Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles

75 Washbourn Road, Onekaka Inlet, Onekaka, Tasman

  • Onekaka Wharf and Remnant of Tramline, Onekaka. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans . Taken By: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Date: 4/09/2014.
  • Onekaka Wharf and Remnant of Tramline, Onekaka. The tallest remaining wharf piles, crossing the mouth of the inlet at low tide.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Blyss Wagstaff. Date: 26/01/2021.
  • Onekaka Wharf and Remnant of Tramline, Onekaka. Heritage New Zealand plaque affixed to a tree stump alongside the line of tramline piles.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Blyss Wagstaff. Date: 26/01/2021.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 5126 Date Entered 15th February 1990 Date of Effect 26th January 2022 Date of Last Review 16th December 2021


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Pt Seabed, Pt Legal Road, Pt Sec 100 DIST Takaka (RT NL2A/399), Sec 284 Takaka DIST (Onekaka Inlet Recreation Reserve NZ Gazette 1995 p.225), Pt Lot 1 DP 701 (RT 135911), Nelson Land District, and the structures known as Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

City/District Council

Tasman District


Tasman Region

Legal description

Pt Seabed; Pt Legal Road; Pt Sec 100 DIST Takaka (RT NL2A/399); Sec 284 Takaka DIST (Onekaka Inlet Recreation Reserve NZ Gazette 1995 p.225); Pt Lot 1 DP 701 (RT 135911); Nelson Land District

Location description

Onekaka Inlet is 16 kilometres north of Tākaka.

GPS information (NZTM) +/- 5 metres:

Base of Onekaka Wharf E1575559 N5489374

Tramline piles in middle of Onekaka Inlet E1575442 N5488952

Tramline embankment at southern edge of Onekaka Inlet E1575389 N5488749


Onekaka Inlet is culturally significant to Te Tau Ihu iwi, particularly to Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu, Te Runanga o Ngāti Rārua and Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui, but also for Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō. Traditionally, Onekaka was the site of a papakāinga and an important signalling point for communications with other rohe. The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles, built in 1923-24, has historical and archaeological significance as a poignant physical link to an ambitious iron mining and smelting scheme. Although this undertaking ultimately proved uneconomic, the deteriorated remains of the scheme’s coastal infrastructure are a rare physical reminder of its impact on the locality. The aesthetic values of the wharf’s rusted vertical piles, a particular favourite subject of noted painters Doris Lusk and Enga Washbourn, continue to inspire artists, photographers, and poets.

People have inhabited Mohua (Golden Bay) for many centuries, valuing its climate and resources, including kōkōwai (red ochre) obtained from the foothills of Parapara, a maunga of great cultural importance to manawhenua and tangata whenua. The mineral richness of the Onekaka-Parapara hills was also recognised by early colonists, who moved quickly to secure this resource for the Crown. The Onakaka [sic] Iron and Steel Company was formed in 1920, consolidating various earlier mining leases that had not been fully realised.1 Forty men were employed to construct smelting works on a terrace to the west of State Highway 60. The plant was fully operational by 1924, producing bars of pig iron suitable for making railway irons, stoves and pipes. The company’s infrastructure stretched from the hills to the coast at the Onekaka Inlet. An aerial ropeway carried buckets of iron ore and limestone 2.4 kilometres downhill to the ironworks. There the raw materials were crushed, washed, and smelted in a blast furnace; coal was purified into coke in the plant’s many beehive coking ovens.

Good transport routes were necessary to get machinery and coal to the works, and the smelted iron products out to domestic and international markets. Initially the company used Skilton’s private jetty at Onekaka Inlet, and lobbied for improvements to the road. However in 1923 permission was granted to build a pier projecting 365 metres from Onekaka Beach into deep water. The timber piles of this structure were vulnerable to teredo borer and were soon reinforced with rejected steel tram rails, with extra steel bracing welded to the piles. A huge coal bin sat on the decking at the outer end of the wharf. A tramline, built in 1924, ran 2.6 kilometres directly from the wharf to the ironworks, crossing the inlet on raised trestles, and passing under the main highway. A hydro-electric scheme was built in 1928-29 to power the pipe-making plant that was installed in an attempt to remain competitive.

