Historical Significance or Value
The Ohakune to Horopito Old Coach Road has national significance as an example of a well-preserved, hand-made road that is intimately linked with the final stages of the construction of the NIMT.
Physically significant, the road also has historical importance. It is associated with both the initial and final stages of the construction of the NIMT. The Road is built on top of a track mapped out by Rochfort, the man responsible for surveying the route of the NIMT between Marton and Te Awamutu. The upgraded track, or Coach Road, 'bridged the gap' between the northern and southern railheads of the NIMT until engineers overcame the problems presented by the mountainous and exposed conditions of the Ruapehu region. It is part of a wider historical landscape of sites in the Ruapehu region that provide insight into the final stages of the construction of the NIMT, and is held in high esteem by the local community.
The Road is an important technological example of early road construction. The route and nature of the Road has remained unchanged since 1906, and much of the initial construction work can still be discerned. The Road was built to ensure its durability. The interlocking stones laid at the road edges have kept the setts in tight formation, while a network of drains has ensured that water damage is kept to a minimum. The setts that form the main paving stones for the road were worked with tools on at least one face. The interlocking stones along the road edges were extensively worked by hand. The road, now partially covered by a thin layer of soil and grasses, remains in good condition.
The Department of Conservation (DoC) assessed the site for archaeological significance in 2003 and found that its importance was 'high'. The unexcavated site is an irreplaceable source of future information on early road construction methods and drainage systems, and has the potential to 'add a great deal to our understanding of New Zealand's transport history'.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
The construction of the NIMT was an important achievement. It was a remarkable feat of surveying, engineering, and design; it revolutionised travel, and had ramifications for politics, land settlement, and trade. The Coach Road was associated with both the initial and the final stages of the NIMT construction. The Road is built on top of a track mapped out by Rochfort, the man responsible for surveying the route of the NIMT between Marton and Te Awamutu. The upgraded track, or paved coach road, 'bridged the gap' between the northern and southern railheads until engineers could overcome the problems presented by the mountainous and exposed conditions in the Ruapehu region. The Coach Road provided a vital link between Wellington and Auckland for a period of two years until the NIMT was completed in 1908.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:
The road was assessed for archaeological significance by DoC in 2003. In a letter summarising its findings, DoC noted that the archaeological values of the road were 'high'. The reason given for this conclusion was that the road was largely unaltered, meaning that much information recoverable by archaeological methods still remains intact. This includes information on construction methods, drainage systems, and other associated transport structures. DoC further noted that the road was 'an unusual and in some ways unique survivor and has potential to add a great deal to our understanding of New Zealand's transport history'.
(e)The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
The Road is held in high esteem by the community. Local individuals and groups, including Main Trunk Rail Ohakune Inc, Ohakune 2000 Inc, and Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Ltd, have been working to have the road opened as a walking track for its 100th anniversary in 2006. Such groups were instrumental in bringing the Road to the attention of the NZHPT, and have continuously advocated for both the recognition of its history and its physical preservation. Funds have been raised within the community to assist Main Trunk Rail Ohakune to take the lead in this endeavour.
(g)The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
The road is a remarkable feat of engineering. Designed as an 'all-weather' road, it was built through alpine terrain in an area subject to weather extremes. The road was designed to last and, despite almost a century of neglect, it remains in good condition.
It is a rare example of a hand-made road, and is cleverly designed. The setts in the road were shaped into flat paving stones using hand-tools. Each sett was hand-laid in tight formation, and interlocking stones (used at the road edges) exerted inward pressure that held the setts in place. The road also featured a network of culverts and drains, many of which remain in sound working order. With the exception of the recent erection of a wood and wire boundary fence through part of the road, the Coach Road has not been altered since its construction in 1906. Underneath the thin layer of soil and grasses that now cover much of the thoroughfare, the road is very well-preserved.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
The Road is part of an historical landscape of sites in the Ruapehu region that provide insight into the final stages of the construction of the NIMT. In particular, it draws attention to the length of time it took to create the necessary structures, such as the Raurimu Spiral and the viaducts, which were required to meet the challenges presented by the terrain and allow the completion of the NIMT. The Road is also part of a larger archaeological landscape created during the construction of the line. This landscape includes the line itself, the tunnels and viaducts, and the engineering workshops, service roads, and construction camps.
Based on the route of a track established in the 1880s, the Ohakune to Horopito Coach Road was paved in 1906, and for two years served to link the northern and southern railheads of the North Island Main Trunk Line (NIMT).
