Timber town

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It takes six hourswalking to reach Port Craig from the Bluecliffs road end. Seven hours if the tide is in. Seven hours of boulders, hills, streams, beach and wet bush.

Finally, there’s a bit of a clearing, a trampers’ but and a few rotting wharf piles down on the beach. It’s difficult to imagine that one generation ago this isolated headland at the southern tip of the South Island was the site of the largest and most modern timber mill in the country.

Port Craig is at the western end of Te Waewae Bay, 45 kilometres from Tuatapere. Minty Hughes went to school there, in what is now the trampers’ hut. He shows a photograph of himself standing with other school children in front of the building. There are more photos: family homes, singlemen’s huts, a billiard hall, cook house—and the huge mill.

Minty’s 79-year-old eyes gain added brightness when the album flicks over to pictures of the bush loco­motives and steam haulers. Now living in Invercargill, the dedicated steam hobbyist has spent the last two-and-a-half years building a working replica of the mill’s Lidgerwood steam hauler.

The Lidgerwood was the largest steam hauler used in the New Zealand bush, and was built in North America. Mounted on rails and weighing 90 tonnes, it pulled logs along a skyline cable held up by two rimu trunks spliced together to form a 30 metre spar. It had a vertical boiler connected to two engines capable of producing 128 horsepower, compared to the 10 to 20 horsepower capacity of ground haulers of that period. The two engines drove a total of ten winches.

Minty’s older brother worked as whistle boy for the Lidgerwood, signalling the hauler driver to slacken or tighten the wire ropes which ran off the winch drums. Seventeen men worked with the Lidgerwood: fellers with crosscut saws, trackers to clear lines for the trees, sniggers to hook the logs on the wires, riggers for the spars, and the driver and fireman. The hauler pulled mainly rimu logs from the hillsides to a radius of half a mile, until a complete circle had been worked.

Later, the Lidgerwood was replaced by six ground haulers, each manned by five men and one boy. Minty left school at 14 to be whistle boy on one crew.

Logs were pulled from the hauler sites to the mill by steam locomotives: a large Price built in Thames, two Invercargill-engineered Johnstons and a British Barclay.

The mill itself was two storeys high, with the saws and benches on top and massive boilers fired by sawdust beneath. In its heyday it produced more timber than anywhere in the country—up to 1800 cubic metres a month.

In the absence of a good harbour, timber was first carried to offshore traders on 12-metre lighters towed by launches. But after sand built up around the break­water, the overhead cable technology of the Lidgerwood was copied on the wharf. A 21-metre tower was built, and loads of timber were slung, sometimes day and night, on to waiting ships, many of them bound directly for North Island markets, and some to Australia.

At its peak, Port Craig was a town of some 230 people, with the mill employing at least 150 hands. Workers were paid once a month by cheque—to discourage gambling—with the company-run store bill deducted from the wages. Alcohol could be consigned from town, but had to be kept at the store until Saturday, after work had finished.

When workers and their families travelled to town they were ferried across to Bluecliffs Beach by launch, and landed by surf boat.

Today the most spec­tacular relics of Port Craig’s logging era are four wooden viaducts built to carry the haulers and locomotives across ravines to the west of the township.

Incredibly, all are still standing. The largest, the Percy Burn, spans 125 metres and stands 36 metres above the stream bed. Buried in the regener­ating forest for 60 years, and virtually unknown outside the district, the Percy Burn viaduct was selected in 1990 as one of New Zealand’s 50 great engineering works by the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand.

The viaducts represent the very best of the bridge builder’s trade. All are of trestle design, with steel-braced beams of Australian hardwood, probably jarrah.

A cookshop and huts for about 20 men were built at the site, and construction took nearly a year. A cable was slung across the gully from one of the logging haulers, and the bridge components winched across under a carriage and placed in position.

The Percy Burn was the biggest viaduct constructed for a bush tram in New Zealand, and it was the second-longest and second-highest ever built. The largest was the Ormondville viaduct on the Hawke’s Bay railway line, demolished 20 years before the Percy Burn was com­ pleted in 1923.

At £5000, the viaduct was expensive, but a cheaper option than building extra tramlines and excavating to maintain a gradient around the head of the stream.

Time is finally beginning to catch up with the Percy Burn viaduct. Some of its supporting beams and trestle legs have rotted out, and wind stress has caused it to buckle. Deterioration was hastened in the 1970s when a pig hunter set fire to the structure. As the story was told in Tuatapere’s Waiau Hotel, the hunter had lost a pig dog off the side of the then undecked bridge, and to spare fellow hunters a similar fate he tried to bum it down.

Fortunately, his attempt failed, and shortly after­wards the Forest Service redecked the viaducts to increase safety and improve access for hunters and trampers walking between Port Craig and Waitutu Forest.

Recently the Tuatapere community, Department of Conservation, Southland District Council, Historic Places Trust and New Zealand Army joined forces to carry out repairs on the Percy Burn viaduct. Sol­diers from the Army’s Ready Reaction Force abseiled from the deck to brace deteriorating timbers. Under their war gaming scenario, the bridge had been weakened by enemy fire.

In reality, it was the 1920s economic recession which was the death knell for the Port Craig sawmil­ling operation—at that time the largest and most ambitious in the country.

Falling prices and a depressing assessment of the remaining timber resource forced the owners to close the mill on October 6, 1928.

Minty Hughes, like all Port Craig workers, was given four days’ notice. When the Bluff Harbour tug, Southland, arrived to pick up residents, they had only a few hours to gather together what they could carry. Many arrived in Invercargill with nowhere to go, and, with the Depres­sion beginning, they had little chance of finding other work.

In 1940 the machinery, mill and houses were sold to a salvage firm and removed. All that remains are the viaducts: unique relics of Southland history.

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