Gisborne – Motu Railway

January 14th 1900 was an important day for Gisborne residents, as the Railways Minister, Joseph Ward, turned the first sod on the railway route from Gisborne to Motu.

The railway had been proposed since 1886, but it was only local agitation in 1897 that began to get the project moving. Once started, progress was steady on this railway which was isolated from the rest of the network. With a railway also proposed southward toward Hawkes Bay, it was hoped that an eventual railway route from Napier through Gisborne and on to the Bay of Plenty would be achieved.

The northern route from Gisborne reached Ormond in 1902, Te Karaka in 1907 and Matawai in 1917. The railway gave much-needed access to Gisborne’s northern farming communities at a time when the district’s roads were in an atrocious state. The line began operating at a profit transporting sheep, cattle, timber and road metal. J.A. Mackay in “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.” tells us that the railway was also popular with passengers, and 4000 people had rides on the train when the section to Ormond opened on the 26th June 1902.

Although the line reached Motuhora in November 1917, a distance of 49 miles, the work was discontinued. In 1938 the route through the Waimana Gorge to Taneatua was discussed, but a lack of plant and materials prevented work starting. The outbreak of World War II led to a postponement, and a cost review in 1946 led to an investigation of alternatives.

Passenger services on the branch line ceased in 1945 as NZR Road Services buses began to offer alternative transport. Competition from road transport, benefiting from war surplus trucks, caused the line to start losing money by 1952. Maintenance was suspended and the line closed on 24th March 1959. Gisborne – Motuhora became another of our “ghost railways.”

“Exploring New Zealand’s Ghost Railways” (Leitch & Scott, 1998) has a detailed description of the railway route, much of which survives.

In my early days, spying out the old track-bed from the car as we drove from Gisborne through to the Bay of Plenty was a favourite past-time. In many places the railway is close to State Highway 2, and the highway runs along the old track-bed in many places. Tunnels, cuttings and bridge approaches can easily be seen.

When I was maintaining telephone exchanges in the area in the late 1970s the concrete platform of the Matawai Station was easy to find, as the turn-off to Motu ran right beside it as the road left the town.

If the railway through to the Bay of Plenty had been completed, I have no doubt that it would be a popular tourist route today. The dramatic and rugged landscape inland near Motu is a sight to be seen, having been shaken, crushed and overthrown during millennia of seismic activity.

16 Responses to “Gisborne – Motu Railway”

  1. Beth Hall says:

    Hello – I live in Perth and had family in the Gisborne Motu Toatoa area. Can you tell me the name of the other milling township north of Matawai and near Motuhora – now no longer exhists. Thanks Beth Hall.
    Kingsley Perth WA

  2. Ken says:

    The only other settlement near Matawai that I know had a sawmill was Rakauroa – it’s mentioned in Betty Beaufoy’s book “Emma of the Hill Country.” However, Rakauroa is to the east of Matawai, so it can’t be the settlement that you are thinking of. Perhaps another reader can help.

  3. Marianne Bell says:

    In 1916, Quirk’s first sawmill went into business at Motu. There were many other sawmills operating at that time also.

    • Judith Gilmour says:

      My grandfather Alfred Ottaway worked at the Quirk’s sawmill for 16 years. In 1930 the family moved to Gisborne with all the bush having been cut down 1929. The family lived at Motuhora.

  4. Randal Beaufoy says:

    Note McDonald,s sawmill was operating at Rakauroa near the rail link during the late 1920,s and stopped milling native timber around 1936. McDonald could have been operating in the Motu/Matawai area and suggest try the Gisborne Museum for confirmation.

  5. John Fisher says:

    The two places north of Motuhora going north toward Opotiki with settlements for mainly sawmilling of native bush and sheep farming were the town of Motu and the small settlement of Toa Toa. If you wish to read of the history of that era and area get a copy of “The Motu and beyond, The Way it Was” written by Dick Twisleton and published by Te Rau Print and Design, Box 945, Gisborne or see a branch of “PaperPlus” bookshops who can source a copy for you. Cost from memory was about $30-00 in NZ and is an excellent publication that is easy to read and follow the events of that time. Dick Twisleton’s parents were among the early settlers in that area and so his knowledge is first hand.

  6. Barbara Hanvey says:

    In reply to Marianne Bell, Quirk’s Mill is noted in my grandfather’s war records as his address and place of work as a mill hand in 1915. Does anyone else have any information on Quirk’s Sawmill or if there are any surviving records as I would like to find out more about my grandfather from his time at Quirk’s?

  7. Ken says:

    I had a quick look for Quirk in J.A. Mackay’s “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.” There’s nothing obvious in the index.

