Story: Shipping

Page 3. Sailing ships and inland vessels in the steam era

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Scows and rock-hoppers

Steam made big inroads from the 1870s. On land, steam trains took business away from the very small ports close to major towns and cities (especially on the wealthy east coast of the South Island), and at sea the big new steamers of the Union Steam Ship Company dominated the cargo trades between the larger ports. Yet not all sailing ships were driven out of business. Some comparatively large barques managed to hang on in the low-value, bulk cargo trades such as coal and timber for another 20 years. Many smaller craft still made a living servicing the isolated outports, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the North Island and the bays of Marlborough and Nelson. In all these areas, sail’s survival was helped by shipbuilders coming up with a successful design – the scow, a simple flat-bottomed craft that could service isolated creeks and beaches.

Inland waterways

New Zealand’s rivers were too fast flowing and shallow to sustain commercial shipping. In early colonial times vessels ran up several rivers but the only ones to have much commerce were the Clutha, the Whanganui and the Waikato. On the Whanganui – the ‘Rhine of New Zealand’ – entrepreneur Alexander Hatrick built up an impressive fleet of stern and side paddle wheelers, shallow-draft motor vessels, and motorised waka (canoes) that carried rich settlers, Māori, back-country cockies and stock as far as Taumarunui. In the shallow upper reaches, the motor vessels hauled themselves up over shallow rapids by using specially laid cables.

All of Kincaid’s horses

Most New Zealand steamers were made of timber, but in Dunedin, where there was less timber, locally produced iron and steel were used. In 1873 the shipbuilding company Kincaid & McQueen built an iron steamer, the Fairy. But on launching day the carriage transporting the 45-ton hull stalled en route to the beach: the wheels sank into the road and a tight street corner halted progress. Despite efforts by the company’s horses and men, the ship did not make it to the water that day.

On several lakes – most notably Rotorua, Taupō, Wanaka and Wakatipu – steamers provided passenger and cargo services to farmers and small settlements. The most important and longest-lived were Lake Wakatipu’s steamers, the Antrim, Ben Lomond, Mountaineer and Earnslaw.

The last Clutha River steamer stopped running before the Second World War, and the Whanganui River fleet, in decline by then, was virtually all laid up by the late 1950s. Small tugs and barges operated a shingle service on the Waikato River until quite late in the 20th century. Since then preservationists have restored the steamer Waimarie to service on the Whanganui as a tourist venture, and others are under restoration. On Lake Wakatipu the ‘Lady of the Lake’, the 330-ton Earnslaw, which was launched back in 1912, remains a New Zealand icon.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Shipping - Sailing ships and inland vessels in the steam era', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/shipping/page-3 (accessed 25 September 2017)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Jan 2016