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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Road transport, both of passengers and of goods, plays a vital part in the economic life of modern communities. For a country like New Zealand, which is highly dependent for its economic strength upon the activity of its primary industries, the importance of adequate roads is even greater than in most other countries. The nature of our great primary industries is such as to require, for their successful functioning, an extensive and elaborate network of roads extending to all productive areas.

It is natural that roading policy has always loomed large in the politics of New Zealand and, particularly in the earlier decades of development, the provision of roads and bridges was a dominant consideration in the public affairs of the country. The many Acts of the Central and Provincial Governments bear testimony to the incessant demands of the people for road access and it is not surprising that considerable progress has been made over the 120 years during which the country has been developing its industries.

Early Construction

During the 500 years in which the Maori held undisputed control, he must have traversed almost every part of the country, as is evidenced by the Maori place names that survive. But because most of the country, apart from the tussock-covered plains of the South Island, was in thick bush, the rivers, lakes, and harbours, linked by tracks, became the main highways of the Maori people, who also made use of the beaches. In the South Island there was a track down the east coast with a number of other tracks following up the rivers to the passes through the mountains to the West Coast. In the North Island the western coastal track was used throughout the whole length of the Island, but the track on the East Coast left the coast near Castlepoint and rejoined it near Napier.

Water access and beach paths were the only means of communication available to the early white settlers. The years from 1840 on were those of coastal settlement, arid most of the important coastal towns of New Zealand were established in this early period. Wellington, Auckland, and Wanganui were established in 1840, New Plymouth in 1841, Nelson in 1842, Dunedin in 1848, and Christchurch, which is but a short distance from the sea, in 1850. The best form of carriage was still by water and it was almost impossible to move heavy goods far inland. Even so, roads of some kind became a necessity to open up lands for settlement. For the time, some good roads were built, but the best were constructed by the Imperial forces sent to protect the young settlements. The Great South Road from Auckland – called the Khyber Pass because of its loneliness and the danger of attack – and the roads from Wellington to Paekakariki and from Wellington through the Hutt Valley over the Rimutaka Range to the Wairarapa were built under military control and directions. Work began in May 1846 on the two latter, and the Paekakariki road was completed in 1849 and the road to the Wairarapa in 1854. During the Maori Wars in the 1860s and later, there was a similar programme of strategic roading construction in the North Island. Some roads were built by friendly Maoris, and Donald McLean, Native Minister in 1869, said that the Maoris were alive to the advantage of communications and desired nothing more than to excel the Europeans at roadmaking.

Factors Involved in Road Construction

During this early period there were many factors which determined the nature and extent of road construction. The main ones which stand out were the growth of settlement, the type of farming practised, gold discoveries, the vehicles used, the growth of the railway, and the amount of money available.

Early settlements near the coast were mainly those of subsistence – small agricultural areas providing most of the wants of their owners and giving little surplus for exchange. The advent of sheep set the pattern for change, and their movement saw some form of communication established between settlements. At this stage sheep farming did not require first-class roads, as flocks either followed the beach tracks or were shipped along the coast in small vessels to a handy spot and then driven inland. A certain amount of cereal production had developed in the settlements, but it was not until the gold rushes of the sixties that rapid growth in the population increased the demand for these products. Grain, though not as durable as wool, could be held in store after threshing until the next spring if road access was poor.

The year 1882 is taken as a milestone, because it was then that the successful shipment of frozen meat to the London market began, a change which was to revolutionise farming in New Zealand. The freezing of dairy produce followed a little later, and with the building of dairy factories, roads became an important factor in the colony's economy. Milk and cream had to be delivered daily to the factory, which required good communication with the area that it served.

A further factor in roading development was the gold discoveries. Whenever the miners found gold it became necessary to improve, and in many cases provide, the means of access to the gold fields. Stores and machinery had to be transported to the diggings often over rugged terrain. The old tracks along which the miners trudged have, in many cases, disappeared, while others have been improved to form county roads and some are now State highways. Thus the road from Dunedin to Gabriel's Gully and up the Clutha River is today a section of State Highway Number 8. The gold discoveries in the Wakatipu and Dunstan fields led to roads northwards and then eastwards from Dunedin, and the routes followed in those days are in the main now State Highways Number 85 and 87.

The West Coast was next and the gold discoveries there demanded a direct route from Canterbury across the snowy intervening wall of the Southern Alps to the coast. Arthur's Pass was found and the route today is State Highway Number 73. Similarly, roads on the West Coast and on the Thames and Coromandel areas owe their beginning to the discovery of gold.

