Remembering the Kopuawhara disaster

EIGHTY YEARS ON: For the past eight decades, railway workers and passengers have passed the spot where in 1938 a flash flood claimed the lives of 22 sleeping rail construction workers.
KOPUAWHARA MONUMENT: A monument honours their memory and tomorrow wreaths will be laid to mark 80 years.
BEFORE: The single men’s camp at the Number 4 Railway Construction Camp, with the YMCA building in the background on the other side of the stream. This photograph was taken on February 17, 1938.
AFTER: Part of the camp after the flood.
Kopuawhara.

Monday marks the 80th anniversary of a disastrous flood that killed 22 Gisborne rail workers.

In the early morning hours of February 19, 1938, a flash flood in the Waiau (Kopuawhara) Stream swept away the single men’s part of Number 4 Railway Construction Camp, Kaingapipi.

Twenty men and one woman were drowned. Another man drowned in a railway camp by Maraetaha Stream.

Rain had been falling steadily all the previous day, a Friday.

Fifty men usually stayed in the single men’s camp, but many had left after work to spend the weekend at Wairoa or Gisborne.

Those who left included several married men whose families were not living in the camp, or single men who went home to parents or other family in the weekends.

Of those who remained in the camp for the weekend, some attended a dance at Number 5 Camp, Paritu, and others went to watch a film at Number 3 Camp, Kopuawhara. All 35 men were back at Number 4 Camp and in their beds by midnight.

It was still raining heavily and the river was running high that night but not unusually so.

People thought the 80-year-old totara trees growing on the riverbank edge of the terrace meant it was flood-free and safe. However, heavier rain fell after midnight.

Slips in upper catchment

There were slips in the upper catchment, and at about 3am when the power and lights failed, people realised the threat of the river rising over its bank into the camp — but it was too late.

The land around the camp was very different from how it looks today.

Most of the native bush had been cleared for rough farmland and there was minimal regeneration to manuka and native bush.

That meant water run-off from the hills was rapid and the flood carried trees, logs and heavy boulders.

The bridge at No. 4 Camp was jammed with debris and swept away.

A shallow old channel on the far side of the single men’s camp, against the slope to higher ground, was scoured down. The river was just as deep and fast there.

Men were trapped on an island that was rapidly submerging in fast-moving water.

The Kopuawhara Stream broke its banks and engulfed the Kopuawhara No 4 Public Works Camp.

Many stories were told about how some survived and some died.

One worker, Tom Tracey, began beating the cookhouse gong when he was woken by the roaring torrent.

When that did not work, he hammered on the men’s huts.

A five-metre-high barrage of floodwaters hit the camp and 21 people, including Mr Tracey, lost their lives.

Swept away

He was swept away by the flood as he tried to rouse his workmates. Many more people would have died had it not been for his actions.

Edward McGiven and Frank Fry died trying to rescue cookhouse waitress Martha Quinn, the only woman drowned in the tragedy.

Roland Blair’s hut collapsed on top of him.

He escaped and climbed on to a passing tree trunk. The current took him to a lorry where 11 men had jumped on to the tray.

They called out to Mr Blair to join them, but he couldn’t reach them.

Instead, he saw the lorry overturn in the current and the men were swept away.

Searchers expected to find the men swept downstream but it was not to be.

The searchers had not experienced the power of the torrent.

One of the deceased was found 9.6 kilometres away in a fence.

He had apparently died with a knoll of dry land only several feet away.

As well as the 22 people who died in the flood, three men died during construction of this section of the Gisborne-Napier line.

The first passenger train left Gisborne for Napier on September 7, 1942.

Flood victims of Camp No.4

Martha Quinn, 22, of Gisborne.

William Auld, 55, of Napier.

George Barbarich, 32.

David Barclay, 56, of Auckland.

Frederick Clark, 31.

George Davis, 49.

Mr R Douglas, 28, of Gisborne.

William Dunn, 64, of Christchurch.

Frank Fry, 51, of Gisborne.

Mr F Fountain, 25.

Thomas Hall, 35, of Gisborne.

Ron Halford, 22.

Robert Johnston, 40, of Wairoa.

John Keliher, 51, of Wellington.

Ivan Martinac, 31.

Edward McGiven, 28, of Gisborne.

Mr J Pander, 40.

Hugh Sloan, 37, described as a recent arrival from Ireland.

Ted Smith, 37.

Tom Tracey, 44, of Wairoa

Mr W Waaka, 25, of Mohaka.

Monday marks the 80th anniversary of a disastrous flood that killed 22 Gisborne rail workers.

