by Diane McKoy.
Living and working conditions on the last span of the North Island Main Trunk Line between Taihape and Taumarunui
During the depression of the 1880s and 1890s railway construction in the North Island was progressing slowly and by the turn of the century there were ten separate sections of line totaling approximately 2,000 miles. Also there were several privately owned lines which were eventually acquired by the Government.
In 1884 John Rochfort, civil engineer and pioneer surveyor (who from an apprenticeship under the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had 33 years of civil engineering), was sent by the Public Works Department to fill in the gaps in the sketchy knowledge of the remote interior. The area had only been open to Pakeha for two years and not all Maori were reconciled to the presence of surveyors. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1900, a concerted effort was begun in the centre of the North Island, and by 1905, the lines had reached Taumarunui in the north and Taihape in the south. Two years later the main trunk workforce topped 2,700.
While the engineers who designed and planned the construction deserve every accolade, tribute should also be paid to the nameless navvies who toiled on the line with little more than pick, shovel, horse, bullock and dray, to tame unstable pumice fields and hard volcanic rock, to bridge deep ravines and conquer steep hillsides. Oxen, horses and small steam locomotives assisted with bulk movement of materials.