Another factor in the demand for roads was concerned with the means of conveyance used. The earliest method of carrying goods, apart from water, was by the pack animal, and both horses and oxen were used. As this method was expensive and not altogether satisfactory, every endeavour was made to replace it by a wheeled vehicle; thus the bullock dray came into use. But the bullock, although strong and capable in the mud, was slow, and so came the covered waggon drawn by horses. To get the best from horses a hard-surface road was essential.

Up to 1861 no regular coach services were in operation anywhere in the country and the only means of travel was by foot, horseback, or dray. In that year Dunedin was joined to the Clutha River and the Tuapeka diggings by two coach services. By 1864 it was possible to travel from Christchurch to Invercargill, and Hokitika and Christchurch were joined in 1866. Communication by coach between Wellington and Napier commenced in 1868 and the service to Wanganui was first operated in December of the same year. This last service was extended to New Plymouth in the following year. The Concord coach and the buggy became familiar sights on our roads.

The bicycle made its appearance at the end of the sixties, but it was not until the nineties that large numbers of these vehicles were to be seen on the roads. Whereas in the United States and parts of Europe they led to agitation for good roads, in New Zealand they had little effect. Their importance lay not so much in their use as a means of transport, for this was but slight, but because once again they turned attention to the roads as a means of travelling. It was not long before the cycle had a powerful ally – the motorcar, the first to be imported arriving in Wellington in February 1898. The advent of the motorcar entirely changed the complexion of the roading problem in New Zealand, as elsewhere, and the cry for better roads soon arose. Later on, with the rapid increase in the use of motor vehicles, particularly heavy ones, the position became acute and it was evident that the type of road suitable for slow-moving horse traffic was inadequate for the new era.

Still another factor influencing roading was railway construction. The fact that one day a railway might be constructed between two points was an excuse for not spending too large a sum on the construction and maintenance of a road in that area. For instance, the Commission on Roads and Their Construction reported to the Otago Provincial Council in 1863 that they were “… of the opinion that the wisest and most prudent course will be to accept this position at once and to regard all macadamised roads which may in future be constructed as mere temporary expedients,… to be relieved by railways of the heavier portion of the traffic and to become parish rather than high roads”. The reluctance of the authorities to commit themselves to heavy expenditure where there was a possibility of rail construction is easily understandable. Nevertheless, railway construction often resulted in road construction. Roads were necessary to complete this work and to enable goods and produce to be transported to and from railway stations as new land was opened up. But there was another side to this development. The improved means of transport and the reduction of cost provided by the rail made an extensive type of farming economic. The moving by horse and wagon of large quantities of butter, or stock ready for slaughter at the freezing works, was not practicable along rough roads. It was, however, possible to move these quickly and cheaply by rail, with the result that land which might previously have been suitable only for large stock or sheep runs could now be cut into small holdings suitable for dairying or the fat-lamb industry. This intensification of farming increased the roading required and also the amount that individual roads would have to carry. It is interesting that railway development should have assisted the form of communication which ultimately became its chief rival.

The last factor to be considered was the amount of money available for road construction. Apart from Government grants in the period before the advent of refrigeration, the funds available to the roading authorities were limited to those in the hands of the road boards whose sources of income were not great. The type of farming practised has indicated that the distribution of wealth was uneven. There were a few wealthy squatters and growers of grain, but the remainder of the farming population was on a subsistence level, with a small amount of ready cash obtained from the sales of produce; from work to the roads or from the supply of railway from work on the roads or the supply of railway sleepers. It was not until the nineties that the small farm became a paying proposition. Thus it was some time before there was sufficient surplus for the settlers to pay rates, which would enable the county or other authority to provide them with the class of road they were demanding. Here in part is the reason why so great a pressure was put on the Government to subsidise heavily the costs of local body roading.

For much the same reason in the early years of our history, the various Governments, either central or provincial, were not a great deal better off. Apart from land and gold revenue in the case of the provincial governments, they were dependent for their income mainly on customs duties. Governments with finance based on such meagre resources could not carry out the works necessary for the development of the country and they were forced into borrowing. Only then were sufficient funds available for a public works programme to be commenced, as, for instance, during the Vogel boom of the early seventies.


Dudley John Chapman, B.A., D.P.A., Investigating Officer, Administration Division, Ministry of Works, Wellington.