Early settlers isolated after bridge collapse

The bridges of Eastland’s Motu Falls span 140 years of ambition and challenge. Motu Trails advocate Jim Robinson explores the history of the third and fourth bridges in the second of a two-part series.

The bridges of Eastland’s Motu Falls span 140 years of ambition and challenge. Motu Trails advocate Jim Robinson explores the history of the third and fourth bridges in the second of a two-part series.

Motu’s Paul Cornwall co-led the suspension bridge project 1992-1994. Picture by Jim Robinson
Whinray Scenic Reserve is kiwi country. Picture by New Roads Home
Bridge four, the present bridge, offers a great view of Motu Falls. Strike Photography
The bridge is a highlight of the Motu Challenge multisport race. Picture by Bruce Belcher

Bridge 3: 1910-1954

Under the headline ‘Collapse of a Bridge’, the February 1910 Auckland Star carries a single bald sentence: “Motu Falls bridge collapsed on Wednesday evening, causing considerable inconvenience to settlers beyond Motu.” The same brief report is picked up in papers all over the country.

The next day’s New Zealand Herald carries more detail, including on the rising flow of local discontent.

“The Motu Falls bridge collapsed through sheer decay, absolutely isolating the Moromoko [Marumoko] and Whitikau settlers from vehicular communication. The structure, which was a very old one, was on the old Opotiki-Motu road . . . indignation is expressed that steps had not been taken to replace the bridge. The settlers intend waiting on Mr WDS Macdonald, MP, on his return from Opotiki, and impressing on him the urgency of having the work put in hand at once. Meanwhile, a wire cable is to be strung across the river to enable stores, etc, to be carried across.”

Though the bridge may have appeared very old it had, in fact, been up for a mere 17 years.

The settlers’ complaints stuck. One month later, “With regard to the Motu Falls bridge, the Hon Mr McKenzie has given authority for the work to be proceeded with immediately.”

A Mr Nichol was contracted to do the work with a budget of £765. The poor state of the roads held things up at first, but by October, “The totara for the trusses had been ordered from Auckland, and the ironwork was in hand locally . . . local timber would be used on the decking, etc, and was being obtained at Motu.”

Mr Nichol must have led a sharp team, because the third Motu Falls bridge features in a Christmas 1910 picnic report.

“On Monday the centre of attraction was the annual picnic at Motu Falls, made even more attractive by the new bridge over the falls being almost completed . . . on coming forward, Mr Macdonald . . . said he was glad to be with them again, and especially at the completion of this important, though small, bridge, being one of the connecting links and thoroughfares between Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty.

“He was pleased that within ten months of the collapse of the old bridge, material had been procured and the present structure erected.

“The bridge stood on solid concrete sills, with good totara stringers . . . he hoped to be able before long to be present at the opening of the railway bridge over the Motu River.”

This article concludes, “Hearty cheers were given for . . . Mr Macdonald, after which the party adjourned for afternoon tea, provided by the ladies under a large awning.”

A parliamentary entourage attended the official 1911 opening.

“The Motu settlers met the party in Muromoko [Marumoko] . . . On reaching the new falls bridge it was officially opened by Mr McKenzie. Brief speeches were delivered, and cheers given.”

In April 1918 came the biggest flood yet — one that devastated Eastland. The Motu settlement bridge was “completely washed down stream.”

Bridges in the Pakihi and Waioeka valleys also succumbed. The falls bridge survived, just: “The flood water was up to the handrails . . . and despite that, the bridge held, being saved by the massive concrete pier on which it rests. A 60ft white pine [kahikatea] timber log came down and blocked across the pier, whilst the accumulation of debris that collected included a large haystack.”

It took a year or so before the crossing at Motu settlement was back up but with motorcars travelling the Motu road to Opotiki, the third Motu Falls bridge — and the bridle track — was always going to struggle to attract maintenance funding. When the Waioeka gorge road opened (broadly speaking, taking the modern highway route) the demise of the falls bridge became almost inevitable.

Still, a 1929 report confirms it did have some community support.

“A petition was received [by council] from eight ratepayers protesting against closing the Motu Falls bridge, and asking for renewal of the decking. After full discussion, the council decided to make a grant . . . the falls are a great asset to the district as a tourist resort, as, particularly during the summer months, hundreds of motorists go out from Gisborne and many from Opotiki, as the scenery is particularly beautiful.”

The next year, 1930, there’s news of county councils and local ratepayers agreeing to share costs to repair the bridge, though there’s no confirmation this or the previous grant ever materialised.

An excellent 2006 history on Whinray Scenic Reserve quotes a 1937 letter-writer, “Although the bridge has ceased to serve in the capacity of access to any live settlement [it enables] access to that very fine reserve Whinray Park. Whinray Park is from a scenic point of view the greatest attraction we possess in this locality . . . I understand the bridge was erected in 1910 and possibly a considerable amount will be required to restore it.”

