Flood and Storm in Central Otago, 1878
Public and private properties worth many thousands of pounds were swept away and many towns were inundated in Central and South Otago in the great Clutha flood of 1878, which must rank as one of the worst visitations of its kind in the history of New Zealand.
A long severe winter had left an unusual depth of snow on the river's mountain watersheds; subsequently, hard frosts consolidated the snowfields which were over 100 ft deep in places. Spring came in cold and sharp and, as most settlers calculated, the frosts held the snows fast. Then, in September, warm north-westerly winds blew for several days, followed by 36 hours of continuous warm rains. The thaw set in swiftly and terribly. On 26 September 1878 the Clutha and all its tributaries rose ominously. By the end of the month every river and stream in the district was in flood, and these waters all flowed down to swell the Clutha. On 10 October a further 24–hour downpour of warm rains hastened the already rapid thaw, with the result that, for 200 miles, from the mountains to the coast, settlers and urban communities found themselves faced with annihilation. In unprecedented flood, the Clutha carried houses, bridges, timber, furniture, farm equipment, and livestock down to the sea. At Cromwell the flood waters reached 35–40 ft above normal, and nearly every town along the river's banks was inundated. Heavy bridges—costing thousands of pounds—at Clyde, Roxburgh, Beaumont, and Balclutha were swept away by the debris-laden waters. Communications throughout the Lake and Vincent counties were disrupted completely. At Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu rose to alarming levels as the snows from its encircling mountain ranges rapidly thawed. Parts of the town were under 6 ft of water, boats were used to traverse the streets, and a general evacuation was made. Clyde and Alexandra were flooded and the wide Manuherikia Valley resembled an inland sea. At Roxburgh and Millers Flat, houses were swept away and valuable mining claims disappeared. But the greatest sufferer was the wide fertile lowland farming country of South Otago which, with its centre, Balclutha—a thriving town—was completely overrun. Not only did the water spread deep throughout the town, but a fierce current raced along the streets wreaking havoc. The whole of the Clutha-Kaitangata area presented an unbroken expanse of swirling muddy water. Apart from damage to roads, bridges, buildings, and railway lines, the loss in farm livestock was enormous and its total was never accurately assessed. Many newly established settlers and settlements were ruined.
Loss of life was confined, fortunately, to one or two persons who were unlucky enough to be drowned while attempting to salvage possessions from their homesteads. The most lasting damage, however, occurred at Port Molyneux at the river's mouth. This port had already catered for a brisk coastal trade, but when the river gouged out a new channel it left the existing port installations high and dry, while a great sand bar blocking the entrance to the harbour appeared when the waters receded. To this day Port Molyneux remains a port only in name.