Piako Tramway

Waiorongomai Valley, Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park

  • Piako Tramway. Butlers Incline Waiorongomai Valley.
    Copyright: Department of Conservation. Taken By: Department of Conservation.
  • Fern Spur Head Frame reconstructed- Waiorongomai Valley.
    Copyright: Department of Conservation. Taken By: Department of Conservation.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 7401 Date Entered 31st October 1997


City/District Council

Matamata-Piako District


Waikato Region

Legal description

pt. S.79 Blk 12 Aroha SD (Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park)

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Historic Place Assessment Under Section 23 Criteria report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


Mining of the Waiorongomai goldfields on the slopes of Mount Te Aroha in the 1880s and l890s clearly had a significant social and economic impact on the Waiorongomai area, leading to an increase in the population of Te Aroha, and the growth of the mining towns of Waiorongomai and nearby Quartzville. To quote from Helen McCraken's 1995 history of the Piako Tramway,

"People quickly took advantage of the opportunities made available

by the opening of the fields, not just in mining but in the servicing

of the miners, and the establishment of a minor tourist industry. The

tramway provided an attraction for the Victorian tourist combining, as it did, a health resort, natural surroundings and an educational component One guide suggested the "great" tramway, the battery, and the goldmines were "well worth a visit."

Gold mining ceased in the Waiorongomai Valley in 1948 due to the technical difficulty of dealing with refractory ore. Given the large amounts of contemporary capital that were poured into the Waiorongomai gold field by central and local government and by private investors, it is not unreasonable to conclude that since the entire operation was ultimately a failure, the remains of the enterprise are of all the more interest because of that and therefore have special and outstanding historical significance.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Historic Place Assessment Under Section 23 Criteria report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


The Piako Tramway represents an outstanding nineteenth century development in industrial engineering that was designed to deal with the specific requirements of transporting ore from diggings in difficult and steep hill locations, to an ore processing battery. The design features of the tramway are:

- A formed bed built over several steep inclines.

- Railway tracks for ascending and descending wagons.

- Cut and fill formation with bridges and tunnels.

- Associated winching gear and wire ropes.

- A self-acting (gravity) system for raising and lowering wagons.

- Branch lines running off the main line to several mines.


Mention has been made in the nomination of the "incline technology" of the Piako Tramway. This is concerned with the utilisation of wire rope - a new industrial development in the 1880s - to pull rail wagons up and over steep inclines. This could be done either by positioning stationary steam engines along the route to operate winch drums on which the rope was rolled, or it was done by a self-acting system which utilised the pull of gravity to act as a balance. Heavy, loaded wagons, going down-hill, acted as counterweights hauling up empty wagons. The Piako Tramway utilised this system. It can be regarded as being technologically significant in the sense that the self-acting system used the applied science of wire rope manufacture (first used in the construction of suspension bridges in America and France in the 1870s) in an engineering design, and in the sense that the design of the tramway also took practical advantage, in mechanical form, of the applied physics of counterweights.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Historic Place Assessment Under Section 23 Criteria report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

The Piako Tramway, per se, reflects at least three representative aspects of New Zealand industry in the nineteenth century, viz, engineering, investment and tourism Firstly the applied technology of the tramway itself stands as an example of an important engineering solution to a problem peculiar to quartz mining. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century Quartz mining superseded the "dish and dredge"

method of gold mining as the rushes associated with this former method started to peter out Extracting gold from quartz however, required expensive solutions in order to gain access to, and process material from, gold reefs located in mountain sides. The Piako Tramway was one such solution, and it shared a common technology with other

contemporary forms of mining, namely coal.

A second aspect of the Piako Tramway is the fact that it exemplifies a significant degree of co-operation between the Mines Department and the Piako County Council to the extent that the former was prepared to subsidise the erection of an essential tramway to the tune of more than 50% of the total cost At least in the early stages of the Waiorongomai goldfield the level of investment represented by the Piako Tramway was representative of the general mood of confidence felt by both

government and investors in the goldmining boom taking place at the end of the nineteenth century, - a boom described by some contemporaries as 'Quartzomania'.

Finally the Piako Tramway had a significant role to play in promoting the tourist industry at Te Aroha. Along with the hot mineral spring baths in the Te Aroha Domain, the goldmines, battery and tramway were identified as a popular tourist destination following the opening of the railway from Auckland to Te Aroha in 1886. The tramway, in particular, was described by J. Martin in his 1889 edition of Guide to the Thames and Te Aroha, as a "great" tramway. In its heyday the combination of

the gold fields and mineral springs as a tourist attraction, led to four large hotels being established in Te Aroha by 1885, and one substantial hotel in Waiorongomai itself (the Waiorongomai Hotel, c.1889).

