Historical Significance or Value
With its landscape crisscrossed by waterways, bridge building in the Tararua region has been of importance since European settlement in the area began in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Pahiatua Town Bridge has local historical significance as an example of a bridge which was part of the comprehensive and important Pahiatua County Council programme of replacing its degraded first generation bridges and other road network components leading into and during the financially difficult years of the Great Depression. Arguably the most important bridge in the Pahiatua district because it provided vital link across the Mangatainoka River to the area’s railway station, the creation of Pahiatua Town Bridge was a priority despite the expense of this prospect.
This bridge is historically remarkable as a significant and costly structure built in the midst of the Great Depression, and a project which utilised central and local government measures put in place to try and mitigate the worsening of this economic crisis. Pahiatua Town Bridge is also of historical importance because the financial atmosphere motivated Fletcher Construction Company to diversify its concrete construction repertoire to include bridge building, beginning with the Pahiatua Town Bridge and continuing with other notable reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridges.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
Pahiatua Town Bridge is of aesthetic significance because it is a major landmark within the townscape of Pahiatua, and at its opening ceremony was described as one of the most impressive bridges in the lower North Island. The visual appeal of the structure is the combined effect of its scale, and the repetition of its arch elements and motifs that rhythmically draw the viewer’s eye along its length, this being enhanced further by the linearity of its parapet and handrail. Detailing, such as the curved and moulded entrance wall, the Art Deco lampposts, and bevelled edges, add further elegance to this bridge whose aesthetic values elevate it above its utilitarian function.
Technological Significance or Value
Pahiatua Town Bridge has special technological significance as the third reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridge built in New Zealand, as well as being the first in the 1930s series of this type of bridge, most of which were also constructed by Fletcher Construction Company. At a time when reinforced concrete was becoming the dominant building material for bridges in New Zealand, Pahiatua Town Bridge was also an important step in the evolution of bowstring arch bridges, marking a key transition from the shallow heavy arched form of earlier examples and the lighter weight elegance which is characteristic of the bridges that followed the Pahiatua Town Bridge. Despite some instances of repair, the technological value of this form of bridge and the material is demonstrated by the fact that the Pahiatua Town Bridge is the longest surviving in the history of structures built at Pahiatua across the Mangatainoka River.
Social Significance or Value
Pahiatua Town Bridge was opened by the Prime Minister and other dignitaries in 1932, and the celebrations surrounding this event demonstrate its considerable local social significance. The bridge was greatly anticipated because it secured the town’s crucial link to its railway station, but its construction was also a positive statement of central and local government determination to help the country weather the financial crisis of the Great Depression. Therefore, from the outset the structure was integral to the economy of the district, an emblem of hope for the local area and to an extent nationally, as well as a source of pride for citizens as an impressive entrance to Pahiatua.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The building of bridges was one of the primary concerns of early communities because of the prevalence of dangerous waterways within New Zealand. Inevitably, and particularly in densely wooded areas like Tararua, many of these early structures were constructed from timber. As such, by the opening decades of the twentieth century the early bridges required replacement, and this resulted in the construction of more durable structures, like Pahiatua Town Bridge, in reinforced concrete, with this becoming a preferred material from the 1930s onwards throughout much of the twentieth century.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
Pahiatua Town Bridge has outstanding significance because it was the first foray into bridge building of the important New Zealand construction company, Fletcher Construction Company, during a key period in the company’s development.
Pahiatua Town Bridge is intimately linked with the Great Depression and attempts to mitigate its impact on New Zealand. The existing bridge was a high priority for replacement, but persevering with the construction project for such an expensive structure during a time of economic crisis was part of local and central government strategy to help stave off the effects of the financial crisis through subsidised infrastructure works nationwide.