The ironworks were a major employer in the area, and with over 81,000 tons of iron produced between 1922 and 1935, hopes were high for an enduring industry. However, ultimately the enterprise proved uneconomic, and the company was placed into receivership in 1931 before closure in 1935. The wharf was reconditioned in 1941 in case it was needed during wartime, but suffered storm damage in 1945. Government efforts to revive the Onekaka industry ceased in the early 1950s and the ironworks were dismantled; the site was eventually subdivided for residential use. Today (2021) the deteriorated vertical piles of the wharf and a few piles from the tramline provide a poignant reminder of this ambitious undertaking.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles have historical value as prominent and publicly accessible relics from a major attempt at mining and smelting iron in New Zealand. They are a demonstration of New Zealand’s attempts to realise the colonial vision of building a largely self-sufficient industrialised society. The limited success of the venture also ultimately signifies our country’s awareness of its ties to the global network of trade and resources, and to the global fluctuations of commodity markets.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles have aesthetic value as visually arresting ruins, poignantly evocative of formerly significant structures. The deteriorated and fragile nature of the remnants, spread across the landscape, creates space for the imagination. The rusted iron wharf piles, reaching skywards and marching in sets across the beach and out to sea, contrast strikingly with the horizontal planes of the coastal setting. These qualities have been frequently celebrated and artistically interpreted by artists, photographers, poets and composers, perhaps most famously by noted New Zealand painters Enga Washbourn and Doris Lusk, whose favourite and ‘spiritual home’ artistic subject was the wharf.

Archaeological Significance or Value

Archaeological study of the Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles has the potential to recover information about the structures themselves, the operations of the ironworks, and the people who worked there, to supplement the information available through documentary sources. The nature of maritime archaeological deposits is that they may incorporate visible elements, as well as remains underwater and buried beneath the seabed. Archaeological analysis of the surviving structural elements can further our knowledge of the building technologies used. The soft sediments and low energy environment of the tramline route across the Onekaka Inlet suggests preservation of objects dropped overboard, and archaeological deposits have indeed been found in the vicinity. Archaeological deposits on and in the seabed are also likely to be present along and around the wharf alignment, potentially providing knowledge about the material culture of those who worked on the wharf and vessels, as well as construction and repair methods to the structure.

Technological Significance or Value

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles were important elements in a complex of infrastructure that demonstrated persistent technological innovation. The Onekaka Ironworks complex was a significant technological investment that required ongoing adaptation to remain competitive and viable. The wharf and tramline were integral to getting the company’s products to market, and coal and machinery to the ironworks. The main-and-tail haulage system, although common in mining operations, was here extended for over two kilometres, and the wharf was designed for a coal bin loading system. The remnants of these structures today are indicative of an operation using finely-tuned technological systems to maximise efficient production in sub-optimal economic conditions.

This place was assessed against the Section 66(3) criteria and found to qualify under the following criteria a, b, c, d, e, k. The assessment concludes that this place should be listed as a Category 2 historic place.

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

The Onekaka Ironworks were an integral part of the development of the iron and steel industry in New Zealand. The ironworks were regularly visited by politicians and dignitaries, discussed in parliamentary forums, and held up as a shining example of a nationally important endeavour. As prominent visible remnants of the complex of infrastructure, now mostly destroyed, the wharf and tramline piles reflect the drive to develop New Zealand as a self-sufficient nation, an aspect of New Zealand history that continues to be relevant. The history of the Onakaka Iron and Steel Company reflects global economic history, particularly the global economic downturn of the early 1930s, which led to the closure of the ironworks in 1935.

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles also reflect New Zealand’s colonial history, whereby Treaty promises were frequently set aside to disenfranchise Māori from their land’s resources, to favour the needs of the European settlers. This applies here not only in the Crown’s early securing of the iron-ore mineral reserves for exploitation but also the licencing of the Onekaka foreshore and inlet–a culturally important place–for the Onakaka Iron and Steel Company’s transportation infrastructure. The Ironworks story also reflects Māori agency and adaptation as active participants in the new local industry via skilled employment.

