The wondrous Waitaki

Labour Weekend marks the 75th birthday of the Waitaki hydro dam, which is one of the cornerstones of this nation’s power grid. Built in the 1920s and 30s using old-fashioned hard work – picks, shovels, concrete, steel and blood, sweat and tears, it first generated power in 1935 and was the first of  several dams on the Waitaki River.

A remarkable collection of 185 photos donated by Linton Simmons Payne, a hydro-electrical engineer, has been digitised and made available online in time to mark this occasion. The photos cover all aspects of the the construction of the dam and provide a fascinating glimpse into this massive project and what life must have been like for the workers who toiled in the harsh valley climate.

There are a few books on The Waitaki River and its hydro electric history, and another is set to be launched for this year’s milestone. I wonder what a power project on that scale would look like today? Would we even have the audacity to give it a shot? Reading the book commissioned for the fortieth anniversary of the Benmore Dam, with text by Lloyd Jones, I wonder if we would.

Thanks to TVNZ ondemand, you can also revisit These New Zealanders – a 1960s series by the New Zealand National Film Unit, presented by Selwyn Toogood. The man who posed that greatest Kiwi philosophical question, ‘the money or the bag?’, roves around talking to the workers, housewives and important people of the day in various spots around the country. The Benmore episode is particularly appealing – the interview with the cigarette-rolling chippy is fantastic, and there’s a lot more information in the report than you’d get in your average news item in the 21st century.

Benmore was impressive for another reason – it came in ahead of schedule and under budget. An entire town was built to support the workers, some of whom lived in uninsulated huts. Mind you, some of them saved forty pounds a fortnight – when rent in a city was six pounds a fortnight. Imagine saving more than six times what you pay in rent each pay!

A Benmore power station search will get you some other material on the earth dam, and The NZ Herald has video of the spill in action (shot by their South Island photographer Simon Baker) . And if you can’t remember It’s in the Bag, it’s also on TVNZ ondemand. The Waitaki Dam is having an open day at Labour Weekend – it’ll be worth the drive. The family can read Meridian Energy’s guide to hydro scheme on the way.

If you’re wondering why I seem to care so much, my father worked on the dams. He was surveying the river in a jet boat when it was hit by a freak wave and sunk. Luckily, everyone on board escaped unhurt. So what’s your connection with the dams? Do you have a favourite Waitaki River or lakes story?

3 thoughts on “The wondrous Waitaki

  1. Donna 16 October 2009 / 9:17 am

    That’s really impressive, a great collection of photos and what a story behind it. There is something about the scale of such projects that just makes you gasp

    • richard 16 October 2009 / 3:57 pm

      Breathtaking, for sure, and so were the conditions they lived and worked in. It’s a harsh climate and it would have been heartbreaking to see the river wash away weeks worth of hard labour…

      • richard 16 October 2009 / 4:18 pm

        And those keen on the Selwyn Toogood piece may need to try a more direct link. The one I used was out of date.

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