Paeroa (a low hill) featured prominently in the early Maori settlement of Hauraki, with the large Raupo Pa, on the junction of the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers, 3km west of the town, being inhabited from around 1300. To the west of the pa site there was the 32,400ha Kopuatahi swamp land which was rich in food and resources. Today, while many hectares around the periphery have been developed into very productive farm land, there are some 8500ha set aside as an ecological reserve. It also the watershed between the two catchments of the Waihou and Piako river systems in the Thames Valley.
Paeroa was on the main route from Hauraki and points north to the Bay of Plenty. Travellers went by canoes using the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers to reach Paeroa. From here they tramped through the Karangahake Gorge, across the Waihi Plains to Athenree, at the northern end of the Tauranga Harbour, and continued on their journey by canoe.
Stories from each Iwi or Hapu
Captain Cook, in November, 1769, sailed up the Waihou River to Netherton, 7kms north of Paeroa, and reported huge Kaihikitea trees along the banks. He named the river The Thames, as it resembled the River Thames in his homeland.
In 1820 Rev Samual Marsden used the route, staying at the Raupo pa for some four days, and conducting the first Christian service in the district on Sunday, November 20. Bishop Selwyn travelled the same route in 1843 and Sir George Grey, was another notable to traveller along this well-worn track in 1849-50.
The first white settler to arrive in the district was Joshua Thorp, in 1842. He, with his family, came from Colville seeking fertile farming land. He purchased an area from the Ngati Tamatera Paramount Chief Tararia, and established his home close to where the Historic Maritime Park is today, 3kms north of Paeroa on SH2.
With the goldfields developing at a fast rate so did Paeroa into a bustling river port to service a demanding industry. Through the 1880s the town expanded steadily from its early business centre between Willoughby Street and the Ohinemuri River and Victoria and Arney Streets. As the town developed in the 1880s a small hill through what is now the centre of Paeroa, was excavated to enable the main street to be extended on almost the same level.
All the mining companies’ requirements such as heavy machinery, coal, provisions for increasing staff numbers, were hauled by horses and wagons to Karangahake, Waitekauri and Waihi. Teams of 20 horses each were regularly used to pulling 20-ton loads while over a 100 tons of coal per day were hauled by eight and ten horse-teams and wagons to the processing batteries. On any one day there could be an estimated 400 horses on the road between Paeroa and Waihi. All this traffic went along Paeroa’s main street.
Wharves were first at Arney Street and Wharf Street, but as the river filled with mining debris, the main wharf was established at The Junction (Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers), 3kms west of Paeroa and connected to the town centre by tramway along Junction Road. By the early 1900s, this wharf could not reached by the steamers and they stopped at The Puke wharf (Historic Maritime Park). Finally with the continued silting and river stopbank works, in 1914, the Ngahina Wharf was built on the Waihou River, below the present SH2 bridge.
With the main trunk railway line (Auckland-Wellington) being pushed ahead in the 1880-90s, a railway route was surveyed from Hamilton to Thames. By 1895 this link was completed between Hamilton and Paeroa. Although the Thames-Paeroa section was started almost 20 years previously, politics and local Maori opposition did not allow the link with Paeroa to be achieved until 1897.
By 1905 the railway line had been constructed through the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi and this spelt the end to horse-drawn traffic and also had an effect on river shipping. The coming of the motor vehicle from around 1914 and particularly after the First World War (1914-18) saw the boat traffic gradually decline, ceasing in the late 1930s.
Road transport continued to develop with one the very early (c 1880) horse transport firms, Brenan and Co, changing with the times and by the 1950s turned Paeroa into a large road transport centre with a fleet of around 150 vehicles. The railway station, by now, had become one of the largest junctions in New Zealand.
Economic trends saw the railway closed in 1970s with the opening of the Kaimai tunnel and road transport diminished after a series of company amalgamations around 1990.
As the mining enterprises wound down, the slowly developing farming industry gathered pace. The first creamery was built in Thames Road in 1899, then came a butter factory in 1901 (where Agrisea and Buchanan Joinery are today), with other butter and cheese factories in the district at Netherton and Hikutaia.
Paeroa met the new challenge: A service centre to meet the demands of a flourishing farming industry.
By the 1960s Paeroa had its butter factory and a modern milk-powder producing factory, and at Kerepehi 13kms away, was one of the largest milk-powder factories in the Southern Hemisphere. These were working at capacity to process the milk production from some of richest dairying farms in New Zealand. But again through the 1980s with changing economic times and company mergers within the industry taking place all these factories were closed.
On the local government scene, Paeroa’s infancy was spent under the wing of the Thames County Council. In 1885 pressure from the developing Paeroa and Waihi districts saw the Ohinemuri County Council established and take control of the area, which then included Netherton, Kerepehi, Kaihere and Waitoa. These areas were taken over by the Hauraki Plains and Piako Counties when they came into being just after the First World War.
While the Waihi Borough Council came into being in 1902, the Paeroa Borough Council was finally approved in 1915. From that point the borough council took positive steps to develop the town with the main focus being on roads, water and sewerage, along with finishing off the flood protection scheme. In 1989, the two boroughs, Paeroa and Waihi joined the counties of Ohinemuri and Hauraki Plains to constitute the Hauraki District Council.
One of greatest assets of the town is the Domain, one block from the main street. Set aside as a reserve in 1892, the Domain, which includes Tuikairangi or Primrose Hill, has been developed from 1904. Lawn bowling, tennis, croquet, rugby and hockey were the early sports to use the domain. Some of the early planted trees are still growing and are a rarity in New Zealand. The domain now provides recreation facilities for several sports, cultural and community events.
When gold was discovered in the district in the late 1860s, Paeroa soon became a hive of activity with miners and mining companies looking to stake their claims. Paeroa quickly became their base and a commercial infrastructure sprung up to meet their increasing demands.
By March 3, 1875, agreement was reached with local Maori land owners for access, and Ohinemuri gold fields were declared opened. Over the preceding days several steamers, came up the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers bringing hundreds of miners from Thames and Auckland to seek their fortune. But alas, they found the gold locked in hard quartz rock, which required specialised treatment and a large amount of funding to establish the processing plants. From over 600 miners on opening day, there were a little over 100 left in three months time.
By the 1890s three major companies were operating in the Karangahake area, 6km east of Paeroa, while further east there was a large mining operation at Waitekauri and three main companies in Waihi. With the gold processing in full swing the Government of the day, in 1895, passed legislation by an Act of Parliament to allow the companies to dump the debris from their operations into the Ohinemuri River—it was declared a sludge channel. The fine talcum-like residue deposited, some containing cyanide, soon killed all river life turning the river’s pristine waters into a dirty grey-colour. This continued until 1954, a year after the last processing plant, at Waikino, closed.
The legend of Ohinemuri – According to Maori folklore, a small pa near the area known now as Turner’s Hill , was occupied by a sub-tribe. The pa was attacked by a marauding tribe, making all the inhabitants flee except the chief’s daughter, who was away gathering food. On her return she found that the pa was occupied and she didn’t know where to hide. A taniwha who in a deep cave at the top of the hill took pity on her and after guiding her into the cave, blocked the entrance with a large rock. There they stayed until her tribe could re-occupy the pa and the chief reclaimed his daughter. The river was then named ‘Ohinemuri’, meaning “the maid who was left behind”.
By Graham Watton, Curator and Historian of the Paeroa and District Museum
Visit the Museum to see many more photographs of early Paeroa