Volume 3

The Old Wires Track: The Hikutaia - Whangamata Telegraph Link (1872)

David Wilton


The “Old Wires Track” (OWT), as it is known locally, and marked on topographic maps, has major historical significance, as it was the last link to be completed in the Auckland - Wellington telegraph route, and also the last link in the national telegraph network, spanning from Invercargill to Auckland, including a crossing of Cook Strait (see North Island section at Figure 1).

Figure 1: North Island
telecommunications network.
(Dept. of Lands and Survey 1898)

Figure 2: Close-up of original Auckland-
Tauranga telegraph route (from Fig 1)

In Figure 2, the original Auckland - Wellington telegraph route is marked in red; the final link, across the Coromandel ranges from Hikutaia to Whangamata (completed 1872), is marked in yellow.

A section of the telegraph line route can be walked; on Conservation land, from approx 7km east of Hikutaia, to where the walking track joins a 4WD track near the Tairua River, near the top of the Coromandel Range. The OWT, as it is known, is well signposted and marked, and can be walked both ways; or one way, returning to the Hikutaia end by the 4WD track, or continuing on foot down the Wentworth Valley to Whangamata.

The route followed by the telegraph line to the east and west of this marked section is not clear, and no evidence of the route east from Hikutaia was apparent from a brief visit (nor from several previous crossings Hikutaia - Wentworth Valley by the author). It is likely that the telegraph line followed the line of the Old Maratoto Rd from Hikutaia to the western end of the OWT, but that is not certain.

There is a variety of possible routes for the line from the top of the Coromandel ranges east to Whangamata - these have been marked on Figure 3 in the Survey section below. Local historian Anne Stewart Ball believed the line went down the Wharekawa River valley, and this is supported by a Katikati Tramping Club interpretation sign at WP 509 (see Fig 8). However, that would have meant that the line emerged on the coastal flats near Opoutere, some 7km north of Whangamata. That may have been necessitated by political or legal constraints (and there were plenty of those - see History section below) but would have not been the best route from an engineering, nor a distance, point of view.

A survey of the western (Hikutaia) end of the telegraph route was conducted on 6th February 2010 by David Wilton and Kevin Montague. The eastern (Whangamata) end was surveyed on 2nd April 2010 by David Wilton. During these surveys, artefacts remaining along the route were recorded, and archaeological evidence of the actual route of the telegraph line on the eastern side of the ranges was obtained.


A Brief History of Telecommunications Services in New Zealand

Telegraphy was the first major electrical telecommunications service, and is distinct from telephony, which it preceded by about 20 years. Telegraphy is a character- oriented communications protocol, which works by sending bursts of electrical current down a (long) line, with the current bursts coded to represent alphabetic characters, numbers and other symbols (e.g. punctuation). The original coding scheme was invented by Samuel Morse (known as Morse code) where characters are represented by combinations of short and long bursts of current; e.g. the letter 'a' is represented by ' . _ ' i.e. short-long, or dot-dash, as per the terminology used by telegraphists. Telephony, a later development, transmits audio signals (i.e. human speech) by converting them to electrical form using a microphone, with a speaker at the receiving end converting them back to audio (i.e. acoustic waves).

Sending messages by telegraph, at a reasonable speed, required trained and skilled operators, and was therefore not suitable for very small settlements or individual businesses or residences. That led to the development and rapid expansion of a telephone network; which, in NZ, initially lagged the telegraph network by about 20 years.

A summary of key milestones in NZ telecommunications history is on Keith Newman's web site (see references section). The key dates relating to the Hikutaia - Whangamata telegraph line are as follows:
1862: The first electric telegraph line was constructed in NZ, linking Christchurch and Lyttleton. This was the catalyst for a series of constructions involving private and military telegraph lines around, and between, the principal settlements, allowing remote communication by using Morse code. A second link was soon established between Port Chalmers and Dunedin.

1865: A second attempt at laying a cable across Cook Strait proved successful, and communications between the Islands was now possible.

Between 1865 and 1872: A series of links to connect Auckland and Wellington were constructed. Following the turmoil of wars in the Waikato and Taranaki, and the uneasy peace that followed, the initial route was Wellington-Napier-Taupo-Tauranga. This avoided the King Country, whose Iwi opposed the development of European infrastructure, and would not allow access to their land. Another reason for routing the telegraph line around the east coast, through Napier, was that the rugged terrain of the central North Island was relatively inaccessible until completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway in 1908.

