Last Wednesday (February 3) marked the 90th anniversary of the Hawke's Bay earthquake. Among the extensive number of photographs in the Hawke's Bay Museums Trusts collection are a selection of images showcasing how Wairoa fared in the disaster.
Within minutes of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the Hawke's Bay landscape north of Napier was ravaged and twisted from the intense and abrupt movement of the tectonic plates. Vegetation was ripped from the soil and there were slips covering every ridge.
The railway line between Wairoa and Napier was twisted in all directions, especially at Kotemaori, and the Mohaka railway tunnel collapsed. The road south to Napier became impassable. The Devil's Elbow road virtually disappeared and there was a large slip at Mohaka River.
A few miles south of Wairoa, at Turiroa, the road slipped into the river in several places. North of Wairoa, near Mōrere, wide fissures, some up to eight feet deep, criss-crossed the road making it difficult to traverse. Wairoa was effectively isolated by road and rail.
Tragically for Wairoa three people were killed and several severely injured in the small township of 2490 people. Power and telephone lines crashed to the ground and electric transformers at the substation were badly damaged. The water mains were smashed to smithereens and food was in short supply.
The earthquake inflicted huge material damage on the township itself. Most of the brick buildings and shops on Wairoa's Marine Parade were decimated, including Osler's Bakery, William & Kettle's premises, the post office and Gaiety Theatre.
Many houses and all brick chimneys were destroyed. The nurses' home at Wairoa Hospital was uninhabitable, the isolation ward badly damaged and kitchens destroyed.
Two bridges traversed the Wairoa River at this time. The railway bridge, which was relatively new, remained intact whereas the traffic bridge, historically known as Kaimoana after the paramount chief of Wairoa whose kāinga (home) stood on the southern bank of the river, suffered enormous damage. The span of the bridge on the Wairoa side had fallen about 6m and the decking on the Clyde side of the bridge had lifted slightly, over half a metre.
The bridge also carried the water mains between the two sections of town. With every aftershock there was increasing danger the bridge would collapse.
At first pedestrians were allowed to cross but as aftershocks continued it was considered too dangerous. By February 10, Wairoa residents were using boats to ferry everything across the wide river. It was imperative that a new bridge be erected to connect the township and keep communication open.
Work on a new bridge commenced October 10, 1931. However several delays occurred, the principal being a severe earthquake (magnitude 6.9) which struck at 1.27am on September 16, 1932. The effects of it damaged the new structure. The piers, which were lifted into the air by the force of the earthquake, had to be straightened up and the spans removed and adjusted.
The Poverty Bay Herald described them as "standing at crazy angles, some indeed lying on the bed of the river 60 to 70 feet". The girders which lay on top of the piers fell into positions which would make "the task of salvaging them a difficult and possibly dangerous one".
The earthquake also caused the ultimate destruction of the old bridge and according to the newspaper it completely disappeared.
On May 31, 1933, Wairoa finally celebrated the opening of the new steel and ferro concrete bridge. The town was decorated with "thousands of coloured lamps, strung in streamers across the main streets and grouped in artistic designs at the intersections".
Local business premises bedecked their buildings in greenery and "triumphal arches were erected in the streets enhancing the general carnival air". To encourage participation "competitions for young and old were promoted as added attractions to magnify the occasion".
Throngs of people crowded Marine Parade at the entrance to the bridge to watch the official ceremony. Mayor Harker declared the bridge open and the Mayoress cut the white ribbon, using gold scissors made especially for the occasion by Prebble and Company of Wairoa.
The speeches were shortened due to the arrival of a Hawke's Bay and East Coast Aero Club plane which performed stunts and flew low over the crowd dropping bundles of "bridge opening souvenirs". Five official vehicles then crossed the bridge. On their return journey they were followed by a "stream of traffic".
Once again the township, which had been so seriously cut in two for almost 2½ years, was whole again with the bridge allowing unrestricted access from one side of the river to the other.
• Gail Pope is social history curator at the MTG