Waitaki Dam

Waitaki Dam

Waitaki Dam (1934)

Power to the people

Work began on the Waitaki Dam, the first large state hydroelectric scheme in the South Island since Lake Coleridge, in mid-1928 at a site 7 km from the Kurow railhead. It was the last major dam built by pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, tools anachronistically retained because politicians wanted to reduce the unemployment rate. At its peak 1200 men laboured in often dangerous and freezing conditions; 350 houses and 700 huts sheltered them from the extremes of North Otago winters, but work conditions and high accident rates made Waitaki a bleak site.

The Waitaki Dam owes its true significance to its role as an incubator for Labour’s social security scheme. In 1928 a site-based Waitaki Hydro Medical Association contracted with the Waitaki Hospital Board to provide medical and ambulance services, paid for by a monthly deduction from wages. Dr David McMillan, ‘the little doctor’, and the Reverend Arnold Nordmeyer, both of whom entered Parliament at the 1935 election, based Labour’s social security scheme on their Waitaki experience. A commemorative plaque adorns McMillan’s old surgery at nearby Kurow.

The dam is 48 m high and 542 m long. Unusually, Waitaki does not have a spillway - the water flows over the top, making a spectacular sight in floods as the flow breaks up on the disrupters on the dam face. When Governor-General Lord Bledisloe opened Waitaki on 27 October 1934, its 30 megawatts provided about half the mainland’s electricity. Modifications have boosted that to the current 90 megawatts.

The old village, once home to 40 staff and their families, has struggled to survive. Covenanted by the Heritage New Zealand but empty since the late 1980s, it was put up for mortgagee sale in 2001, lock, stock, houses, lodge, garages and utilities.

Further information

This site is item number 91 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • G.G. Natusch, Waitaki dammed and the origins of Social Security, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1984

Community contributions

4 comments have been posted about Waitaki Dam

What do you know?

Maxine Donovan

Posted: 21 Feb 2021

I am aware grandfather and grandmother lived at Hydro as grandfather - Henry Charles Donovan (Pat or Paddy or Charlie) known as. I assume worked as fitter, turner-engineer. He appears in a photo of a number of others in book written about dam. Not sure re much else of his time there. My father remembers being there and would think he caught trains to school.

Ray Dobson

Posted: 17 May 2018

Hi, My father, Andrew Dobson, worked on the site of the Waitaki Hydro dam in late 1920s and early 1940s. Our family lived there though I am the only one left now. My 2 brothers and I went to school at Kurow on that shaky old train. Would like to hear from any one else who lived at the Hydro. Ray Dobson. [email protected]

Philip Moore

Posted: 26 Jan 2017

The waitaki dam was only one of two defended power stations during the second world war, the other being the Colleridge power station.
Both power stations were defended by two 40mm Bofors mobile anti aircraft guns.

(I would love to see some photos)

Simone Hindin

Posted: 27 Mar 2014

Christchurch Library have digitised photos from the construction http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/DigitalCollection/Archives/WaitakiH...