1870: A telegraph link from Auckland to Thames, a major mining and economic centre in those days, was completed, on 27th July 1870 (Daily Southern Cross, 28th July 1870). 1872: The Wellington-Auckland telegraph network was completed (the Hikutaia - Whangamata line being the final link).

1876: The first international undersea cable to NZ, from Botany Bay in Sydney to Cable Bay near Nelson, was completed in February 1876.

1881: The first manual telephone exchange was opened in NZ (in Christchurch).

The Hikutaia - Whangamata line is of considerable historical significance, as it was the final link in the original national telegraph network. Before the completion of this link, messages were carried by courier across the Coromandel Ranges, for onward transmission by “field” telegraph stations at each end of the gap. According to the Thames Guardian and Mining Record of 1st April 1872:

'Another advance has been made in the telegraph line between Thames and the East Coast. The Hikutaia camp has been moved closer to the other side of the peninsula, shortening the gap. It is now three hours ride from camp to camp. The mails will close in Grahamstown [Thames] at 11 o'clock am every day (Sundays excepted) so that the messages can be transmitted to the South at 3pm. This alteration in the hours of running the mail will enable persons here [Thames] and in Auckland to get answers to their messages [from Tauranga and points further south] in less than thirty hours from the time of sending.'

NZ Political Situation - 1872

Local (Coromandel) historians tend to attribute the selection of the Hikutaia - Whangamata telegraph route to the existence of the conflict in the Waikato. For example, McCollum and Spinks (2000 p.200) state:

'The region between Hikutaia and Whangamata is known as 'The Wires' because the telegraph line was diverted through this area during the Waikato Land wars. The original Government line was erected in 1872. The line had totara posts and pit-sawn kauri poles [presumably, cross-arms] with galvanised metal tops and carried 8-gauge wires.'

However, the linkage of route selection to the Waikato wars is simplistic, as these were well and truly over by the early 1870s. What influenced the choice of route was more the reluctance of Iwi associated with, or sympathetic to, the Maori King movement to allow infrastructure to be built across their land. In some cases, it was simple economic or cultural resistance. An example of the latter is recorded in the Daily Southern Cross of 8th April 1870 (in relation to the selection of the telegraph route from Auckland to Thames):

'Te Kopara went on to say that if we could do so much in the way of submarine telegraphy, we could lay the wire below the Firth of Thames … to Grahamstown, without bringing it over their land at Piako. The mysterious wire, he said, would trouble his dreams when stretched over him.'

The political situation of the 1870s, with regard to infrastructure development, is well summarised by Sinclair (1991 pp. 33-34):

'The 1870s and 1880s were decades of rapid development in European communications, and this was especially so in New Zealand, where the European settlements were quite isolated from one another except by sea. … But many Maori, especially those who had fought the British, strongly opposed the advance of European 'civilisation', for these communications [roads and railways] were intended to open up the land to settlers. Moreover, they were a principal means of controlling the Maori population, since troops could swiftly be brought to any trouble spot. …
Maori were equally ambivalent about telegraph wires. … By 1872, there was a line between Auckland and Wellington, constructed through Napier in order to bypass the King Country. … Maori quite often made difficulties about permitting a telegraph line to pass through their territory, for instance, quite reasonably, by demanding payment. In 1871, the government agent in Auckland, Daniel Pollen, was meeting Maori in Thames, where, he wrote to McLean [Sir Donald McLean, then Native Affairs Minister], the real business was transacted, not at the public meeting, but in the whare (meeting house) at night. The local chief, Te Hira, was opposing the wire (waea) going through. He had written to Tawhiao [Maori King] and the King had left him to decide. The chief decided (Pollen wrote) 'to stick out for plunder' and, in the end, Pollen 'was obliged to submit to be muru'd' so that the line could be constructed. 'Muru' was the custom of taking plunder from people for some supposed offence. In this case the Maori were permitted to take taonga (treasure) from the government store at Paeroa to the extent of £100, which Pollen thought was better than waiting for six months of negotiation. …This episode is a good example of the complexity of Maori relations with the government at that time.'

Construction of the Hikutaia - Whangamata Telegraph Link

There are numerous local historical accounts that cover the construction of the Hikutaia - Whangamata telegraph link in 1872. These include Morton (1964), Sutton (1976), McCollum and Spinks (2000) and Stewart Ball (2010). An NZFS brochure (1984) also provides background information. A few recorded events that led up to the opening of the link, as reported in NZ newspapers, are as follows. (Thames Guardian and Mining Record references were from microfiche held in the Coromandel Heritage Trust Treasury collection; others were obtained from the PapersPast web site.)