In 1870, prompted by the then Colonial Treasurer Sir Julius Vogel (1835-1899), the Government adopted bold, expansionist policies that would bring thousands of assisted immigrants to New Zealand to construct roads, railways, bridges, and telegraph lines. Part of the policy was to create a 'Main Trunk Line' that would connect the country's two main cities, Auckland and Wellington, by rail. To achieve this, approximately 200 miles (322 kilometres) of rail would have to be constructed between Marton and Te Awamutu, to connect lines that were already in operation. In 1884, surveyor John Rochfort (1832-1893) completed his survey for the route of the proposed line. Construction work began at the northern railhead at Te Awamutu to the following year. By 1906 the northern railhead had reached Raurimu, while the southern had come as far as Tuangarere. Yet the mountainous terrain between these two areas caused considerable difficulties for the engineers of the Public Works Department, and work had to be stopped until solutions for crossing the region could be devised. This meant that passengers travelling between Auckland and Wellington had to travel across the 'gap' between the two railheads by some other means.
The preferred solution was to construct a road that was suitable for coach traffic between the two railheads. In 1904 a report to Parliament stated that 'The service road will have to be carried through sooner or later, and as soon as it is completed, a light coach can be run from the railhead at the Auckland end to Raetihi'...'.
The makings of this road already existed in some areas between the two railheads. Between Horopito and Ohakune, work creating a track following a route explored by Rochfort had commenced in 1886. By the end of that year, approximately 6 ½ miles (10.4 kilometres) of track had been constructed from the Ohakune end. This completed track, which carried through to Waimarino (north of Horopito), was depicted as a bridle track on a map in 1889. In 1895, approximately £1,131-2-3 was spent upgrading the road to a dray road. It was noted that, as the road was part of the 'though road' the work should be pushed forward.
In 1906, work constructing the route between the two railheads commenced. The portion of the route between Ohakune and Horopito was to follow the track first created in 1886, which would be upgraded to make it suitable for coach traffic.
Under the supervision of Engineer-in-Chief, Robert West Holmes (1856-1936), and Resident Engineer-in-Change, Frederick William Furkert (1876-1949), the track was upgraded to withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Ruapehu region. In 1906, approximately £3,900-0-0 was spent on the upgrade project. The 3.6 metre (12 foot) wide road was built on an easy and constant gradient, and was paved with tightly fitted, hand-carved setts. Interlocking blocks along the road edges held the setts in position, and a network of culverts and side drains protected the road from water damage.
The Public Works employees who constructed the road lived in camps, sometimes with their families, often in primitive conditions. One such camp for the coach road was at Te Rangakapou, which was somewhere near the site of the surviving quarry. The government supplied camp tents, although the men were responsible for their repair and replacement. Such tents may have had timber components, such as wall slabs, or corrugated iron chimneys. Bunks were, in one recollection, constructed of bush vines with tightly stretched sacking. The food was basic - either corned beef or bacon, with vegetables grown on site. The only fresh meat available was native birds.
The labour involved in the construction of the road was, like much of the work on the main trunk railway, backbreaking and tedious, particularly during winter, when the weather could be bitter. Historian Michael Kelly considered the work, noting that:
The required width of road had to be formed beyond the existing pack track. The rock for the paving had to be blown off the quarry faces, then worked into the required shape. Two kinds of paving rocks were required; the setts and boundary stones.
In 1906 it was reported that 'Every effort is being made to put this road, between the railheads at the northern and southern ends, into practicable order for summer coach traffic'. The service road had been completed from the north to the Makatote Stream and, in the south, approximately a third of a service road of 6.5 miles had been metalled. The road was finally completed in December 1906, and was officially named the 'Matapuna-Ohakune Coach Road'. In 1907 it was reported to Parliament that 'a coach service has been established on a good metalled road constructed by the department in conjunction with the railway works'.
The first coach to travel along the new road ran on 11 November 1906. Passengers of the Public Works Department trains transferred to a Cobb & Co. coach in which they covered the 'rail gap'. Timetabled to link with the trains, the daily coach service took approximately four hours.
Early in 1908, a reporter from The Wanganui Herald took the rail-coach-rail trip from Wellington to Auckland. He travelled to Taihape on New Zealand Railways and from there on the PWD train; the railheads were then at Ohakune and Waimarino. This is his description of the journey from Ohakune to Horopito.
