Huge machines are piecing together the new $22 million Kawarau Falls Bridge. It was a different story for the original, opened in 1926 – horse and cart, home-made ladders, diving equipment that resembled a spacesuit and a truckload of hard graft. Louise Scott bridges the gap in time 

The original Kawarau Falls Bridge wasn’t pitched as an access road.

It was built as a dam to stop the flow of water so fortune seekers could scour the riverbed for gold.

One of those miners was 20-year-old George Hood. He’d been mining in the Moonlight Valley, north of Arthurs Point, but was brought in as a labourer for the project. Son Ken says his dad described it as bloody hard work.

Workers would be knee-deep in water, kitted out in only gumboots – a far cry from today’s health and safety protocols.

Ken: “Everything was done manually. There were no cranes swinging things round. It was just hard work. Basically when you left you took a change of clothes with you because you knew you would get wet – it was just a regular occurrence.”

His dad told stories of wannabe workers lining up at the river bank hoping to get a job. They’d keep fingers crossed workers would get injured, be sick, or not turn up so they could get a shift on the river. Queues of men was the daily norm, he says.

“They were hoping to pick up employment and they’d walk out from Queenstown.”

The Hood name was respected and Ken’s uncle also got on the payroll.

“All these guys were basically just labourers. All head down and bum up – swinging the pick, carrying timber, shifting pipes into place, pumping water out and building diversions or directing water.”

Under construction: The original bridge was opened in 1926
Under construction: The original bridge was opened in 1926

Specialist divers were brought up from Dunedin to put in gates. It was dangerous work.

A 21-year-old from Dunedin died after falling into the river – a 1926 news report said he slipped after “skylarking” and a “bout of wrestling”.

Most things were done on site, including making their own ladders.

Despite their efforts the dam didn’t work.

When they turned it on the water level only dropped about a metre as the river is fed by other tributaries, including the Shotover.

All up it cost $106,000 – a whopping $10 million in today’s money.

However, with the dam in place, and the opening of the Kingston Road 11 years later, it became the southern access road.

Reflecting on the new bridge, Ken reckons tradies nowadays have things pretty good in comparison.

“Fair enough. That is the way it is – progress – but I cannot help but look every time I go over, see what is happening and think about what happened initially and how hard it was.”

Historical reflections: Ken Hood
Historical reflections: Ken Hood

New Zealand Transport Agency’s Phil Dowsett, the new bridge’s project chief, reckons it would have been no easy feat.

“They were working in the river, excavating bedrock in the river and making massive concrete piers. All of that had to be mixed by hand and placed by hand. It would have been heavy, hard work – mostly manual labour – whereas these days we have big powerful machines.”

He reckons the biggest difference today is the focus on health and safety. Construction is potentially quite dangerous with numerous hazards – particularly when working on a river. Before any project is started – all safety concerns are considered.

“We live and breathe health and safety now,” Dowsett says. “But back in 1926 when the original dam was built it was much more gung-ho. I remember when I started working in construction 30 years ago there was nowhere near the same emphasis there is today.”

Main contractor McConnell Dowell has typically had about 30 blokes on site – a figure which doubles during peak construction time.

The flash new two-lane bridge should be completed before Christmas next year. Once the old one is no longer needed, it is likely to be used as a walking and cycling path.

That’s if the transport agency and the local council can agree on its long-term future.