Bridges of Hawke's Bay County
Puketapu. Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

Like all residents of Napier, I experienced the surreal feeling of being completely cut off from the surrounding district in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. This meant no access to my daughter’s school, and in a worst case scenario no access to a hospital, a civil defence centre or police station.

Later, when things opened up a bit, driving back and forth between Napier and Hastings seeing the devastation of the railway bridge at Waitangi, and crossing numerous bridges set me off on something of a philosophical musing about both the importance of bridges in our day to day lives, and also about what they symbolise: connection.

Bridges are more than just a piece of engineering; they allow families and communities access to other places, do business, socialise, keep safe and to be resilient against external forces. Here in the Bay, where settlements are close enough together to be thought of as extensions of one another, we cross them all the time. How many of us live in one city but work in another, or regularly use services not based in our hometown? That’s just how life is here.

Gabrielle’s legacy of destruction

Hastings District is home to 268 bridges, of which 16 were destroyed and 28 significantly damaged in the February floods. Similarly, a number of bridges on state highways, under the care of Waka Kotahi were also badly damaged, including Waikare River Bridge, near Putorino, which remains impassable at the time of writing.

A recent update from the Hastings District Council advised that 16 bridges and river crossings had been damaged beyond repair and many others had been severely damaged, leaving communities isolated or with restricted access. Many of these bridges are on rural roads that are still closed, and open only to residents and essential services.

I began to wonder about the history of these bridges and went looking for information – when they were built and any social context around them. To my delight, I found an entire chapter on bridges in a book called History of the County of Hawke’s Bay part III (hence the title of this story), along with a rather hefty history of its river management in part IV. All historical accounts that follow are from these two volumes. 

In a conversation with Hastings Deputy Mayor Tania Kerr, she explained how Hawke’s Bay County Council had joined Hastings City Council and Havelock North Borough in the 1980s to create Hastings District Council. At the same time, Taradale Borough joined with Napier City Council – and that’s how we got to where we are today. 

Kerr is from one of the many rural flood-affected communities, and with her husband has farmed on the Glengarry Road for 33 years. She has represented rural communities for 21 years – for Tūtira and Te Pōhue on the Hastings rural community board and as Mohaka Ward councillor.

Not only is she very connected to the district’s rural communities, she is a passionate advocate. Mohaka Ward stretches from her home patch down to Whirinaki and Esk, across to Pātoka and down to Omahu, and represents two thirds of the Hastings District. The ward includes the most significantly impacted communities, excluding Pakowhai. 

Kerr was not on the farm at the time of the flood – she and her husband were out of town, but she’s had to deal with damage and the cleanup, and she has extensively toured and engaged with people in flood affected communities … an ongoing job.

She tells me about the emotional impact and the incredible frustration she feels about what could have, should have, might have been done before the storm.

“Anger, disappointment, tiredness – I’m still tired. And at times [have felt] incredible helplessness knowing that there were families weeks later still cut off, still unable to make a phone call, use the internet, still couldn’t access town, couldn’t get stock off. 

“Even now, there are some farms that between them and the world is a bridge that limits the weight of stock they can take out. These are the bridges that are still damaged.”

Flooding – a perennial issue
Hawke’s Bay County Council was formed in 1877, a time of floods according to the history books, and was dealing with ‘river problems’ from the get go.

What became clear from reading these histories was that rivers, floods and bridges were an ongoing preoccupation throughout the county’s, now district’s, history. Early settlers in Hawke’s Bay were concerned with protecting themselves from floodwater – as well as how to profit from the bounty of the rich silts that came down with each flood.

Former Napier mayor and educator, Henry Hill was quoted in 1898, at an address to the Philosophical Institute, as saying: “The rivers flowing over the plains are the bearers of nature’s richest gifts and it is folly to send into the ocean the millions of tons of valuable soil brought down. Settlers on the areas subject to floods should build their houses on stilts above flood level, plant trees to intercept the flood and let the floods raise the level of their land.

”The first publicly subscribed stop banks were built in 1870 at Papakura. Willow planting on riverbanks was introduced in 1877. And the Hawke’s Bay Rivers Act was passed in 1876, “to make provisions for the management of rivers in the Province of Hawke’s Bay”.

“One depressing fact was generally accepted at this period. There was no hope of stopping flood waters. They came with regularity and increasing force as the bush was stripped from the high country. The problem at issue was – where to direct the flood waters.” [History of Hawke’s Bay County part IV.]