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


Although the life of the Piako Tramway from 1883 to 1940 was typically one of construction, use and alteration, it was associated with one well known event which gained a certain degree of notoriety and publicity in the Waikato Times during the years 1883-1885. This was the purchase by the Piako County Council of a £700 locomotive - the first ever built in New Zealand by the A & G Price Foundry in Thames - to haul wagons on the level between Fern Spur and Butler's Inclines. After a year of lying idle beside the trade, it was decided to use horses instead of the engine. The engine was subsequently sold in Auckland in 1885 for half of its original cost much to the chagrin of the locals at Te Aroha. It could be argued that since the locomotive was never used on the Piako Tramway, its brief appearance on the tramway was a non-event. However it was intended to be used on the tramway, and the events concerning its commissioning and arrival at the gold field did concern a major engineering commission executed by Price's Foundry. The building of Price's first locomotive was arguably an event which had significant implications for the development of the New Zealand engineering industry. The Piako Tramway itself was an outstanding example of the state of this industry in the last quarter of the nineteenth

century, and therefore it was an event of importance in its own right.


Josiah Clifton Firth, one-time member of the house of representatives for Auckland City, founder of the settlement of Waharoa near Te Aroha, driving force in the settlement of the Matamata area, and builder of Firth Tower at Matamata (Category I), happened to be Chairman of the Piako Tramway Committee in 1883. Firth advocated the idea of installing a locomotive on the tramway with such vigour that the committee accepted his recommendation without demur.


The idea of using a self-acting tramway over steep inclines to solve the problem of transporting ore to a battery really owed its genesis to parallel developments taking place in the mining industry as a whole. In this respect although the Piako Tramway is specifically associated with the idea of developing a particular gold field, the means by which the Waiorongomai gold field was to be exploited had technological associations within a wider historical context. Tramways were used by both the timber and coal mining industries. At Denniston, from 1884 to 1950, the coalfield there employed a similar, almost identical, self-acting tramway to the one at Waiorongomai to transport coal from the mines. The Denniston tramway was known as the "roperoad" because of the wire ropes essential to its operation. While the idea of developing goldfields was therefore important in the nineteenth century, the methods by which development would be achieved were common to other industries. In this sense the Piako Tramway sits in a wider historical context where the failure of the Waiorongomai goldfield is of less importance. However, in a similar vein, it can also be argued that given the amount of money and effort expended by central and local government on the Piako Tramway and its associated structures (£20,000 in total) it is not unreasonable to conclude that since the Waiorongomai gold mining operation was a failure, the tramway stands as an outstanding reminder of that failure.

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

DATE: 1882-3

ARCIDTECT: Piako County Surveyors James Stewart, Alexander Aitken, G.R.G Purchas and Mr. Adams.


The design of the Piako Tramway is admirably described by Helen McCracken in her history, The following extract explains what the essential design features were:

"In designing the tramway the surveyors had to keep several things in mind. Firstly, for reasons of economy, a self-acting system was favoured. Secondly, all mines should have easy access to the line, and finally, the line would need to maintain a sufficient working capacity to efficiently service the mines and supply the battery. To achieve such specifications, the engineers had to consider both the position of the

workings, some which could stretch 2-3 miles with very little variation in level, and the need to keep the main line of the tramway below the levels put in on the goldbearing reef.

The final plans called for a rail system about five kilometres in length, consisting of three self-acting or gravity inclines, four level sections, cuttings, tunnels, small bridges and a viaduct, Early Vogel era iron rail of various dimensions - 40, 30 and 25lb rail- was used for the tramway, all on the rare 2' 9" gauge. The line was to extend from the Firth and Clark battery to the Premier Claim, a total rise of 428 metres.

The first of the three inclines was to be placed at the end of the line to carry quartz to the battery. The design allowed for each of the inclines to take three trucks at a time; an intention which required careful calculation of the gradient of the line. These trucks were designed to carry a total of 2000 tonnes per week provision was made so that

either horse traction or locomotive engine could be utilised on the level grades.

In considering the technical accomplishment of this design, as built, there are certain features which make it outstanding. The straightness of the track on the three inclines is one of the most obvious. This feature, which would have been difficult to attain in such rugged terrain, is most visible in the historical photographs of the tramway, but it

can still be seen today on Butler's incline. It is clear that this degree of perfection was arrived at relatively early in the lifetime of the line, i.e., within two years of the tramway opening in 1883, and was achieved by cut and fill methods which literally straightened the bed of the tramway by cutting a straight line into hillsides and using the spoil to fill depressions.

