History – Be dammed

In the early days of European settlement in Warkworth, in the 1850s and 1860s, getting from one side of the Mahurangi River to the other was a problem. At first, logs were chained together to straddle the waterway where the fresh water met the salt. This made a precarious crossing which was submerged, or even carried away when the river flooded.

In the 1860s, Henry Palmer built a flour mill on the true right side of the river – that is the right side when facing downstream. The channel which brought water first to the flour mill, and later to the short-lived bone mill, can still be seen on the opposite side of the river, beside the Sesquicentennial Walkway leading from the Bridgehouse. Wooden fluming carried the water across the river to the mill.

In 1873, a wooden bridge was built and in 1900 it was replaced by a one-way concrete bridge. By 1914, this was found to be inadequate, so the wooden decking and handrails were removed, the concrete piles were widened to carry a footpath, and a new superstructure built.  This is the old bridge that still stands beside the current two-lane bridge.

In 1905, Fred Civil built the dam (or weir) for the Wilson cement works, which wished to pump water to the works 1½ miles downstream. The dam was built across the river, near the old bridge, leaving a cavity beneath. Thirty men closed this cavity by filling bags with mixed concrete and dropping one bag every three seconds until the job was completed.

Close inspection of the dam shows no sign of this method of construction, and I believe that a new dam was constructed sometime before World War II. A young Dick Sharp is said to have helped build the dam before he went off to war and, sadly, never returned.

The ponded water held back by the dam instantly became a magnet to all, especially children, who wished to cool off in the summer heat. Picnics and swimming sports were commonly held there, with changing sheds built on the bank opposite the Bridgehouse. In the early 1950s, I was one of the many children who hurried to the dam after school and swam and dived and jumped from the old bridge until hunger sent us home.

The current non-notified plan to remove the dam for the sake of whitebait has upset many residents, who feel that local history is being ignored by those with no connection to our community. The dam has a gap at each end, which, if not adequate for the whitebait to swim upstream, could have fish ladders built up them. Whitebait suffer when the water is too warm and the deeper, cooler water behind the dam gives them some relief. If the water is drained away we will be left with a narrower channel with muddy slopes that will inevitably regenerate with masses of weeds.  How much better to spend money on improving the water quality.

In his book, Mahurangi, H.J. Keys stated: “Below the bridge lies one of the best-known features of Warkworth – the dam.”

Maureen Young, Warkworth & District Museum

History - Warkworth & District Museum