Since the 1840s, the New Zealand timber industry has devised ways of getting logs of wood from the bush to the mill. This could be a major challenge – the terrain was usually rough, and a big log might be 20 metres long and weigh 10 tonnes.
Once the logs had been sawn at the mill, the task became easier. The volume of wood was reduced by over a third, and sawn timber could be stacked. But transport accounted for as much as half of the cost of timber production.
Getting the logs to the mill was a demanding job that required ingenuity and enterprise, and in harsh and hazardous conditions, bushmen developed strong teamwork and a sense of pride. This era of bush transport has left a rich legacy of stories and photos.
There were five main methods of transporting timber:
Until the end of the 19th century the major sources of locomotion were human muscle, animals or gravity. Then steam power arrived, largely replacing animal power. From about 1930 the internal combustion engine was used: tractors skidded the logs or pulled them on rails, and then trucks carted them on roads.
Pulling large logs along the bush floor was known as skidding. The path was a ‘skidded road’, and the collection point for all the logs was the ‘bush skids’.
Māori used teams of people pulling on ropes, chanting as they worked. Prize tōtara logs for canoes were skidded over challenging distances.
In the 19th century the lumbering bullock team, typically 12 to 20 strong, was popular as a way of skidding logs. Where the terrain was fairly easy, horse teams, which were faster, could be used.
Using animals for skidding was hard going – the teams often struggled over rough ground, steep slopes, intertwined tree roots, and deep mud. Progress was slow and the animals risked breaking their legs. Over long distances the task was made easier with a skidded road, formed from small tree trunks laid across the route. A wooden sledge, known as a catamaran, might carry the log.
Certain methods were used for hauling kauri logs, because of their sheer size:
Haulers – steam-powered winches – were widely used from about 1904. Within a decade they had largely replaced bullocks and horses. Made possible by advances in steel cable technology, haulers comprised a boiler to raise the steam, a steam engine that drove two drums, and steel cables. The larger drum hauled in the log, while the smaller drum pulled the cable back out to begin the process again.
The ropey was the man in charge of the wire ropes and pulleys that dragged logs to the loading skids. In wet weather the road became a quagmire. Soaked to the skin and caked with mud, the ropey had one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the bush – but he was paid a premium wage.
As many as 1,000 haulers were used in New Zealand. The systems were continuously improved into the 1930s. Aerial cableways were developed, and internal combustion engines replaced steam power.
Over 90% of the haulers were designed and made by local engineering companies. Although similar to overseas designs, the local haulers suited New Zealand conditions, and were durable, reliable and cost-effective.
From the mid-1930s, imported caterpillar tractors superseded locally made haulers, almost as quickly as haulers had displaced bullocks. Designed for agriculture and earth moving, tractors proved cost-effective in logging. Their self-laying tracks could travel across soft and wet forest terrain. Manufacturers improved their logging capability by mounting a winch on the rear, providing the advantages of a hauler.
In the 1960s, simpler, lower-maintenance machines called skidders began to take over from tractors. Like haulers, they were built for rugged logging. Skidders have four large wheels and are articulated (jointed) in the middle. They too are imported, and dominate logging today.
Skidding methods evolved in this way not just in New Zealand but around the world. Each improvement cut costs and made tough terrain more accessible.
As well as skidding, logs were taken from bush to sawmill along tramways, which usually had wooden rails in the early days. The logs were carried on bogies – wheeled trucks that were hauled by a locomotive, bullocks, or horses.
Bush tramways were an extreme form of railway, with steep grades, even steeper inclines, tight curves, rickety viaducts, makeshift brakes, and little maintenance. They were hazardous workplaces. Although hidden in the backblocks, the tramways fascinated people for their daring engineering, scenic settings, and intriguing machinery.
Tramways quickly caught on in New Zealand, where the earliest date from the 1850s. An 1877 report by an overseas forester stated, ‘The universal use of the tramway forms a marked feature of the treatment of New Zealand forests. I have seen them of all descriptions and no sawmiller ever dreams of working a forest without one.’ 1
It is estimated that around 1,000 tramways were built, with a total length of around 5,000 kilometres – almost as long as the public railway system at its peak.
Most 19th-century bush tramways were laid with wooden rails and worked by teams of up to eight strong horses. Longer teams could not be used because of the sharp bends. In charge was a bushman known as the trammy. Reins were not needed – the trammy relied entirely on verbal commands, and was helped by the front horse.
The hard-working animals were well cared for, being shod, groomed, housed in stables and adequately fed. Some larger mills stabled up to 40 horses, a costly overhead that triggered technology change.
By the early 20th century, most forest on accessible flat land had been logged. Bush tramways had to reach into hilly country beyond, and became longer and steeper. New Zealand’s economy was booming, and larger sawmills were built. Horse teams had a top speed of only 6 kilometres per hour. Steam locomotives, steel rails and eventually rail tractors spelled their end. The last horse-drawn bush tram stopped operating in 1938.