As Prime Minister in the midst of the Great Depression, George William Forbes is an important figure in New Zealand history and is associated with Pahiatua Town Bridge having opened the structure, an event which is commemorated on a plaque at the bridge.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
As an impressive and essential local infrastructure asset, Pahiatua Town Bridge has been an important landmark in Pahiatua since the 1930s. As such there is a high level of community association with this structure following on from the significant public esteem which was demonstrated at its opening and the connected celebrations.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place
Despite some instances of repair, and the underpinning project of the mid 1970s, Pahiatua Town Bridge is a technically accomplished early 1930s structure, with the use of the increasingly popular bridge material of reinforced concrete giving longevity to its relatively rare bowstring arch form. Both functional and attractive, the bowstring arch design of the structure is a special and carefully considered aspect, because while the arches of Pahiatua Town Bridge are shallow in the tradition of the two earlier examples of this form of bridge, their design is less weighty which adds an air of elegance to the bridge, a key feature of subsequent bowstring arches bridges.
Summary of Significance or Values
This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, g.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.
Not only a physically significant landmark within the Tararua region, Pahiatua Town Bridge is of special importance as a landmark in terms of its design and for the influential construction company associated with it. Pahiatua Town Bridge was Fletcher Construction Company’s first venture into reinforced concrete bridge building and they were able to capitalise on its success with further bowstring arch bridge contracts, such as Balclutha Bridge and Fairfield Bridge, which are New Zealand Historic Places Trust Category I historic places. Pahiatua Town Bridge was the first in the sequence of 1930s reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridges and the third of this type constructed in New Zealand, marking key a point in the development of this form of structure. Pahiatua Town Bridge is also of special significance as part of concerted governmental efforts to proactively weather the economic crisis of the Great Depression, and it therefore became a statement of determination and positivity which was reiterated by Prime Minister Forbes at the bridge’s greatly anticipated opening celebrations.
The discovery and settlement of the Wairarapa region is connected with several prominent figures of New Zealand’s history. Ancestral figures such as Hau-nui-a-nanaia, Kupe, Whatonga, Tara Ika and Toi have all been said to have connections with the region and are responsible for the naming of many of the Wairarapa’s features and places. It has been estimated that Rangitane settled in the region by about the sixteenth century. Marriage links with Rangitane saw a group of Ngati Kahungunu retreat to the Wairarapa in the subsequent century as the result of internal hapu conflicts. The groups cohabitated mostly in the south Wairarapa for a period, but then the Ngati Kahungunu newcomers negotiated several sections of land for themselves. This process was not seamless and instances of conflict continued between the two iwi over the centuries. The next significant period of change in the area was in the early nineteenth century with the progression of Te Rauparaha and others. This ushered in an era when many different iwi, including Ngati Whatua, Ngati Awa, Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Tama, and Ngati Mutunga, made advances into the region and some Ngati Kahungunu hapu withdrew.
Several decades later, European incursion into the Wairarapa began after the New Zealand Company’s Port Nicholson settlement was established. Based on the reports of the exploring and surveying parties that the company sent out, the southern Wairarapa became one of the first extensive tracts of land to be occupied by Europeans, although the Crown titles, negotiated by Donald McLean, were not obtained until 1853. However, it took substantially longer for settlement to progress beyond Masterton, which was linked to Wellington by road in 1859. Further incursion was slow because the northern Wairarapa was heavily forested. In particular, the forest north of Mount Bruce was dense with rimu, tawa, matai, maire, kahikatea, and rata, and was known as Forty Mile Bush, which was within the larger Seventy Mile Bush that also encompassed the area as far north as Dannevirke and Norsewood. Maori referred to this forest as Te Tapere Nui o Whatonga (The great forest of Whatonga) and an abundance of birdlife resided there amongst giant ancient trees, some of which were large enough for groups of local Maori to shelter within their trunks.
The forest acted as a significant barrier and therefore, while there was some European settlement in the northern Wairarapa before the late nineteenth century, it was not until roads were extended further and the railway link to Wellington established that the area was opened up for substantive settlement. In preparation for the construction of the railway the government had an active role in the foundation of several places in the Wairarapa and Tararua regions. Towns such as Mauriceville, Eketahuna, Norsewood, and Dannevirke were all initially formed as bases for railway labourers. Part of the preparation for the railway construction included building a road through the district which had progressed by the mid to late 1870s.
