long and arduous road trip, or the fastest route – a 38 mile (61km) trip aboard a sea vessel.

One problem with the sea voyage was the Wairoa River bar – the point at which the sea meets the river mouth.

Silting up of the bar with shingle was a constant problem for entry to the Wairoa River and on to town to offload passengers and cargo.

Read more: Michael Fowler: Nude young lady's charms had Napier folk agog
Michael Fowler: Future King, Queen Mum sent Napier to bed happy
Michael Fowler: Pie cart filled Bay bellies before Maccas, KFC


In January 1866, the Government paddle steamer Huntress attempted to cross the bar, but couldn't with the tide running out, so it anchored outside for the night.

The next day at 4am it crossed over the bar safely and left for Napier at 7.30pm that night – making the trip to Napier in six hours, facing a head wind.

In April 1866 the Huntress would not be so lucky, and along with two other vessels was trapped in the Wairoa River when the bar silted over, making departure impossible.

The Huntress nearly made it out to sea in early October, but the five feet (1.5 metre) clearance was not sufficient. In total, the paddle steamer was trapped for six months.

A story is told of a Wairoa woman taking her adopted son to Napier for his passage to Ireland to study for Holy Orders.

A return trip was not possible for her as the bar had silted up. The road to Wairoa was closed because of slips. She apparently received word of her son reaching London before she could travel back to Wairoa by boat.

During the times the bar was closed, commodities became in short supply in Wairoa, and prices would soar.

Problems at the bar were caused by heavy southeasterly and easterly weather which shifted shingle by wave and wind.


This could pile up to 16 to 20 feet (five to six metres) high across what was previously a river channel, with a water depth of around three metres.

With no escape, the water accumulated behind the shingle, and it became an elongated lake.

When sufficient water had backed up against the shingle, men with shovels would dig a small channel outlet.

The trickle of water created by their efforts would eventually rush out in great volume to the sea when the force of the river built up behind the shingle.

But every channel was in a new place, meaning soundings had to be taken. This caused many delays to shipping being able to enter the harbour.

A road trip from Napier to Wairoa in 1911 took 36 hours, as opposed to 4.5 hours by sea.

The good people of Wairoa wanted a fix to their troublesome bar, having agitated since 1876 to fix the problem. The man they would get to attempt this was civil engineer Leslie Reynolds.

Reynolds' plan would cost £78,000 (2018: $13 million), a considerable sum in those days for such a sparsely populated area. A poll had to be taken amongst the ratepayers for permission for the loan, and this passed easily.

Sir James Carroll (1857-1926), a Maori politician, who was acting prime minister on two occasions in 1909 and 1911, and born in Wairoa, was chosen in 1912 to drive the first pile for the Wairoa Harbour works.

In his speech at the ceremony, Carroll referred to "those mighty spirits" who had now been placated from blocking the harbour to punish the presuming pakeha.

He took some pleasure in naming parts of the scheme after the various taniwha he said had caused the problems at the bar.

Training walls were created at a length of 6500 feet (1980 metres), which caused the river to flow out at right angles to the shingle bank, giving a clearance at high tide of about 15 feet (4.5 metres).

By early 1915 the works were almost completed, and the bar that summer had caused the fewest issues in the port's history.

Leslie Reynolds was confident that his scheme would fix the problems of the Wairoa bar by making a permanent entrance to the river, which at that time was considered one of the most difficult engineering feats in New Zealand.

• Michael Fowler ( is a freelance writer, contract researcher and speaker of Hawke's Bay's history.