The Daily Southern Cross of 13th October 1871, in an article entitled “Ohinemuri: Natives Agree to Electric Telegraph Being Constructed”, report that three main routes were discussed with local Iwi, for linking up the telegraph system between Tauranga and Auckland:

'Three lines were pointed out, either of which would suit the Europeans; one from Katikati (the present termination of the Tauranga line) to Ohinemuri and Grahamstown, one from Katikati by Te Rereotukahia to Cambridge, or from Katikati by the east coast to Whangamata, thence to Hikutaia, and from that place to Grahamstown. The last was the most favourably received of the three, but then not agreed to. … Mr Mackay then exerted his influence, and the result is that the line via East Coast, Whangamata, and Hikutaia to Grahamstown is now agreed to, and is in his hands'.

The Daily Southern Cross of 17th October 1871 reported on a petition presented to the NZ Parliament by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce:

'… relative to the advisability of connecting Auckland by telegraph with the Southern portion of the colony.” Mr D. Mclean stated: “… there had been no negligence in the matter on the part of the Government, who had used every possible effort to get the telegraph extended from Tauranga to Auckland, and, with this view, had extended the line from Tauranga to Katikati, i.e. as far as the boundary of English territory, about 35 miles from Tauranga. … A telegraph line between Tauranga and Shortland, by way of Hikutaia, a road which was perhaps a little longer than the ordinary route, but free from any difficulties which might interfere with the proper working of the line, was in course of arrangement.'

The Daily Southern Cross of 18th November 1871 reported on another round of meetings, which involved negotiations with other Iwi and interested parties, and consultation about the detailed route of the line:

'On arrival at Mataora, [approx 10 km south of Whangamata] a meeting of Ngati-porou was held, at which Mr Mackay was well received. After listening to what he had to say, and also to speeches made by Takerei and Tinipoaka, the Ngati-porou said they would not object to the erection of the telegraph. …We then left for Parakiwai [approx 2 km south of Whangamata], and were well received on arrival by the Urungawera. … Mr Mackay also made arrangements with Karaitiana, one of the large landowners, for the line to be taken down the valley of the Waiharakeke, and thence straight up the Parakiwai valley to Pukewhau. By adopting this route, the line will be some six or seven miles shorter than if taken around by Whangamata.'

The Daily Southern Cross of 12th February 1872 provided the following progress report on the line:

'… the progress of the telegraph line is advancing rapidly and … will be completed the prescribed time allowed by Government to the contractors. With Mr Floyd's staff, and the men employed by the enterprising contractors, there are upwards of 100 men diligently and successfully prosecuting this great undertaking, which will shortly unite this province [Auckland] with all the other provinces of the colony. That portion of the line which crosses the peninsula from Hikutaia through a dense forest of about nine miles, has been laid out by Mr C. Maling, Engineer to the Telegraph Staff, and a line of two chains wide is being cut, and will be completed in about a fortnight; and when finished and cleared, will become the most accessible route across the dividing range from Tauranga to the Thames, with the one exception of the pass through Ohinemuri [now known as the Karangahake Gorge]. … I am assured that a bridle track can easily be made, by which a good steedsman may reach the Thames from Katikati in seven to eight hours.'

The Daily Southern Cross of 2nd March 1872 announced that:

'The telegraph line was opened to Hikutaia [from Thames] this afternoon at three o'clock.” The same paper reported on 20th March: “Twenty one miles of the telegraph line from the Grahamstown end are now completed, bringing it to within one mile of the Hikutaia bush. The line has been completed about six miles from the Katikati end … there is every probability of the line being completed throughout by the 1st of May next, placing Auckland in direct communication with the south ... telegraphic communication with the south has now been arranged by a tri-weekly service each way between Katikati and the travelling station at present at Hikutaia.'

As noted previously, the Thames Guardian and Mining Record of 1st April 1872 advised that:

'Another advance has been made in the telegraph line between Thames and the East Coast. The Hikutaia camp has been moved closer to the other side of the peninsula, shortening the gap. It is now three hours ride from camp to camp.'

This allowed a daily telegraph service (except Sundays), using a courier to transport messages across the ever-shortening gap.

