Kaitangata is a town near the coast of South Otago, New Zealand, on the left bank of the Clutha River ten kilometres south east of Balclutha. The town is known to its residents simply as Kai.
The town sits close to the coast on one of the branches of the Clutha River’s delta. The small island of Inch Clutha lies immediately to the southwest of the town. Close to the town to the north lies the small Lake Tuakitoto, which drains into the Clutha via a small stream which runs to the west of Kaitangata.
In 1863 there were only 29 eligible voters in the wider district, which included Inch Clutha and Matau. By 1865 the population for the wider area was given as 403 males and 253 females – a total of 656. Considerable expansion took place with the arrival of rail and the local population sought to have the town proclaimed a Municipality in July 1878. Kaitangata was within Bruce County at the time.
According to the 2006 census, the usually resident population of Kaitangata was 810, an increase of 21 since 2001. 50 years earlier in 1956 the population was 1,286. The town is largely of European descent, with well below the national average of people recorded as being non-European (7.1%).
Initially access to Kaitangata was by boat up the Clutha River. When road access was being improved at considerable expense in 1862 there was opposition in favour of a steamer service on the river. In 1862 the town was described as a port of entry with a customs house.
Road access remained problematic up until the mid-1870s due to poor construction and surface flooding. A rail link to the South Island Main Trunk was constructed in 1875, primarily for moving coal. Prior to the construction of the line, the coal had been shipped down the Clutha River.
The origin of the town’s Māori name is uncertain. It is the name of a figure in Polynesian mythology, but could also refer to cannibal feasts held after tribal fighting in the district between Kāi Tahu and Kāti Mamoe. The name can be interpreted from Māori to English as, ‘food for people’ or ‘people for food’. After the mining accident in 1879 a local newspaper commented pointed out the meaning of the name and its appropriateness in the circumstances.
With the arrival of Europeans, in 1847 the area of land known as the Otago Block, lying between the Clutha and the Tokomairiro Rivers, was surveyed by a party that consisted of Joseph Thomas, R J Harrison, and Charles Henry Kettle, surveyor. The surveyors identified the present location of Kaitangata as suitable for a village on their map. When Europeans settled in the area through the early 1850s, sheep and dairy farming were started. The town’s first settler in 1855 was John Lovell.
Coal had been discovered in the nearby area in 1844 by Frederick Tuckett at Coal Point, but access meant that it mining did not commence until the late 1850s. At Kaitangata mining began in 1862 just after the township commenced with the sale of its first 40 sections in 28 February 1862. In August 25 sections were sold in the township for an average of £14 per section. The Presbyterian Church acquired a site for a church in late 1862. Mr James Kirkland was the first Minister appointed on 10 September 1863. The town by 1862 had a customs house, a police station, and stores, and by 1863 a resident magistrate. Andrew Chapman was the first Post Master, appointed on the 15 September 1863. Chapman was later adjudged bankrupt because he was not a competent businessman and a new Post Master was appointed on 1 February 1865.
A primary school was established in 1866 and its roll reached 50 pupils in April 1873. Flax mills were opened in early 1870. In November 1870 a Volunteer Unit, part of the No 1 Clutha Rifles, was formed. A saw mill had been established sometime before 1872. In 1873 a town library was commenced. Cheese manufacturing was commenced. A minor property boom occurred in 1875-1876 with the arrival of rail in the town with section selling anywhere up to ₤100 by June 1876. The telegraph arrived some time in 1877 and a new Presbyterian Church opened in October that year.
Clubs and Societies
A cricket club was formed by January 1864. The Ancient Order of Oddfellows was established in September 1865. A Temperance Society was set up in 1871. By 1877 there was a football club.
Coal mining was the mainstay of the town’s economy from the 1870s until 1972, when the last state-owned underground coal mine closed. In addition to the earlier mentioned Thompson mine, MacFarlane and Martin opened a new mine in March 1872, with Dunedin merchants Messrs Findlay and Chapstick being added as additional owners a month later. There mine was referred to as the No 1 Coal Company mine. In September Thompson and Aitchenson reached agreement to raise capital to expand their mining operation by way of a new company, the Kaitangata Coal Mining Company. The Company made a rail link to the South Island Main Trunk at Stirling in 1875.
