The Auckland region changed dramatically in the early 1900s. By 1905 most of the gold and gum had been taken, and the forests felled. Auckland’s comparative isolation ended with the completion of the main trunk railway line to Wellington in 1908. The Waikato and Bay of Plenty took off, helped by the confiscation of Māori land and the break-up of speculators' estates. Dairy farming became the new source of wealth, and the family farm was the norm. The population of Hamilton (126 kilometres south) rose from 1,250 in 1900 to 16,500 in 1926. North Auckland took longer to prosper because of poorer communications.
A regional capital
Auckland city thrived as dairying and grazing for meat expanded over a huge hinterland. Meat and dairy produce were processed in factories at Penrose and Ōtāhuhu, and exported from Auckland’s ports. The availability of work and low living costs attracted a burgeoning labour force that enabled manufacturing to expand. Brewing and clothing companies employed hundreds of workers.
By 1911 Auckland had become New Zealand’s largest industrial centre, and by 1921 the city was its busiest port. Between 1891 and 1926 the urban population nearly quadrupled. The city was termed a ‘second Sydney’ by its boosters.
In 1900 Auckland feared that a bubonic plague outbreak in Sydney might reach its shores. A campaign was launched to cleanse its streets, and one penny was offered for each rat. At one site an official found three dead cats, one dead rat, the carcasses of five fowls, 25 fish heads, filthy rags and bedding, and countless fish tins. Fortunately, Auckland was spared the disease.
By the early 1900s tramways and suburban railways linked villages across the isthmus, aiding the growth of suburbs. Middle-class families left the run-down and crowded inner-city districts for new, more spacious neighbourhoods on the edge of town. The affluent headed for the inner eastern suburbs of Epsom and Remuera, and the North Shore; middle-class earners built new suburbs to the south and west, such as Mt Albert. The poor remained in the central city.
From the 1920s, some Aucklanders could go by car to bach (holiday-home) settlements along the Manukau Harbour, in the East Coast Bays and at Whangaparāoa. The car also drew farming families to visit the city and its bustling department stores.
In this confident period, visionary mayors like Arthur Myers led major projects: Grafton bridge was built in 1910, and the town hall in 1911. Other new public buildings included the ferry building and the chief post office, both completed in 1912.
In the 1920s Auckland’s openness to overseas trends was visible in the California bungalows and Spanish mission-style housing lining new suburban streets. To meet the growing appetite for Hollywood movies, glitzy, ‘jazz-age’ cinemas sprang up – the downtown Civic Theatre (1929) was the most flamboyant. A public subscription funded the magnificent Auckland (War Memorial) Museum in the Domain in 1929. A year later the impressive new railway station opened on an isolated site in Mechanics Bay.
During the 1930s economic depression, relief workers (state workers on a subsistence wage) built the scenic drive in the Waitākere Range.
The inner city remained dilapidated and crowded, and became a Labour party stronghold. In 1935 its residents helped to elect New Zealand’s first Labour government. This responded to housing needs in 1937 by building Auckland’s first state (public) housing estate at Ōrākei, near the affluent eastern suburbs – the poor had as much right as the rich to good views.