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A Potted History of Murchison

(September 22nd 2012)
Report by Allan James

Most people see Murchison as a place you have your first loo stop at on the way to Christchurch or the last break and cuppa on the way home again. We look at the lovely green paddocks with their multitude of cows grazing peacefully or heading in long lines for the cow shed and rarely think of how it got to be this way or who shaped the land and what events have impacted on this now fertile and productive area.

Although you can now travel by car to Murchsion from Motueka in an hour and a half this has only come about in the last few years.

Maori never settled in this remote rough rugged part of the South Island. They also just passed through, on their way to the West Coast to find pounamu, greenstone. They used canoes from Lake Rotoiti on the Kawatiri (now the Buller) river and the Matakitaki river where they could but otherwise walked down through the Matakitaki Valley to the Grey River.

Brunner, Fox and Heaphy were the first Europeans to follow this route in 1846 but it wasn't until 1864 that von Haast and Hunter were sent by the Nelson Provincial Council to look for flat land for settlement. None was found. Although now well known for dairy farming it was gold that first drove the push into the interior.

The first township surveyed by Brunner was named Hampden but this was later changed to Murchison by George Moonlight early gold miner and later entrepreneur. Murchison never came to New Zealand. He was a geologist Moonlight had met in Australia and respected.

George Moonlight was a Scottish seaman who went to America to mine for gold. He came to New Zealand as gold was being discovered on the West Coast about 1865. Although he found gold he never stayed to mine it, instead setting up trading places to serve the passing miners.

His first store was in the Maruia Valley where he named his property Rappahannock with nearby Shenandoah and Minnie Haha also named by him. Gold mining spread through the Matakitaki Valley and in 1863 there were about 300 miners working in the river and on the terraces in places only marked now by a signpost-Lyell, Newton, Mangles, Doughboy and Maruia.

Moonlight set up a store and bought a hotel in Murchison in the years 1875-1880. He also became the postmaster. After his wife died of typhoid he sent his children to Nelson and was to go goldmining in the Lake Station area but never turned up. His body was found near Kawatiri in the bush. A plaque near Glenhope commemorates the memory of this pioneer of Murchison.

There is a story about "The Lost Tribe" - a group of miners who went bush looking for gold and were seen so seldom they gained a reputation as being wild and lost. However, many Murchison people descend from this lost tribe and now laugh at the stories told about their forebears.

The road to the West Coast was always on the north side of the Buller River; however in 1904 the road was changed and a man named Spooner cut the road through what is now the Spooner Range and David Clark continued the road through the Clark Valley over the Hope saddle but the road still bypassed Murchison and left it isolated.

Newman Brothers was set up about this time and they used to bring the mail to a point north of the town and put it in a chair for it to be pulled across the river.

A railway was planned to join the West Coast with Nelson but this only got as far as Glenhope before the government decided it wasn't warranted.

Dairy factories were set up around 1909-10 to make butter rather than cheese as only the cream then had to be carted to the factory, not the milk as well. Skim milk was used to feed the pigs that most farms also raised to use up the milk.

Allan's grandfather won his land in a ballot and set to clearing the 734 acres of bush with axe and crosscut saw ready for farming cows. This is in the Maruia Valley on the west side of the Buller River and family still live and farm there. North of Murchison coal was mined near the Owen bridge. It was good quality but the seams were broken up as this was earthquake country.

17 June 1929 an earthquake struck which was a turning point in Murchison's history. 17 lives were lost and huge areas of land either slipped away or rose up shaping the land as it is now. The Maruia Falls were created after this earthquake, not by an upthrust but by the Maruia River needing to find a new bed and flowing around the ground that was pushed up. It started as a shallow ledge and has deepened over the last 90 odd years.

After the earthquake there was a mass evacuation of women and children from the area. Allan's father and his sister went to live with an aunt at Dovedale. Many men stayed behind to set about cleaning up and reestablishing Murchison but of course many families never returned.

The government set up a scheme to open up farmland and many of the farms still in existence today came from this scheme. An electricity scheme was set up at the Maruia Falls, one good result from the earthquake. In 1968 another earthquake, this time centred at Inangahua, rocked the area and again caused major land damage.

Today there is still gold mining on the Matakitaki Valley using huge dredges to pick through the tailings of years gone by. Murchsion has become more of a destination with tourist activities such as bush walks, river kayaking and craft centres. The population in the town never gets much above 600 but with outlying farms it has to be three times this.

Pam Fry nee Morgan who introduced Allan to us said they had something in common. Pam was one of the first pupils to attend the public works camp school set up at Shenandoah. Allan was one of the last to attend the same school. Allan originally went to a seven-pupil school at Paenga, then when a bus service was started went to Shenandoah. He boarded with his grandmother in Murchison when time came to attend high school.

He came from a remote dairy farm that only had a diesel engine, a coal range and a copper with no electric power until 1967. Expected to work at milking cows and hoeing weeds in the swede paddocks Allan also learnt to use a gun at aged 14 years. Trout fishing filled in a lot of any spare time as well as hunting for deer and pigs.

Allan came to live in Riwaka 30 years ago and ran a shelter belt trimming business for many years before retiring to town. His spare time is now spent touring with the mobile home club.

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