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HB Historic: Earthquake stops Napier tram

HB Historic: Earthquake stops Napier tram


The Napier Municipal Corporation tram makes its way up quiet Hastings Street during the 1920s. Credit: Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank Townshend Collection L4004

The Napier tram line, which first opened with great fanfare in 1913, was brought to an abrupt halt by the 1931 Hook’s Bay earthquake.

The commissioners, John Barton and Lachlan Campbell, replaced the Napier Borough Council to manage Napier after the earthquake. John stated shortly after taking office in March 1931 that the trams were unlikely to be restored because they were losing £100 ($2022: $12,000) a week.

Barton and Campbell recorded on August 26, 1932 in the Commissioners’ Minutes Book that the tram should not continue “because of the huge and unexplained losses involved”.

This decision, however, would not be made by the commissioners, but by the new Napier Borough Council elected in 1933, which reconsidered it.

The members of the town council could not agree on closing the tram, and were still debating it during 1935, were divided in the middle regarding its restoration.

Finally, in October 1935, the council decided to permanently abandon the tram. An order in council was needed to revoke the original authority to operate the trams, and the government granted this statutory permission in March 1936.

Retired city clerk John Dick in July 1936 (grandfather of former Napier mayor Alan Dick) noted that tram lines were effective in 1916, but that competition from “cars and motorcycles caused poor service”.

The upper tram copper wires were unwound in June 1936 and sold to a Wellington scrap dealer for £209 ($25,000). (The Hastings-St family, as shown in the photo, was actually removed when the work area was being rebuilt.)

The council expressed some confidence that the beams, rails and other equipment could be sold to offset the costs of removing them from the streets. There was such a degree of urgency that it was thought that the rotting beams on which the rails rested underground might cause the road surfaces to sink.

A problem occurred when about 70 men working removing tram equipment and children’s playground at Marine Parade to make way for Tom Parker’s Fountain and planting trees on Kennedy Avenue, went on strike.

The men were working part time on Government Work Scheme No. 5 and were protesting against Napier Borough Council using this scheme. Their demands, after the meetings were held, were that they be given a full 40 hours a week and that the Board pay them the normal compensation rates of wages, not the low dependency payments in Scheme 5.

The men returned to work after a visit by the Secretary of Labor, Hon Armstrong, who asked them to stop their strike and that he would consider their requests.

During the strike, maintenance payments were suspended, but the men demanded that they continue to be paid.

The men would be paid – but they had to make up for the time lost during the strike.

The Minister of Labor then began negotiations with Napier Borough Council to turn the task of removing tramways into full-time employment for men.

However, the Minister of Labor stated: “If negotiations on these full-time jobs are not successful, the relief workers will have to be withdrawn from them and the question of reducing other Scheme 5 jobs in Napier will have to be seriously considered.”

This was enough to make Napier Borough Council provide 40 hours per week to men and a weekly payment of 4 shillings 6 8 pence, with the government paying a subsidy of 2 5 shillings.

Mayor Coe Morse said when this was announced that most of the reclaimed materials would be sold to recover these unbudgeted costs.

Inquiries began arriving from across New Zealand after the electrical engineer for Napier Borough Council, DH Hastie, sent tram concerns a list of items to dispose of.

Wanganui Tramways Corporation purchased the switch points and rails at the corner of the main post office (the corner of Dickens and Hastings Streets).

With the nine trams having no salable value as the rail gauge used at Napier was 3 feet 6 inches – unlike any other system in New Zealand – their bodies ended up as shelter at the town’s motor camp in February 1937 (one would later be used ) at Beacon Airport).

In August 1937 Napier Borough Council announced that it had phased out all of its tram system around New Zealand to various local authorities. The last – 70 rails – was moved to the Napier Railway yards for transport to Wellington where it would be used.

Twenty railroads were shipped to Great Barrier Island for use by the county council (obviously not for the tram).

Power Boards Waitomo and Golden Bay purchased 110 and 40 tons of rails, respectively.

However, most of the tram equipment was sold to Wanganui Borough Council.

There was £7,000 ($835,000) in the Napier Municipal Tram Lines depreciation reserve account, and with no tram line in place, Mayor CO Morse advised in May 1937 that the money would go towards the construction of the replacement municipal theater destroyed in the 1931 Hook’s Bay earthquake.

Hawke’s Bay Motor Company buses took over from the trams, and covered most of their old roads.

The Napier tram system remains a very nostalgic part of the history of this city.

Michael Fowler ([email protected]) is a writer and researcher on Hook Bay history. Follow him on




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