The rehabilitation of the Onekaka Wharf in 1941 also reflects the common requisitioning of facilities around New Zealand as part of the country’s response to World War Two.

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

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles are associated with John Ambrose Heskett, a mining engineer who pushed hard to develop New Zealand’s iron industry via his endeavours at Taranaki and Onekaka. In 1916 Heskett helped develop the ‘Heskett Process’ of producing lumps of smeltable ‘ferro-coke’ from Taranaki ironsand. This was an innovative step on the path to overcoming the technical challenges posed by the small particles of sand, foreshadowing the development of the large-scale exploitation of this resource. As a founding director of the Onakaka Iron and Steel Company and manager of the Onekaka Ironworks between 1920 until its closure in 1935, Heskett persistently demonstrated technical and commercial innovation to improve production process and attempt to keep the company afloat.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

Marine archaeological surveying of the submerged remains of the seaward end of the Onekaka Ironworks Wharf would provide information on the remaining structure at the ‘business end’ of the wharf, the pier head where the berthing and transfer of cargo took place. This would provide knowledge of the structure itself, to supplement a patchy documentary record, and detail how construction methods, repairs and alterations can be verified or contradicted by the archives. The seabed is likely to contain artefactual evidence of the daily operations and operators of the ironworks’ business, a social history that is not always captured in written accounts.

(d) The importance of the place to tangata whenua

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles are located within an area of cultural importance to the tangata whenua of Te Tau Ihu. All eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu have a Statutory Acknowledgement over the coastal area, including Onekaka Inlet. Onekaka Inlet is of importance to hau kāinga Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu, Ngāti Rārua and Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui. Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō and Ngāti Kuia also retain cultural associations with the place. Onekaka was the location of a papakāinga and mahinga kai, and was a signalling point for Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui to communicate with Motueka, Taranaki and beyond. The area’s iron ore deposits were important to Māori as a source of kōkōwai/red ochre, a highly valued decorative clay with cultural associations to the blood of Papatūānuku.

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

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles are held in public esteem by the people of Golden Bay / Mohua, who value and promote it as a feature of interest and tourist attraction. It serves as a visible and publicly accessible reminder of an ambitious endeavour that brought the small community of Onekaka to national attention.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area

The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles are the coastal elements of a complex of infrastructure that stretches over six kilometres inland into the foothills of Parapara maunga. Remnants of the other elements of the former ironworks infrastructure can still be found, albeit in a similarly deteriorated condition. The Wharf and Tramline Piles are also contextually linked to the remains of the area’s other industrial mining endeavours, such as gold mining, dolomite extraction, and paint-manufacture from the iron oxide ore.

Summary of Significance or Values

The Onekaka Wharf and Tramline Piles are located within an area of cultural significance to tangata whenua, with a long history of Māori inhabitation and traditional association. The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf and Tramline Piles have historical and technological significance as the most prominent and accessible remnants of an ambitious industrial undertaking. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, the Onekaka Ironworks was a nationally significant operation and an important chapter in the development of iron and steel production in New Zealand, an endeavour that was characterised by slow progress and the tenacity needed to battle technological challenges and economic vulnerability. The deteriorated structures have archaeological potential to provide evidence to supplement the archival record. The aesthetic values of the abandoned and decaying remnants of this formerly impressive transport infrastructure have inspired artistic interpretations in media including photography, poetry, music and paintings, notably the widely-esteemed watercolour works of Doris Lusk and Enga Washbourn.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Blair Mason, Lee & Owen

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

James Bishop

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The northern South Island is known as Te Tau Ihu in Māori mythology: the prow of the waka from which the demigod Māui fished up Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island. People have lived in the Tasman region since the 1300s. In the Golden Bay / Mohua district alone, archaeologists have recorded around 300 places where Māori were building pā, gardens, fishing settlements, urupā and middens. Placenames such as Tākaka, Parapara and Motueka are a legacy of the peoples’ Pacific Island ancestry.

In 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s ships arrived in Mohua, Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri were dominant in the area, having displaced earlier tribes. This first recorded encounter between Māori and Europeans, when 22 waka met Tasman’s two ships on the water, resulted in a violent clash and Tasman’s departure.