In the early morning hours of February 19, 1938, a flash flood in the Waiau (Kopuawhara) Stream swept away the single men’s part of Number 4 Railway Construction Camp, Kaingapipi.

Twenty men and one woman were drowned. Another man drowned in a railway camp by Maraetaha Stream.

Rain had been falling steadily all the previous day, a Friday.

Fifty men usually stayed in the single men’s camp, but many had left after work to spend the weekend at Wairoa or Gisborne.

Those who left included several married men whose families were not living in the camp, or single men who went home to parents or other family in the weekends.

Of those who remained in the camp for the weekend, some attended a dance at Number 5 Camp, Paritu, and others went to watch a film at Number 3 Camp, Kopuawhara. All 35 men were back at Number 4 Camp and in their beds by midnight.

It was still raining heavily and the river was running high that night but not unusually so.

People thought the 80-year-old totara trees growing on the riverbank edge of the terrace meant it was flood-free and safe. However, heavier rain fell after midnight.

Slips in upper catchment

There were slips in the upper catchment, and at about 3am when the power and lights failed, people realised the threat of the river rising over its bank into the camp — but it was too late.

The land around the camp was very different from how it looks today.

Most of the native bush had been cleared for rough farmland and there was minimal regeneration to manuka and native bush.

That meant water run-off from the hills was rapid and the flood carried trees, logs and heavy boulders.

The bridge at No. 4 Camp was jammed with debris and swept away.

A shallow old channel on the far side of the single men’s camp, against the slope to higher ground, was scoured down. The river was just as deep and fast there.

Men were trapped on an island that was rapidly submerging in fast-moving water.

The Kopuawhara Stream broke its banks and engulfed the Kopuawhara No 4 Public Works Camp.

Many stories were told about how some survived and some died.

One worker, Tom Tracey, began beating the cookhouse gong when he was woken by the roaring torrent.

When that did not work, he hammered on the men’s huts.

A five-metre-high barrage of floodwaters hit the camp and 21 people, including Mr Tracey, lost their lives.

Swept away

He was swept away by the flood as he tried to rouse his workmates. Many more people would have died had it not been for his actions.

Edward McGiven and Frank Fry died trying to rescue cookhouse waitress Martha Quinn, the only woman drowned in the tragedy.

Roland Blair’s hut collapsed on top of him.

He escaped and climbed on to a passing tree trunk. The current took him to a lorry where 11 men had jumped on to the tray.

They called out to Mr Blair to join them, but he couldn’t reach them.

Instead, he saw the lorry overturn in the current and the men were swept away.

Searchers expected to find the men swept downstream but it was not to be.

The searchers had not experienced the power of the torrent.

One of the deceased was found 9.6 kilometres away in a fence.

He had apparently died with a knoll of dry land only several feet away.

As well as the 22 people who died in the flood, three men died during construction of this section of the Gisborne-Napier line.

The first passenger train left Gisborne for Napier on September 7, 1942.

Flood victims of Camp No.4

Martha Quinn, 22, of Gisborne.

William Auld, 55, of Napier.

George Barbarich, 32.

David Barclay, 56, of Auckland.

Frederick Clark, 31.

George Davis, 49.

Mr R Douglas, 28, of Gisborne.

William Dunn, 64, of Christchurch.

Frank Fry, 51, of Gisborne.

Mr F Fountain, 25.

Thomas Hall, 35, of Gisborne.

Ron Halford, 22.

Robert Johnston, 40, of Wairoa.

John Keliher, 51, of Wellington.

Ivan Martinac, 31.

Edward McGiven, 28, of Gisborne.

Mr J Pander, 40.

Hugh Sloan, 37, described as a recent arrival from Ireland.

Ted Smith, 37.

Tom Tracey, 44, of Wairoa

Mr W Waaka, 25, of Mohaka.

Commemorative trip today

Historic Places Tairawhiti and Ngati Rangiwaho will host a day trip today to honour the 21 men and one woman killed in the flood disaster. Participants will arrive at the monument around noon.

Organisers will present a historical pespective about the tragedy and lay commemorative wreaths. There should be sufficient time left to further explore the area before starting the 2.5km walk back to the mini van.

Thanks to Historic Places Tairawhiti for providing information on one of the darkest days in the history of this region.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Finola Sloan - 2 months ago
I attended the 50th anniversary in 1988. Hugh Sloan was my uncle, sorry I couldn't make it to this one. Hugh Sloan was from Killowen in County Down.

Poll

  • Voting please wait...
    Your vote has been cast. Reloading page...
    Do you agree that ratepayers in the city and on the Flats should subsidise some of the spending on rural roads in the district?

    See also:
    April 21 editorial, The local share of roads spending