South Canterbury’s northern and southern boundaries were large, snow-fed rivers that were difficult for early travellers to cross.
Ferries were eventually replaced by bridges. The Rangitātā River was bridged at Arundel in 1872. This remained the main road bridge over the Rangitātā until the present bridges at downriver Rangitātā Island were built in the 1930s. The Waitaki was bridged at Glenavy in 1877 and between Kurow and Hakataramea in 1881.
Ferries also crossed the major rivers in the Mackenzie Country. Bridges replaced the ferries across the Tekapo River at the lake’s outlet in 1880, and across the Pūkaki River in 1895.
Mail and coach services linked Timaru to Christchurch and Dunedin from the 1860s, before the rivers were bridged.
Road vs rail
Until the mid-1950s, road traffic between Christchurch and Dunedin shared the bridge across the Waitaki River at Glenavy with trains. When the bridge was closed to allow a train to cross, up to 200 cars might have to queue for half an hour or more. When a new road bridge was opened in 1956, the procession of sightseers stretched for 1.5 kilometres.
South Canterbury’s isolation was ended by construction of a main trunk railway between Christchurch and Dunedin. Completed in 1878, it linked Timaru to both cities, and to Temuka and Waitaki North (Glenavy) along the way.
South Canterbury had only two significant branch lines. The line from Washdyke reached Pleasant Point in 1875 and was opened to Eversley, beyond Fairlie, in 1884. The ‘Fairlie Flyer’ passenger train became part of South Canterbury folklore.
The line from Studholme Junction to Waimate opened in 1877. It was extended to Waihao Downs in 1883. In 1881, the branch line in North Otago to Kurow was extended across the Waitaki River to Hakataramea. A proposed line up the Hakataramea Valley was never built. The last of South Canterbury’s branch railway lines closed in the 1960s.
Reaching for the skies
Timaru’s Richard Pearse Airport at Levels is named after a South Canterbury aviation pioneer. Pearse (1877–1953) was experimenting with powered flight on his Waitohi farm in 1903, the year America’s Wright brothers succeeded in flying. It has been claimed that Pearse achieved controlled powered flight before they did, but most accept that his achievements, while impressive, were more modest. A monument to Pearse – a replica of his flying machine – was built at Waitohi in 1979.
Better transport links in the 1860s and 1870s fostered the growth of the inland towns. Geraldine, Temuka and Waimate began life as sawmilling settlements, and Fairlie as a railway terminus.
Pleasant Point and Cave, along the railway to Fairlie, began as outstations on the Levels sheep run. Settlements like Albury, Glenavy and Arundel had accommodation houses, some of them at river crossings.
Land subdivision in the late 19th and early 20th centuries boosted some rural towns. However, improved roads and transport triggered the decline and even disappearance of many settlements, as people could travel easily to larger centres with more opportunities. A few settlements survived as rural service or administrative centres.
South Canterbury’s first public airport was formed at Washdyke in 1920. A small airfield built at Saltwater Creek in 1931 was used for commercial flights, and by the South Canterbury Aero Club. In 1953 a new airport was opened at Levels. Regular air services between Christchurch, Timaru and Ōamaru began in 1956. Improvements to State Highway 1 reduced the need for flights to Christchurch, but there are still twice-daily flights to and from Wellington.