Around 1800, Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri were displaced by Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Kuia and Ngāi Tahu, with Ngāti Apa dominating the Golden Bay / Mohua district. Further changes occurred between 1828 and 1832, when taua of Tainui and Taranaki iwi came to Te Tau Ihu. A subsequent division of territory was determined, with Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rārua settling in Mohua. Today (2021) eight iwi are recognised as tangata whenua of Te Tau Ihu: Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu (of Tokomaru waka descent), Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui (of Aotea or Kurahaupo), Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Toa Rangatira (of Tainui), and Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō (of Kurahaupo).

The coastal area is important to all eight iwi. Onekaka, an inlet north of Tākaka at the mouth of the Ōtere River, was the location of a papakāinga under the gaze of the maunga Parapara which remains central to the lives and identities of Mohua hau kāinga Ngāti Tama ki Te Tau Ihu, Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui, and Ngāti Rārua. Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa also retain connections with Parapara and its coastal areas. Ancestral footprints are present in the archaeological remains of midden recorded around the Onekaka Inlet, signifying its importance as a mahinga kai. Onekaka was also an important communication point from which Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui sent smoke signals to Motueka, the Marlborough Sounds and across to Taranaki.

A mineral-rich region

The many mineral resources of Te Tau Ihu have been appreciated and extracted by people for centuries. Pakohe (argillite) was used by Māori for tools and weapons; pounamu and flints were also important. Kōkōwai /red ochre (iron-rich haematite clay) from the Parapara-Onekaka area was highly valued as a body paint and decorative pigment, with spiritual associations to the blood of Papatūānuku. The story of Kaiwhakaruaki – a deadly taniwha who lived in the Parapara inlet, just north of Onekaka, and who was eventually defeated with a stratagem involving kōkōwai – may have deterred outsiders from taking too close an interest in the local mineral resources.

New Zealand Company colonists, who established the Nelson settlement in 1842, were also keen to capitalise on the mineral richness of the region. Copper and chromite were discovered in 1852 but proved to be scarce; gold was more plentiful, inspiring the name Golden Bay. Coal was mined between 1840 and 1913, but clay, limestone and marble were among the region’s more abundant minerals. The presence of iron ore in Golden Bay was also noted by European settlers, and in train with the Crown’s Waipounamu purchase, in 1852 superintendent of Nelson Mathew Richmond moved quickly to secure this important mineral deposit for the Crown, before Māori could realise its financial value. Richmond admitted his focus on minerals when negotiating the Waipounamu and Pakawau land purchases.

The backbone of the world we have built around us

Iron was a key element in industrial development, described as ‘the backbone of the world we have built around us.’ Utilised by people for at least 6000 years, around 2000 years ago its value as a resource increased when smelting technology advanced and ironworkers discovered it is a crucial ingredient in creating a much harder alloy: steel. Everyday life was especially transformed in the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the widespread employment of iron and steel for construction, machinery, tools and implements.

Iron mainly occurs as mineral ores, particularly as different types of iron oxides. The bulk of New Zealand’s iron prospecting has focused on exploiting titanomagnetite iron ore, readily available in the black ironsand found along the North Island’s west coast beaches. European settlers first attempted to smelt the ironsand in 1848 at New Plymouth, however the technicalities posed by the small grains of sand and the amount of titanium in the ore proved challenging. Efforts to extract the iron by smelting the sand in a blast furnace were repeatedly unsuccessful, for decades. The ore at Onekaka, in the form of rock-based limonite accessible from the ground surface, seemed to be a better way of starting an iron industry in New Zealand.

Exploiting the iron ore at Onekaka

The iron ore in Golden Bay lies in a belt between Onekaka and Parapara, parallel to the coast. It begins 1.2 kilometres inland of Parapara and stretches for 4.8 kilometres south into the hills behind Onekaka, 400 metres above sea level. The deposit consists mainly of limonite (limonitic iron ore, sometimes classed as ‘bog iron’), interspersed with patches of quartz and limestone. The ore deposits in the Onekaka-Parapara hills were used by enterprises such as the New Zealand Haematite Paint Company to produce red, yellow and orange pigments from the early 1870s. Their iron-oxide red paints became familiar throughout New Zealand from their use on all New Zealand Railways goods sheds and wagons, and many woolsheds and other buildings. Paint manufacturers continued to make use of the local oxide deposits until the early 1930s.

