Crossing Kawarau Falls – or not

Crossing Kawarau Falls – or notCredit: Photo by Henry Brusewitz provided by Lakes District Museum

While the new bridge is being constructed and traffic is sometimes delayed, let’s take a moment to review the history of the Falls. Since the arrival of European settlers in 1860s the narrow outlet of Lake Wakatipu has seemed to offer opportunities for crossing, but there have been many difficulties and delays.

The ‘Falls’ might more properly have been called rapids, as we see in this hand-tinted postcard from the early 1900s. The fall in water level was 2½ metres. Even though many of the rocks were demolished later, the rapid below the dam near the south bank is treacherous and has caused deaths even in recent times.

When the first European settlers arrived and William Rees established his sheep station where Queenstown is now, the lake was of course the way to travel. Rees owned a whaleboat, and once the gold-rush began he acquired more boats which he used to bring people and supplies from Kingston. When he had to shift from his sheep station in Queenstown to make way for the town, he built his Kawarau Falls Station homestead on the south bank of Frankton Arm just above the Falls.

Small boats and drownings. Access to and from the station from Frankton was by rowing in small boats provided by the station owner. Horses and other livestock swam. However, not every traveller survived the journey. In 1864 one of Rees’s workers lost his oars and was swept through the rapids to his death. In 1880 a staff member returning late at night from the Antrim Arms Hotel in Frankton left his clothes in a building at the jetty and swam. Although he was known to be a strong swimmer, he drowned, perhaps due to cramp. A later accident in a row-boat at night cost three farm workers their lives in 1916.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls 2Credit: Lakes District Museum, donated by Wayne and Betty Perkins

This photo from the early 1900s makes the journey look idyllic for the well-dressed occupants who are perhaps coming to shoot game and visit the residents of the homestead. Note that the ladies are doing the rowing.

The Punt. In 1881 after the construction of the Kawarau Bridge (the ‘Bungy Bridge’), the punt which had been at Morven Ferry was surplus, so the Lake County Council moved it upstream to cross below the Falls between Boyd Road and where Riverside Road is now. The ferryman until 1896 was William Peterson, a Dutch ex-seaman with rings in his ears and a rolling gait. From about 1908 the punt was in an increasingly rotten and dangerous condition, and ceased operating in about 1914.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls 3Credit: Lakes District Museum

A Bridge? In 1911 Daniel McBride, the run-holder of Kawarau Falls Station, offered to contribute £100 (later raising this to £300) towards the construction of a bridge at the Falls. A design was drawn by the Public Works Department, but the Council baulked at having to find half the £3,200 required when the main beneficiary of the bridge would be Mr McBride, so the idea lapsed. In 1922, despite greatly increased costs, the Council decided to go ahead with the bridge, and work was begun.

However, that is NOT the current single-lane bridge.
What happened next will be explained in our next blog.

By Marion Borrell

Acknowledgements: Ray Clarkson article in Queenstown Courier Issue 56, 1996
George Singleton, Our Place in the Sun, Kelvin Peninsula Community Association, 2013

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Queenstown Historical Society

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