When Europeans first settled in the Mahurangi area, their reliance on local waterways was similar to our reliance on State Highway 1 today.
The rivers and wharves were hives of activity with passenger vessels plying between the main ports north and south. It was where timber and locally grown produce was exported to Auckland, and where vital provisions and household necessities were unloaded for distribution over rough and sometimes treacherous roads to outlying settlements.
Big Omaha was the home of a thriving shipbuilding industry, where at least 60 sailing vessels were built over half a century. The two family names chiefly associated with this era were Meiklejohn and Darroch.
Collisions and groundings among these coastal traders were not uncommon. Lives were often lost, sometimes without trace. Here’s a look at some of casualties of that early period ….
William Pope, topsail schooner
In 1861, the William Pope was anchored off Pakiri where she took on a load of sawn timber from Messrs McIver and McMillan’s mill. The timber was rafted out to her, where it was loaded into the hold and onto the deck. She left on her way to Auckland on the evening on January 9 and was never seen or heard of again. The 16 people on board included a number of Pakiri people, as well as the captain and crew. The beaches were searched for weeks for any bodies that might be cast up, but none were found.
Elfin Queen, cutter clinkerbuilt
The Elfin Queen came into Leigh Harbour looking for shelter. There were three men on board and she was bound for the Hokitika diggings, which had just broken out. Having heard that provisions sold for a fabulous price there, these young men had loaded the cutter with flour and potatoes expecting to make a good profit from the cargo. The wind proved unfavourable for them to proceed on this voyage round the North Cape and they were compelled to remain in harbour for many days. To help pass the time they would go up to Mr Wyatt’s house on the hill to spend the evenings, where they were made very welcome. They were jolly fellows who could sing a good song and tell a good yarn. Some of the young Wyatts would have liked to have accompanied them, but there was not room on the boat. When the weather proved favourable, the cutter left and was never heard of again.
Ruakaka, a 75-foot scow (rigged schooner)
Built at Big Omaha by John Meiklejohn and launched in 1882. It was stranded at Point Rodney in 1899 and was later converted to a lighter.
Kapanui, 74 tons, 100-foot steamer, built by R. Logan Snr of Auckland in 1898 for the Coastal Steam Ship Company.
The Kapanui met a fiery end when she burned to the waterline at the Warkworth town wharf in 1909. Prior to this final disaster, she had twice collided with rival McGregor Steamship Company vessels. In 1899, she was in a collision with the Rose Casey while competing to pick up passengers off Rodmersham, Mahurangi Heads; and in 1905, she was run down by the steel-hulled Claymore, off Devonport Wharf, drowning five crew members. Her second officer was held to blame for the collision.
Rangatira, 52-foot cutter
Built in Matheson Bay, at Little Omaha and launched in 1876, the Rangatira was owned by Tenetahi Pohuehue. The vessel was wrecked at Great Barrier Island.
The Zior, 76-foot schooner (topsail)
Built by John Meiklejohn at Big Omaha. Launched in 1872, she was wrecked at Takatu Point in 1908.
Otimai, 99-foot schooner
Built as an auxiliary schooner by GT Niccol, at Auckland in 1920, for the Northern Company. She spent most of her sailing life plying between Auckland and Whakatane. Decommissioned in 1948, and the hull was run up on Moturekareka Island, near Kawau, in 1952.
Warkworth, 44-foot cutter
Built by William Southgate at Mahurangi for John Brown, she was launched in 1874 and wrecked 15 miles south of the Kaipara lighthouse.
Lake Erie, 60-foot schooner
Built at Omaha by John and Septimus Meiklejohn and launched in 1873, the ship was wrecked at Anderson’s Cave, near Bream Tail, in June 1879. The master was Henry Larley and the vessel was a total loss.
Lake Superior, 77-foot schooner scow
Built at Pakiri in 1875 by George Callan Sharp for Phillip Charles Dyer. The vessel stranded on the bar at Pakiri in August 1888 and, as was usual then, was considered a minimum catastrophe because it involved no loss of life. She was finally broken up in 1891.
Rose Casey, 103-foot, steamboat
The Rose Casey, Jeremiah Casey’s finest and final steamboat, named for a daughter, served the Mahurangi from 1878 until 1905. She was built by Fraser and Tinne at Mechanics Bay (132 tons, 103 feet, twin engines and screws, 109 horsepower) and was also schooner rigged. The Rose Casey, under Captain Somerville, became an institution in the region before being wrecked on D’Urville Island, in the Marlborough Sounds.
Ruby, 31-foot, paddlesteamer
Built 1876 at Shortland, Thames, by Robert Stone. She had two 30hp engines and cutter rig, and was converted to screw steamer 1882 with a single 14hp engine. Ruby was wrecked at Mangawhai Bar and broken up on the rocks at the harbour entrance.
There were two fatalities.
Splendid, 358-ton barque
Built as a whaler at Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, in 1835, the Splendid spent most of her life as a whaler before being converted to a coal carrier. Her first voyage was under the command of Captain Otis E Smith. On October 15, 1843, she departed from Edgartown, Mass., returning two-and-a-half years later with 450 barrels of sperm oil, 1900 barrels of whale oil and 19,000 pounds of whale bone for hoop skirts. She sailed to New Zealand for use as a coal carrier in 1873. But in 1890, while loading timber at Port Albert, she dragged her anchor, struck a reef and was wrecked.
Sources: Warkworth Museum, Papers Past, Jade River: A History of the Mahurangi