By 1874 the Nelson Provincial Council was promoting the potential benefits to the district’s population and income if the limonite deposits were developed into an iron smelting industry: the combination of limonite with limestone deposits, close to the coast, made this especially feasible. In the ensuing years, various companies formed to exploit the mineral, however were generally unsuccessful due to lack of capital. Most of these companies planned to smelt the iron elsewhere. The quality of the ore was demonstrated in 1891, when the Onehunga Iron Smelting Company successfully smelted 300 tons of the Onekaka limonite at their Auckland smelter, producing good quality pig iron bars. Hopes for a national industry rose even higher at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Onakaka Iron and Steel Company Limited

By 1920, however, New Zealand was still importing all of its pig iron (a crude state cast into bars directly from the blast furnace). That year, the Onakaka Iron and Steel Company Limited was incorporated. Bankrolled by wealthy Hawke’s Bay runholders including Mason and John Chambers, and Robert Donald Douglas McLean, the directors included the technical expertise of mining engineers. One, John Ambrose Heskett, had been central to ironsand smelting attempts in New Plymouth. After much perseverance, Heskett had had success–albeit on a small scale–developing the ‘Heskett Process’, which combined the sand with powdered coal to form lumps of ‘ferro-coke’ which could be smelted in a blast furnace. Heskett would become manager of the Onekaka Ironworks throughout its tenure as a private enterprise.

The Onakaka Iron and Steel Company acquired the prospecting leases of previous companies and secured a 53-acre site for their main works west of the Tākaka-Collingwood Highway, purchased from farmer Richard Scadden. A blast furnace was bought from the Taranaki Ironsand Company, via Heskett’s connections; this was part of over £42,000 expenditure on equipment. Construction of the ironworks began in early 1921, after more capital had been sought with a government loan.

Newspapers reported much excited attention. Politicians and commentators supported the endeavour as being vital to national security, and one that would ‘give birth to a new industry for New Zealand… From an economic point of view the value of this industry can hardly be exaggerated.’

Smelting began on 27 April 1922 and was judged to be ‘of splendid quality’. This must have provided only limited relief, as by then the price of pig iron had dropped dramatically: by 50 percent in just two years. A serious fire early in 1923 then caused a slight delay in getting up to full production.


The raw materials necessary for smelting–the limonite ore and limestone–were obtained from adjacent open-cast pits 360 metres above the ironworks. Mining was done by hand, using explosives, air drills and sledgehammers. Workers lived in huts on site, walking the zigzag track down to the ironworks with relief at the end of their week-long shifts. The work was reportedly very tough and miserable.

The raw material was carried 2.4 kilometres downhill to the ironworks on an aerial ropeway, with buckets suspended from a wire cable. Buckets were emptied directly into a crusher. A belt conveyor moved the crushed and washed material to a bank of storage bins built into the hillside; these held the limonite, limestone, and coke that had been produced onsite by up to 30 beehive ovens. Trucks then loaded the correct mix of these three ingredients onto an inclined skipway, which fed into a hopper at the top of the blast furnace. The blast furnace was powered by three gas-fired boilers, which created steam to drive the blowers to superheat the material. The molten iron was tapped from the furnace at least twice a day, and cast into bars of pig iron weighing 50kg each (and from 1928-29 when a pipe plant was built, into pipes. The brittleness of cast iron made it most suitable for casting into bulky items). Fine ore rejects were processed for sale for gas purification; other waste was washed over the hillside.

Archaeologist Amanda Young has described the Onekaka Ironworks as being ‘essentially a town’, with its own post office, shop, engineering workshop, laboratory, and tennis court. A school was built nearby. The number of employees rose from 40 to around 150-170 people, who were housed in an accommodation camp nearby. The cookhouse was operated by Ngara and Dave Mason. Workers participated in the social life of the district, and the ironworks itself was something of a visitor attraction, especially at night when the furnace was tapped or slag was run off down the hill. Draughtsman and surveyor Graham Bell, who worked there in the late 1920s, reported that a number of Māori were employed at the ironworks, particularly at the coking ovens: ‘The work was semi-skilled, and they were proud of it. They were treated the same way as others and there were no racial distinctions or friction. Owen and I were welcome in their houses and got on well with them.’ More than one generation of the prominent Ward-Holmes family was employed at the ironworks, and Te Waari Ward-Holmes helped to build the Onekaka Wharf.

