Geoff Watson teaches a course in sports history at Massey University.
“If the Manawatū Railroad has not been the salvation of the district, it has at least been the royal road to that end”.
So wrote Lindsay Buick in Old Manawatū in 1903. There is an element of hyperbole in his statement, as he was an avid “propeller” of the province.
Nonetheless, the importance of the railroad to the history of Palmerston North, and Manawatū more broadly, cannot be overlooked.
Regionally, it cemented Palmerston North’s place as a service hub for its adjacent hinterland.
* Back Issues: A great artist too little recognized in New Zealand
* Back issues: what’s in a name?
* Back Issues: Why Manawatū Celebrates Wellington’s Birthday and Whether We Should Throw It Away
Nationally, Palmerston North became the link connecting Wellington to the west and east coasts after lines to Wellington and Napier were established in 1886 and 1891 respectively.
The railroad was much more than a means of transportation for people and goods.
It employed a large workforce, many of whom lived in houses powered by the railroads and socialized through clubs tied to their employer.
He also provided place names for the settlements of Levin, Shannon, Linton and Plimmerton.
Equally important, it has become part of Palmerston North’s human history.
For many children, watching the trains pass under the Cook Street upper deck was a rite of passage.
Establishing links between the proposed settlement of Palmerston (formerly Palmerston North in 1871) and neighboring settlements was a priority from the outset.
John Tiffin Stewart, Provincial Surveyor for the District of Wellington, who designed the original plans for Palmerston North, recommended that a tramway be built between Palmerston and Te Awahou (Foxton) in 1865.
The need for a tramway was particularly acute because, as Stewart recognized, the Manawatū River was an unsuitable means of transportation, difficult to navigate for large ships.
One of the first tasks Stewart completed in his 1866 survey was the line of a streetcar to Foxton.
The Great Southern Train Tour departing from Blenheim Station for a journey to Kaikoura (video posted July 2021).
Five years later, following extensive representations to the central government, construction of a wooden tram began in 1871.
It was one of the first projects in Vogel’s public works program, which used immigrant labor to build public works in exchange for land grants.
Ken Cassells, who has written extensively on the railway history of Manawatū, noted that recently arrived Scandinavian immigrants and local Māori made up the bulk of the workforce.
Completed in 1873, the wooden tram quickly proved insufficient.
Its capacity was too limited for the growing demand occasioned by Feilding’s development and its wooden balustrades soon fell into disuse.
In 1875 the process of installing the iron tracks began, as did the construction of Palmerston North’s first station at The Square.
The first engine to make the journey between Foxton and Palmerston North, albeit along old wooden rails, was The Skunk in October 1875.
The railway line opened the following year. The erratic mechanics of The Skunk made a lasting impression on local citizens.
“It was at all times,” Buick noted, “kind of a quiet engine, and the bigger the occasion, the quieter it became.”
The newly formed railway line linked Palmerston North with Foxton in the west and Whanganui in the north.
Although this was useful, Palmerston North remained isolated from Wellington, depending on navigation via Foxton or the beach-based coastal route with its many river crossings.
After considerable advocacy from Wellington and Manawatū, the government began work on a railway between Wellington and Foxton in 1878.
The project was, however, abandoned after a change of government resulted in its withdrawal due to the so-called “Long Depression”, which plagued New Zealand between the late 1870s and early 1890s.
Undaunted, a group of Wellington and Manawatū business leaders, including former Mayor of Palmerston North James Linton, formed the Wellington and Manawatū Railway Company in 1881 with a capital of £500,000 (about $95 million in 2022 ).
It was a truly international project. Former Prime Minister Julius Vogel, acting as the company’s London agent, raised £400,000.
The first engines purchased by the company came from Great Britain and the United States.
There was an element of economic interest in the project, many of the backers being businessmen from Wellington and Manawatū.
The decision to run the line inland via Shannon and Palmerston North, and not along the coast, created considerable discontent and hampered the development of Foxton.
Nonetheless, it was a brave move that played out as it did during a recession and when Wellington’s population was around 20,000 and Palmerston North’s 1,300.
Under the Railways Construction and Land Act of 1881, the government granted 210,500 acres of land for the railway and the company assumed responsibility for the construction of the railway.
It was completed in November 1886, nine months ahead of schedule.
The first train, carrying 500 passengers, arrived at Palmerston North on 29 November 1886, an occasion marked by “a grand banquet” held at the Theater Royal.
Due to increased traffic, the station and marshalling yards were moved from The Square to Main St in 1891 (opposite the present Railway Hotel).
It remained there until Milson Station opened in 1963.
No overview of rail in Manawatū would be complete without reference to the Sanson Tramway, which operated between Foxton and Sanson (and, after extension in 1902, between Foxton and Pukenui).
Administered by the Manawatū County Council (the only county that owned and operated its own railroad) between 1884 and 1945, it played a vital role in transporting local goods, metal, and passengers.
During World War II, Holcroft noted, he played a pivotal role in the construction of Ōhakea Air Force Base, being the means of transporting approximately 30,000 tons of cement to the Ōhakea Domain.
The importance of the railway to the development of Manawatū cannot be underestimated.
For many of its citizens, its activities and sounds were part of their daily lives and it was their primary means of connection with the outside world.
As Monte Holcroft wrote evocatively in his history of Manawatū County Council: “It is not fanciful to hear the whistle of a locomotive, a little raspy at times against time and distance, as a theme persistent and hopeful in the story of Manawatū.”