The coaches meet the trail, which runs right up into the virgin bush, the foliage of the huge trees arching overhead. Quite an imposing array of vehicles - about nine in number - awaits the passengers, who can step off the train on to the wooden platform improvised from fallen logs, and board the coach without getting to the ground. It is a strange sight this, the train run right in amongst the trees, which have not here been cleared from the side of the track, and the collection of coaches in the heart of the bush. The overland route affords sights, which will not be available when the train tears through from Auckland to Wellington in 20 hours. Some of the vehicles go to the Ohakune settlement...while five are requisitioned to convoy the overland passengers. About a dozen board our coach, and with five good horses - three in the lead - we are soon rattling along over a good service road, which is metalled from quarries situated at convenient spots along the route. The metal is coarse in places and one jocular passenger estimated 433 bumps in the first quarter of an hour, and then declared his inability to keep further tally! A telephone wire accompanies the road, suspended to trees along the track, hanging in loops and jerking round angles, which would make a city lineman shed tears. Presently we reach a little bush settlement called Te Raungakapu, where mail is delivered and the passengers regale themselves with hop beer. The railway line is crossed at this spot by the road, which afterwards climbs up a thickly wooded hill, winding in and out to negotiate the hill, winding in and out to negotiate the gullies. A way down below - 300 feet, the driver will tell you - is the railway track, itself more than 2600 feet above the sea, so that the road just here must be nearly 3000 feet high. The line is crossed again at Taonui Viaduct, which is already planked and railed, and waiting the rail connection either side. Passengers are invited to walk across the viaduct and some of the more adventurous spirits do so while the coach winds around the road underneath. It is about 100 feet high and is built on a distinct curve, but the iron and wire railing gives one a sense of security.
By 1908, the engineering problems that had delayed the completion of the NIMT had been overcome. Viaducts had been erected over the deep valleys of Ruapehu, and the 'Raurimu Spiral' had been devised. As construction of the railheads progressed, the terminus of the coach service was relocated. In the north it moved to Oio, Raurimu, and then Erua. In the south it relocated to Mataroa, and Waiouru. On 6 November 1908, the then Prime Minister Joseph George Ward (1856-1930) drove the 'last spike' into the NIMT, completing the line. Regular passenger services between Auckland and Wellington commenced later that same year.
No longer required to 'close the gap' between the railheads, the use of the Coach Road diminished. An area of the road was asphalted, and now forms part of State Highway 4. The section between Horopito and Ohakune was replaced with an alternative route and, consequently, remained untouched. It was used intermittently by local residents, and was still in use in the early 1960s when the Ohakune District Council put logs over the eastern end of the middle section to prevent vehicle access. It then became overgrown and part of the road was stopped in 1965. In 1987, a major deviation of the main trunk line, including the construction of a new Hapuawhenua Viaduct, was completed. As part of this work, a large cutting near the Taonui Viaduct divided the coach road in two. Much fill from this cutting was dumped on the road. Today the Road has taken on the appearance of a green walkway, and is used for recreational purposes.
The Road is the last remaining section of a road constructed to transport passengers between the northern and southern railheads of the NIMT. Originally circa 39 kilometres (24 miles) in length, much of the road now forms part of the asphalted State Highway 4. Approximately three kilometres (1.8 miles) of the original paved road remains between the end of Marshall's Road, near Ohakune, and the Haeremaiaea Stream, near Horopito.
Constructed to accommodate coaches, the road is 3.6 metres (12 feet) wide and, in accordance with normal building practices of the period, was built on an easy and constant gradient of a rise of 0.31 metres (1 foot) in every 5.5 metres (18 feet).
The road is continuously paved with a layer of tightly fitted setts . At least one face of the setts were worked with hand tools to form the main paving for the road. The edges of the road feature a row of interlocking blocks that serve to hold the road together. The interlocking stones that form the edge were extensively worked. A network of culverts and side drains protect the road from water damage.
Registration includes the remains of the former coach road between Marshalls Road, near Ohakune, and the Haeremaiaea Stream.
Track between Ohakune and Waimarino
Coach road created by paving track
The road is constructed from hand-carved stones that have been faceted on one or more sides. The stones are laid side-by-side, and are held together by interlocking stones along the edges of the road.
22nd October 2004
Report Written By
NZHPT with Errol Vincent (Research)
R. Fletcher, Single Track: The Construction of the North Island Main Trunk Railway, Auckland, 1978
A fully referenced version of this 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.