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Lighthouses - Safeguarding the Coast

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The 1870s were energetic years in the safeguarding of New Zealand's particularly treacherous coastline. Communications were still slow and difficult on land. and trade and travel were more reliably carried out by sea. Scows served the timber harbours and peninsula of the "roadless north", wool left the big sheep stations of the East Coast by surf-boat and then schooners which stood off shore, and the gold discoveries of the 1860s had brought the hazardous bar harbours of the West Coast into constant use. Yet at the beginning of the decade there were still only seven lighthouses for more than 4,000 miles of a coast notorious since the days of the first sealers and whalers. By the end of the decade there were 14 more lighthouses on operation and several others under construction. Because of their very nature, as guardians on remote headlands and islands, almost all were difficult to build. The equipment needed to haul the materials up steep cliffs from rugged shores was primitive   - bullocks teams, which had to be landed first, were used on several occasions. Money was another problem, for the apparatus and the towers that housed it were expensive at a time when both the provincial and central governments were short of funds and facing many other demands.

The Marine Board (as it was then), had the schooner-rigged paddle steamer Luna for landing materials when she was free from duties. But in 1876, the year before the Marine Department was formed (now Marine division, Ministry  of Transport) she was joined by the Stella, a slightly larger ship designed for light-house work. Besides carrying materials and equipment for the new lighthouses, these little ships had to service the existing ones, and occasionally search the lonely islands to the south of New Zealand for shipwrecked sailors.

In 1870, the lighthouses on Cape Campbell, Nugget Point near the mouth of the Clutha and Farewell Spit shone for the first time. All three had been designed by James Balfour, the brilliant young Government Marine Engineer who was drowned a few months before their completion. Many sailing ships had already been wrecked on Farewell Spit, and the growing traffic to Hokitika and the Grey made it particularly important to safeguard this long , low sickle land.

A totally different problem was the building of the lighthouse 258 feet above sea level on the northern island of the Brothers group in Cook Strait. The working party, landed on 1876, found no shelter whatsoever on the sheer, barren rock. The Luna began the job of getting stores and materials for the dwelling, tower and steep tramway ashore but it was soon relieved by the Stella. With gales, heavy seas and no anchorage, it took her 60 days to complete this job, her first for the lighthouse service. Her next assignments were down south, in the building  of Centre Island lighthouse, completed in 1878, and of Puysegur Point, the country's most isolated outpost away at the extreme south-west of the South Island.

An interesting development was the changeover from the colza oil made from rape seed to paraffin, used for the first time at the Manukau Heads lighthouse completed in 1874. By the 1880s, paraffin burners were in use on all manned lighthouse stations.

The need for some permanent light to mark the difficult entrance to Wellington Harbour had been recognised from the colony's earliest days. In November 1841 the New Zealand Company offered offered to erect a lighthouse on Pencarrow Head at a cost of 1.500. The Colonial Office was not helpful, and in spite of strong public opinion in Wellington it was not until 1849 that an "indifferent lamp-house" was set up in "a miserable shed with a bow-window" at Pencarrow. R. C. Carter describes this first beacon in Life and Recollections of a New Zealand Colonist. "The lighthouse keeper (G. W. Bennett) lived on top of a hill, with his wife and three children, and the lighthouse apparatus, were all stowed away in two little rooms each about 10ft square and without a fireplace. The interior of this building, a lighthouse and dwelling combined, was accessible to wind and rain on all sides, and in heavy gales it rocked and shook so much as to frighten the keeper and his family out of it, who in that case took refuge in a sort of cave or cabin which he had scooped out of the side of the hill......".

A severe shipwreck with the loss of 29 lives in 1851 led to a strong appeal to Sir George Grey for a proper lighthouse but, although the proposal was carried, nothing further was done due to rising costs. In 1854 a committee, set up by the House of Representatives to report on the need for lighthouses and beacons round New Zealand, referred to Pencarrow as a temporary light of an extremely inferior description. (At its best, it was only visible for two or three miles, and towards morning soot made the light scarcely visible) A permanent lighthouse was recommended, the sum of 10,000 voted , and after many delays the light and machinery were ordered by the Wellington Provincial Council from England. Pencarrow Head finally came into operation on January 1st 1859, with Mrs Bennett, widow of G. W. Bennett, as New Zealand's first Principal Keeper.

