Story: Roads

Page 2. Why roads were built

All images & media in this story

Hopes and mixed success

Roads were viewed as an economic and social cure-all. Early newspapers and correspondence from isolated areas were full of hopes that roads would be built and prosperity would follow once an area was opened up.

But this did not always happen – or not immediately. After a road was built over Arthur’s Pass in 1866–67, linking Christchurch with the West Coast, only 80 to 90 people crossed the pass each week. Washouts were common, and maintenance costs were high. Gold did not flow over the pass – it was shipped directly to Melbourne. West Coast settlements dealt mainly with Melbourne from the late 1860s, as shipping costs were a fifth of the cost of dray delivery from Christchurch. The Press commented that the only thing the road levelled was the provincial treasury. Yet in the road’s first year 40,000 sheep and 25,000 cattle were driven over it to feed the gold miners.

Economic catalysts

However, on the whole, roads were crucial to the development of towns, farming, and other industries. Many of the roads built by public works in the 1870s proved their worth in the 1890s when the boom caused by refrigerated shipping led to more intensive farming, such as dairying. Farmers needed good access to dairy factories, railheads and ports. Roads were catalysts for economic development. Some proved their worth later – especially when tourism became a major industry in the 1980s. For example the Haast Pass road, completed in 1965, allowed tourists to do a loop trip of the South Island.

Gold builds roads

Gold built roads in Otago. In the 1860s bullock teams pulled supplies and equipment on wagons over rough trails from Dunedin to Central Otago. The rough paths that the diggers walked were not good enough to transport heavy equipment once gold dredging and sluicing began in the 1870s. State Highway 8 from Dunedin to Central Otago via Lawrence, and the ‘Pigroot’ from Palmerston via Dunback, both follow old gold trails.

Railways build roads

The government’s focus on building railways in the 1870s soaked up funds that might otherwise have been available for improving roads. Yet rail also stimulated land development and consequently roads. Roads were built to access railway stations. Railways made it easier to transport produce, so farming became more intensive – leading to smaller farms, which led to more road building.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Roads - Why roads were built', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2022)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Mar 2016