Although coastal ferry services have vanished from all but Cook and Foveaux straits, they were once common. Usually they ran between a main centre and smaller local ports, such as between Dunedin and Ōamaru, Nelson and the bays, or Auckland and Thames. Wellington was linked to New Plymouth by rail in 1886. Steamers to Onehunga completed the Wellington–Auckland journey until 1908, when the North Island main trunk railway opened.
Coastal passenger services generally flourished only until road and rail services were improved. The completion of the main trunk rail lines in the South Island (1879) and North Island (1908) hit coastal ferries particularly hard.
Catching the slow boat
Although the Dunedin–Ōamaru steamers were better than a slow, uncomfortable, horse-drawn coach, travellers complained that the service seldom ran on time. In 1874 passenger Joseph Jones wrote to the local paper, saying ‘I should like to complain a little – not that any benefit will result, but it will amuse me and relieve my mind.’ His journey, meant to start at 10 a.m., left at 1 p.m. Other passengers told him ‘that they very rarely got away by steamer except in that erratic sort of manner’. 1
Dunedin–Ōamaru coastal run
From the late 1850s a ferry service ran between Ōamaru and Dunedin. From subsidised beginnings, it grew to a two-ship service by the mid-1870s, berthing at Ōamaru‘s new Macandrew Wharf. In 1876 Ōamaru merchants and the Union Steam Ship Company built a ship especially for the run. The 412-ton Waitaki had a ‘noble’ saloon and separate cabins for the ladies.
The Waitaki had two good years before the new South Island main trunk line took the cream of the trade. She was withdrawn in 1879 and the service was taken over by an older, smaller ship, finally ending in 1891.
North Island services
Outside the Cook Strait area, the major routes were between Auckland and the minor ports of Northland and the Coromandel, and between Napier and nearby small ports and landing places. These routes were dominated by the Northern Steam Ship Company and by Richardson & Company respectively.
West Coast services
For many years modest passenger–cargo steamers connected the West Coast bar harbours to the main centres. In 1898, however, the Union Steam Ship Company built two new 1,200-ton sister ships, the Rotoiti for the Onehunga–New Plymouth run, and the Mapourika to serve Wellington, Nelson, Westport and Greymouth.
In 1905 the company built the 1,600-ton Arahura for the West Coast run. Premier Seddon, who held the West Coast seat of Kumara, and whom the company liked to keep happy, suggested the names of both the Mapourika and the Arahura.
Their design – narrow and shallow-draft – made them ‘lively’ ships in heavy seas. Improved land transport links saw both ships withdrawn from the West Coast run in the 1920s.
In 1883 the Union Company started an express passenger and mail service between Onehunga and Lyttelton, making calls at New Plymouth and Wellington en route. To complete a voyage in 36 hours, the 930-ton Takapuna steamed at 14 knots. It carried 150 passengers in 35 cabins. Later Lyttelton was dropped from the schedule and the Takapuna ran to Wellington. The service ended in 1909, after the opening of the North Island main trunk line reduced passenger numbers.