Another outstanding feature was the ingenious use of three rail lines on the inclines instead of the conventional four as found at Denniston. The center rail, in other words, was a common rail for the right-hand wheels of trucks going up and coming down. Although not mentioned in the history, historical photographs show that at the bottom (and probably at the top also) of each incline, switching gear, i.e., for moving rails from one side to the other, was located so that when trucks arrived at the bottom and top of the incline respectively (being a counter weight system) the switch at the bottom moved the full truck coming down from the right to the left so it could go back up empty, while a switch at the top of the incline no doubt performed a vice-versa function for the truck at the top of the incline. Midway along the incline section a loop was located which allowed the wagons to pass. At this point the common rail was divided to form two tracks for the length of the pass. Obviously this design was arrived at for reasons of economy.

The wire rope used in the operation of the self-acting system has already been mentioned above under technological significance, but it is also a feature of special significance because of the relative newness of this product in the 1880s. Perhaps the most spectacular use of wire rope at the time was in the construction of the Kawarau Suspension Bridge in Central Otago (Category I) finished just three years before the Piako Tramway in 1880. It is likely that the rope used for both projects was manufactured in the United States.

Aside from the features just mentioned, it is relevant to point out that while the design and construction of the Piako Tramway was sound from an engineering point of view, the rugged location in which it was placed inevitably had a drastic effect on its operation. At the peak of its operation (November 1889) the Tramway Manager maintained that the Piako Tramway could transport only half of the ore required by the battery because of maintenance problems. The greatest concern was caused by slips, a fact of life which necessitated continuous maintenance, but which, in a positive sense, accounted for a number of refinements to the tramway over the years including a trestle bridge erected on the May Queen Incline in 1907 (still in place after 90 years) specifically for the purpose of combating destruction of the track by heavy rains and slips.

(m) Such additional criteria not inconsistent with those in paragraphs (a) to (k):

There are no railway lines or tramways listed in the national register of historic places against which the Piako Tramway can be compared for assessment purposes. There is, however, one registered historic road, the Old Coach Road, Johnsonville, built 1856-58, Category II. Comparison of the Piako Tramway with this road shows that at least

in one respect, nineteenth century railway and road design shared certain common features such as having a formed bed with metal surfacing (called "ballasting" in railway construction), cut and fill construction, embankments, and bridges. The Piako Tramway has all these features but, apart from the obvious differences of having sleepers and rails, there is one exceptional difference in that being in effect a cable-car tramway on three very steep inclines, the Piako Tramway does not have the continuous gentle gradients which were necessary on roads for horse-drawn traffic.

The nomination asserts that "The tramway is probably the only historic incline surviving with rail and operating machinery in situ in New Zealand". Again the problem is that there are no systematic thematic surveys of our surviving stock of railway lines, bush tramways, and cable cars to use for comparative evaluation.

Nevertheless some attempt at comparative analysis can be made. It is stated that the Piako Tramway is rare because it contains the only known remaining rail, in situ, of the type initially used in the Vogel era railway scheme. The 2' 9" gauge (it is claimed) was very unusual in world terms, the usual widths for small gauge railways being 2' 0" or 3'. Other places where the 2' 9" gauge was used for a tramway are said to have been the Waitawheta Valley Tramway and the Waihi Gold Mining Railway. Minimal research indicates that the status of the Waitawheta Tramway today is that there is no surviving track and that the inclines were not, in any case, as steep as those as Waiorongomai. The same comment applies to the Waihi Railway where there is no climbing incline.

Other contemporary inclines were to be found at Denniston, the Billy Goat Incline, Coromandel, and the Kuaotunu Incline, also at Coromandel. Again minimal research indicates that there is no track left at the Denniston Incline although comparatively speaking Denniston would have been the best example to compare the Piako Tramway with if the former was still intact. The Billy Goat Incline has steep inclines but no surviving track. The Kuaotunu Incline appears to have disappeared altogether.

On this basis there seems to be no good reason to refute the claim that the Piako Tramwa "is a very rare example in New Zealand of a 19th century railway" and that it is "the country's oldest known railway still with its original track laid". It might also be added that the shear size of the Piako Tramway (a total rise of 428 metres) in any case places it in a special and outstanding category of historic place, since the only other tramway that was bigger was the Denniston Incline (548 metres).

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1882 -

Completion Date

1st August 1997

Report Written By

Wayne Nelson

Other Information

A copy of the original report is available from the NZHPT Northern 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.