One such flood was in 1897, in which a great many bridges were impacted: “The flood of 1897 brought disaster to the county council bridges. After it, it was necessary to raise a special loan of £12,000 to rebuild or repair: Redclyffe, Omahu, Rissington, Ohiwia, Kikowhero, Okawa, Kuripapango, Longlands, Waitangi, Karamu Bridges; also 3 on the Taupo Road, 3 at Puketitiri and many smaller bridges.”

Our bridges have time and time again been the casualties of floods, as you will see. Now, a major programme of work to repair damaged roads and bridges after Cyclone Gabrielle is being undertaken by Hastings District Council.

“While access is mostly open in urban areas there’s still a lot of damage on our rural roads – lots of slips, drop outs, temporary crossings, and many roads are still one-lane only and are in a precarious state. People need to treat every rural road as a work site and slow down,” a recent council roading update advised.

A council spokesperson said it was currently estimated that it could cost about $150 million to replace all bridges with modern structures and there were still many unknowns which could impact the final design and cost.By no means a comprehensive list, I want to highlight some of the key bridges being repaired and their historical antecedents, with regards to floods. For the most recent update, go to the council website.

Rissington Bridge
After Gabrielle, the Rissington Bridge over the Mangaone River was the number one priority for repairing, the “lifeline bridge”, followed by Dartmoor, says Kerr.

Bridges of Hawke's Bay County
Kids crossing at Rissington Photo supplied

This bridge was first built in 1885, but was washed away in the flood of 1897, and replaced in 1898. It was destroyed again in 1924, and according to the historical account, children crossed the river to school on a pulley for years until a new bridge was built in 1930.

Kerr said she was particularly upset to see Rissington Bridge go, as HDC had only a few years ago invested money into strengthening it so that it could take heavier trucks.

“We spent significant money on the Rissington Bridge. It was a treasured structure, and it was really sad to see it tangled there on the bank,” she says.

As in the 30s, after Gabrielle Rissington locals constructed a raft crossing and then a flying fox, and with council help created some culverts and a low-level crossing with a causeway. 

A Bailey bridge was completed in early April to much celebration, reconnecting Rissington, Puketitiri and Pātoka, and now allows for weight of up to 50 tonnes, meaning farmers can now move livestock before winter, Kerr says.

“For Pātoka, we had a formal Māori blessing, a ribbon cutting and the community walking over the bridge, and the first vehicle. Then the community stayed and talked and caught up with each other. It was just a sunny joyous afternoon.”

Dartmoor Bridge
The next bridge down on the Mangaone River from Rissington is the Dartmoor Bridge, also destroyed in Cyclone Gabrielle.

“They got a raft crossing, and then some assistance to get a bigger raft and trained operators – and that’s how the children got across to go to school. If they didn’t cross there they had about an hour and a half drive back up and around to get to the Rissington Bridge,” Kerr recounts.

According to historical accounts, the Dartmoor Bridge was first built in 1924, at a cost of £3,000 pounds, but was severely damaged in the 1931 earthquake. A temporary low-level bridge was erected in 1932 to allow flood waters to wash over it. Another permanent bridge was built in 1933, but was lost again in the flood of 1938.

In this flood, “one hundred and sixty feet of it on the Hastings side disappeared without a trace and was found several years later, buried under 20 feet of silt downstream, when trial borings were being taken for a replacement bridge.”

To help Dartmoor residents getting to market without adding an extra 40 miles, a temporary hardwood bridge was put in place, but it too washed away in 1944 and was rebuilt.

“The war ended but the discussions about this bridge did not. The argument was that, at this point, flood waters were confined and rose to a great height so that it was almost impossible to build a bridge high enough to escape debris and floating trees. It was argued that, with a low-level bridge, flood water and debris would flow right over and that it was better for the settlers to lose the use of their bridge for a few days than to lose it permanently.

”It wasn’t until 1954 that residents once again had a permanent bridge, at a cost £11,500. This one stood for 70 years, only to be washed away again in 2023.

HDC says Dartmoor now has an 87-meter temporary bridge, wider than the original and taking up to 40 tonnes, which pending an engineering report, may go up to 50 tonnes. It can therefore now take trucks and trailers and allow for agricultural equipment and livestock movement. This Bailey bridge will be in place for about two years while a new bridge is designed.