This increased, albeit rudimentary, access meant that land sales in the Pahiatua area began in earnest in the early 1880s. An initially slow sales market was boosted greatly by purchases made on behalf of Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), who later went onto become British Prime Minister and Earl Balfour. In this way, when Pahiatua township was eventually established in 1881 it differed from most of the other settlements in the area because it was not created by the Crown, instead it resulted from private subdivisions of land. The site of Pahiatua had previously been a Maori village called Te Pohatu. Pahiatua, which means resting place, or camp, of the atua, refers to a seventeenth century event when an atua rescued a Rangitane chief from invading forces from the south. Some have suggested that Pahiatua’s founder, Masterton nurseryman William Wilson McCardle (1844-1921), named the township after his friend, local Maori chief Koneke Pahiatua.
Once the private subdivisions were made, Pahiatua quickly emerged as a frontrunner to become the main service centre of the area, which attracted further settlement and businesses to the town. By the mid 1880s local tenacity meant that the burgeoning town of about 500 people had shops, a hotel, and a Road Board, but had been by-passed by the railway despite Main Street having been specifically made unusually wide to compensate for the potential railway line down its centre. The fact that Main Street was prone to flooding was a valid reason for the government engineer to recommend the railway tracks be laid west of the town with a railway station situated at Scarborough. However, Pahiatua people saw this as a deliberate snub, as well as a significant inconvenience as they would be required to travel several kilometres and cross the Mangatainoka River in order to get to the station, making bridging that river vital.
Being that the railway was one of the main factors behind the settlement of the northern Wairarapa it is not surprising that corresponding dray tracks and roads were also an early consideration. By 1896 the Pahiatua County Council, established in 1888, administered 400 miles of roads, and in a region traversed by many different rivers and streams, bridges were soon a priority. As the road network developed and settlement spread, bridges were greatly coveted by local communities all over New Zealand. This was primarily because of the hazardous nature of many of the waterways, especially in winter when flooding was frequent. The risk of drowning or injury for both people and horses while trying to ford rivers was great at these times, and at the very least the lack of a bridge could mean serious delays while the traveller waited for the waters to subside. One early twentieth century commentator thought that, because its landscape was crisscrossed with many waterways, Pahiatua County was one of the most bridged areas in New Zealand.
There were several early bridges across the Mangatainoka River between Pahiatua and its railway station, with a Dawson swing bridge, patented by Pahiatua’s Joseph Dawson, replaced in 1896 by a timber truss bridge. However, its construction was not a straight forward process as the structure crossed between the jurisdictions of two councils. Therefore, when the Pahiatua Borough Council initiated the project in 1894 they approached the County Council on several occasions, but the County Council refused to make any contribution to the cost of the ‘Town Bridge’ over the Mangatainoka River. It was not until a Commission, which found that the County Council was required to make a contribution under the Public Works Act, that the matter was resolved. A special committee was then set up to decide the ratio of cost responsibility for each council in terms of the maintenance of the structure. The Borough Council would incur the majority of the cost and had ownership of the bridge, and the County Council would contribute four fifths of its maintenance costs. However, friction between the two entities over the bridge was to continue until eventually the Pahiatua County Council had the bridge on the Borough-County border vested in their control, but with the two Councils sharing maintenance costs.
Many of the initial bridges in the northern Wairarapa region were in need of replacement by the mid to late 1920s. One of the first to be replaced was the highway bridge at Mangatainoka in 1927, which became the first concrete pier bridge in Pahiatua County. The construction of bridges was generally among one of the most expensive costs facing local councils at time, and therefore one would assume that replacing existing bridges would be the first thing to be placed on hold when the Great Depression began to affect New Zealand’s economy. However, despite the tough times the County Council deliberately pushed on with its comprehensive programme of road works and bridge replacements around the Pahiatua area because of the intrinsic importance of bridges to the community and the fragile economy. The value of good bridges was demonstrated by the fact that, in a time when wages were being reduced, the County Council actually increased its Bridge Rate in order to progress essential bridge construction.
By the late nineteenth century concrete was used progressively more in New Zealand buildings and in the footings and abutments of bridges. It was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that completely concrete bridges began to become a popular choice. The growth in the use of concrete during this period seems to be connected with the need by this time to replace many early bridges whose timber or steel had degraded. Local councils, such as the Taranaki County Council who started a replacement programme in 1908, increasingly opted for concrete structures because of its cost effectiveness in terms of construction time, reduced maintenance costs, and relative longevity. These proved very attractive qualities and by the 1930s reinforced concrete bridges were becoming widely accepted and on their way to becoming the preeminent medium for bridge building in New Zealand.
