The Pahiatua Earthquake of 1934

Just before midnight on Monday the 5th of March 1934, people throughout the lower North Island were startled from their sleep and ran for doors as a severe earthquake struck. Chimney bricks rained into houses, windows shattered and furniture tipped over; the ground rumbled and there was a great noise of goods being thrown about while slips ran down hillsides, bells rang and window weights clanged.

A woman collapsed and died of fright as did a man as he fled his damaged home. In Wellington, the carillon bells rang as the clappers struck the fixed bells while the tower swayed.

New Zealand had just experienced its seventh large earthquake in the series which started near Arthur’s Pass in 1929. In the darkness, residents of the many towns and cities affected had only a few minutes to assess their surroundings and wonder where the latest quake was centred before the first of the strong aftershocks struck.

The magnitude 7.6 earthquake, centred near the Wairarapa town of Pahiatua, struck at 11:46 p.m. It was followed by sizeable aftershocks at 11:58 p.m. and 12:06, and a further 8 moderately strong events before the middle of the following afternoon. This was the fourth magnitude 7 earthquake in New Zealand in five years, and the third to have caused death.

As reports came in to newspaper and government offices, the extent of the damage was soon understood. The unfolding story clearly mapped damage of increasing severity toward the epicentre.

Illustrating the technology of the time, clocks were stopped at Ashburton and Timaru as they were further north in Greymouth and Buller where the earthquake was felt. Residents of Blenheim felt a prolonged but “gentle” earthquake which affected power supplies for 15 minutes. Larger clocks were stopped in Blenheim and Nelson where the earthquake was felt as a circular motion.

In Wellington, the power remained on and only older buildings such as the fire station sustained damage. The fire brigade stood to and “machines” were sent to patrol the city to look for fire outbreaks. Residential damage was limited to chimney tops and contents, but several businesses near Cuba Street suffered greater damage to stocks, fittings and plate glass windows.

In the lower Hutt Valley, damage was greater, possibly due to the softer alluvial soils. Walls developed cracks, chimneys were down and contents damage was greater in Lower Hutt and Petone. The power supply had been interrupted, and the 500 mm watermain had burst near Hutt Park. Damage was lighter in Upper Hutt.

At Paekakariki, many chimneys were down but the damage was worse at Paraparaumu where more chimneys had been damaged. At Levin, damage was slightly worse but much greater near Foxton where bridge approaches were damaged, railway lines displaced, with the highway between Levin and Foxton blocked by a damaged bridge. Levin residents had reported that the earthquake was preceded by lightning, owing to a storm in the area.

At Wanganui, where the quake was described as worse than the Murchison and Napier earthquakes, parapets on buildings crashed into the street, windows cracked and part of the large chimney at the Wanganui Woollen Mills collapsed into the boiler room as the walls of the structure tore apart. Landslides ran down the Makirikiri Valley and inland roads were blocked by slips.

To the south-east, at Palmerston North, the event was generally agreed to have been the worst earthquake since the 1904 shake centred near Cape Turnagain. Residents were greatly alarmed by several shakes which brought down building parapets and chimneys and cracked windows. Rail links were disrupted.

Nearby at Feilding, residential chimneys were down too, but the greatest damage seemed to be in the town centre where building parapets collapsed into streets and windows shattered. A local woman was lightly injured when chimney bricks fell onto her while she was in bed.

To the east, at Woodville, most chimneys were shaken down, parapets and brick walls collapsed, and cracks appeared in roads and bridge approaches. Several commercial chimneys collapsed into their buildings destroying a hotel kitchen, tearing through two floors at a local furnisher and damaging nearby buildings.

Damage was similar at Dannevirke where the local newspaper office, dance hall, picture theatre, National Bank and Commercial Bank buildings showed serious damage. The town hall, a large brick structure, suffered the worst cracking, and several smaller business premises were damaged by collapsed chimneys, parapets and verandahs.

At Eketahuna, the Municipal Buildings suffered severe cracks and the local Power Board buildings partially subsided. Railway lines twisted and three-quarters of the town’s chimneys fell. Furniture and household contents were in disarray.

In Masterton footpaths were littered with shattered glass and brickwork, and many buildings in Queen Street suffered damage, with brickwork falling away from structures. Part of the Opera House collapsed, as did many residential chimneys.

Further south, chimneys were down and windows were cracked at Carterton, Greytown, Featherston and Martinborough. Houses were littered with broken crockery and ornaments.

Near the epicentre at Pahiatua, the earthquake was described as “terrifying.” Power and telephone services were disrupted, many commercial buildings sustained damage and roads were badly disrupted.

Near Makuri, on the road between Pahiatua, Pongaroa and Weber, the damage seemed to be at its worst, with long cracks in roads and drops in the roadway up to half a metre in places. Several people had to abandon their houses owing to severe damage.

At the time, the epicentre of the Pahiatua earthquake was not precisely identified, despite investigation by geologists. The Earthquake Commission (EQC) funded a research project (97/320) to find the source of the earthquake in the late 1990s, noting that the event was the fourth largest earthquake in New Zealand’s recorded history. The findings make excellent reading for history and earthquake buffs who have the time.

The conclusion was that the epicentre may have been within the Waipukaka fault zone somewhere near Horoeka, a settlement 30-odd km east of Pahiatua, and a few km south-west of Weber.

New Zealanders had again been “lucky” with only two indirect deaths from this event in a vicious series of strong earthquakes.

[Sources: “In search of the source of the 1934 Pahiatua earthquake,” EQC Research Project 97/320 Schermer, Evans, Van Dissen, Berryman – abstracts from various sources. Several items from “The Evening Post” of Tuesday March 6th, 1934 and Wednesday March 7th, 1934.]

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