Kaitawa Bridge

Kaitawa Road; Hinemoa Road, Kaitawa

  • Kaitawa Bridge.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 10/08/2010.
  • Kaitawa Bridge from north.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 10/08/2010.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 4032 Date Entered 15th April 2011


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the structure known as Kaitawa Bridge, including its abutments beneath the Tararua District Council's Kaitawa and Hinemoa Valley Roads. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Tararua District


Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Region

Legal description

The Kaitawa Bridge is part of a legal road, with the structure and abutments being part of the Tararua District Council road network.

Location description

From Pahiatua travel southeast along Tiraumea Road which transitions into Kaitawa Road. Approximately seven kilometres from Pahiatua Kaitawa Road connects to Mangaone Valley Road, but Kaitawa Road continues to the east. At this intersection the road almost immediately leads across Kaitawa Bridge, joining with Hinemoa Valley Road which runs through Kaitawa.


Kaitawa Bridge, several kilometres southeast of Pahiatua, is the only direct access point across the Tiraumea River to Kaitawa and its associated rural area. The structure was completed in 1932 and is a representative steel through truss road bridge with reinforced concrete deck and substructure.

European settlement in the Wairarapa was gradual, beginning in the 1850s from the south after lengthy negotiations between the Crown and iwi. However, it was not until the 1870s with the government public works and immigration schemes that Europeans started to earnestly occupy the north Wairarapa. In these later decades of the nineteenth century farming developed around Pahiatua, and one of these settlements was Kaitawa. However, it was not until the construction of a timber bridge to Kaitawa in the closing years of the nineteenth century that its dairying industry and population were able to flourish. By the early twentieth century the economic stability of the district was under threat, not only from the effects of the Great Depression, but the imminent failure of its bridge. Therefore, Kaitawa Bridge was one of the structures prioritised for replacement as part of the Pahiatua County Council’s comprehensive programme. However, the construction of the bridge had an initial setback when the main contractor was substituted because of financial trouble due to severe losses as a result of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Upon completion the bridge provided vital access for the community, but it was necessary to alter the structure somewhat in 1986 to achieve modern standard clearances and allow stock trucks to pass over it without damaging the structure.

Kaitawa Bridge is a bridge typical of its time in terms of its materials, although it is unusual among its contemporaries in the region and nationally because it is a steel through truss structure. This bridge is only wide enough for one-way traffic, and its tall central reinforced concrete ladder-shaped pier is flanked by two smaller ones close to the abutments. The only significant change to the structure occurred in 1986 when the portal bracings were removed and the loads formerly distributed by them were redirected through externally projecting equivalents, which form triangular forms on the sides of the bridge’s through truss.

Kaitawa Bridge has value as because its through truss design is not common and it is among a small group of remaining examples from its period and earlier. The fact that the structure has undergone few alterations is indicative that its representative design and materials are ideally suited to its circumstances, contributing to the significance of Kaitawa Bridge. The longevity of the structure and its integral importance to the everyday functioning and economy of the Kaitawa district since 1932 also mean that it has historical and social value locally. Kaitawa Bridge has further importance because of its association with the comprehensive bridge replacement programme of the local council from the late 1920s which persevered despite the financial effect of important events in New Zealand history, like the Great Depression and the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Kaitawa 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 in the financially difficult years of the Great Depression. The economic turbulence of the late 1920s and early 1930s was illustrated by Kaitawa Bridge’s original contractor not completing his work due to the financial crisis he was thrust into as a result of losses suffered during the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. The late twentieth century alterations to the through trusses of the bridge are also of historical value because they highlight changes in transportation and road standards, but have also allowed for the continued use of the structure which has been a vital road link for the Kaitawa region since 1932.

Technological Significance or Value:

Kaitawa Bridge is a representative steel through truss bridge with reinforced concrete deck and substructure. This structure has technological value because it is an example of a uncommon form of bridge in New Zealand and one of only a few which remain from a peak in use of this type in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Kaitawa Bridge replaced the earlier timber bridge using more durable materials, and as such has some technological importance because it demonstrates that by the 1930s New Zealand’s engineers and support industries had developed stock usage of steel and reinforced concrete for bridges.

Social Significance or Value:

The Kaitawa settlement and its farming area only begun to flourish with the construction of its early bridge in the late nineteenth century, and the new steel truss replacement bridge has social significance because it meant that the community could continue to function and develop further.

