Kawarau Falls dam becomes operational

30 August 1926

Kawarau Falls Dam, 1925
Kawarau Falls Dam, 1925 (Hocken Library, SO5-044)

It was New Zealand’s last gold rush. Hundreds attended the opening ceremony for a dam above the Kawarau Falls which was to temporarily block the outlet from Lake Wakatipu.

Hundreds more who had staked claims along the banks of the Kawarau River waited eagerly for the water to fall once the massive gates were closed. But the river level dropped only a metre or so – not enough to uncover significant amounts of gold-bearing rock. By the time the gates were raised again 10 days later, shares in the Kawarau Company had lost more than half their value.

This project had first been suggested in 1864. Julius Vogel’s 1889 novel, Anno Domini 2000, described the possible results of diverting the outlet of Lake Wakatipu from the Kawarau River to the Mataura: gold worth millions of pounds might be won from the riverbed. In the 1920s a consortium of companies realised part of Vogel’s vision by constructing the Kawarau dam at a cost of £106,000 (equivalent to more than $10 million in 2020). The problem was that this was at best the first stage of a viable scheme. Only if the Kawarau’s tributaries – in particular the Shotover – were also dammed might the river fall far enough to expose previously unworked reefs.

Plans for additional dams foundered for lack of capital. The Kawarau dam was closed temporarily several more times, but returns were modest. In the winter of 1932 unemployed fossickers were reported to have won about £2300 ($285,000) worth of gold from the Kawarau.

The lasting benefits of the Kawarau dam were incidental to its promoters’ intentions. In times of high rainfall, the waters of Lake Wakatipu can be held back temporarily, reducing the seriousness of floods downstream in the Clutha. The bridge across the top of the dam provided road access from Queenstown to Kawarau Falls station, previously accessible directly only by water. Work on a road link to Kingston along the eastern side of Lake Wakatipu began in the late 1920s and was completed in 1936 at a cost of £63,000 ($7.5 million), opening road access between Queenstown and Southland.

The historic single-lane bridge was retained for use by cyclists and pedestrians when highway traffic began using a new two-lane bridge just downstream which was completed in 2018 at a cost of around $22 million.

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Dickson Dane Jardine

Posted: 11 Sep 2013

The Kawarau River has a major part to play. The High Country Sheep Station that borders the Kawarau River is made up of Runs 345 and 331 known as Kawarau Falls Station. This Station was founded by Mr William Gilbert Rees, first European Settler of Queenstown in Early 1860. Willian Rees was in partnership with Mr George Gammie and Colonel William Lewis Grant. William Rees moved his homestead from where Queenstown now stands after gold was discovered and built a homestead on the southern bank of the Kawarau River, situated overlooking the Falls in in 1862. Grant, Gammie & Rees owned these two runs from 1860-1865. After sucsessive owners of the Runs 331 & 345, Dickson Jardine purchased the property in 1922 and ran this property in conjunction with Glencoe Station. Before the Kawarau Dam was built all produce and personnel were ferried across the lake in rowboats known as 'whalers'. Stock such as sheep or horses were either rafted across in the whalers or in most cases with the horses they were swam across the river guided by a whaler boat leading the way holding the horses by a rope. Dickson Jardine had two sons, Dickson Glendinning Jardine and Grieve Templeton Jardine, both who grew up at the Kawarau Falls Station homestead and went into partnership with their father in 1941 when it became known as Dickson Jardine & Sons and in 1947 the property was devided between the two sons, Grieve Jardine taking over the Kawarau Falls Station Run 345 and Dickson Glendinng Jardine taking over Run 331 and naming it Remarkbles Station. Suffering from Rheumatic Fever as a child , Dickson Glendinning Jardine spent most of his childhood in bed and would often comment in later years of the tremendous 'Roar' of the Falls which so harmoniously provided natures background music to the busy comings and goings of a large High Country Sheep Station. The Falls being also a constant source of worry for a mother of two adventurous boys keen to 'investigate' the territory. Before the dam was built, a simple night out to the silent pictures in Queenstown involved crossing the river in the whaler with the horse swimming behind before saddling up and departing for the 20 minute ride into Queenstown.
During the Dams construction the Jardine Family were host to many an engineer and designer who were keen to gleen insights into the various issues the seasons bring in that part of the world. one of the many things gleaned from these meetings was the availability of tall, strong & suitable gum trees surrounding the homestead which had been killed in the Record snow fall of 1923. The Gums were heard 'Crackling & Exploding' as the temperature dropped suddenly and the sap in the trunks of the trees expanded making the audible sounds. These trees from the Station were then felled and used as strong scaffolding for the Dams construction in 1925. Dickson Jardine, his wife Mary Glendinning Jardine nee Grieve and two sons Dickson and Grieve were all present at the closing of the gates on that fatefull day. Dickson Glendinning Jardine known affectionately as 'Cap' writes about this in his 1977 book 'Shadows on the Hill' : With the closing of the gates the crowd surged down to the river, gold-pans at the ready, to follow the receeding waters down to the golden hoard. The waters receded - about four feet, and there they stayed. Time would be needed for it to drain away, said the "experts" - but they waited in vain for, fed by its not inconsiderable tributary the Shotover and by the smaller Arrow and Nevis rivers, the old Kawarau maintained a quite respectable flow. With time, the claim-holders and the "experts", preceeded by the promoters, faded quietly from public view. The Dam, well and faithfully constructed by its engineers, remained, eventually as a bridge to become the major connecting link in one of the main south highways and a s a dam to be used in the control of water to the Roxburgh hydro-electric scheme.
In 1993 The Kawarau Dam was registered under The Historic Places Act 1993 on 28th May 1999, Registration Number 7448, Historic Place Category 1. The Dam made this category not only as the construction characteristics warrant it, but also it remains the last remaining evidence of the high capital second stage of the gold mining days in Central Otago today.

Dickson Dane Jardine 2013
- Grandson to Mr Dickson Glendinning Jardine late of Kawarau Falls Station & Remarkables Station 1915-2000.