The small locomotive engine used for hauling logs on tramways was known as a lokey (also spelt ‘loci’) or loco. Steam had been used on some bush tramways since 1871, but in the early 1900s there was a revolution: the advent of steel rails, and geared lokeys. These locomotives were designed for the extremely steep grades, sharp curves, and uneven tracks in the bush.
The first geared lokeys were imported from the USA in 1903, but local engineering works from Whāngārei to Invercargill soon offered alternative designs that captured the New Zealand market.
Some were very innovative, and unique in the world. They cost half the US price. Among the most distinctive were the Johnston 16-wheelers, built in Invercargill. Their weight was generously spread over 16 wheels, so they could take over from horse teams without the costly work of strengthening the tramway. However, the transmission called for 38 gears.
Also full of character were the Davidson patent chain-and-sprocket geared lokeys from Hokitika. Their cheap but rugged chain drive eliminated the costly universal joint, shafts and gears, and could be repaired on a forge and anvil rather than a lathe.
A. & G. Price of Thames produced top-end machines. They got away with copying the best features of the proven US patented designs.
Bogies were small, low, four-wheeled trucks for carrying logs. A long log would be loaded onto two bogies, known to the bushmen as a set. The length of the log determined the distance between the bogies. Each end of the log rested on a swivelling bolster, with the log forming the chassis between. It was held on the bolster by pieces of wood on each side, and chains over the top prevented rolling.
Brakemen had a dangerous job. To prevent a long log being carried too fast downhill, a brakeman would ride on each bogie, winding cranks that pressed wooden brakes into each wheel. They relied on the rails being well laid, or a sudden lurch and a roll of the heavy log could crush both men.
On small tramways that could not afford to upgrade to steam, horse teams were used until the 1920s. Then from 1924 rail tractors appeared. Over the next four years around 100 were sold, replacing the last horses on bush tramways.
Local engineering factories shut out the overseas manufacturer. Each had their own distinctive design and patents, with designs adapted from farm tractors, bulldozers and trucks. Marketing was built around press publicity and practical demonstrations. The Nattrass rail tractor was also sold in Australia. At the same time, motorbikes and cars were being converted to jiggers (small hand-cars or trolleys) to run on bush tramways and carry workmen.
New Zealand’s geared lokeys and rail tractors were innovative because they suited existing tramways and were cost-effective for small sawmillers. There was nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world.
The last geared lokey was built in 1943, the last new bush tramway opened in 1948, the last rail tractor was built in 1956, and the last bush tramway stopped operating in 1974.
20th-century bush tramways pushed railway technology to its extremes. As the terrain became tougher, earthworks were needed. There were tight curves: the Taupo Totara Timber Company had a section called the ‘corkscrew’, and the Ellis and Burnand tramway at Ōngarue resorted to a full spiral.
On steep grades, trains were kept under control by primitive brakes and agile brakemen working in very risky conditions. The Egmont Box Company tram at Kākahi used switchbacks to conquer a steep grade, and the Charming Creek tram used a centre rail system to provide extra braking.
The most interesting New Zealand adaptations of the rail track were the wooden trestle viaducts, and cable-worked inclines. They appeared in New Zealand when logging moved onto hilly terrain, particularly in the 20th century. A remarkable number were built, some of impressive size, using local materials and great skill.
The wooden trestle viaduct dates back at least to the time of the Ancient Romans. In New Zealand it is estimated that around 100 were built on bush tramways. While civil engineers were sometimes involved, many trestles were put up by career bridge builders who used a combination of engineers’ rules and judgement from experience. The key challenges were using local timbers, and the physical constraints of a site. A measure of the builders’ skill is that only one viaduct (at Pohangina) collapsed in service.
An incline is a steep rail track operated by cable and a winch at the summit. Inclines date from early railways, but lengthy steep inclines were only possible with the advent of steel cables in the 1870s.
Around 50 were built on New Zealand bush tramways. The first was near Waimauku about 1881. The steepest grade was 1 in 2.7, and the longest single incline was 4 kilometres. Later features included the co-ordinated operation of a series of inclines, and the use of rollers to guide the cable on curves and at changes of grade. Only one runaway tram is recorded.
Notable inclines included the 1921 Billy Goat at Kauaeranga in the Coromandel, and the Great Barrier Island system. The latter, run by the Kauri Timber Company from 1931 to 1940, was outstanding on a world scale. It comprised a series of 10 inclines, seven steam winches on high points, an operating length of 9 kilometres, and vertical falls and rises totalling 1,160 metres.
Water transport is very economical, but as kauri is the only native New Zealand timber that floats, this method was used only in the kauri logging industry of Northland and the Coromandel. The driving dams and rafting used there were quite unlike anything else in New Zealand.
