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The Nihotupu Timber Mill

Timber milling started in the Waitakeres on the Manukau Harbour edge, but it was only a matter of time before investment and technology enabled access to previously unreachable stands of kauri in the Waitakere Ranges. In the 1890s, the timber millers had their eye on an area of kauri on blocks of land owned by John Hueston and William Wasley and his son, Oliver, at Nihotupu, just west of Waiatarua. Wasley’s Bush, as it was known, was considered to be one of the most outstanding areas of kauri forest in New Zealand, and it contained a particular tree, the Glasgow Tree, that because of its spectacular size had been put aside and named after the then Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow.
The millers were Francis “Frank” Mander and Samuel Bradley, principals of the company Mander & Bradley. Mander was Onehunga-born and started his working life at 10 years of age. He was also the father of novelist Jane Mander and later an MP and newspaper pro-prietor. Mander’s partner, Samuel Bradley, was also Onehunga-born and a successful businessman.
The reason the Nihotupu trees had survived into the 1890s was that they couldn’t be extracted with the usual transport method of driving dams because the areas with trees were below the Scenic Drive ridge. Mander & Bradley had the know-how and capital to tackle this difficult extraction and they hired as mill manager Nicholas Gibbons (of Whatipu) who had managed their Albertland opera-tion. Nicholas’s eldest son, Robert Henry “Bob” Gibbons, 32 years of age, was the bush contractor. The Nihotupu mill was located in the long shallow basin just west of Waiatarua which is now regional parkland (reach the site from the Ian Wells Track, near the decom-missioned Nihotupu Auxilliary Dam). It employed 58 men in the summer season and 30 in the winter when the weather and ground conditions affected the output of the mill.
It would have been the Gibbons, father and son, who worked out how to get the trees from Nihotupu down to Henderson Valley 300 metres below. Loads of sawn timber were winched from the mill up to the ridge which is today the Scenic Drive using a horse-powered capstan, then lowered on a precipitous tramway which ran on steep inclines and over sixteen bridges to the valley below. All the output of the mill went to the newly established Melbourne syndicate, the Kauri Timber Company, which had headquarters in Customs Street.
The life of this mill was estimated to be only three years. In January 1899 a fire started by Oliver Wasley burning his boundary, destroyed the mill, damaged the tramlines and burned some of the bush. The fire was
“…fed by the dry heads of the kauri left after milling and by the chips and waste left by firewood and shingle cutters. It set up a heavy pall of smoke which drifted over Auckland.”
The fire badly singed the famous Glasgow tree, which after the fire gradually died.
Mander & Bradley’s Nihotupu mill was valued at £3000 when it burned down. The company said it had no insurance but would rebuild to cut the remaining timber which it said was six months’ supply. By late 1899 Mander & Bradley had wound up operations and taken the equipment to a new site at Puhipuhi, north of Whangarei. Bob Gibbons was bush contractor at Puhipuhi and some of the Nihotupu bushmen followed him north. When he came to work at Piha in 1910, many of the workforce came with him.
– Sandra Coney


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