The exact date of completion of the Hikutaia-Whangamata telegraph line was not able to be ascertained, but an article appearing in the Daily Southern Cross of 20th April 1872 reports on a visit by the Governor to Taupo, Tauranga and Thames, and implies the line has been completed:

'His visit to Grahamstown on this occasion will be under circumstances more than usually interesting. On his previous visits to that place there remained a large gap in our telegraphic communication with the south. That no longer exists, for his Excellency himself has announced his journey Auckland-ward by telegraphic messages from the very centre of this island, connecting, as it does, the capital of this province with the extreme point, or 'Lands End', of our Southern neighbours. … It is no less satisfactory to his advisers to find that, during their administration, the vacant link in the chain has at length been supplied. … We think it but only right at this time to make mention of the names of Dr Pollen, H.T. Kemp, E.W. Puckey, James Mackay and to pay a passing tribute of praise to the steady perseverance with which they … conducted the difficult negotiations … and to Mr Floyd and Mr Mackenzie, as more immediately connected with the telegraph, for the zeal and energy with which they pushed on the work and occupied the ground as it was opened up.'

The line was apparently completed by then. By about 1890, however, other telegraph routes had been opened up around the Auckland-Waikato-Bay of Plenty area (see Fig 1 above) and the Hikutaia - Whangamata line fell into disuse; no doubt due to the difficulties of maintaining it and keeping it open. The preferred route through the Coromandel/Kaimai ranges, via the Karangahake gorge, became available by the early 1900s. The exact date of closure of the Hikutaia - Whangamata telegraph line was not ascertained. However, the pack track developed along the OWT was used for access to the Whangamata goldfields in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the material used for the telegraph line itself was put to good use in developing settlers' telephone systems, and, later, as fencing material.

'Settlers Line'

Stewart Ball (2010), McCollum and Spinks (2000) and an NZFS brochure (1984) also mention a so-called 'settlers line', which was apparently one or two telephone (as opposed to telegraph) lines that were constructed by local settlers in the early 1900s: “The original telegraph line over the wires fell into disrepair, and the settlers erected a single wire telephone line, which was called the 'settlers line' along the Whangamata Road [presumably the route Hikutaia - Whangamata] to serve the mill and the settlement [at the top of the ranges] (McCollum and Spinks 2000 p.200). Stewart Ball (2010) states: ' a new single wire telegraph [probably telephone] line was built by settlers at Hikutaia to provide communication with the mill up on the plateau known as 'The Wires' area. … In 1916, Whangamata settlers also joined in the construction of a telegraph [probably telephone] line, using poles from the bush and second hand wire. This was part of the line to Hikutaia from Wentworth valley, crossing the Old Wires track. Typical of settlers' lines constructed in those days, it was a party line.'

Neither the exact details, nor route(s) of these lines are clear. However, it appears that they (mostly) followed the route of the original telegraph line of 1872.

The Survey

On 6th February 2010, a survey was conducted along the telegraph line route on the west side of the ranges (the DoC track marked and interpreted as the Old Wires Track). Details of this are recorded below, by means of GPS waypoints and photos. After recording the remains of the telegraph line on the western side of the ranges, an obvious question arose: what route did it follow from the top of the ranges down to the Whangamata area? According to some local historians, the route was down the Wharekawa Valley, and this is reinforced by a Katikati tramping club sign on the OWT (Fig 8 below) which states that 'the old telegraph line … ran through a 40 metre wide clearing to Wharekawa on its way from Auckland to Gisborne'. However, from geographical (shortest distance) and engineering points of view, that would not make much sense, as the Wharekawa River meets the coastal strip near Opoutere, which is approximately 10 km north of Whangamata. An investigation was therefore commenced to determine the most likely route. A number of possible routes were identified (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Possible routes of
telegraph line east of the main Coromandel Range

Figure 4: Extract from Ohinemuri area
map supplied by Anne Stewart Ball
(NZ Geological Survey 1912 [additions 1923])

As the route on the western side followed main ridge lines, rather than river or creek lines, it was considered likely to follow the same type of terrain on the east; therefore route 2-2a seemed the most likely. Historical sources were then located which supported that assumption. These included the DSC article of 18 November 1871, mentioned previously, which stated: 'Mr Mackay also made arrangements … for the line to be taken down the valley of the Waiharakeke, and thence straight up the Parakiwai valley to Pukewhau. By adopting this route, the line will be some six or seven miles shorter than if taken around by Whangamata.' A map of the Ohinemuri area supplied by Anne Stewart Ball (NZ Geological Survey 1912 [additions 1923]) also shows the telegraph line running along the Pukewhau Ridge, before the track peters out above the Kiripaka stream (see Fig 4).

