Tolaga Bay is 60 kilometers North East of Gisborne on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
The bay itself is approximately 2.4 km across and the opening to the sea faces north-east. It is open to the Pacific storms from the east. These storms rise suddenly and heavy seas of long wave height &a height of around 3.5 meters often occur.
Cliffs about 60 meters high project on the north side for 2.4 kilometers seaward and on the south side for 1.6 kilometers seaward.
Continuations of these two promontories exist in the form of islands and reefs further out.
The south-west corner with it’s good shelter and anchorage was the position usually chosen by ships when sheltering or when making lighters.
1769 – 1875 Early European History
Tolaga Bay was visited by Captain Cook between 24 – 30 October 1769.
The Tangata Whenua were friendly and hospitable and granted the visitors the freedom of the bay. Wood and water were obtained and trade occurred between the inhabitants and the explorers. Banks and Solander collected botanical specimens.
The Maori name for the place is Ou Auwoa or Uwoua, but Cook called it Tolaga Bay. This is possibly a corruption of ‚turanga‘ – landing or halting place – which he took to be a proper name.
The area early attracted its share of pre-colonial traders who dealt in flax and bay whaling. Round these trading posts developed a series of small ports, among which was Tolaga Bay.
The site of Tolaga Bay township (252 acres) was bought by the Crown in March of 1875 for £505, at which time it was covered with gorse.
By 1875 Tolaga Bay was the largest European centre on the East Coast with 52 European residents, but generally settlement came late to the area. Sparsity of settlement and particularly a lack of roads led to the sea being the main means of communication, a situation which continued well into the twentieth century.
1870’s – 1900’s Shipping History
The isolation, sparsity of settlement and lack of roads of the East Coast of the North Island combined to give rise to a surf landing service for the inhabitants.
Mariners called it the „call at your farm service“. It was largely run by seamen, many of them ex-whalers or navy men with experience in handling small boats.
It was achieved by the farmer droving a loaded bullock wagon into the surf to create a kind of temporary „jetty“ to which the surf boat would be secured, while the ship lay in the roadstead awaiting cargo. This service lasted until well into the twentieth century.
The isolation of the Coast also bred parochialism which expressed itself in an extraordinary outburst of port development, with four ports being created over one hundred and sixty kilometres of coastline – Hick’s Bay, Port Awanui, Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay.
While Gisbome was the chief port of the area, these smaller centres had no wish to share the costs of development of that port.
This was typically illustrated by the indifference shown by Tolaga Bay residents to a poll among voters on the Gisborne Harbour loan, where only 29 persons bothered to vote, preferring to see improvements made to their own harbour.
The coastal trade dominated the business of these outports where small steam coasters brought in supplies and general cargo and exported farm produce, mainly wool, grain and meat.
The development of a local freezing works, in competition with the large one at Gisbome, was often the factor that gave the promise of a substantial shipping trade.
1900’s – 1926 Increasing need for a Wharf
Just after the turn of the century a Farmers‘ Co-operative Company had erected a wharf in the mouth of the Uawa River at Tolaga Bay, as a loading-out port for lighters taking cargo out to the ships in the roadstead.
Control of the wharf passed to Cook County Council, which sat as the Harbour Board after 1908.
As early as 1913 there was local interest in a jetty outside the river, partly due to opposition to rating for Gisborne’s harbour development and the inadequacy of the existing loading-out system.
A freezing works was opened at Tolaga Bay after World War One, by which time the old wharf had silted up.
In 1917 the Gisbome Sheep Farmers‘ Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company Ltd. ran a trading store at Tolaga Bay. They also had a trading store in Tokomaru Bay and had a major interest in the Hick’s Bay Freezing Works.
This company already controlled the Gisbome lighter trade and now indicated an interest in entering the coastal shipping business. They challenged Richardson and Company and the Union Company’s domination of the East Coast trade but the major companies prevailed.
In 1919 Tolaga Bay formed its own elected Harbour Board and rates were imposed on the Harbour District from early 1920 onwards.
