Mangawhai (formerly known as Mangawai) has known permanent European settlement since the mid 1850’s. Prior to that there are recorded mention of visitors coming into the harbour to collect timber for ships, and some came simply to find overnight shelter as they travelled north and south. This was when there was a fast-flowing, dangerous current that ran between the land and Sentinel Rock near the harbour entrance, before the construction of a breakwater
For the new settlers, the bar at the harbour’s entrance was at times impassable, requiring cutters and schooners to anchor out at sea until conditions allowed them to sail through.
Sometimes it was calm, without a ripple affecting the crossing. Other times it was very dangerous with high seas raging, forcing ships’ captains to decide how long they could wait outside. They often decided to travel north to Ruakaka and Marsden Point to let their passengers off. There they were rowed to shore by crew on the ship’s tender and left to walk back home. This left the unprepared folk contemplating not only miles of beautiful white sand and flat land, but also the crossing of streams and creeks and high bush-clad hills. The women were clad in many layers of clothing, especially in winter months. Often children were involved, which meant at times they needed to be carried. The bad weather, which caused the inability of ships to cross the bar, meant that folk who were walking were also unprotected from the elements. The bush was a place to make quick temporary shelters, and men always carried the means to make a fire.
This type of experience led to a group of settlers deciding they had to block off the channel that ran from the shore to Sentinel Rock. They approached the Provincial Council for funds to begin the process. From 1862 until 1865, the group made donations and kept in touch with Council, waiting for the promised half of the required £400 to meet the cost.
Work finally began in 1865, but it was not a happy place. Forty workers who were sent from the Waikato Settlement Scheme proved to be unaccustomed to hard labour. Some were from lace-making factories and cotton mills in England. They complained about having to create their own access to water and sanitation, and having to do their own cooking and washing. Foul weather and damage to the incomplete breakwater, lack of pay, and isolation from wives located in Auckland left them very frustrated. To make matters worse, on 13 August 1866 three of the workers, Lawrence McWatt, Alexander Duncan and William Craig, were killed instantly when there was a rock fall at the quarry, where they were extracting stone for building the breakwater.
Creditors removed equipment and progress was very slow. Eventually a new contract was let to Alexander Craig. The work under his direction was completed in 1867 but was already requiring repair by 1872. In 1876, after much communication with Council, the breakwater was reported as being ‘in ruin’ after £2,000 had been spent on it.
The next action saw retired men from British regiments, who had taken up land at Mangawai, called on to make repairs to the breakwater. This they successfully did, and their work remained as a memorial of their expertise for the next hundred years.
During the big-dig operations at Mangawhai in 1991, when the closed harbour entrance was reopened, a restoration was also made to the breakwater. More large rocks were added from the same on-site quarry.