Puketapu Bridge
Puketapu bridge linked a community, Kerr says, which has been split in half as a result of the flood. Residents are carpooling to get kids to school presently. Repairing this bridge is also key to easing congestion between Napier and Hastings – as one of three of five bridges knocked out over the Tūtaekurī.

Hastings District Council is undertaking modelling to decide the future of Puketapu bridge post-Gabrielle, and timeframes are yet to be confirmed. Waiohiki bridge, near EIT, is next in line for repair with a temporary bridge, which will ease congestion on the expressway, Kerr says.

Historical accounts say Puketapu bridge was first built in the 1860s using military labour, but a county engineer found it to be unsafe in 1877. A new bridge was built around 1892 but washed away in the 1897 flood. A temporary bridge was erected, and then a new suspension bridge was built in 1906.

“Napier Town band was on hand to lead the march on the bridge, as it had been … for almost every civic or military occasion since the 1860s. The bridge was believed to be the largest single-span bridge in the North Island and its four concrete towers held ten cables of plough steel obtained from England.”

After the 1931 earthquake constant repairs were required to the bridge and in December 1948 a driver and his son were killed when an overloaded truck went through the decking. After this it was a pedestrian only bridge. A new bridge at Puketapu was opened in May 1963, only to be washed away again in 2023.

Brookfields Bridge
Now this little one lane bridge with a lay-by in the middle was quite dear to me, as I drove over it most days to take my daughter to school in Hastings. There was something very country, very quaint, about waiting for the oncoming traffic to clear before driving on, and on occasion running into trouble when two vehicles came onto the bridge from both ends at the same time. Doesn’t everyone have a story or two of that happening, followed by a stressful reversal back off the bridge or onto the lay-by?

“Brookfields Bridge was a sad little bridge,” the historical account begins.“It was built in 1900 to play a part in the ambitious river control scheme which would protect the Heretaunga Plains from ever again being drowned.

“For 36 years it spanned a grassy channel waiting for the river to come through. Occasionally, the Tutaekuri overflowed into the channel and the bridge knew what it was like to be a real bridge with real water underneath, but its moments of glory were brief and rare. Mostly cows grazed and boyscouts camped and lovers walked underneath it as it waited and waited to become a working bridge. When the river finally came through in 1936 the bridge was too old and too tired to cope and it had to be retired in favour of a new concrete bridge.”

Watching this concrete bridge collapsing into the floodwaters in February on news footage, was to appreciate the awesome power of water – and to mourn the end of an era, as it’s unlikely to be rebuilt as a one-lane bridge, I dare say.

A traffic study is being undertaken to decide where a permanent replacement bridge might go and timeframes have yet to be confirmed, HDC says.

Waikare River Bridge
Built in 1941, it is a critical freight link, as well as a key connection for rural communities.

Waka Kotahi says that restoring complete access between Napier and Wairoa is the ultimate goal. 

This may have been completed by the time this issue hits the stand, as the design work has been completed for the Bailey bridge replacement and the process for site works and preparation for installation has begun. Waka Kotahi anticipated that it would be open in mid-to-late April, weather depending.

Kerr tells me that many communities remain very isolated, including those reliant on the Waikare River Bridge.

“You can only travel between Tūtira and Bayview at certain times of the day, and the road is still so fragile that in another weather event, it can be shut very quickly, so the community can’t plan very well. The ability to get stock off farms is still limited, it’s not as easy to get trucks in and out. In an emergency, how do you quickly get to the doctor?

“So, in the Tūtira and Waikare communities, yes, it’s still tough and there are still families living beyond bridges that are damaged.”

One family that lives on the other side of the Waikare Gorge have had to walk from one side of the gorge to the other in order to drive to see their son at boarding school. Another farmer with several properties that are all isolated from each other, keeps a vehicle on either side of a crossing in order to continue general farm operations. So rural people are still very much at the coalface, she says.

“It’s two months in on a journey that is going to take years.”

I asked the council whether, given the frequency of the district’s bridges washing away down through time, they were confident that this time they could engineer bridges which can withstand nature’s forces. A spokesperson said: “We can engineer structures to a very high standard, but the cost could be significant/prohibitive, and there are no guarantees.” 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air


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  1. Confirms aspects of the Michael Fowler presentation in Hastings, Havelock North and Napier 16-17 March and repeated Havelock North 22 April. Such weather events nothing new for Hawkes Bay. Interesting all right!

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