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Petone's First 100 Years (1940)

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The Petone Stopbank.
A Work of Major Importance.

To recent arrivals in Petone it will be news that the borough was for many years protected from flood by its own stopbank, which commenced at the corner of the Hutt Road and Wakefield Street—just east of where the Hutt Road is ramped over the railway. From this point the bank turned to the south east and came round behind the gasworks, from which point it turned east and then south-east again, till it joined, in the vicinity of Cuba Street, with the high gravel ridge which runs from west to east the whole length of Petone.
Up to 1893, Petone was subject to serious flooding whenever there was an abnormal rise in the Hutt River, whose Maters overflowed the banks in the Iow lying area south of the Hutt Bridge, and rushed like a mill-race right through Petone.
At this time the Hutt River Board was suffering a temporary eclipse, for, after rendering good service in earlier days, it had ceased to function, and the days of its revival and the building of its stopbanks had not yet come.
In order to safeguard itself, the Petone Borough Council approached the Lower Hutt Borough Council with a proposal to co-operate in the erecting of a stopbank near the river, with the object of, not only safeguarding Petone, but the Alicetown area as well. This extremely sensible proposal, which Mas afterwards adopted by the revived River Board, was turned down by Lower Hutt, and Petone, then in its lusty youth, determined to tackle its own problem, the final incentive being the big flood of March. 1893. This flood was one of the most serious that Petone citizens had to contend with, for, with the exception of houses along the ridge, every house suffered.
An eye-witness, who viewed the district from horseback when the flood was subsiding, says:
" We came to submerged Petone—submerged, that is, up to "the doorsteps, for the flood is subsiding. Muddy marks on fences" and walks shew that it must have been at least a foot higher. "The main street would make a very fair Venetian canal. Such residents as one sees seem to be cheerfully making the best of it, "and the children look out of the upper windows in high glee. "Turning down a byway (Nelson Street) the fences on either side "are submerged nearly up to the cap rail …. at one spot, indeed, "the horse steps into a hole of some kind and actually swims for" two or three yards. It was in, front of the drill hall I had this, "my first experience of swimming a horse in a borough street."
(The narrator then proceeds up the valley, and on returning, gives the following description of other parts of Petone):—
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" Entering Petone, we find that every house not standing in "an elevated position has more or less suffered from wind or water. "In one place, we see a house surrounded by the muddy liquid," while the outhouse has been shifted from its original position "and left a wreck in the centre of the garden. In another place," the wind had flattened down the roof of a verandah and made it serve as a blind to the windows, while in still another part" of the town, the flood had carried the verandah bodily away.
Mr. R. C. Kirk, the Mayor of Petone, is one the principal sufferers. The water was nearly up to the top of the fence surrounding his premises, and everything on the lower floors "that could float was floating.
" The water went right through the Gear Company's premises, "but without doing much damage …. In the Woollen Company's mills a good deal of wooI was under water."
The narrator then details damage to the Esplanade and the Hutt Park and the Railway Company's line, and continuing, he says:—
The occupants in Nelson Street and Britannia Street suffered "the most, and the Workingmen's Club also got the full benefit" of the flood. (The Club was then situated in Jackson Street between Britannia and Richmond Streets).
" The damage to the Petone Corporation is roughly estimated at about £300, but it is impossible to make any estimate of the losses sustained by private persons."
Wellington also suffered from this flood, and as a result, a special relief committee was set up, Mr. R. C. Kirk being the Petone representative.
Among the subscribers to the fund was Mr. R. C. Kirk.
The Petone Council, under the determined leadership of Mr. Kirk, resolved to safeguard Petone from a similar disaster, and a contract was immediately let for the construction of the bank outlined above.
This work must be judged as one of, if not the chief, work which enabled Petone. in the decade that followed, to build itself into one of the most important towns in New Zealand.
Its success, when floods came, gave confidence to residents and owners of property to go ahead with other improvements and, behind this flood barrier Petone built up its present industrial importance, for it was not until many years after, when the River Board had built its banks, that confidence was given towards the expenditure of money on lands beyond the bank.
It is probable that residents of Alicetown bitterly regretted that they had not made an effort at co-operation, as the new bank made their danger from flood very much greater, for the flood waters, baulked by the Petone bank, rose to still greater height
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than formerly, and when the flood was subsiding, flowed back into the river over their properties.
This led to bad feeling and even worse, for during subsequent floods, Alicetown residents, armed with picks and shovels, attempted to break down the bank so that the water could take its old course through Petone. To combat this Petone organized a patrol, and when a flood was signalled, by the ringing of a bell, the patrol took up its duties of doing sentry-go along the length of the bank. Sentry-boxes were erected for their protection.
The bank was gradually removed, after the Hutt Valley railway deviation was put in hand, some years ago, and practically all trace of it has disappeared.
When the Hutt River Board was reformed, an attempt was made to include the whole of Petone in the rating area; but Petone successfully fought the proposal, by pointing out that it had, at its own expense, built its own bank, and had no need for an additional bank. The only area in Petone subject to the River Board rate is a portion which was outside the Petone bank, and, at the time it was built, had practically no residential population.

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