The history of Wellington's
public transport

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The Wellington Region is situated at the southern end of the North Island of New Zealand. Geographically, the region is roughly square in shape, surrounded on three sides by sea. Its land form is dominated by hills and a mountain range, known as the Rimutakas in the south and Tararuas in the north, which divides the urbanised western side of the region from the more rural east, known as the Wairarapa. Many earthquake fault lines run through the region.

The feature of the region which most attracted early settlers is Wellington Harbour, a large natural land-locked body of water open to the sea (Cook Strait) through a natural navigable channel.

Natural flat land in the Wellington region is principally the river delta which forms the Hutt Valley, the wide valley floor of the Wairarapa, the coastal strip of Kapiti and pockets of uplifted beach and sand deposits in the centre and east of Wellington city. The central area of Wellington City is built on filled harbour margin, assisted by an uplift of about 6 feet in an earthquake in 1855.

Early settlement

The first human settlers in the area were the Maori, originally from Polynesia, who arrived (according to current archeological evidence) around 1200 AD. Various tribes fought over the area around Wellington Harbour, the last displacement by new invaders taking place around 1835, only a few years before formal European settlement.

The first European settlers were whalers and other traders who set up isolated settlements serviced mainly from Sydney in the first decades of the 19th century. In 1839 the New Zealand Company, a commercial group of land speculators, moved to establish a settlement for English emigrants on the shores of Wellington Harbour. This was part of the wave of 19th century migration from an overcrowded Britain which also established or increased the populations of Canada, Australia and the USA, and which gives all our countries a common language and similar cultures.

Pressured by the actvities of the New Zealand Company and other, less organised, settlement activities, the British Government moved to formalise New Zealand's existence as a British colony. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed with the native Maori in February 1840 - a few days after the first British settlers arrived in Wellington. The Treaty is regarded as New Zealand's founding document, much like the US Declaration of Independence, though still the cause of controversy.

The settlement of Wellington developed slowly, hemmed in by harbour and hills. The 1855 earthquake destroyed a few houses and killed a few people, but was to the long-term advantage of Wellington by uplifting land, converting swamp to useable land and providing the first road along the western side of the harbour to connect to the Hutt Valley. In 1865 the colonial government was moved to Wellington from Auckland.

Developing transport links

The urban area of Wellington was limited to what is now the central business district for the remainder of the 19th century. Farming activity developed as the forest was cleared and sheep farming, in particular, was established in the Wairarapa. The first land transport links were by bush tracks and rough roads. Sailing ships remained the main means of transport over any distance.

The first railway out of Wellington was opened in 1874, to the farming area of Lower Hutt. The line was pushed through to the Wairarapa in 1878. (This line featured the difficult 6.6% Rimutaka Incline, which required special Fell locomotives and which lasted until the opening of the present tunnel in 1955. A local enthusiast group is working towards the reopening of the Incline as a tourist attraction.) The coming of the railway started the first tentative development of suburbs within the Wellington region, with the establishment of an industrial town at Petone and some commuter settlement at nearby Lower Hutt.

*** to be continued!!

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© Brent Efford 15 December 2003