is situated on the north bank of the Hokitika River mouth, on Westland Plain. The town occupies river terraces and is separated from the ocean beach by a narrow belt of sandhills. The surrounding country consists mainly of alluvial flats and terraces, but some 10–12 miles eastward it rises steeply to the bush-clad foothills of the Southern Alps. The main South Westland highway and the Greymouth-Ross section of railway pass through the town. By road Hokitika is 25 miles south-west of Greymouth (24 miles by rail) and 19 miles north-east of Ross (15 miles by rail). Christchurch is 169 miles south-east by rail via the Otira Tunnel.
The main farming activities of the district are sheep and cattle raising on the less productive land and dairying on the alluvial flats. The timber industry is the most important primary activity and there are many sawmills cutting native trees in the district. Afforestation with exotics, chiefly Pinus radiata, is undertaken by the New Zealand Forest Service in the wake of felling. Lime is quarried and processed at Kowhitirangi (14 miles south). Hokitika is the administrative and commercial centre for that part of Westland extending from the Taramakau River to Jackson Bay, and is also an important junction for visitors to the major resorts of South Westland. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of joinery, coal gas, clothing, butter, beer and stout; sawmilling; and general engineering.
Ancient Maori overland routes to the greenstone country converged on Hokitika from the south via Haast Pass and from the east via Browning and Whitcombe Passes. There is evidence of former Maori occupation at Kokatahi (about 12 miles south-east). The ships of Tasman, Cook, and d'Urville sailed northwards off the coast in 1642, 1770, and 1826 respectively. None of these navigators considered the country worthy of investigation. Thomas Brunner, who travelled through the district in 1847, was the first European overland visitor. In March 1857 the Oakes brothers in the schooner Emerald Isle visited the mouth of the Hokitika River and, later in the same year, Leonard Harper and Maoris visited the district via Harper Pass and Mawhera (now Greymouth). In 1860 J. Mackay passed through the district prior to concluding the purchase of the West Coast at Mawhera on 21 May. In 1863 gold was discovered in the Taramakau district and extensive surveys of Westland began. In 1864 W. H. Revell, convinced of the presence of payable gold, informed the Provincial Government, who were considering abandoning the West Coast.
During the last six months of 1864 a straggling mining camp came into existence at Hokitika. On 1 October Hudson and Price arrived and set up a calico store on the north bank. By November several tents and four more stores had been set up on the south bank opposite. The s.s. Nelson crossed the bar early in 1865. Rochfort had surveyed the town site and when the passengers landed Revell marked off the town sections. Many of these were taken up immediately and the construction of the buildings commenced. In March 1865 Westland was proclaimed a goldfield and, subsequently, G. S. Sale became Commissioner at Hokitika. During this month the rush accelerated and some 4,000 miners arrived by sea from the Otago diggings and probably half as many again came overland. Early in April the first of the influx of Victorian diggers, known as the “Australian Invasion”, landed. The route via Harper Pass was improved and, by 1866, the permanent highway from Christchurch via Arthur's Pass had reached the existing Greymouth-Hokitika route near Arahura River crossing. Gold mining remained a major industry for many years. The last gold dredge on the Hokitika River, dismantled in 1952–53, is at present (1962) working along the north bank of the Taramakau River. In the later 1860s timber milling began to assume importance and has continued to be a major industry. Farming dates from about 1867 when land in the Kokatahi district was occupied.
Railway construction commenced in the early 1880s and the Greymouth-Hokitika line was opened on 18 December 1893. The extension to Ross, commenced in August 1902, was opened throughout on 1 April 1904. Through rail traffic between Hokitika and Christchurch was achieved with the opening of the Otira Tunnel on 4 August 1923. On 5 June 1866 Hokitika was a municipal district of Canterbury Province, but from 1868 was designated a borough. In 1868, under the County of Westland Act, Hokitika became a county seat, Westland County became a new province on 1 December 1873 and, until 1876, Hokitika was the provincial capital. The origin of the name is uncertain. It is said that Kaiapoi Maoris attempted to capture a pa here, but their chiefs were drowned while crossing the river. The leaderless attackers thereupon retired. Literally, the name means “to return directly” or “to turn back again”.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 2,986; 1956 census, 3,032; 1961 census, 3,005.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.
Hokitika: Goldfields Capital, May, P. R. (1965).