(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 in steel and concrete, like Kaitawa Bridge.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

Kaitawa Bridge is associated with two noteworthy events in New Zealand from its construction period. The effects of the Great Depression were at their peak in the early 1930s and although bridges are expensive infrastructure items a replacement programme was continued by the Pahiatua County Council because it recognised that the impact of bridges failing for its communities and economy would further destabilise the situation. For some the financial difficulties of the period were enhanced by the devastating 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake which occurred just after the contracts for Kaitawa Bridge were let. Kaitawa Bridge is associated with this event because its Hastings-based initial contractor was hit financially by the event and as such was eventually replaced on the project.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

Kaitawa Bridge is an essential access point across the Tiraumea River for the rural communities around Kaitawa and this long association, established in 1932, means that Kaitawa Bridge is an important community asset.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The only major changes to the structure were undertaken in 1986, therefore Kaitawa Bridge is of technical value as an exemplar of fit-for-purpose engineering.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, and g.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Seaton, Sladden and Pavitt

This was a Surveying and Civil Engineering firm based in Wellington and Masterton. The company was active by the World War One period and were well-established by the 1920 and 30s when they completed several road and bridge projects in the Wairarapa and Tararua regions among other projects such as the development of Upper Hutt’s water supply. The company ceased in 1985.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

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 earnestly began in the early 1880s, although they were initially slow. Pahiatua township was established in 1881 and 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 plan by local European landowners to create Pahiatua was headed by Masterton nurseryman, William Wilson McCardle (1844-1921), who is thought to have named the new township after his friend and local Maori Chief, Koneke Pahiatua. By the mid 1880s local tenacity meant that the burgeoning town of about 500 people had shops, a hotel, and a Road Board. The rapid growth of the town and wider area led to the creation of the Pahiatua County Council in 1888 and the Pahiatua Borough in 1892.

A settler group headed by Henry Sedcole, himself one of the founders of Pahiatua, called the Pahiatua-Puketoi Association was based just east of Pahiatua, and established Kaitawa in the 1880s. The group was relatively diverse with a mix of tradesmen, labourers, professionals, and businessmen. By 1891 the small rural town had its own public school and a store which the post office and Bank of New Zealand operated out of. However, the hopes that many of these early settlers had for the district were not initially realised because the closest bridge across the Tiraumea River was some three miles north. Therefore, local residents must have been overjoyed when a direct access bridge was constructed in the closing years of the nineteenth century. The construction of this first timber bridge was perhaps spurred by an increase in Kaitawa’s population and industry with a creamery being established in 1894.

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 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.

The dairy industry was quickly established around Pahiatua and while early supply was equal to the demand, by the late 1880s it had surpassed it and exporting produce out of the area was essential. This growth also led to the first local dairy factory being founded in 1892. Like elsewhere in the region, dairy farming soon arose in Kaitawa and by 1909 the area had its own cheese factory, which had developed from the smaller creamery created in 1894. The railway was essential to the local economy in general, but when it was established in the closing years of the nineteenth century it became particularly important to the dairy industry which relied on efficient transport for its perishable product.

Many of the initial bridges in the north Wairarapa were in need of replacement by the mid to late 1920s, like the timber structure leading to Kaitawa. One of the first to be replaced was the highway bridge at Mangatainoka in 1927, and which became the first concrete pier bridge in Pahiatua County. The construction of bridges was generally among the most expensive costs facing local councils at time, and therefore one would assume that replacing existing bridges would be among the first things to be placed on hold when the Great Depression began to affect the New Zealand economy. However, despite the tough times the Council deliberately pushed on with its comprehensive programme of 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, in particular the replacement of the bridge at Kaitawa.

The structural integrity of the existing timber Kaitawa Bridge was sufficiently degraded by the late 1920s that it was identified as a priority structure for replacement. It was feared that the failure of the bridge was imminent which would be devastating for the large local dairy industry in particular, since the late nineteenth century structure was the area’s main access point and because it was essential to the comings and goings of the Kaitawa Dairy Factory and its suppliers. It was stated that there was:

‘…a real danger however, that owing to the condition of the present bridge, it may collapse under the strain imposed by large mobs of cattle passing over it. When I point out that the bridge is somewhere about 60 feet from water level, it can be well imagined what the loss in valuable stock would be, besides the consequent dislocation of traffic and the holding up of farming operations.’

This emphasis on the welfare of cattle and the dairy industry is indicative of its importance locally, especially when it is considered that this letter to the Minister of Public Works from the Pahiatua County Clerk makes no mention of the hazard to humans and potential casualties which could result from the bridge collapsing.

The new Kaitawa Bridge was eventually completed in 1932, and was unusual amongst many of the other bridges in the region constructed during that period because of its steel truss, rather than reinforced concrete, construction. Indeed, in early 1929 the County Council asked the bridge’s engineers, Messrs Seaton, Sladden and Pavitt, to investigate constructing it in reinforced concrete. It is unclear why the steel and concrete option was eventually favoured, although it was probably a matter of cost because the estimates for the truss bridge were almost £1000 cheaper than a reinforced concrete equivalent.