The Mangatainoka River flooded frequently. One local recalls it flooding five times within a three month period over the first summer that the 1896 bridge was in place. Therefore, because of its relative strength and resistance to degradation, it is not surprising that reinforced concrete was the primary material for the bridges replaced in the comprehensive programme launched by the Pahiatua County Council. The council’s consulting engineers, the Wellington-based firm Seaton, Sladden, and Pavitt, used reinforced concrete in bridges such as Pahiatua Town Bridge (1931-32) and the Mangaone River Bridge (1935), as well as in the piers of other bridges, like the Kaitawa Bridge (1931-32). As well as the relative durability of reinforced concrete, this material was easier to come by than steel during the Great Depression and also World War Two, which helped firmly establish it as the preferred material for use in bridges from the 1930s onwards.
Seaton, Sladden and Pavitt were working on the Pahiatua Town Bridge project by August 1930. Interestingly, the early drawings for the structure show a more typical concrete girder bridge with a similar balustrade to that of the final design. Within two months, however, thinking on the form of the bridge had changed, and the bowstring design was introduced. The vision of the structure depicted in the set of drawings from October 1930 was realised in the completed structure, with some technical refinements. Seaton, Sladden and Pavitt’s design included a series of shallow bowstring hangers dividing a central roadway from external footpaths, as well as details like lampposts at either end of the bridge.
The contract for Pahiatua’s bowstring arch bridge was let to Fletcher Construction Company in May 1931, and eventually cost the princely sum of approximately £14,000. Today Fletcher Construction Company has evolved into a large international company after humble Dunedin beginnings in 1909. By the 1930s the company was undertaking construction contracts elsewhere in New Zealand, with their resume including buildings such as, the Dominion Farmers’ Institute in Wellington (1917-18), and the Dilworth Building (1925-27), Yorkshire House (1926-28) and the Civic Theatre (1929) in Auckland. Fletcher Construction had a reasonable presence in the Pahiatua area at the time of its Town Bridge work, also winning the contract for the Tui Brew Tower. The company was also enhancing its reputation during this period through its involvement in the reconstruction of Napier and Hastings after the devastating 1931 earthquake. Later in the 1930s built the Dominion Museum (1936), Dunedin Post Office (1937), and Wellington Railway Station (1937).
Bridge construction was an unusual move for Fletcher Construction Company, but this diversification was motivated by the economic climate of the Great Depression. With state subsidies for roading projects and other measures to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression, the company saw bridge building as an opportunity to keep its concrete-based workforce employed. However, despite the government employment relief subsidy, work on Pahiatua Town Bridge could not progress until July because of a delay in the securing of a loan by the Borough and County Council to pay for the rest of the structure. Even then, Fletcher Construction took the job at its own risk. When work finally got underway Fletcher Construction employed up to 70 of its staff on the project headed by Herman Calder, and hired local labourers on a temporary basis. Building on the experience gained at Pahiatua, Fletcher Construction Company continued to tender for bridge projects and in 1933 won a contract for another bowstring arch bridge, the Fitzherbert Bridge, Palmerston North, which was subsequently followed by contracts for several other bowstring arch structures: the Balclutha Bridge, and two in the Waikato, the Tuakau and Fairfield Bridges.
Almost half of the Pahiatua Town Bridge had been constructed when the Mangatainoka River flooded severely in August 1932. The flood demonstrated how timely the construction of the new bridge was because the existing 1896 bridge was significantly damaged in the event, while the new partial structure went unscathed. The failure of the early bridge while the new one was still being constructed caused inconvenience for Pahiatua people, especially because their most direct route to the railway station was cut off for several months, which meant using a back road through Konini. The event also set the County Council to work on flood protection measures to help mitigate damage and scouring to the new structure.
