Westport is situated on the eastern bank of the Buller River close to the mouth. Within 6–8 miles south-east and east the country rises steeply to the bush-clad Paparoa Range and the Mount Rochfort Plateau. The railway from Greymouth via Stillwater and Reefton and a branch goods line from Mokihinui Mine terminate at the town. By road Westport is 144 miles south-west of Nelson, 62 miles south-west of Karamea, 50 ½ miles northwest of Reefton (47 miles by rail), and 65 miles north-east of Greymouth via Punakaiki (94 miles by rail via Reefton). Westport is a river port with berthage along the river bank in the borough.
The farming activities of the district are dairying, sheep and cattle raising, some mixed farming, and market gardening. Flax is cut at various localities for processing at Westport. Timber milling is important and is carried on throughout the district. The most important primary industry is coal mining. The principal bituminous coal mines are located at or near Seddonville (29 miles northeast), Stockton (24 miles north-east), Millerton (21 miles north-east), and Denniston (17 miles north-east). Sub-bituminous coal is mined in the lower Buller Gorge (about 22 miles south-east), and lignite is obtained from opencast mines at Charleston (16 ½ miles south-west). Lime is quarried at Totara River (about 12 miles southwest) and near Karamea. Near Cape Foulwind (about 7 miles west) there is a large cement works. Westport is the commercial and administrative centre and port for the northern West Coast area. The town industrial activities include the manufacture of butter, beer and stout, furniture, coal gas, concrete and earthenware pipes, knitwear and hosiery; processing of bacon and hams; whitebait canning in season; flaxmilling; sawmilling; and general engineering. Large workshops serve the railways in the district. A plant for the manufacture of briquettes at Ngakawau (19 miles northeast) came into production early in 1965.
Tasman in 1642, Cook in 1770, and d'Urville in 1826 sailed along the coast of Karamea Bight, but were not impressed with the country. In January 1844 a sealer and whaler, Joseph Toms (Geordie Bolts), brought his vessel The Three Brothers into the mouth of the Buller. Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy travelled southward through the locality in 1846. In June 1847 Brunner and Maoris passed through the district. James Mackay, with Maoris, visited the mouth of the Buller in 1857 en route to the Grey district. Rochfort and party came from Nelson in the cutter Supply during 1859 to survey the Buller area. They discovered good coal and gold. In 1860 J. Mackay passed through after completing the purchase of the West Coast. Julius von Haast, with James Burnett and party, discovered a thick seam of coal north-east of the Buller mouth in 1860. In June 1861, 16 miners arrived in the Jane and established a settlement on the present site of Westport.
On 29 January 1862, when the Tasmanian Maid, first steamer to cross the bar, arrived, the population was estimated at 200 (170 Maoris). In that year gold mining activities were accelerated. Gold mining was mainly concentrated in the Buller Gorge, at Lyell Creek (40 miles upstream), after 1863, and at Brighton (Tiromoana) and nearby localities and at Charleston after 1866. Between 1883 and the early 1900s several gold dredges worked on the Buller River between Berlins and Lyell. Gold was also found in the Inangahua Valley, then at Waimangaroa, Mokihinui, and on terraces north of Westport. In 1867 further finds were made at Addisons (7 miles south) and, in 1870, rich reefs were discovered in the Reefton district. Gold mining began to decline after 1900. Coal mining had modest beginnings, chiefly because of difficulty of access, but was well established by the late 1870s. Railway construction commenced in 1874 from Westport and the line to Seddonville was opened with the purchase of a private line in 1895. The railway to Reefton was begun in 1906, but through communication with Christchurch and Greymouth was not achieved until September 1942. Uranium was discovered in a lower Buller Gorge locality (about 15 miles south-east) by Jacobsen and Cassin in November 1955 but, after subsequent exploration, mining ceased in 1962. Westport was constituted a borough in 1873. The name dates from 1862, probably after Westport, on Clew Bay, in Connaught.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 5,505; 1956 census, 5,522; 1961 census, 5,464.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.