In September 1873 ownership of the No 1 Coal Company Mine passed to a Mr McLaren. Later the same year Messrs Findlay and Watson opened their mine. The underground mines produced sub-bituminous coal of a high quality, which was used primarily as fuel for the steam locomotives, in use in NZ until the 1960s. When the railways switched to diesel locomotives the decline of underground mining occurred.
In 1873 miners at the Kaitangata Coal Mining Company struck for higher wages. Their claims were unsuccessful and work resummed after about a month.
In either late 1873 or early 1874 the No 1 Company’s mine caught fire. By July 1874 the fire had broken out of the mine and attempts to put out the fire were unsuccessful.
One of New Zealand’s early industrial disasters occurred at the Kaitangata mine at 8am on 21 February 1879, when the lives of 34 miners were lost in an underground explosion. On the day of the explosion 47 men were employed at the mine. The cause of the explosion is believed to have been a methane gas build up that was ignited when the mine managers brother entered a disused area of the mine with a lit candle. The Coroners Court verdict found negligence on behalf of the mine manager and his brother, together with the lack of legislation as the contributing factors in the disaster.
Several open-cast mines have continued to exist (both state and private) up to the present day, such as the Kai Point Mine. The Kai Point Coal Company, founded by George Cross, has been mining coal at Kaitangata since 1951 and produces coal for local industry and domestic heating. It was producing 55,000 tons of coal per annum. The remaining open-cast mine produces lignite, which is primarily used in household fires and industrial boilers.
In 1873 local residents petitioned the Provincial Government to construct a Branch Line from the South Island Main Trunk to Ropers Creek near Kaitangata to enable coal to be easily transported from the mines. In 1874 the Provincial Government applied for consent to raise a ₤27,750 loan to construct the Branch line with an extension as far as Coal Point. This was unsuccessful and as a result the Kaitangata Coal Company began to investigate constructing its own line.
A railway construction company, the Kaitangata Railway Company was formed and Government consent sought to construct the line. After the Railway Company was formed it amalgamated with the Coal Company, forming the Kaitangata Mining and Railway Company. Construction of a railway line from Kaitangata to the South Island Main line at Stirling was commenced 1875 and was completed on 31 March 1876. It was a private branch line serving the township and the mines. Eventually the line later came into the state Mines Department’s possession. It was closed in 1970.
The locomotive that operated the line for many years, known during operation as an “Improved F”, was donated to the preservation society at Shantytown in Westland and it operates heritage trains today with the nameplate “Kaitangata” in honour of its former home.
In April 1877 several local stores were set alight by an arsonist, although only one was destroyed. A ₤250 reward was offered for locating and prosecuting the offender. The culprit was never found.
In recent years the town has gained some notoriety due to several high-profile crimes connected with the town (notably cases of arson).
Black swans and pheasants were introduced into the area in the 1860s by the Acclimatisation Society. Trout were introduced into the Matau River in the 1870s.
at 10am on 11 May 1877 the tsunami from the 1877 Iquique earthquake caused the an 18 inch high wave up the Clutha River past Kaitangata, with the river eventually rising to 4 feet above its former height. This repeated hourly for most of that day.
Drainage and flooding
In 1877 work began to drain the lakes at Kaitangata. The community hoped that by draining the lakes a source of flooding which plagued the area would be removed.
At the end of September 1878 the whole township was severely flooded, no lives were lost but considerable damage was done to the township. The road to Granton was washed away and the railway bridges piles were undermined.
A local promotions society (formed from the former ratepayers’ association) has improved this image somewhat and has been responsible for numerous civic projects in and around the town. In 2010 a museum focusing on the coal mining industry was opened.
Famous Kaitangatans have included All Black rugby player Tony Brown and Aaron Jury, winner of the Golden Guitar and MLT Song writing awards in 2005.