JAMESTOWN – A Ghost Township
Fifteen miles north of Milford Sound, 200 miles south of Hokitika, and 3 to 4 miles inland from Martins Bay on the shores of picturesque Lake McKerrow, there stand today the gaunt lingering remains of Jamestown, a paper village, that nearly 100 years ago was to have been the genesis of a Greater Otago. In the late 1860s when the gold yield was falling away, the Provincial Council, inspired by its Superintendent, James Macandrew, began to dream of expanded frontiers. Hopes settled on the western coast of the province, and despite an unfavourable report in 1867 by a competent surveyor, W. G. Wright, a Select Committee in 1868 recommended the founding of a new settlement at Martins Bay. The Superintendent, who was patently disinclined to be discouraged by the Wright report, reacted enthusiastically to the Committee's recommendation. Jamestown would be built and the neighbouring country settled. Thus it was that in 1870, obsessed by visions of fishing, timber, shipbuilding, and general farming industries pioneered by tough Canadian backwoodsmen and sturdy immigrants from Nova Scotia and the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Macandrew dispatched an advance guard of surveyors and settlers from Port Chalmers to spy out the land. A site for Jamestown was fixed on the edge of Lake McKerrow, a couple of miles from the spot where the Lower Hollyford River begins its 4-mile course from the lake to the sea at Martins Bay. The Otago Waste Lands Act was amended to provide free grants of 100-acre lots of land over an area not exceeding 100,000 acres, and work began on the surveying of town, suburban, and rural allotments. The initial expedition, however, was casually conceived and as casually carried out, and it required only a few characteristic setbacks completely to seal the doom of the project. Road communication was promised from Lake Wakatipu to Lake McKerrow over the Greenstone Saddle. But though a grant of £1,500 was made for the purpose and a 60-mile route was surveyed, it was to be 16 years before even a bridle track was cut to Martins Bay.
From the outset the first settlers found their new home a beautiful but inhospitable refuge. Hardship, privations, and what they called “the great starvation” came swiftly. Their only line of communication and supply was a subsidised two-monthly shipping service provided by the Union Steam Ship Co. With a steady diet of fish, wekas, kiwis, and pigeons, and all other supplies delivered tardily at exorbitant prices, the little community was soon in difficult straits. To make matters worse, Macandrew, while providing free land, had given no thought to an even greater necessity – capital for land development, building, and timber milling. Not surprisingly, the Jamestown venture proved a fiasco, and Macandrew's dream of a provincial Otago stretching from coast to coast and extending from the Waitaki River to Foveaux Strait soon faded. But strangely enough settlers still came. The pioneer group of 1870 was headed by William Webb, John Robertson, and Henry Homer (after whom the Homer Saddle and Tunnel are named). The pitsaws were once more busy producing timber for housing, and the acreage under crop increased steadily, but about this time the shipping service was discontinued and, as the road had still to be commenced, Jamestown had to rely on the extremely irregular calls of a Government paddle steamer. The inevitable happened. A steady exodus began, and by 1879 the struggle was over. Tilled fields went back to bush and scrub, the rough dwellings were deserted and sank into decay, and before the decade came to an end only sagging eaves and gaping doors and windows remained as a reminder of what might have been.
The name Jamestown was given in honour of Superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Pioneers of Martins Bay, McKenzie, Alice (1952).