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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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Kawarau Falls dam becomes operational, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated