Transport links assisted settlement and helped Waikato agriculture and industry develop.
Coastal and river shipping
In the 19th century people entered and left Waikato through west-coast seaports, including Port Waikato, Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa) and Kāwhia Harbour to the south of the region.
Inland, rivers were the easiest transport routes. The Waikato River was navigable from Port Waikato to Cambridge and the Waipā as far as Alexandra (now Pirongia). Paddle steamers and barges plied both rivers, carrying freight, passengers, livestock and mail. The Waikato River system was used for freight until after the Second World War. However, shifting sandbars at Port Waikato, willow infestation and sediment build-up began to impede navigation. Port Waikato closed in 1955, heralding the end of most river transport.
Let your fingers do the walking
In 1864, for military reasons, Hamilton, Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Alexandra were connected to Auckland by telegraph. The telephone, introduced in Auckland and Christchurch in 1881, took longer to become established – Hamilton was not connected until around 1900.
In the 1870s the Waihou River was cleared to make it navigable to 19 kilometres above Te Aroha, and farm produce, mainly from the Matamata estate of Josiah Clifton Firth, was shipped down the river and across the Firth of Thames to Auckland. Again, willows became a problem and river traffic had ceased by 1947.
There was a busy port at Raglan from the 1850s, but declining coastal trade forced its closure in 1981.
After 1864 some Māori tracks were developed for horse transport, and coaches travelled the Great South Road (later part of State Highway 1) between Auckland and Hamilton by 1869. Roads were constructed from Hamilton to Cambridge, Morrinsville, Te Aroha, Raglan and other settlements during the 1870s and 1880s. Most were not metalled until the 20th century, and they were hard to negotiate in wet weather. The winding road between Hamilton and Raglan was particularly notorious.
In the early 2000s a project to upgrade State Highway 1 between Cambridge and Mercer began. The 94.5-kilometre expressway provided four lanes for traffic, improving safety and reducing travel times.
Until roads were improved, railways provided faster, more reliable transport. By 1875 a line from Auckland connected with riverboats at Mercer. The railway reached Ngāruawāhia in August 1877, Frankton (near Hamilton) in December 1877, Ōhaupō in June 1878 and Te Awamutu in 1880. Once Māori permitted railway construction through the King Country, the line continued south and Auckland and Wellington were finally connected in 1908. Meanwhile, branch lines linked Hamilton with Cambridge (1884), the thermal spas of Te Aroha (1886) and Rotorua (1894), and the gold-mining centres of Thames (1898) and Waihī (1905).
In 1952 a branch line between Kinleith, Tokoroa and Putaruru was completed to support the Waikato timber industry. The 8.85-kilometre Kaimai railway tunnel, connecting the Waikato region with the port of Tauranga, opened in 1978. This led to the closure of the line linking Morrinsville with Te Aroha and the Bay of Plenty via Paeroa and Waihī. The decline of rail in the later 20th century affected passenger services, but in the 2010s trains still transported large quantities of freight to and from the region.
From the 1920s airfields were constructed around the region by local aero clubs. Hamilton’s first aerodrome, at Te Rapa, served some commercial air traffic from 1928, but in 1935 another airfield was developed at Rukuhia, south of Hamilton. War intervened, and the airfield was an air-force base from 1942 until 1946, when it became a civilian airport again. In the 1960s Hamilton Airport’s runways were paved to carry modern aircraft, and a new terminal opened in 1966. When entrepreneur Ewan Wilson’s Kiwi International Airlines offered direct flights between Hamilton and Australia in the mid-1990s, an international terminal was built and runways were extended.