The wharf and tramline

The proximity of the limonite ore so near to the coast suggested sea transportation was most efficient for getting the coal and infrastructure material to the ironworks, and the company’s iron products to domestic and international markets. Originally they used Skilton’s Wharf (built 1919) in the Onekaka Inlet, but the heavy loads soon demanded a purpose-built wharf. In 1923 the Onekaka Wharf was constructed, extending 1210 feet (368 metres) to deep water from the beach in front of long-time residents the Washbourns’ property. Designed by engineers Blair Mason, Lee & Owen, the wharf’s 12-inch thick birch and gum timber piles immediately came under attack from marine teredo borer, so piles were reinforced with reject tram rails from Wellington 22 months later.

In 1924 the company applied for permission to cross the main road with the construction of their tramline, designed by engineer James Bishop. The tramline, a steam-driven main-and-tail-haulage unit that could be converted to an endless ropeway, stretched along the length of the wharf before crossing the inlet on raised trestles, across farmland and passing under a concrete bridge built to carry the Tākaka-Collingwood Highway overhead. Coal was emptied directly into the tramline’s trucks from an elevated bin on the wharf; the tramline’s terminus at the ironworks was up an inclined ramp 54 feet (16 metres) high, so gravity could again assist with transferring each truck’s contents directly into the conveyor to the coking oven.

Challenge, diversification and expansion

Although government subsidies were increased in 1925, a slump in iron price in 1926 hit the company hard. Smelting operations were temporarily suspended due to the New Zealand market being flooded by cheaply imported pig iron from India. Heskett sought new markets in Australia, and newspapers reported on intense lobbying for increased state support, resulting in tariffs being imposed on imported iron. In an attempt to remain afloat and diversify the company installed a pipe-making plant in 1928-29. This required upgrades to the aerial ropeway, blast furnace, and coking ovens; extension of the wharf by 100 feet; and construction of a hydro-electric scheme.

The ability to harness hydro-power was yet another advantage of the Onekaka site. The 10-metre high concrete arch dam, built in 1928-29, was located very near to the quarries, on the Onekaka River. An iron penstock took water from the dam 1.25 kilometres down to the power station, near the confluence of the river and Ironstone Creek. The Golden Bay Electric Power Board first applied to use power from the Onekaka Ironworks scheme in 1935, to meet growing demand for reticulated power. By 1937 the arrangement was in place, continuing until the Cobb Hydro-scheme became operational.

Perseverance unrewarded: the Company collapses

In 1930 the company’s application to extract coal from nearby Mount Burnett was approved, however that project was never fully realised as the coal seam soon ran out. The ironworks ‘seemed to be booming’, with pipes being sold throughout the country for sewage and water, and the Government Railway Workshops a longstanding customer of the iron, along with most of the country’s foundries. However, exporting was vital as plant capacity was 10,000 tons of iron per year, and local demand was only 4,000 tons. Australia was a good customer of the company’s soft iron–useful for stove-making–but by this time had imposed a duty of £3 per ton, which ate into profits.

The New Zealand market soon became saturated, and the Onekaka Ironworks couldn’t compete with cheaper iron produced overseas. The 1929 Depression also had a devastating effect. Soon after, the company was bankrupt, and went into liquidation in May 1931. Under the receivers, smelting continued sporadically but only until the end of May 1935, when the smelter was finally closed.

The State temporarily takes over

The Iron and Steel Industry Act 1937 authorised the government to establish a State steel industry. The Government was optimistic, still planning for an expanded iron and steel industry in Onekaka, even preparing to survey a surrounding town for a population of 2-3,000. The long-term plan was to smelt Taranaki ironsand at the ironworks, in addition to the limonite ore. The Onekaka Ironworks were duly acquired under the Public Works Act, and the company’s licence to occupy the Onekaka foreshore was revoked.

