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Lower Hutt Past and Present (1941)


The River

Its Glory and Menace.

The first highways used by the pioneers in the Hutt Valley were its waterways. These were already in use by the Maoris, and when Colonel Wakefield landed he was taken on a canoe journey up the Heretaunga (Hutt) River, to gain some idea of the land he proposed to purchase. All the Valley streams were then navigable to a much greater distance than at present, the decrease in the depth of the water being due to the land being raised by earthquakes, especially the great earthquake of 1855.
A considerable amount of transport took place on these waterways, of which there were then four. From west to east these were known as—
The Hutt, previously known to the Maoris as Heretaunga; the Second River, Okautu, or 'fording creek," so called because it could be crossed without swimming; the Third River, or Awamutu, "end of river," so named because the stream rose abruptly from the ground; and the Waiwhetu, "starry water," which received its name because its placid waters reflected the stars like a mirror.
The Waiwhetu was the stream chiefly affected by the great earthquake. Before that it was navigable by small schooners as far as White's Line; such a schooner was indeed in the course of construction near there at the time of the earthquake, but as a result of the shallowing of the water it could not be launched.
The flow of the Waiwhetu was considerably augmented from the Hutt River, particularly during floods, from two or more sources. The higher source was at the southern entrance to the Taita Gorge, where the stream was bridged for the main road near the old Taita Church. The southern point may be traced from the river through the Hutt golf links and then parallel to Naenae Lane, where it entered the Waiwhetu at several points.
The Awamutu was a broad, shallow tidal stream, which has now dwindled to a fraction of its former size, and is piped in many places.
The Okautu (now known as Opahu or Black Creek) was considerably larger than it is to-day, and though it was not the main river, its flow was also augmented by an overflow from the Hutt River near the site of the electric sub-station.
The course of the Hutt River has changed considerably, as reference to the maps reproduced will show.
Rivers have a magnetic quality for settlements, alternately attracting and repelling. It has been mentioned elsewhere that it was along the banks of the Hutt River south of White's Line that the temporary huts of the first settlers were built. Later permanent homes were erected by Molesworth, Swainson and others higher up, showing that because of ease of water transport the population was drawn to the river banks.

The Flood Danger.

The repelling force of the river was, however, early manifested. The first settlers were driven to higher ground by floods, and because of erosion and the resulting changes in the course of the river, the sites of the early homes are in some cases either in the river bed or else chains away from its banks.
From 1840 till the work done by the Hutt River Board, established in 1899, gave security, the dread of floods was a constant hindrance to settlement, and it was the safety factor of its stop-bank, built in 1894, which gave Petone its lead in development.
Unfortunately, no official record has been kept of the early floods. The most tragic and probably the largest of these occurred on the 17th January, 1858, when nine lives were lost and many acres of farming land at Taita, and 90 acres of Mr. D. Speedy's farm at Belmont, were washed away. A graphic description of this flood appeared in the "Evening Post" on the 25th May, 1927.
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The Melling Bridge, Showing the Hutt River in Flood, 2nd May, 1913.

—Photo by A. Aldersley.
This bridge was opened in 1909.
The flood of March, 1893, did very considerable damage and caused the Petone Borough to seek the co-operation of Lower Hutt in a joint scheme of river protection, but the negotiations failed, and Petone built its own bank, the effect of which was to cause, if possible, worse floods than before in the Alicetown area, the part of Lower Hutt adjacent to Petone, west of the river.
Two great floods in 1898 caused the district eventually to tackle the problem. Reports of the times say that in one of these floods water covered the Valley from hill to hill; and that it was the greatest flood for forty years.
The outcome was the formation of the River Board. The stop-banks were constructed and other work done, and though since then there have been larger floods, Lower Hutt has remained secure behind its barriers.
Another large flood occurred in July, 1915, and on the 1st November, 1924, an especially large flood carried away a 90-foot length of road in the Taita Gorge.
The highest flood on record up to that date was that of Good Friday, the 3rd of April, 1931. This had a maximum discharge of 59,000 cubic feet per second, and washed away a private bridge on the site of the present suspension bridge leading from Manor Park to the eastern bank. This also caused another serious wash-out in Taita Gorge Road.
A still higher flood, however, occurred as late as the 11th of December, 1939. This was 1 foot 9 inches higher at Taita and 3 inches higher at the Hutt bridge than the Good Friday flood of 1931. The maximum discharge was 70,000 cubic feet per second. This flood thoroughly tested the stop-banks, which showed a safety margin in all areas.
The straightening of the bed and the removal of shingle from the lower reaches of the river has enabled the flood waters to discharge into the harbour more quickly, and has also resulted in the normal level of the water at the main bridge being lowered some 8 feet during the last 11 years or so.
Notwithstanding the fact that no flood has beaten the protective works, there is still a lurking suspicion that the river has not done its possible worst, and the River Board keeps a wary eye not only on the river but upon the condition of the uplands that feed it.

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