    On p 331, Mackay says, “Peter Hansen operated the first mill at Motu. During the boom a number of firms milled extensively in the Rakauroa-Motu district. By 1940 most of the easily accessible timber had been cut out.”

    Perhaps a search for published material for Hansen might lead to information on his competitors.

    A search of the Poverty Bay Herald on the Papers Past website gives 61 entries for “Quirk Mill” during the first two decades of the 1900s. These might be worth following up.

  8. Alan Ayling says:

    My uncle lived in Toatoa in 1989/1990 in the old prefab school house when he had a possum contract from DOC back then. The area has always facinated me, loved going up there and staying with him and helping out and exploring and just the quietness of the place, Good memories. Quite a few long abandonded houses dotted around all up the Motu road from Opotiki . A somewhat eerie isolated place up there.
    Must look out for a copy of “The Motu and beyond, The Way it Was”

  9. mate ruru says:

    I went to the motu school in 1952 and started school in 1950 at the motuhora school. I have very happy memories of this time of my life and would love to speak to anyone who was around at that time. I lived in the road around from the motu shop (owned by skip kay). It ended up by the church and twizletons. Would love to keep in touch with anyone around in those days. I now live in Palm Beach, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. My dad worked at the bush in waitangirua.


    Kia Ora and G’day to ENZED history buffs of my late Mom and Dad’s pioneering era as well as their respected fathers and mothers.

    Thanks for the above info. It has helped me (as the baby of the family) come to some understanding of the enormous struggles that my elders had.

    My late mother Joyce Aileen Richardson was schooled in Rakauroa. Her family were The Richardsons of Burnage Property. Her late husband, my Dad, God love him, was a struggling railway surfaceman by the name of John Hector Augustine Mudford. After World War II incarcerated in Stalag XVIIIC, Markt Pongau, where he met mom’s brother Uncle Cecil (killed just before the war ended), Dad worked on the railways to pay the rent. Get the food in and make sure we all became Roman Catholics! As well as Nurses/Defence Force personnel and any job whereby we cared for others. I am interested in both Mom and Dad’s childhood years as it seems that they both had to leave young and work the farms and join the territorials. Dad’s eldest son, the late Johnny Mudford worked in Whirinaki Pulp Mill, deceased aged 54 and is survived by nine stunningly good looking adult children.

    Well folks that is all I wanted to publish and am thankful for the environment that allowed me to get a better grip on life in the bush, understanding my brothers and deer hunting, rifles, pigshooting, pulp mill and flax mill life and having babies on dirt floors in Otekeho.

    Cheeers from Perth Western Australiaxxxx.

  11. Peter Gillgren says:

    My late mother Daphne Mona Gillgren nee Hansen, and mums sister Rona were the children of Peter Hansen and my Nana Edith. I believe my mother was the first white baby to be born in the Motu hospital. My great Grandfather Christian Hansen is buried in the Motu cemetery and his son (my maternal Grandfather Peter, after who I was named at birth is at rest in the Domain Rd. cemetery in Whakatane. I am always on the lookout for books/school reunion mags. etc. from and about the Motu/Motuhora. Please feel free to contact me. Peter Gillgren—

  12. Tony Sayers says:

    My family lived at Motu from 1963 to around 1975. We purchased a farm in Phillip Road previously owned in partnership with my Uncle Alf Sayers. Alf and my father, Pat, purchased the farm from one of the Fisher families.
    My mother, Eileen (nee Pert) grew up in the Matawai- Motuhora District and went to school at Matawai. Much of my knowledge is from her recollections of her younger days circa 1930.
    Her father, Fred Pert was a saw doctor in the timber mills around the area and I am fairly certain that he worked at Quirk’s Mill at Motuhora.

    One of the last operating mills was owned by Nolan Richardson and was located near the junction of the Whakarau Road and the Motu-Matawai road. This mill burned down circa 1956. Nolan built a new Mill at Taruheru? Gisborne. Probably the best reference on the topic would be Dick Twistleton’s book

    • Rachael Reihana says:

      Hi Tony,
      I’m just wondering if you knew my mother at all? Her name was Molly Morehu Reihana. She grew up in Gisborne and went to school there.

  13. Tony Sayers says:

    Kia Ora Rachael,
    It took me a long time to return to this website and notice that you had a question for me.
    I am sorry to say that I did not know any person of that name. I attended Waikohu College from 1963 to 1965 and knew everyone of high school age between Motu and Te Karaka.
    Although my family lived at Motu longer than I did, I left there in February 1966.

Leave a Reply