Estimates in 1938 were that it would cost just over £200 to repair the bridge, but expediency ruled over romance. In the 1940s rather than being fixed, it was closed off to vehicles. Then it was taken down.

I haven’t found a precise end-date for bridge three but according to a 1955 Motu School diamond jubilee book, “The bridge over the falls was dismantled last year as it was not safe for sightseers who boldly ventured on to it to see the water tumbling over the rocks,” which suggests 1954.

Some of the bridge timber was recycled. The bridge abutments stood as a memento until 1988 when they were taken out by Cyclone Bola floodwaters.

For the next four decades, there would be no bridge at Motu Falls. The nearest thing to it, in the 1970s, Gisborne Rabbit Board workers felled a tree as a crossing. Just how long the trunk lay on the rocks is misty.

Bridge 4: 1994-present day

The plan to build a suspension bridge at the falls got under way in 1992, led by locals Pete Murphy and Paul Cornwall. Paul was, and still is, the principal of Motu School. He’s also a co-owner in Motu Community House, which offers visitors friendly, affordable accommodation in a 1924 building that was once the Motu post office.

“Local people decided they wanted a bridge over the river so that the walk through the reserve could become a through track,” records the Whinray Reserve history. “It was hoped the local community would benefit from all the associated spin-offs of increased tourism.”

The Motu community raised $26,000. “Pledges ranged from a single bolt, pledged by school children and paid for out of pocket money . . . Paul organised it this way so that everyone could take ownership of some part of the bridge and therefore reinforce community pride. Local people also pledged their labour including digging foundation holes and filling them with concrete.”

DOC and Gisborne District Council supported the project and there was funding from the New Zealand Lotteries Grants Board.

Dallas and Cecile Richardson opened the 42-metre-long bridge in February 1994. Dallas had crossed the third bridge in a horse and buggy; his grandfather was an early Motu settler. Others present for the opening included Gisborne Mayor John Clarke, East Cape MP Tony Ryall, and DOC Regional Conservator Pete W illiamson.

“It’s very rewarding to see the regular use the swing bridge gets as access to Whinray Reserve,” Paul says for this article. “The bridge attracts a wide range of visitors and activities to our community which is very rewarding, as it was the driving force behind its construction. It’s very important when we are trying to maintain a high profile for Motu.”

Those words conclude the story of the bridges of the Motu Falls — at least for now. As so many have written over the years, it’s a magnificent spot. You walk out high over the turbulent water and take your eye to the towering forest. When the river is full, it’s not difficult to imagine the rhythm and snort of horses crossing a bridge of matai, in the cool misty air of 1877.

• Jim Robinson is a freelance writer. He’s involved in the Motu Trails Charitable Trust and has written several articles on the history of the area’s bridges, roads and tracks.

Bridge 3: 1910-1954

Under the headline ‘Collapse of a Bridge’, the February 1910 Auckland Star carries a single bald sentence: “Motu Falls bridge collapsed on Wednesday evening, causing considerable inconvenience to settlers beyond Motu.” The same brief report is picked up in papers all over the country.

The next day’s New Zealand Herald carries more detail, including on the rising flow of local discontent.

“The Motu Falls bridge collapsed through sheer decay, absolutely isolating the Moromoko [Marumoko] and Whitikau settlers from vehicular communication. The structure, which was a very old one, was on the old Opotiki-Motu road . . . indignation is expressed that steps had not been taken to replace the bridge. The settlers intend waiting on Mr WDS Macdonald, MP, on his return from Opotiki, and impressing on him the urgency of having the work put in hand at once. Meanwhile, a wire cable is to be strung across the river to enable stores, etc, to be carried across.”

Though the bridge may have appeared very old it had, in fact, been up for a mere 17 years.

The settlers’ complaints stuck. One month later, “With regard to the Motu Falls bridge, the Hon Mr McKenzie has given authority for the work to be proceeded with immediately.”

A Mr Nichol was contracted to do the work with a budget of £765. The poor state of the roads held things up at first, but by October, “The totara for the trusses had been ordered from Auckland, and the ironwork was in hand locally . . . local timber would be used on the decking, etc, and was being obtained at Motu.”

Mr Nichol must have led a sharp team, because the third Motu Falls bridge features in a Christmas 1910 picnic report.

“On Monday the centre of attraction was the annual picnic at Motu Falls, made even more attractive by the new bridge over the falls being almost completed . . . on coming forward, Mr Macdonald . . . said he was glad to be with them again, and especially at the completion of this important, though small, bridge, being one of the connecting links and thoroughfares between Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty.

“He was pleased that within ten months of the collapse of the old bridge, material had been procured and the present structure erected.

“The bridge stood on solid concrete sills, with good totara stringers . . . he hoped to be able before long to be present at the opening of the railway bridge over the Motu River.”

This article concludes, “Hearty cheers were given for . . . Mr Macdonald, after which the party adjourned for afternoon tea, provided by the ladies under a large awning.”