The successful tender for the construction project, which included dismantling the old bridge and realigning the road, was confirmed in January 1931. Mr F. H. Bastin was to undertake the construction in partnership with William Cable’s ironfounders company, based in Wellington. However, the venture was one of the casualties of the devastating Hawke’s Bay earthquake which struck only a few days after Bastin’s successful tender was announced. Not only did Bastin suffer severe losses to his own Hastings property, but his backers, F. G. Smith and Co., were also badly hit through damage and the head of the firm was actually killed in the earthquake. Sympathetic to this unforeseen situation the Council let Bastin continue without his surety. However, due to financial considerations eventually the contract was transferred to R. H. Bird of Hunterville. The completed bridge was inspected and final payments made one year later in February 1932.

The Kaitawa Bridge continued to be a vital link for the Kaitawa district throughout the twentieth century despite it being only wide enough to allow one-way vehicle traffic. It seems that by the late 1970s the structure and steelwork was showing its age and some unspecified repairs involving welding were undertaken in 1978. Despite only directly servicing approximately 20 households and the structure being classed as ‘a lightly trafficked rural bridge,’ it was still a vital link for the community and, as is demonstrated by the next project at the bridge, its history remained closely interwoven with local farming.

In 1985 it was decided that it was necessary to undertake a repair and strengthening project at Kaitawa Bridge due to damage sustained through large stock trucks striking the portal bracing on each end of the through trusses as they passed over the bridge. Because this bracing was below regulation height it was recommended that it be removed, however, because the portal bracing was important to the stability of the truss it was vital to transfer the lateral loads from the top chords of the bridge through to the base of the truss in another manner. This was achieved through projecting external portal bracing outwards and down in a triangle shape. The repairs and alterations to the bridge were undertaken in just over a month during 1986 by A. G. Winn, a Pahiatua engineering firm, for a contract price of $18,500, which also included sandblasting and painting the steelwork.

Physical Description

The Kaitawa Bridge crosses the Tiraumea River to the west of the small rural settlement after which the bridge is named. The surrounding countryside is characterised by gently rolling hills and farmland through which the river has forged a reasonably wide gully at the point where the Kaitawa Bridge crosses it. The structure is reasonably prominent within this setting due to the height of its trusses.

The Kaitawa Bridge comprises of two steel through Pratt trusses, which are each 30.8 metres long, and a reinforced concrete deck whose 3.7 metre width accommodates one-way vehicle traffic. The middle of the bridge is marked by a tall central reinforced concrete ladder-shaped pier, footed in the western bank of the river below. There are short piers on either end of the bridge immediately adjacent to the structure’s abutments.

On the interior of the truss steelwork is a simple metal handrail running the length of the bridge which, like much of the structure, appears to be an original feature. Spaced evenly between the portal of each truss are three top lateral struts. At the junction where these struts connect to the top chord are diagonal wind braces which cross at the centre point of the truss. The steelwork of the bridge is showing signs of its age, namely rusting. However, this slight decaying is not a threat to the structure’s integrity as long as maintenance continues.

The bridge was strengthened and repaired in 1986 by removing the original portal bracings, and projecting their loads outwards through brackets that reconnected to the lower chords, forming a triangle. This alteration allowed the bridge to continue to be used by raising its clearance to a standard height and shifting the load bearing faculty of the former portal bracings to the exterior of the structure. However, as Geoffrey Thornton points out, this added steelwork has adversely affected the aesthetics of the structure somewhat.

Through truss bridges are not particularly common in New Zealand, which means that Kaitawa Bridge comes as somewhat of a surprise to the passing motorist. Remaining late nineteenth century examples of through truss bridges are rare, including the Balclutha Railway Bridge and Earnscleugh Bridge, whose steel trusses were both added in 1935. The Matapuna Bridge, near Taumarunui, was a dual carriage bridge, and is among a small group of early twentieth century through truss bridges. However, there appears to have been an increase in the construction of through truss bridges in the late 1920s and 1930s, which corresponds with the building of Kaitawa Bridge. Out of the few road bridges which remain most are country bridges similar in size to the Kaitawa Bridge, like the Mangaone River Bridge in Hawke’s Bay (1929) and Newton Bridge, Upper Buller Gorge, built in 1930. Akatarawa River Bridge near Wellington (1920-21) and Motu River Bridges are different from the rest of their number, and unusual for their era, because they have timber trusses. A larger scale example of a through truss bridge from this period is the Tauranga Harbour Railway Bridge (1924). The structures described here form the majority of the through truss bridges remaining in New Zealand from the 1930s and earlier, with Kaitawa Bridge being a representative example among them.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1931 - 1932

1978 -
Steelwork repaired

1986 -
Bridge strengthened and painted

Construction Details

Reinforced concrete, steel

Completion Date

18th November 2010

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

Bagnall, 1976

A. G. Bagnall, Wairarapa; An Historical Excursion, Trentham, 1976

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol.1, Wellington, 1897

McLintock, 1966

An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966

Thornton, 2001

Geoffrey Thornton, Bridging the Gap, Early Bridges in New Zealand 1830-1939, Auckland, 2001

Grant, 1995

Grant, I.F., North of the Waingawa: The Masterton Borough and County Councils, 1877-1989, Masterton, 1995

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Central Region office

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.