The country's second lighthouse completed in 1862, was built on the Boulder Bank at the entrance to Nelson Harbour by the Nelson Provincial Council. The Otago and Southland Provinces had also gone ahead in planning and ordering the lamps and machinery for their own lighthouses, at Dog Island in Foveaux Strait and Taiaroa Head and Cape Saunders at the approaches to Otago Harbour. However,from 1862 the Marine Board had taken over the planning and construction of all New Zealand's lighthouses, refunding the provincial governments for those already planned and started. In 1865, 76 shipwrecked underlined the vital importance of the task only just begun. But five lighthouses were completed in this one year to join those at Pencarrow and Nelson Harbour - Tiri Tiri (the first to be completed by the Government Marine Board), Dog Island, Godley Head at Lyttelton, Taiaroa Head and Mana Island. In the next four years no further coastal lighthouses were completed, but during the 1870s more lighthouses were lit than in any other decade.

Between 1880 and 1900 nine more manned lighthouses were build - at Akaroa Head, Cape Saunders, Mokohinau, Waipapa Point in Southland, Cuvier Island, Stephens Island Cape Palliser, and Kaipara Heads and French Pass, the last two becoming automatic lights in the 1920s. In 1881, the tower and light from Mana Island, closed down when The Brothers was light in 1877, were carried in sections by the Government Steamer Hinemoa and re-erected at Cape Egmont, the most westerly point of Taranaki. This was because it was thought that confusion between Mana Island and the Pencarrow light had caused the wrecks of the City of Newcastle and the Cyrus. The transfer was a formidable task, with the additional hazard of local Maori hostility as the site was on tapu land. During the construction, and for some time after, armed constabulary were posted to guard the lighthouse in case of trouble. Maoris were also involved in the building of Portland Island lighthouse in 1878. The land, at the top of sheer 280 foot cliffs, had been bought from them in 1876, but permission also had to be obtained to land materials on a lower-lying part of the island where a tapu canoe had made its land-fall many generations before.

Many lighthouses had to be built in particularly remote or challenging places. During 31 years of supervising their constriction David Scott, the Government lighthouse artificer, had many problems to overcome. On Cuvier Island a long, steep tramway had first to be constructed to the site, 390 feet above sea level. Cape Brett, 490 feet above sea level at the southern entrance to the Bay of Islands, is so rugged and inaccessible that its fortnightly supplies are still landed by sea. Stephens Island in Cook Strait was even more rocky and precipice, and it took two years to construct a track and tramway to the site and complete the 50 foot tower, 600 feet above the sea. East Cape lighthouse, at the country's most easterly point was built on a small and almost vertical islet off the coast. During construction work four men were drowned, and slips and earthquakes were such a danger that in 1922 the station was transferred to the mainland.

By 1900, there were 27 manned lighthouses round New Zealand's coastline. The first automatic light was installed in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1911, and today there are more than 100 of them, serviced b marine Division vessels. the more accessible lighthouses are on mains supply, and others being powered by batteries or acetylene gas. Several of the manned lights became automatic during the following years, including Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, French Pass and Manukau Heads; but new manned stations were built at strategic points where it was vital that there should be no possibility of failure. these included Castlepoint in 1913 and Baring head in 1935, replacing Pencarrow, where the historic old lighthouse was closed down and a new automatic light installed by the Wellington Harbour Board at sea level. Cape Reinga, the most recent and best known in the country, was completed in 1944, the nearby manned light at Cape Maria van Diemen becoming automatic in the same year. Baring Head was the first lighthouse to be built using electricity as its light source, and an automatic warning system linked it with the keeper's house in case of trouble. this did away with the need for watch-keeping though the night, which still goes on in many countries. the program was slowed down by the war, but by 1957 all manned lights has been converted from incandescent oil-burners to electricity and were either on mains supply or their own diesel-electric power supply, all with stand-by equipment in case of breakdowns.

The first coast wireless station was established in Wellington in 1911, with a normal range of 600 miles at night. In 1913 stations opened at Awanui, Ararua and the Chatham's, while a continuous listening service for ships' distress calls was also undertaken. The first radio beacons, sending out a morse signal, were installed on Cape Maria van Diemen in 1926 and at Baring Head in 1937 - the later being of great value to aircraft as well as shipping. In 1877, navigational aids totalled 21 manned lighthouses, 106 automatic lights, 63 daylight marker beacons, and 13 radio beacons. Since fog is infrequent around the New Zealand coast there are only five coastal fog signals.