European endeavours on the Whanganui River
Alexander Hatrick stands alone as the major European influence on the Whanganui River. An Australian, he arrived in Whanganui in 1875 as a trader and entrepreneur. Recognising the potential of the Whanganui River he imported a 250-passenger paddle steamer called the Wairere from the United Kingdom. The Wairere began service in 1891 and over the next decade Hatrick increased his fleet to 12, including the 400 passenger Monowai and several motorized canoes used on the upper reaches of the river. He established a terminus at Cherry Grove in 1903 and operated from there until 1927 when the road opened to Kirikau. In 1904 he ordered the construction of the Houseboat, which was a 36 bed floating hotel that was originally moored at Maraekowhai by the Ohura Falls, and later in the Retaruke River at Whakahoro, where it burnt to the waterline in 1933. Hatrick also established Pipiriki House, which also burnt down twice, first in 1909 and the last time in 1959. He died in 1918 before the river empire he had established began to crumble.
Between World War I and II, returning soldiers were granted blocks of land in the Mangapurua Valley, to carve farmland from the bush. A road was constructed, and a bridge completed about five kilometres from the Whanganui River in 1936. Low land fertility, poor returns and increasing costs resulted in most of the settlers walking off their farms and by 1943 there was only a handful left. Following a huge storm, the Government gave the remaining settlers a hopeless choice – leave the valley or pay for the upkeep of the road themselves from then on. Today the Bridge to Nowhere remains an iconic reminder of those days of dashed hopes and is a popular place to visit by canoe or kayak, or by tramping in from Whakahoro and being transported out by jetboat.
There are still a number of the old river boats operating – the best known being the Waimarie and Wairua at Wanganui, but the Otunui is operating on Lake Maraetai – check them out at www.paddleboat.co.nz.
The last river boat operated on the upper river in 1957, just as talented inventor, Bill Hamilton unveiled his masterpiece on the Whanganui – the jetboat, traveling from Wanganui to Taumarunui. There is a tale that it was the Whanganui River that gave him inspiration for the jetboat. His wife had apparently expressed a desire to replicate a journey she had made by riverboat as a child and the jetboat was Bill Hamilton’s means of fulfilling that desire.