Napier was described in the 1850s as "... a precipitous island of barren, uninhabited ridges covered with fern and rough grass dissected by gorges and ravines, with a narrow strip of shingle skirting the cliffs, and joined by the mainland south by a five-mile [includes modern CBD area] shingle bank ... a hopeless spot for a town site".
Sea was a constant danger to life and property in Napier and over Mataruahou Island to Spit (Ahuriri).
In 1867, the Spit was described as a "watery waste from the midst of which the Custom House, Post-office, merchants' stores, etc lift themselves up and appear as though built in the sea."
Under Mayor George Swan it was decided to build a new sea wall in 1888 to replace the one built in 1870s as it had almost washed away. The Napier Borough Council would be responsible for the sea wall from Emerson St to the beginning of White Rd (now Hastings St) and prison labour would be used to complete the wall to Coote Rd, including in front of the courthouse.
Retired Napier architect Guy Natusch (1921 - ) remarked to me earlier this year that before the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, he remembers, as a young boy while shopping with his mother, seeing waves crash over the sea wall and water run down Emerson to Hastings St. He almost doubted his recollections of that occurring, but I said that indeed would have been true.
The storm which may relate to the waves hitting the sea wall in the photo was possibly taken in 1902. This is at a position around where Browning St meets Marine Parade.
On this occasion, people could see "the waves topping the Marine Parade wall at numerous points ... and at its full fury made a magnificent sight with the breakers dashed up against the Esplanade opposite the Bluff, now and then forming extremely picturesque miniature waterfalls".
And so, not until the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake did Napier get a reprieve from stormy seas.
Even so, Napier was troubled by the occasional storm.
A storm in 1946 caused waves to pound Napier's foreshore with buildings connected with an abattoir building and a residential house was washed away.
A nearby house had a three-metre hedge and fence swept out to sea.
One large wave broke down the door of one house, went right through it, and poured out the back door.
Part of Maraenui was a metre under water at high tide.
The storm that caused this damage was unusual as it occurred three kilometres south of the Napier CBD, with this location never threatened before – and the foreshore had receded due to the earthquake.
Napier's War Memorial had opened on Marine Parade in 1957, and the present aquarium had its beginnings in the building's basement.
Curator, Gordon Dine, recalled having to put sandbags around the original basement door to stop seas in high tides coming into the aquarium.
High seas of course still can pound Napier's foreshore in a spectacular fashion, but thanks to shingle build-up over the decades since, the restless sea has not ventured as close to Napier's buildings as it once did.
Michael Fowler (email@example.com) is a contract researcher, commercial business writer of Hawke's Bay history.