Building Kawarau Falls Dam-Bridge: With Not a Crane or Hi-Vis Vest in Sight

Building Kawarau Falls Dam-Bridge: With Not a Crane or Hi-Vis Vest in SightPhoto courtesy of the Lakes District Museum

It’s not only small boys who are fascinated by seeing men and machinery at work. As we wait in the traffic queues, we can admire their skills and monitor the progress of our new bridge. No doubt in 1924 the locals of all ages watched in awe as the dam-bridge edged across the torrent.

The dam is actually 10 small concrete spillways, each founded on solid rock in some cases at a considerable depth below the present water-level. Each sluice-gate, imported from England, could be lowered to rest on the sill using a manual winch (housed under the silver-painted covers on the bridge.) The machinery used in the building was the best available. A 15-ton steam traction engine drove the compressor for the pneumatic drills. Two large concrete-mixers had their own petrol engines. Several Fordson tractors operated the centrifugal pumps and did the hauling. For night work, a small generator provided flood-lighting.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls part 3 2Photo courtesy of the Lakes District Museum

Apart from these machines, everything else was powered by pick and shovel, toil and sweat. The men moved thousands of tons of rocks by hand and often worked up to their knees in water. ‘Stretcher-bearers’ carried larger rocks on wooden litters. They manhandled sandbags. The rushing water was a formidable opponent and constant danger especially in the main channels which were over 4 metres deep in places. Three professional divers were employed – strange helmeted creatures who casually disappeared beneath the water.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls part 3 3Photo courtesy of the Lakes District Museum

A workforce of 100-200 men assembled. Some were labourers who moved from one Public Works project to another. There were carpenters, fitters and other qualified tradesmen. Pride of place went to the blacksmith whose smithy was always a hive of activity. A very important figure was the man in charge of the blasting operations. The first one had a poor record: several times daily a wide area around the dam site was bombarded with large jagged pieces of rock, a grave danger to life and limb. Sometimes huge rocks landed in the back gardens of two private residences on the Frankton Flat. This first manager was replaced, but risks remained and there were narrow escapes.

There were two deaths, which was probably not a bad record for the times before OSH set the safety regulations. One young man lost his footing on the temporary bridge, fell into the rapids and was sucked into the notorious whirlpool below Gate 10 (at the Kelvin Peninsula end), where the warning signs are still placed. His body was recovered a month later, and as he had no family in NZ, the men clubbed together to give him a decent burial in Queenstown cemetery with a small marble plaque.  

The second fatality was due to simple high-jinks. On a frosty morning while waiting for the starting whistle, two men were play-wrestling, and slipped on the frozen slope into the torrent under Gate 1. One man managed to grab hold of a length of wire, but his mate was swept away. 

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls part 3 4Photo courtesy of the Lakes District Museum

Many in the workforce lived in a labourers’ camp established on the racecourse which later became the airfield. The huts consisted of a wooden floor and framework with canvas over them with tent- flies. Each had an open fireplace with corrugated iron chimney, but they can’t have been cosy in winter. They were furnished with a bunk frame with wire netting stretched across it, a rough table, a chair or two – or wooden boxes - and little else. Hearty meals were provided at 25 shillings a week by an excellent chef and served in the former grandstand (the stone-walled building which still exists beside Lucas Place). Other workers lived in Queenstown and travelled in two ancient (pre-WWI) Darracq buses hired from the Mt Cook Motor Company.

Such were the men who built the dam which enabled road transport between Kingston and Queenstown, and which still carries all the road traffic today. These workers did it the hard way without the towering strength and precision of the cranes we see today, nor our Workplace Safety regulations which make the site bright with hi-vis vests.

queenstown historical society queenstown community blog crossing kawarau falls part 3 5Photo courtesy of the Lakes District Museum

But what about the expected golden riches? Wait for our next blog.

Main Sources: An anonymous document received from the late Ray Clarkson. It appears to have been written in about the 1950s by someone who must have worked on the dam as he recalls vivid details of the construction. The Lakes District Museum has a copy of the 20-page document. Kawarau Gold Mining Company publication, Kawarau Gold

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Queenstown Historical Society

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