Dam good – despite a bit of a knock…

Flooding late last year sent an errant log colliding into the wall of a little-known historic dam in Ohaeawai, undermining a much-loved swimming hole.

The dam and swimming hole
The breach in the dam (far right) photographed a day or two after a log damaged it.expand/collapse

The dam, which is on the Pekapeka stream close to Ohaeawai, is listed with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga as a Category 2 historic place. It was built in 1902 to provide water for use by a local dairy factory, and to later generate electricity.

Long-since decommissioned as a source of power generation, the dam has been a welcome oasis of coolness during the long summer months, though the recent weather event proved to be a threat to the idyllic pond.

“The log has knocked a hole about 200 millimeters in diameter through the middle section of the dam which resulted in the dam losing a significant amount of water,” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager, Bill Edwards.

“It’s still intact, though not as full as it used to be.”

The damage has put the spotlight on the previously little-known dam, which originally used an overshot water wheel to generate enough power to run a dairy factory at Ohaeawai and several local houses. The small-scale power generation enterprise was a rarity in Northland, where electricity was unavailable to residents until the late 1930s.

“On December 15, 1939, power was switched on from the national grid, for the first-time illuminating houses in Kaikohe, Kawakawa and Russell which were wired for electricity,” says Bill.

“Power was a long time coming to the north, though not without attempts by local people to make it happen. In 1916, for example, Public Works Department officials first looked at the possibility of using Lake Omapere for power generation. Not long after the First World War, however, the government lowered the lake level, and the plan was shelved.”

Initiatives by private individuals like the Baldwin family, who built the dam and overshot water wheel at Oaheawai, are important reminders of Northland’s past according to Bill.

“They remind us of the fact that Northland’s infrastructure wasn’t always as developed as it is today, and that Northlanders like the Baldwins overcame the effects of isolation through innovation and invention,” he says.

“The dam is a fitting example of Kiwi ‘Number 8 wire’ farming innovation as well as having a long history among locals as the perfect swimming hole. It may not be feasible to fix the hole so its future is a bit uncertain, and the pond may end up being a ruin. In the short term, though, it’s still probably useable for swimming – it’s just not as deep as it once was.”

- John O'Hare