Other references were found, implying the Coromandel Ranges crossing terminated at Parakiwai: Evening Post 26th February 1872: 'Parakiwai (via Kati Kati) 24th February. The telegraph works are partly suspended owing to a heavy flood. Mr Floyd and Mr Mackay left here this morning. ...'

Thames Guardian & Mining Record 16th May 1872: 'At the Thames only such trees are bought as are useful for mining purposes and easily to be got at, whereas on the line between Hikutaia and Parakiwai the timber in most places is almost inaccessible.'

Sound engineering practice and the weight of historical evidence suggest the route of the telegraph line east of the ranges was as per Fig 5 below.

Figure 5: TUMONZ map vicinity of
Parakiwai showing estimated route of telegraph line

A further survey was conducted, of the estimated eastern portion of the route, on 2nd April 2010, departing on foot from the Wentworth Valley campground, along the DoC track to Wentworth Falls and on to the Tairua River crossing at the top of the ranges. From there, the 4WD loop track was followed to the east, which led to Pukewhau ridge, and from there, the probable route was followed back towards the Wentworth Valley. There is a defined trail, marked by old plastic tape and some metallic markers nailed to trees, but overgrown in most places. At WP 523, there is a track sign, apparently installed by some local organisation, and from there, towards the Wentworth valley, the track is reasonably well cleared.

Archaeological evidence that the telegraph route was as per Fig 5 was obtained, by means of a telegraph pole at WP 521 and the existence of a major pack track along the route, as far as the vicinity of WP 527. From here, the track deviated from the probable route and headed directly back down to the Wentworth valley camping ground. This was followed due to time and possible safety constraints (a one-person party). A mine shaft was also observed, at WP 524.

Results of both surveys are below. Although the existence of a telegraph pole at WP 521 supports the predicted route of the line as per Fig 5, the possibility that it was moved to that location later, possibly as part of the Settlers Line, or for some other purpose, cannot be totally discounted. However, it is considered that the predicted route of the telegraph line on the eastern side of the ranges (Fig 5) is correct, on the balance of probabilities (considering both historical and archaeological evidence). Bearing in mind the overgrown nature of the terrain, a more detailed search may well reveal more supporting archaeological evidence.

GPS Waypoints, Photos and Maps

Figure 6: Remains of wires at WP 508.
The joint indicated would not have been
suitable for telecommunications purposes,
as water would have got between the wires
and created an open-circuit (see an example of a proper telecommunications joint at Fig 9 below). This suggests the wire has been re-used for some purpose, e.g. fencing.

Figure 7: Remains of telegraph pole,
converted to a fence post,
at the holding pen at WP 509

Figure 8: Katikati Tramping Club sign at WP 509

Figure 9: Steel communications cable
with water-proof sleeve joint.

Figure 10: Restored telegraph pole at WP 511.

Figure 11: Close-up of pole top at WP 511.

Figure 12: Pole base at WP 513.

Figure 13: Steps-in-the-rock at WP 514
(recorded as SRF T12/675).

Figure 14: Telegraph pole at WP 521.

Figure 15: Close-up of pole top at WP 521.

Figure 16: Mine shaft at WP 524
(estimated depth: 15-20m).

Figure 17: TUMONZ topographic map of Hikutaia
- Whangamata telegraph route, showing waypoints.
Estimated route is shown by purple dotted line.
GPS track log of 2nd April 2010 is shown as a
continuous thin red line.

Figure 18: TUMONZ air photo of eastern end of route.


Dept. of Lands and Survey (1898) North Island of NZ: Map Showing Telegraph and Telephone Lines 31st March 1898
McCollum, M. and Spinks, J. (2000). Hikutaia - 2000: an Interlude in Time, Goldfields Print, Paeroa.
Morton, N. (1964). The Wires, Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, 1.
NZ Forest Service (1984). Maratoto: The Wires Recreation Area, NZFS, Wellington.
NZ Geological Survey (1912 [additions 1923]) Geological Map of Ohinemuri , Waihi North, and parts of Aroha, Katikati North, and Katikati Survey Districts
Sinclair, K. (1991). Kinds of Peace: Maori People after the Wars, 1870-85, Auckland University Press, Auckland.
Stewart Ball, A. (2010). Whangamata Heritage NZ.
Accessed 1 April 2010.
Sutton, A. (1976). Pioneering at "The Wires", Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, 20.
Newman, Keith. A Brief History of Telecommunications in NZ: 1840 - 1960


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