From 1870 to 1930, European settlement advanced into the Whanganui hinterland on the back of purchases of Māori land; road and railway building; and the felling and burning of forest to create pasture.
Whanganui expanded rapidly, and for two generations was the lower North Island’s second-most important town and port (after Wellington). The Wanganui Education Board and the Wanganui Hospital Board covered the region, as did the district offices of government departments and regional offices of stock and station firms – it was a provincial capital in all but name.
From 1891 meat was frozen at works in Whanganui and shipped from the port. By 1930 other industries included railway workshops, woollen mills and phosphate works. For 60 years the town grew steadily, and its population increased more than tenfold – from 2,572 in 1874 to 26,388 in 1926. It became a city in 1924, New Zealand’s fifth-largest, and was noted for its educational and cultural institutions.
It was from Whanganui, not New Plymouth, that South Taranaki was settled. In 1871 coaches began running to Hāwera, and townships were established at Maxwell and Waitōtara. The railway reached Kai Iwi in 1879 and Waverley (formerly Wairoa) in 1881, linking to the line from New Plymouth in 1885. Roads and farms also penetrated the inland valleys.
Thoroughbred horses and pedigree cattle and sheep were bred in the district, and several dairy factories were set up from the 1890s. At Moumāhaki, near Waverley, the Department of Agriculture ran one of its first experimental farms from 1893 to 1925.
The Whanganui town bridge opened in 1871, and the Aramoho rail bridge in 1877. By 1875 Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton and Bulls were linked to Whanganui by a daily coach service, and in 1878 the railway reached Palmerston North.
The Turakina River valley was progressively opened up from the late 1860s, and the Whangaehu from the 1870s. Settlers were mostly Scottish. A network of tracks criss-crossed the valleys; some became dray tracks and eventually roads. The only township that developed in this hill country was Mangamāhū.
Waimarino and the river
A block was leased from Māori in 1874 at Karioi, on the unforested part of the Waimarino plain. Between 1880 and 1882, H. C. Field supervised the cutting of a bridle track up the Mangawhero valley to Kākātahi, then north-east to Karioi, closely following the route he had surveyed in 1869. Settlement advanced up the track from the late 1880s.
The Waimarino block itself was purchased by the government in 1887. A track was cut from Pipiriki on the Whanganui River to Karioi on the Waimarino plain in 1886, and widened for dray traffic in 1893, a year after a river steamer service from Whanganui began. Settlements established at Raetihi in 1892 and Ōhakune in 1895 were serviced via this route.
The steamer service also made farming practical along the Whanganui River, and the extension of the service to Taumarunui in 1903 facilitated a tourist trade that lasted through the 1920s.
The main trunk line and beyond
European settlement of the upper Rangitīkei took place between 1885 and 1908 as the main trunk railway line advanced north. The railway ‘fathered’ the towns of Hunterville, Mangaweka and Taihape, and spurred development in Marton, Raetihi and Ōhakune. It saw Whanganui replace Napier as the outlet for wool from the sheep stations north and east of Taihape. From 1917 the Parapara road to Raetihi provided an additional route to the Waimarino area.
From the 1920s, sawmilling of native timber declined in Waimarino. Market gardening by Chinese families started around Ōhakune in 1924, and exotic forestry at Karioi in 1927.