The ironworks assumed greater national significance with the outbreak of World War Two and were seen as a vital asset for self-sufficiency. In 1941 heavy machinery for the emergency reconditioning of the disused and deteriorated smelting equipment was shipped in. However, the war’s end saw the demand for pig iron drop, and re-surveying of the Onekaka ore deposits suggested there was not enough to justify the expenditure. The government decided to dispose of the ironworks.

The end of an era

A storm in 1945 damaged the Onekaka Wharf, and the state funded its repair. The wharf was still vital to local industry, being used to ship dolomite to fertiliser works at Huntly, as well as other local mineral products (fireclay, silica sand) to market. The Mt Burnett Coal Sales Company even arranged to buy the wharf in exchange for assistance with maintenance, however the deal fell through in 1950.

The government continued to spend money on the works until the early 1950s, by which time the smelter site was largely cleared. Before the smelter equipment was dismantled, however, the Onekaka ironworks featured one last time in the push to establish an efficient national steel industry. Exploitation of the West Coast’s titanomagnetite ironsand ore was back in focus, as international research now suggested the challenges of the titanium could be overcome with controlled slag composition and an electric arc furnace. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) successfully trialled these methods at the Onekakā Ironworks in 1949, bringing in ironsand. However, electricity costs were still unfeasibly high, and it would be another 20 years until the ironsand steel industry got underway at Waikato North Head and Glenbrook in 1969.

In 1954 the main smelter site was officially alienated from the Crown estate, allowing its conversion into fee simple freehold properties. Subdivision ensued; by 2007 the change in use from industrial to residential was completed. The smelter buildings and equipment were either destroyed or dispersed around the district. The beehive coking ovens remained a feature of some pride for the locals, however the last of these reportedly disappeared in the 1980s.

Lack of maintenance saw the wharf marked as a shipping hazard in the 1950s but demolition was deemed too expensive, so from 1965 onwards signage warned recreational fishers that access was at their own risk. Bays were gradually washed away by storms and piles became dangerously thin before the timber decking and superstructure fell off. The tramline all but disappeared, a few trestle piles crossing the Onekaka inlet the main reminder of its former route.

The Wharf: an evocative reminder of the ironworks

The deteriorated remains of the wharf are now the most readily visible remnant of the ironworks complex, and as such act as a memorial to the endeavour. The wharf has inspired artists, photographers, composers and poets since it was built. Golden Bay artist Enga Washbourn (1908-1988) painted it repeatedly through the mid-century decades, and her accomplished watercolours are also an interesting source of information about its changes from operational to abandoned. It also held special resonance for noted painter Doris Lusk (1916-1990), who discovered it in 1965 and returned frequently to paint many studies of the wharf throughout her life, once describing the structure as her ‘spiritual home’. Her paintings of Onekaka were important to the development of her experimental style with watercolours, and have been described by art historians as ‘deeply emotive… In Doris’ hands the wharf becomes a lost site, a place that’s purpose has rotted away with the evolution of economies and time.’ Lusk’s paintings inspired poet and founder of influential literary journal Landfall, Charles Brasch, to compose ‘Wharf at Onekaka’. In 1994 his poem was in turn set to music by composer David Griffiths. The wharf is promoted as one of the tourist attractions of the Nelson-Tasman region.

Physical Description

Current Description

Travelling north from Tākaka, Onekaka Inlet is approximately midway between Tākaka and Collingwood. Just north of the Mussel Inn, Washbourn Road leaves the main highway and travels east along the northern edge of the inlet. From the road’s end, a short walk along golden sand, following the mouth of the inlet towards the sea, leads to the sweeping bay of the open coastline.


The Onekaka Ironworks Wharf juts eastwards from the beach, alongside the mouth of the inlet. The wharf is severely deteriorated. No decking remains; it consists solely of vertical piles of varying heights.

