Story: Nelson region

Page 6. Sea and air transport and communications

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Sea transport

From the 1840s Tasman Bay was Nelson’s main transport route. Small white sails dotted the bay as locally built vessels traded between Murderers’ Bay (Golden Bay) and the fledgling town of Nelson. Along Tasman Bay families of settlers took up leases, or squatted, eking out an existence logging, building boats or farming the more fertile flats. Boats were built in bays where there was suitable timber. Most were small cutters or schooners, from one to 20 tons, which were dubbed ‘Blind Bay [Tasman Bay] hookers’.


Pigs and potatoes arrived in Tasman Bay in vessels from Golden Bay, and from North Island ports as far north as Manukau and Whangaroa. Livestock came from Australia, and coal, lime and timber from Golden Bay. A pilot boat was needed for larger vessels due to the narrow entrance and shallow harbour. A cast-iron lighthouse 18 metres high, the second in New Zealand, was erected on the Boulder Bank in 1861. As the closest port to the West Coast gold rush, Nelson flourished. Gold and coal discoveries in the 1860s brought wealth, trade and population – but also sometimes robbery and violence. The Burgess gang robbed and killed five men on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866.

Coastal steamers began to replace sail, and Nelson became a major coastal shipping port in the 1860s, supplying both the West Coast and Marlborough with imports. The number of ships and tonnages of imports and exports slumped in the depression of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Trade recovered in the 1890s, but the shallow port’s natural limitations were now obvious.

Nelson Harbour Board

In 1901 the Nelson Harbour Board was created, bringing control of the port under one authority. Its first priority was to cut a new entrance through the Boulder Bank. This had first been proposed in 1886, as the natural entrance was too narrow and shallow, and was filling with sand. ‘The Cut’, as it has been known ever since, was completed in 1906. It was wide enough for bigger vessels to work the port – which was crucial to Nelson’s ability to export produce. The harbour board also created Haulashore Island.

New wharves were built to berth larger vessels. Large, refrigerated ships took on frozen sheep meat and chilled apples for England. Plans for further development were thwared by the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War.

On 17 April 1953, 90 years of ferries between Nelson and Wellington ended with the steamer Ngaio’s last trip. The ferry service’s demise had been hastened by improvements to State Highway 6 to Blenheim, and the introduction of regular flights from Nelson airport.

Life or death matter


The road between Tākaka and Collingwood was only completed in 1913. Before that, locals relied on vessels calling at coastal wharves. Strandings were common, and the sea was often so rough that ‘for the first half hour you were afraid you would die, and after that afraid that you wouldn’t.’1


Harbour development

Major harbour and wharf development began in the 1950s. Dredging created a deeper port, and the spoil was used to reclaim 40 hectares of land. This development was partly driven by timber plantations maturing, resulting in an export trade in logs.

The trend in international shipping was for bigger and bigger vessels. A swing basin for ship manoeuvrings was dredged out adjacent to the wharves. In the early 1980s a much larger tugboat, the Huria Matenga (named after a local Māori heroine), was purchased to handle the much larger ships that could use the deeper harbour. A marina with over 500 berths for recreational boating opened in 1987.

In the 2000s the reclaimed area housed large seafood-processing factories, log-export yards, and engineering and marine workshops. As part of local government reform in 1989, Port Nelson Ltd took over running the port.

Cable and telegraph

In 1866 Nelson was hooked up to the trunk telegraph line which extended to Bluff. Later that year it reached the North Island after the first Cook Strait cable was laid. In 1876 New Zealand’s first international telegraph link came ashore at Cable Bay, just north of Nelson city.

Nelson airport

Nelson’s airport opened in 1938. For decades it was a small regional facility, and flights went via Wellington, but by the late 1980s Nelson had direct flights to many centres. In the 2010s it was one of New Zealand’s busiest airports, although larger planes could not land there. Around 60 small planes landed or took off each day and around 1.2 million people used the terminal every year.

  1. Quoted in Warren Judd, ‘The end of the rainbow.’ New Zealand Geographic 10 (April/June 1991), p. 116. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Nelson region - Sea and air transport and communications', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 7 Sep 2010, updated 1 Aug 2015