In 1920 renowned marine engineer Cyrus J.R.Williams was appointed as consulting engineer to the Board. His initial report proposed a 900 foot road, a pier or jetty 1500 by 16 feet, a wharf 400 feet long and 51 feet wide, giving a depth at low water of 21 feet. The estimated cost was £60,000.
In 1922 a report was produced on procuring a £ I 00,000 loan to finance the harbour works. However, there was difficulty in getting the loan, which was not confirmed until February 1925, when the Public Trustee accepted a sinking ftmd of £70,000.
Between 1920 and 1924 there were various changes reducing the length, width and lowwater depth of the proposed wharf and in June 1924 the plans were approved by the Govemor-General.
1950 – 1998 The Decline
In 1952 part of the shed was let to the State Hydro Department.
Power was installed in the shed in 1953. Previous lighting was provided by a generator. It is not clear whether power was carried along the wharf.
The Tolaga Bay Golf Club was offered the Austin tractor for £10 1957.
In 1958 the Board wrote to the Richardson Line complaining about the poor service to Tolaga-Bay.
In 1959 the Board held discussions with the Minister of Marine with regard to the position of the Board’s finances, shipping and general falling off of revenue due to decentralising of shipping, lack of fertiliser imports over the wharf and road competition.
In November 1960 the Harbour Board considered the falling off of trade to the port, and decided that rather than replace the existing Harbour Master (who had tendered his resignation), to pass the control of the wharf over to the Uawa County Council, who accepted. November 29, 1961 was the final meeting of the Harbour Board.
In November 1963 the southern side of the wharf was closed to shipping due to damage and deterioration. A report on the condition of the wharf from a Mr Booth gave the structure a conservative 15 year life in 1965.
By now the cost of shipping wool from the Tolaga Bay wharf shed direct to Napier was higher than the cost of trucking from the wharf shed to Gisborne and shipping from there to both domestic and British markets.
I.H. Lowe (Lowe’s Fishing Co.) was permitted to establish a fishing base on the wharf in 1968. In the same year a „six-wheeled“ railway wagon was taken to Gisborne and apparently thence to Ferrymead Museum, Canterbury.
Most importantly, 1968 marked the closure of the port for shipping. The Harbour shed office rooms were let to Titirangi Station as a tea-room.
In May 1973 Cook County assessed the contents of the shed, sold some and gave (?) some to M.O.T.A.T., Gisborne. In July further wharf plant was sold as scrap.
In 1977 Cook County banned all vehicular traffic on the wharf.
The wharf shed was generally used for the storage of cray-fishing boats, tractors and fishing gear, including a fish freezer.
The Cook County Engineer presented a report in 1984, on alternatives for the future use of the wharf building to Council. The authors J. Dwight.. and L. McDonald proposed „doing nothing“, partial demolition, and „total restoration“.
In 1995 the report above resulted in demolition of the decrepit 1940s lean-to, the earlier western lean-to being spared. However the main timber-floored original building was irreversibly (economically speaking) modified by the chain sawing out of a substantial area of timber floor, the removal of its foundations and the reversion to an earth floor to create „garage space“ to be let for the storage of fishing boats and equipment.
The southern lean-to, being accessible to vehicles, was already being let for boat and associated storage. A large section of the removed floor was up-ended and, complete with floor Joists as studs, was used to wall-off the newly formed ‚garage‘.
Demolition iron from the northern lean-to was used to re-clad the original northern wall, including the 1929-34 loading-out doors, and a wide door-way was cut at the western end allowing vehicular access.
In 1989 the wharf shed was sold to Mr S.P. Destounis, fisherman, who has not modified the building since.
The wharf in 1998. No longer part of a registered port and considered too dangerous for vehicular traffic or berthage, the structure has evolved into a very popular fishing place for locals and tourists alike, and particularly for travellers, a challenge, because of its unusual length and the high scenic value of its environment.
At present there is no on-site interpretation of the historical and social significance of the port.
Source: The Tolaga Bay Wharf - Gisborne District Council