At the landward end the piles are formerly square timber stumps around 300-500 millimetres in height, set in two rows of three, to a total width of around 3 metres. Each row of three is set about 4-5 metres apart. Then moving towards the sea, approximately ten pairs of larger timber rounds are used, also now stumps of varying height. Most are less than a metre in height, with one pair over 2 metres high. The pairs are 2.5-3 metres in width, and each pair is around 4.5-5 metres from the next set. The sequence of these pairs is mostly unbroken, with only the occasional gap. A few rusted lumps of iron are scattered around amongst the rocks, encrusted with molluscs.

Wharf piles are comprised entirely from iron railway rails from the point they cross the Onekaka Inlet stream mouth (it is visible at low tide) to the sea shore at low tide, and presumably to the very end of the wharf. A pair of tall iron rail piles stand in the streambed; one is reinforced at the base by what could be its original timber counterpart. A fallen iron pipe, at least 4 metres long, lies across the stream between this pair.

A gap of at least 20 metres, with only a few very low stubs visible, stretches to the next group of standing piles. These include at least eight rows of three iron piles (taller ones on either side of a shorter central pile); some of these outer piles are up to 3 metres high. This pattern appears to continue towards the sea but at stub level, with many gaps. Fallen rails are occasionally visible along the alignment.

At the water’s edge at low tide, fallen rails lead to a last few metal stumps. From here, at least two larger piles can be seen further out in the deep water. Comparing aerial imagery from 1938 and 2019 suggests that there are significant remains of the seaward end of the wharf—the pier head—still surviving underwater. Archival information reports fallen timbers, rails, iron and lumps of dolomite scattered on the seabed.


Back on the beach, a line of 31 timber piles from the former tramline runs approximately 25 metres north-south down the sand alongside the inlet channel. Each pile is now basically a stump, making the original profile and dimensions difficult to discern, however they appear to have been reasonably substantial squared timber piles. They are spaced roughly 1 metre apart. All are less than 600 millimetres high. At least one piece of partially buried iron rail is visible.

A New Zealand Historic Places Trust plaque signifying the heritage recognition of the Onekaka Wharf and Tramline as Register No. 5126 is affixed to a tree stump alongside the row of tramline piles.

Looking south-south-west inland across the inlet, a short section of tramline piles is visible in the centre of the mudflats at low tide. These eight piles are all approximately 0.8-1 metre high. There are two pairs, then six single piles, all rather irregularly spaced apart. Lumps of rusted iron are scattered across the inlet.

At the southern edge of the inlet where it abuts the marshland, a feature signalling the transition of the tramline to the land is visible. A raised causeway of land approximately 2 metres high leads south into farmland, where it flattens to even ground level by the time it reaches the paddock. On either side of the raised causeway at the inlet’s edge, three vertical timber piles (a pair and a single) indicate the former height of the tramline trestles. Between these runs a row of sixteen smaller palings. In front of this lie two 2-3 metre-long timber sleepers, laid approximately 3-5 metres apart, parallel to each other.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1923 - 1924
Onekaka Ironworks Wharf

Original Construction
1924 - 1925
Onekaka Ironworks Tramline

Structural upgrade
1926 -
Onekaka Ironworks Wharf strengthened by addition of railway irons

1928 - 1929
Onekaka Wharf lengthened by 100 feet

1945 -
Onekaka Wharf damaged by storm

1946 -
Onekaka Wharf

Construction Details

Timber, iron

Public NZAA Number



Completion Date

3rd September 2021

Report Written By

Blyss Wagstaff

Information Sources

Young, 2002

Amanda Young, Heritage Inventory: The Onekaka Hydro-electricity Scheme, unpublished client report, 30 July 2002

Templeton, 2006

Fleur Templeton, 'Iron and steel', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2006,

Heskett, 1930

J.A. Heskett, ‘Onakaka Iron and Steel works: an important Nelson industry’, Nelson Evening Mail, 4 October 1930, p.14

Stephens, 2008

Joy Stephens, ‘Onekaka Ore’, The Prow, 2008b, URL:

Newport, 1979

J.N.W. Newport, ‘Some Industries of Golden Bay’, Nelson Historical Society Journal, Vol 3 Issue 5, October 1979, pp.5-26.

Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero 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.

Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero report is available on request from the Central Regional Office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.