Port Chalmers, with neighbouring Careys Bay, Sawyers Bay and Roseneath, had a population of 2,577 in 2013. 14 km north-east of Dunedin, it is on the north side of Otago Harbour at the end of State Highway 88.
The locality, known to Māori as Kōpūtai, is where local Ngāi Tahu sold the Otago block to the New Zealand Company in 1844. A European town was founded there when Otago was settled in 1848. It was named after Thomas Chalmers, the Free Church of Scotland leader who had died the previous year.
The Union Steam Ship Company started in 1875, and one early building – a pumphouse – survives at Port Chalmers. In 1882 the first frozen meat shipped from New Zealand to the northern hemisphere left from the port .
Port Chalmers became a borough in 1866, and part of Dunedin city in 1989.
A tale of two ports
From 1881, when the Otago Harbour Board opened the dredged Victoria Channel from Port Chalmers to Dunedin, the ‘port’ and ‘city’ factions fought over which would be the main port. Port Chalmers finally won that battle when it became the lower South Island’s deep-water container port (opened in 1977). It became a major forest products export port, and hosts cruise ships through the summer.
Buildings and monuments
The town centre has an impressive combined town hall and library building, and a scenic road follows the coast. The headland flagstaff and signal station is above the port; nearby Campbell Buchanan Lane commemorates a young Port Chalmers sailor who died in action in the Solomon Islands in January 1943. The Hōtere Garden Oputae has four sculptures, including one by Ralph Hōtere which was previously at the artist’s nearby studio.
Iona Presbyterian church was built in 1883. The Scott memorial, commemorating the ill-fated British Antarctic expedition of 1910–12, sits high above the town on the road to Waitati.
Nearby Roseneath, on another promontory, is purely residential, but Sawyers Bay has industry as well.
Careys Bay, north of the port, has a historic hotel and a tradition of alternative lifestylers.
Also known as St Martin Island, the island was first used for quarantine purposes in 1863, when the Victory arrived with a smallpox case on board. Buildings from the quarantine years remain.
A small settlement of cribs (holiday houses) north-west of Port Chalmers, Aramoana had a permanent population of around 270 in 2013.
In 1996 the Christchurch Press interviewed 88-year-old Lina Davis, a long-time Aramoana resident, about defeating the aluminium smelter proposal. ‘People came here for the peace and the bracing air and sea. They did not want a giant factory at their backdoor, she says. They did not want the birdlife, fish, wetlands and beaches threatened.’ 1
In the later 1970s a proposal to site an aluminium smelter at Aramoana met with vigorous – and successful – opposition from locals, conservationists and economists.
On 13 and 14 November 1990 local recluse and gun collector David Gray murdered 13 people, four of them school children, in a shooting rampage before being killed by police.
A natural world
Inland of the sandspit on which Aramoana is sited is an extensive salt marsh. It is a haven for kingfishers, godwits and other wading birds, and a habitat for plants that relish the salty environment – Sarcocomia quinquefiora, shore pimpernel, saltmarsh musk, sedges, jointed rush and others. In 1998 Aramoana was gazetted a protected area.