Great Flood hits South Island

30 September 1878

Flooding in Queenstown, 1878 (Te Papa, C.014174)

In the pre-dawn darkness, a house in Balclutha near the banks of the flooded Clutha River was struck by a huge tree that had been uprooted and swept intact into the current. Clinging onto the roof for dear life, Frederick Rehberg ‘coo-eed’ frantically for help.

By the time Rehberg and his housekeeper Ellen Kerr scrambled into a boat sent to their assistance by Messrs Porter, their temporary raft was within 20 minutes of being swept out to sea. The Porters ignored Kerr’s pleas that they risk their lives by going back for her cat.

Theirs was the most miraculous of several lucky escapes from the ‘Great Flood’ of 1878. Though two other houses were carried away in the torrent, only one person died in Balclutha. On 6 October, carrier and coal merchant Alexander Davidson stepped into a deep hole scoured out by the floodwaters. In Southland, Wallacetown farmer William Lawson drowned while trying to reach safety from a haystack on which he had taken refuge. Further north, surveyor James Mitchell was lost in the flooded Waitaki River.

Thousands of animals drowned or starved to death, many on the island of Inch Clutha, which was almost completely submerged for several weeks before emerging 2 m higher than before because of the volume of sediment deposited on it. The Clutha gouged out a new outlet to the sea, leaving the previously thriving Port Molyneux 1 km inland. The total cost of repairing flood damage in Otago alone was estimated at £103,000 (equivalent to $16 million in 2017).

Several bridges further up the Clutha were destroyed during September 1878 as floodwaters caused by the rapid melting of heavy winter snows in Central Otago surged downstream. Then on 14 October, ‘in about the space of 30 seconds, the magnificent bridge of Balclutha fell to pieces like a box of matches’. It had been built just 10 years earlier at a cost of £17,000 (nearly $2 million). A less grand replacement bridge was built in 1881. Today’s elegant reinforced concrete structure has carried traffic on State Highway 1 safely across the Clutha since 1935.

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