The fruitgrowing town of Alexandra is one of contrasts – between the orchards that creep into its centre and great, grey, lifeless dredge tailings; between fertile irrigated valleys and arid, schist-heaped hillsides burnt desert-brown or piled high with snow; and between the greens of summer, the tones of autumn, the skeletons of winter, and the blossoms that each spring draw thousands to Alexandra’s annual festival.

Known in turn as Lower Township (neighbouring Clyde was Upper Township), Junction (here the substantial Manuherikia flows into the Clutha) and Manuherikia, the town was finally named after the then-Princess Alexandra who in 1863 married the Prince of Wales.

Some History

Taming the Clutha
Though in conservation terms it is easy to condemn the destruction wrought by gold dredges upon large areas of potential orchards and farmland, the town of Alexandra owes if not its existence, certainly its importance, to the dredging boom of the 1890s.

A settlement had sprung up here in 1862, but its twin township on the Dunstan Diggings at Clyde was quickly established as the administrative centre of the goldfields. So much so that for many years Alexandra was bypassed even by the coach route, which on the Clyde-Roxburgh run ran through Earnscleugh and Conroys Gully on the far side of the Clutha River.
To overcome this, Alexandra’s first borough council made strenuous efforts to have the Clutha bridged at Alexandra, to replace the expensive, erratic and often dangerous punt. Great was the jubilation when the first bridge opened in 1882. The entire populace roared its approval when Vincent Pyke, declaring the bridge officially open, hurled the key of the despised punt far out into the river. The bridge lasted until 1958, when the need for a wider passage led to its replacement by the present arched steel structure. The piers of the old bridge stand beside those of the new.

Dredges on the river
Gold had generated the town in the first instance (see Clyde) when spectacular finds saw thousands of diggers flock to the Dunstan field. After four hectic years the easily won alluvial gold was gone and the population here had by 1866 dwindled to 148 Europeans and 100 Chinese.
It was the interest in gold dredging in the 1890s that re-galvanised the town, businesses springing up to service the scores of dredges as they clanked their way, night and day, turning over the river beds and much of the flats. Coal was needed to fire the generally steam-driven machines, and much of it came from pits around Alexandra. It is recorded that coal miners, as they toiled below ground, at times could hear the dredges grinding away overhead. A foundry was built, to supply massive dredge buckets and vital bucket pins, which in 1916 could make the surprising claim of being the only workshop in the country that could produce a crankshaft for a motor vehicle.

Watson Shennan
(1835-1920): First and foremost of the area’s runholders was the Scot, Watson Shennan, who with his brother Alexander arrived at Port Chalmers in 1857. They explored the unknown interior for sheep country until, in the Manuherikia Valley, Alexander enthused: „Here is the country we are looking for, a land well grassed and watered – a very land of promise. Here we will pitch our tent and here we shall stay and make our home for good.
‚The pair took up two blocks totalling 40,500 hectares on either side of the Manuherikia River. The one they named Galloway after their native district in Scotland, the other Moutere (island) as the block was bounded by water on three sides and by mountains on the fourth. To stock the runs and so confirm the leases, the brothers drove sheep from as far away as Balclutha. Over the Lammerlaws they came, where early snow had made conditions difficult. Then, with the sheep high in the mountains, a severe snowstorm led to four desperate weeks – as the hardened Watson said: „I do not think it possible to experience greater hardship and live … A journey to the South Pole is nothing to a trip like that.“ But survive they did and the first sheep were in Central Otago. Nor was it easy to get wool out. Sledges had to be used to travel the 254 kilometres to the coast, and teams were employed for most of the year taking down wool and returning with stores.

„The world’s best practical joke“
Today the antics might raise less than a smile, but in the mood of the times and even 30 years later they were regarded as hilarious. It was in the late 1890s that Ah Fook Hu, a Chinese storekeeper, won spectacularly at fantan, withdrew his savings from the bank and set off for his homeland, never to be heard of again. Relatives, suspecting that Ah might have been murdered for his money, posted a reward which attracted the attention of a Swedish miner, John Magnus, then working a claim abut 10 kilometres downriver from Alexandra. Magnus had little sympathy for the Chinese and could not resist the opportunity to dress a sheep’s carcass in the manner described in the reward, complete with pigtail woven from the hair of a black billygoat. Elaborate surgery was carried out on the sheep – its head was covered with inverted sheepskin, teeth were bared and a nose fashioned from a sheep’s kidney before the whole „face“ was stained with Condys fluid. By the time they had finished the carcass was stinking, which doubtless aided the success of the scheme, for the „body“ was placed by the river for another miner to find and rush to Alexandra in all innocence to claim the reward. The local constable, despatched to recover the corpse, was assisted by Magnus’s friends to bring it to the town. Here a sergeant and a doctor made a hurried examination before they converted the stables at the Bendigo Hotel into a morgue for the purposes of a post mortem. Ah Fook Hu’s brother denied that it was his relative, but others were more certain and positively identified the corpse as being that of the hapless Ah. The post mortem began. Slowly the body was undressed. Eventually, when the trousers were cut to reveal a sheep’s leg, the shocked and sombre crowd erupted with mirth. Doctor, police, and mayor all rapidly retreated in a state of embarrassed confusion as Magnus and his friends repaired to the bar of the Bendigo to celebrate. A local resident was paid to bury the corpse but at dawn the next morning it was found propped up against the hotel’s front door. Those taking part were overcome by their hilarity and seemingly none spared a thought for Ah Fook Hu, who had disappeared without trace. The Bendigo Hotel, scene of the joke’s final stages, still stands in Tarbert St.