The bridge was opened amidst great local fanfare on 10 December 1932 and also attracted wider attention because of the attendance of the Prime Minister, George William Forbes (1869-1947), and Minister for Lands and Pahiatua Member of Parliament, Hon. Ethelbert Alfred Ransom (b.1868). However, workmen were on site almost to the last minute completing work. Despite the rush to complete it on time, the opening of the bridge, described as being of ‘striking design,’ seems to have been a tremendous success. Huge crowds gathered for a ‘spectacular procession’ and to hear the opening speeches.
During his address the Prime Minister forecast that the new bridges being built around New Zealand, including the Pahiatua Town Bridge, ‘would last a hundred years at least, and be capable of coping with the developments of the country that would eventuate.’ Forbes also referred to the economic situation, reassuring the constituents by noting that he expected it to last only a short time, and stating that it was ‘an attribute of the Britisher…to never become downhearted, and by pulling together the difficulties would be overcome.’ Later, Ramson noted that on the trip up to Pahiatua, through the lower North Island from Wellington, the party ‘had passed over many fine bridges, but none equal to the one at Pahiatua.’
The praise of new and important structures is common on such occasions, but an unexpected aspect of the day was that the Prime Minister did not cut a ribbon to declare the bridge open. Instead, two small electric motors on either side of the bridge pulled the ribbon apart when Forbes flicked a switch. This novelty was designed by Fletcher Construction’s Andrew Fletcher. Celebrations continued locally after the opening ceremony, which heralded in a week of carnival shopping. Taking place in the midst of the Great Depression, extravagant celebrations at the rate payer expense would have been impolitic, therefore the County Council Chairman, Samuel Bolton (1856-1933), personally paid for the evening banquet. A plaque was also erected on the Pahiatua Town Bridge to mark its opening and commemorate the role of the Prime Minister, Bolton, and other key County and Borough Council personalities involved in the event, as well as noting the engineering and construction companies.
Despite the confidence in the structure’s abilities expressed by the Prime Minister at the opening ceremony, it was only a few decades before the Pahiatua Town Bridge required repairs. In the early 1950s cracking in the arches of the bridge had become apparent and was attributed to the concrete being a ‘Sandy mix…[with] a poor slump.’ There was concern that the cracking concrete would expose the steel reinforcing, leading to corrosion which could jeopardise the integrity of the structure. Where these cracks were bad part of the section of concrete was cut out and replaced.
Later, in the mid 1970s an urgent and significant underpinning and strengthening project was undertaken because the bridge was assessed as being in danger of failure because of the pier closest to Pahiatua. The piles of this pier were raking and were severely degraded, one having broken off completely. The County Council immediately embarked on temporary measures such as diverting the river, and within a few months had let the underpinning contract to Richardson’s Drilling Company Limited. At this time further work on the splintering concrete on the superstructure was also undertaken. This work secured the immediate integrity of the structure and it remains in use today.
The Pahiatua Town Bridge is a lengthy reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridge across the Mangatainoka River on the western edge of the Tararua town of Pahiatua. This substantial bridge is a suitably impressive and attractive gateway into the town on the main road leading to its once busy railway station, and also that which leads over the Tararua Ranges to the Manawatu. As well as accommodating two-lane vehicle traffic, this road bridge also has facility for pedestrians flanking either side its deck. The point in the Mangatainoka River which the bridge crosses is not overly wide. However, the west bank has a substantial flood plain, which the Pahiatua Town Bridge also crosses. This approximately 10 metre wide bridge is 145 metres long and comprises of seven arch spans of 20.7 metres each.
The entrances on either end of the bridge are pleasingly announced by Art Deco lampposts (lamps now removed) on step pedestals, which echo the height and width dimensions of the bowstring girders they adjoin, and curved and moulded concrete extensions of the pedestrian balustrade on the outside of the structure. A plaque commemorating the opening of the structure is on the Pahiatua end of the bridge on the northeast side and is correspondingly curved to fit flush.
