Page 2 – Coal is discovered

After John Rochfort discovered fragments of bituminous coal in a river north of Westport in 1859, the search was on for accessible coal seams that could be mined. Three years later mining engineer R.I. Burnett discovered a 2.1-metre seam in the Mōkihinui River, opposite the mouth of Chasm Creek. Within a year a shaft had been driven into the seam by prospectors Matthew Batty and E.B. Garvin. Coal was punted downstream to a wharf, where it was loaded on to small seagoing vessels. Although this was the first high-grade bituminous coal mined in New Zealand, the business failed because of the expense and difficulty of transporting the coal.

There was no significant mining in the Mōkihinui valley in the 1870s, but the search for coal seams continued.

The first railway

By 1885 the Mōkihinui Coal Company had started mining a seam on the south side of the river, opposite the earlier workings, and constructed about 1.5 km of railway track downstream to a wharf. They later extended the railway upstream to Coal (Parenga) Creek, where a thick coal seam had been discovered, and started mining there. The company purchased a small steamer, SS Lawrence, to transport coal, but in 1891 the vessel was wrecked at the mouth of the Mōkihinui river. The remains of the ship can sometimes be seen today at low tide on the beach on the south side of the Mōkihinui River mouth.

Seddon of Seddonville

The Westport-Cardiff Coal Company, whose shareholders were largely Westport businessmen, investigated a thick coal seam in Chasm Creek, and in 1892 obtained a licence to mine coal. They anticipated the extension of the railway line from Westport northwards to the Mōkihinui valley, which would provide rapid and reliable transport for coal. In 1893 the railway line was completed, joining the small section built by the Mokihinui Coal Company.

The new railway line was opened by Premier Richard Seddon, who was paying his first visit to the area. The Westport News (20 May 1893) reported the arrival of the official party during incessant rain that continued all day. After initial speeches, a deputation of local residents met Mr Seddon.

Mr Stewart asked the Premier to allow the new township at the mines to be named after him. It was proposed to name it Seddonville, and the residents would like to have it gazetted as such.

The Premier asked if the town would be prosperous, as he did not want to have his name attached to a failure. He would be pleased to accept the honour.

Having put the Premier in a good mood, the deputation presented him with a list of requests, ranging from remitting the penny stamp charge on men's wages to allocating land for a public library.

It is assumed that the settlement of St Helens, near the mouth of Chasm Creek, was also named to honour Seddon, as this was the name of his birthplace in Lancashire, England.

Mining underway

The Westport-Cardiff mine started production in 1894, and initially seemed to be an excellent investment. Output increased rapidly and by 1898 had reached 60,000 tonnes, almost as much as the total from the Westport Coal Company mines at Denniston and Millerton. Extra trains were scheduled to carry the coal. But the shareholders received no dividends, as profits were used to keep the mine open. In 1899 there was a series of mining problems, and the mine closed in September that year. Soon afterwards one section caught fire, and in May 1900 the lease was cancelled by the Mines Department.

After 1894 the Mōkihinui Mine also had mining problems and was forced to close. In 1895-6 it was leased to a co-operative mining party, the Knights of Labour, but after a year they were unable to make a profit. It remained closed for several years, and then was worked only intermittently.

The failure of the mines caused great concern in government circles, because the railway line, built to carry coal, was now largely redundant.

How to cite this page

'Coal is discovered', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Sep-2014