Oamaru is situated on the shores of a small bay immediately north of Cape Wanbrow on the coast of North Otago. On the west and south-west the country rises to rolling downs and, in about 15–20 miles, to the slopes of the Kakanui Range. On the north the land gradually opens out to terraces and flats of the lower Waitaki Valley. An artificial harbour, protected by a breakwater extending northward from the bluff of Cape Wanbrow, provides port facilities. The Christchurch-Dunedin Main Highway and the South Island Main Trunk railway pass through the town. There is a branch from Waiareka Junction (2 miles west) to Taylors Siding (about 5 miles north-west), and from Pukeuri Junction (6 miles north-east) to Kurow (37 miles north-west). By road Oamaru is 154 miles southwest of Christchurch (152 miles by rail) and 82 miles north-east of Dunedin (78 miles by rail). Timaru is 53 miles north-east by road or rail.
The main farming activities of the district are intensive sheep farming and cash cropping on the downs and lowlands and more extensive sheep raising on the higher country. Cereal crops are important and there are flourmills at Ngapara (17 miles north-west) and at Maheno (9 miles south-west). There is considerable seed production and some fruitgrowing in the district. Timber is logged at Waianakarua State plantation (about 18 miles south-west), and there are sawmills at Windsor (10 miles north-west). Limestone, including Oamaru stone of building quality, abounds throughout the district. There are lime works at Weston (5 miles north-west) and near Totara (6 miles south-west). Lignite coal is mined at Ngapara. There is a meat-freezing works at Pukeuri Junction. Oamaru is the chief town and port of North Otago. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of butter, flour and cereal products, confectionery, medicine, stock foods, woollen goods, clothing, joinery and furniture, household appliances, space-heating systems, coal gas and coal tar, and concrete products; cheese, bacon and ham processing; sawmilling; engineering; and motor-body building. Oamaru is a base for commercial marine fisheries along the coast. There are wool and skins, grain, seed, and produce stores in the town.
Oamaru, having a comparatively sheltered landing place in southerly weather, was frequented by sealers and whalers between the end of the eighteenth century and the 1840s. Notable early visitors in 1844 were Edward Shortland, who travelled northward along the coast from Waikouaiti to Akaroa; Bishop G. A. Selwyn, who was proceeding southward to Moeraki; and W. Heaphy, walking from Otago Harbour to Nelson. W. B. D. Mantell visited the district in 1848 in the course of arranging the boundaries of Maori reserves which had been left undecided at the time of earlier land purchases. The first European resident in the district prior to 1850 was probably James Saunders, a trader among the Maoris near the mouth of the Waitaki River, some 14 miles north-east. Areas extending inland from the coast between Dunedin and the Waitaki River were taken up for sheep runs in the early 1850s. Hugh Robison occupied land, including Cape Wanbrow and the future sites of Oamaru and Weston, in 1853. He built a dwelling on the north side of a lagoon formed by Oamaru Creek, on the present town site. Several runs were subdivided in 1860 to facilitate closer settlement and agricultural farming.
Oamaru began to develop as a town and port in the early 1860s. Construction of the breakwater commenced in 1871 and, by 1884, there was a safe artificial harbour. During 1884 the ship Dunedin (which earlier had sailed from Port Chalmers with the first frozen meat from New Zealand) loaded a cargo of frozen mutton at Oamaru for London. Railway construction commenced in the early 1870s. The railway between Waitaki South and Oamaru was opened on 27 September 1875. On 1 February 1877 this section was extended to Makikihi, where it linked up with the line from Christchurch. Oamaru was joined to Dunedin by rail on 7 September 1878. The branch lines inland contributed much to the development of the district. The Pukeuri Junction – Kurow branch was opened to Hakataramea (Canterbury) on 1 April 1885. In 1930 the Kurow-Hakataramea portion was closed. Since 1947 this branch has carried goods traffic only. A branch railway from Waiareka was opened to Ngapara on 1 April 1877 and a lateral from Windsor to Tokarahi on 8 July 1887. The Windsor-Tokarahi portion was closed on 14 July 1930. With the exception of the Waiareka-Taylors Siding (limeworks) portion, the Ngapara branch was closed on 12 July 1959. In 1861 Oamaru became a town in terms of an Otago Provincial Government ordinance. In 1866 it was constituted a borough. The meaning of the name is obscure, but an interpretation widely accepted is “Maru's place”, or “Maru's abode”.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 8,119; 1956 census, 11,088; 1961 census, 12,391.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.