The pedestrian aisles on each side of the structure are an original feature and are approximately 1.5 metres wide. They are centrally defined by the bridge’s arches and by a simple external balustrade, also constructed in reinforced concrete. The external barrier consists of lengths of vertical posts, the area between each being arched at the top which carries on the central motif of the structure. Several of these posts show signs of deterioration, and there are few in which the concrete has disintegrated altogether to reveal the steel reinforcing bars. Each section of balustrade corresponds to the spans of the bridge and are marked by solid pilaster type posts on either end. Because the arches are reasonably shallow, this balustrade somewhat inhibits a full appreciation of the bowstring arch structure. However, aesthetically these parapets help to accentuate the horizontal emphasis of this lengthy bridge. The walkways are intermittently braced by concrete brackets, curved inwards on their outer side, on the sides of piers and extended up to the pedestrian deck by slim posts.
The key structural and visual component of the Pahiatua Town Bridge are its seven bowstring arches. These rise to a height of approximately two metres on either side of the roadway, and each arch has six evenly spaced vertical ribs. Each arch and its ribs extend below deck level, with neighbouring arches descending into the piers sinuously. The boxing used when pouring the concrete for the bowstring arches has left imprints, and the edges are bevelled. Another original feature of Pahiatua Town Bridge’s bowstring girders is its steel pipe handrail which intersects the arches and ribs, forming a uniform linear thread with its double rails. In 1951 repairs on cracked areas of concrete and waterproofing of the arches was undertaken to protect the reinforcing from corrosion. Remedial work on splintering in the concrete was also undertaken in the mid 1970s.
The points where the bowstring arch spans meet correspond with the bridge’s piers, which consist of couples of cylindrical reinforced concrete components, and two of these piers are footed in the river bed. The remaining majority of the bridge piers are founded in the flood plain on the west bank. In the mid 1970s pier 1, the river footed pier on the Pahiatua side of the river, was in danger of failure primarily as a result of scouring. As such an underpinning and strengthening project was undertaken at Pahiatua Town Bridge. This secured the integrity of the structure and the concrete capping and extra steel on pier 1 are often apparent above water level.
Reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridges are a type which generally came into use around the World War One period. In New Zealand the first example of such a structure was the Opawa River Bridge in Blenheim, begun in 1915 and completed in 1917. There is a small group of this type of bridge in New Zealand and after the construction of the Opawa River Bridge, and another 1918 example in Napier, it was over a decade before the third reinforced concrete bowstring arch bridge, Pahiatua Town Bridge, was constructed. There were several other structures of this design built during the 1930s including State Highway One’s Balclutha Bridge (1933-35), and Fairfield Bridge, Hamilton (1935-37). These two bridges and the Opawa River Bridge are all Category I historic places.
While Pahiatua Town Bridge is slightly longer than its Fairfield counterpart, the larger scale bowstring girders of the Balclutha and Fairfield bridges mean these structures have a stronger visual impact. With its shallow arches Pahiatua Town Bridge is similar to Opawa River Bridge, and these lower arches were not replicated in any later examples. However, development in bowstring arch design is demonstrated at Pahiatua because its arches are less weighty than those at Opawa River, and therefore have a more elegant appearance. Given the history of repairs at the Pahiatua Town Bridge it seems that the two other 1930s examples, which were also constructed by Fletcher Construction, may have been constructed from more refined or better quality materials.
1931 - 1932
Repairs to cracks in arches.
Pier 1 is underpinned and concrete superstructure repaired.
Reinforced concrete, steel.
17th December 2010
Report Written By
Geoffrey Thornton, Bridging the Gap, Early Bridges in New Zealand 1830-1939, Auckland, 2001
Geoffrey Thornton, Cast in Concrete: Concrete Construction in New Zealand 1850-1939, Auckland, 1996
New Zealand Railway Observer
New Zealand Railway Observer
‘From Timber Truss to Prestressed Concrete: One hundred years of railway bridge engineering in New Zealand,’ Vol.21:2 (Winter, 1964), pp.49-56
Grant, I.F., North of the Waingawa: The Masterton Borough and County Councils, 1877-1989, Masterton, 1995
P. Shaw, Pride of Place: A history of the Fletcher Construction Company, Auckland, 2009
J. Smith, No Job Too Big: A history of Fletcher Construction, Volume I: 1909-1940, Wellington, 2009
A fully referenced registration report is available from the Central Region Office of the NZHPT.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.