Oamaru Harbour

Page 4 – Deep-water port

Oamaru is a fair maiden that sits beside the sea. When I thought of the harbour you have created here, I said this fair maiden holds the horn of plenty in her hand.

Sir George Grey, 1878

The trade boom caused by the South African War (1899–1902) and greater farm production got the Oamaru Harbour Board back in the black. In 1907 it completed a large new wharf, Holmes Wharf, on the old North Mole. Once again, Oamaru could handle the latest overseas ships – the 'Home boats' as they were called. 

Inter-war peak

The opening of the new Otira rail tunnel in 1923 cost the port its West Coast coal trade, but the tonnage of shipping entering the port rose from 105,000 tons in 1921 to 148,000 tons in 1938. In April 1939 the 10,107-ton Opawa became Oamaru’s largest ship. Three years earlier the harbour board had started an extension to the breakwater to deepen the entrance channel.

Then in 1941 the overseas lines consolidated their ports of call and dropped the secondary ports. They called it a temporary wartime economy, but the big United Kingdom trade ships never returned to Oamaru.

Coastal trade slumps

After the Second World War the port’s trade was mainly trans-Tasman and coastal. Oamaru grew rapidly after the war, though, and the port stayed busy, handling oil, lime, grain, flour and general cargo. In fact, the tonnage of cargo passing over the wharf rose from 35,000 tonnes in 1950 to 55,000 tonnes in 1957.

Then came the reckoning. From the 1960s the new Cook Strait rail ferries made big inroads into the coastal general-cargo trade, offering shippers a cheaper, faster, more flexible service. The coastal ships switched to bulk cargoes, but the new oil tankers of the mid-1960s were too big to use Oamaru, and the volatile grain trade collapsed in the early 1970s. The Koraki, which called in 1973, was the last trans-Tasman visitor, and in 1974 the Holmdale was the last coaster to visit Oamaru.

How to cite this page

'Deep-water port', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/deep-water-port, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017