The technology of log-driving dams originated in Europe and developed in North America. In the 1850s, driving dams to the west of Auckland were copies of the timber-built structures of Nova Scotia. But New Zealand’s dams evolved into a distinctive form. Improvements included a simple but effective lifting gate design that allowed the dams to be released by a rigger and then re-used. It is estimated that over 90 years, up to 1,000 log dams were built.
The dam collected a large amount of water on a fairly small stream. Over many months, as the dam slowly filled, logs were felled and laid in the stream bed. The gate of the dam was tripped, usually during a storm (to enhance the natural flood), and the power of the water drove the logs down to navigable water. There, a floating structure of wooden booms collected the logs. A dam might be re-used for several years before it was abandoned.
Witnesses described the power of a log drive as unforgettable.
A 1911 report in the New Zealand Herald described the power of the kauri dam. ‘Telegram from Dargaville: The fresh [sudden flood] that occurred after Tuesday’s rain has liberated great numbers of logs, and the various mills now have large stocks on which to work. In the Awakino Creek 5000 logs were poled out to the booms … in the Tangowahine 2000 are now available for the rafting steamers, and in the Mangonui there are over 2000 on the move.’ 1
The main structural form was the sill dam, built in a narrow gorge. In this type, the horizontal members were the key element, braced with diagonal legs. If only a wide site was available, a rafter dam would be built. Diagonal legs were its key element, linked by horizontal members.
Driving dams were a feat of engineering, built by talented craftsmen who learned by doing. Construction timber was felled locally and pit-sawn on site. Highly accurate hand sawing ensured the dam’s facing planks were watertight. Considered judgement was required on the numbers, size and position of the heavy structural members that held the water behind. The master builders of dams and booms became legends, and their expertise was much sought-after. A measure of their skill is that only three dams are recorded as bursting. The re-usable gate also showed considerable local innovation.
The journey onward to the mill involved chaining the logs into rafts and towing them by steamer on a river or the open sea. The largest operator, the Kauri Timber Company, rafted logs by sea to large sawmills at Auckland and at Mercury Bay in the Coromandel. The longest trip, 300 kilometres from Whangaroa to Auckland, took three days. At Auckland the logs were stored in the purpose-built Viaduct Basin.
In the 19th century, New Zealand’s roads were built by hand. They could be steep and winding, and wet weather often created impassable mud holes. Vehicle technology was limited to the puny wagon and horse team. Log transport by road was therefore not common – water transport, bullocks using skidding methods, and bush trams held sway.
Steam traction engines developed from the 1870s, but they were too heavy and susceptible to bogging down in mud to be useful in logging. Motor trucks first appeared early in the 20th century, but it was the First World War that greatly improved truck technology. Young soldiers returned in 1919 with experience in maintaining trucks and driving in mud. Bush tramways became increasingly expensive to build in rough country, so trucks and roads emerged as a cheaper alternative. Over the next 30 years there was a gradual shift from bush tram to road transport.
Driving an early timber truck was a skilled and sometimes risky job. There were many design drawbacks: heavy steering, engines underpowered for the heavy loads and steep grades, complex gear-changing, and inadequate brakes. If maintenance was put off and equipment became run down, the risks increased.
Early log trucks had many shortcomings. On 2 June 1942 two trucks were carrying sawn timber from a mill at Ōruanui to Putaruru. With underpowered engines, they were speeding downhill towards the tram crossing, to gain enough momentum to climb the hill on the other side. But the mechanical brakes on the first truck failed. A train travelling along the crossing hit the truck, killing the driver instantly. The second truck stopped safely, but the driver said he did not hear the train whistle because his truck was so noisy.
The Second World War hastened the switch to trucks when thousands of military surplus six-wheel-drive GMC trucks were imported. The age of the logging truck had truly arrived.
There were steady improvements in trucking technology. By the mid-1950s diesel engines of over 300 horsepower could pull two trailers with a total load of 130 tonnes. They were so heavy that they were not allowed on public highways.
When we invited people to send in stories about their experiences in the bush, it was not surprising that a number wrote about different types of bush transport. Here is a selection.
Anderson, Ken. Servicing Caterpillar: the story of the Taumarunui branch of Gough Gough & Hamer. Taumarunui: C & S, 2000.
Diamond, J. T., and B. W. Hayward. Kauri timber dams. Auckland: Lodestar, 1975.
Mahoney, Paul. The era of the bush tram in New Zealand. Wellington: Transpress, 2004.
Reed, A. H. The new story of the kauri. Wellington: A. H. & A.W. Reed, 1964.
Reed, A. H. The story of the kauri. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1954.
Simpson, Thomas E. Kauri to radiata: origin and expansion of the timber industry of New Zealand. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973.
On the Department of Conservation website, this page about the timber industry includes information about locations where you can see the remains of historic kauri dams, log haulers and bush tramways.