11 January 2012

The greater part of Raetihi is intact

Old County Offices in Raetihi, 1922
On the drive back south to Wellington last week I paused for a break at tiny Raetihi, north of Wanganui on State Highway 4. I've driven the road to Wanganui a few times, mainly when I've been driven to distraction by the boredom of State Highway 1, but I don't think I've ever pulled into Raetihi to take a look. It's a sleepy little place, with a big wide main street suitable for driving cattle down, and a batch of heritage buildings that show it used to be quite an up-and-coming place.

Raetihi's commendably detailed Wikipedia entry records that the town was once the largest settlement in the King Country, with a massive population of 'almost 4500' in 1900. This figure seems too high, what with Te Ara listing the entire population of the King Country as 5475 in 1901, but it still gives an idea of how bustling the place used to be.

Whatever its population, Raetihi boasts a decent collection of period buildings from its heyday. Here are a few of the historic buildings remaining in Seddon St, Raetihi's main thoroughfare:

Old Bank of New Zealand building, with hitching post outside

County Offices detail

Now a cafe

Garage, next to The Royal

The Royal Cinema, 1915

But we shouldn't pretend Raetihi used to be a major metropolis. These two images from 1914 and 1916 respectively show the broad expanse of Seddon St unsullied by throngs of shoppers. In the earlier picture only one motorcar is visible, while in the 1916 shot the only sign of life is a flock of sheep idling in the middle of the road. Still, it's nice to see the hitching post outside the BNZ has survived all these years, even if it mustn't get much use in the 21st century.

Raetihi, c.1914, by Frederick George Radcliffe

Raetihi, 1916, by Frederick George Radcliffe

Diana and Jeremy Pope's North Island travel guide records the following history of Raetihi:

Raetihi was founded in 1892 in a densely bushed area. The Whanganui River as far as Pipiriki was then the district's principal means of access and wagoners found the town site to be the nearest area of level ground as a stopping point. Disaster struck in 1918 when fire devastated vast areas of native forestlands in so great a blaze that as far away as Wellington the smoke forced schools to close. Nine sawmills, over 150 houses and and least three people perished [...] It was years before the district could recover and a long time before logging and milling could be reorganised.
- D. & J. Pope, Mobil NZ Travel Guide: North Island, 9th edn., 1996, p.186.

The great forest fire of March 1918 was reported at length in Wellington's Evening Post of Thursday 21 March 1918 under the headline The Great Blaze, and noted that Raetihi itself was in better condition than had been feared at first:

First reports rather over-estimated the effect of the fire. The greater part of Raetihi is intact. When the townspeople hurried away from Raetihi they did not know how the town would suffer. Business places and dwellings at either end were totally destroyed, likewise houses all round the place; but the centre of the town, including a great number of business premises, still stand, damaged merely by the cyclone. It is miraculous how they escaped the fire, for sparks fell in heaps everywhere. It is certain that the country has suffered more than the towns, the brunt of the disaster falling on sawmillers and settlers.

It appears that rain falling on the Tuesday afternoon and night in March 1918 saved towns like Raetihi and Ohakune from much greater damage. But the longer-term impact was more significant, with the local economy taking years to get back on its feet. Raetihi was also hit by the decline of timber stocks as easily accessible wood was exhausted, the closure of the town's branch railway connection in 1968, and the decline in rural industry in the 1970s and 80s. Now the town earns a living from passing travellers on the State Highway, and from ski tourism in the winter.

Photo credits for Alexander Turnbull Library images: 
(1) Looking down one of the streets in Raetihi. Radcliffe, Frederick George, 1863-1923 : New Zealand post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-005995-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

(2) Seddon Street, Raetihi. Radcliffe, Frederick George, 1863-1923 : New Zealand post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-005994-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

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