A parliamentary entourage attended the official 1911 opening.

“The Motu settlers met the party in Muromoko [Marumoko] . . . On reaching the new falls bridge it was officially opened by Mr McKenzie. Brief speeches were delivered, and cheers given.”

In April 1918 came the biggest flood yet — one that devastated Eastland. The Motu settlement bridge was “completely washed down stream.”

Bridges in the Pakihi and Waioeka valleys also succumbed. The falls bridge survived, just: “The flood water was up to the handrails . . . and despite that, the bridge held, being saved by the massive concrete pier on which it rests. A 60ft white pine [kahikatea] timber log came down and blocked across the pier, whilst the accumulation of debris that collected included a large haystack.”

It took a year or so before the crossing at Motu settlement was back up but with motorcars travelling the Motu road to Opotiki, the third Motu Falls bridge — and the bridle track — was always going to struggle to attract maintenance funding. When the Waioeka gorge road opened (broadly speaking, taking the modern highway route) the demise of the falls bridge became almost inevitable.

Still, a 1929 report confirms it did have some community support.

“A petition was received [by council] from eight ratepayers protesting against closing the Motu Falls bridge, and asking for renewal of the decking. After full discussion, the council decided to make a grant . . . the falls are a great asset to the district as a tourist resort, as, particularly during the summer months, hundreds of motorists go out from Gisborne and many from Opotiki, as the scenery is particularly beautiful.”

The next year, 1930, there’s news of county councils and local ratepayers agreeing to share costs to repair the bridge, though there’s no confirmation this or the previous grant ever materialised.

An excellent 2006 history on Whinray Scenic Reserve quotes a 1937 letter-writer, “Although the bridge has ceased to serve in the capacity of access to any live settlement [it enables] access to that very fine reserve Whinray Park. Whinray Park is from a scenic point of view the greatest attraction we possess in this locality . . . I understand the bridge was erected in 1910 and possibly a considerable amount will be required to restore it.”

Estimates in 1938 were that it would cost just over £200 to repair the bridge, but expediency ruled over romance. In the 1940s rather than being fixed, it was closed off to vehicles. Then it was taken down.

I haven’t found a precise end-date for bridge three but according to a 1955 Motu School diamond jubilee book, “The bridge over the falls was dismantled last year as it was not safe for sightseers who boldly ventured on to it to see the water tumbling over the rocks,” which suggests 1954.

Some of the bridge timber was recycled. The bridge abutments stood as a memento until 1988 when they were taken out by Cyclone Bola floodwaters.

For the next four decades, there would be no bridge at Motu Falls. The nearest thing to it, in the 1970s, Gisborne Rabbit Board workers felled a tree as a crossing. Just how long the trunk lay on the rocks is misty.

Bridge 4: 1994-present day

The plan to build a suspension bridge at the falls got under way in 1992, led by locals Pete Murphy and Paul Cornwall. Paul was, and still is, the principal of Motu School. He’s also a co-owner in Motu Community House, which offers visitors friendly, affordable accommodation in a 1924 building that was once the Motu post office.

“Local people decided they wanted a bridge over the river so that the walk through the reserve could become a through track,” records the Whinray Reserve history. “It was hoped the local community would benefit from all the associated spin-offs of increased tourism.”

The Motu community raised $26,000. “Pledges ranged from a single bolt, pledged by school children and paid for out of pocket money . . . Paul organised it this way so that everyone could take ownership of some part of the bridge and therefore reinforce community pride. Local people also pledged their labour including digging foundation holes and filling them with concrete.”

DOC and Gisborne District Council supported the project and there was funding from the New Zealand Lotteries Grants Board.

Dallas and Cecile Richardson opened the 42-metre-long bridge in February 1994. Dallas had crossed the third bridge in a horse and buggy; his grandfather was an early Motu settler. Others present for the opening included Gisborne Mayor John Clarke, East Cape MP Tony Ryall, and DOC Regional Conservator Pete W illiamson.

“It’s very rewarding to see the regular use the swing bridge gets as access to Whinray Reserve,” Paul says for this article. “The bridge attracts a wide range of visitors and activities to our community which is very rewarding, as it was the driving force behind its construction. It’s very important when we are trying to maintain a high profile for Motu.”

Those words conclude the story of the bridges of the Motu Falls — at least for now. As so many have written over the years, it’s a magnificent spot. You walk out high over the turbulent water and take your eye to the towering forest. When the river is full, it’s not difficult to imagine the rhythm and snort of horses crossing a bridge of matai, in the cool misty air of 1877.

• Jim Robinson is a freelance writer. He’s involved in the Motu Trails Charitable Trust and has written several articles on the history of the area’s bridges, roads and tracks.

Fact box

Motu Trails

Whinray Track

Whinray Eco Trust

• This article is based on one that first appeared in NZ Today.

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