Bruce Comfort
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I'm a retired engineer. I ride a 400cc Suzuki Burgman motorscooter and I live in Oamaru, South Island of New Zealand. I have two adult daughters. My interests (if you haven't worked it out) include New Zealand's heritage of engineering works, snapshot photography of the built environment and recording pastoral farming activities around here. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- PLEASE NOTE THAT MANY PHOTOGRAPHS ON THIS PANORAMIO SITE HAVE BEEN TAKEN BY ACCESSING HERITAGE BUILDINGS, STRUCTURES, AND ENGINEERING ARTIFACTS WHICH LIE ON PRIVATE LAND. PUBLICATION OF PHOTOGRAPHS ON THIS SITE DOES NOT IMPLY ANY PUBLIC RIGHTS OF ACCESS. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- PLEASE ALSO NOTE THAT A FEW PHOTOS ON THIS SITE ARE NOT MINE, AND THAT MANY ARE TAKEN INDOORS AND ARE OF MACHINERY AND THAT THIS APPARENTLY CONTRADICTS THE TERMS OF USE OF THE PANORAMIO WEBSITE. I HAVE HAD THE SITE MODERATORS' APPROVAL FOR USING THE SITE THIS WAY AS ALL SUCH PHOTOS LINK IN SOME FASHION TO MY OWN PHOTOGRAPHS OF PLACES IN NEW ZEALAND WHERE ARTIFACTS OF ENGINEERING OR PASTORAL OR INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE CAN STILL BE FOUND. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- MY INTENTION IS NOT TO USURP THE RIGHTS OF THE HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHERS NOR OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS, AND CREDIT IS GIVEN WHERE I CAN. I have made an endeavour to contact copyright holders of material published on these pages and where appropriate, permission is still being sought for these items. Where replies were not received, or where the copyright owner has not been able to be traced, or where the permission is still being sought, I have decided, in good faith, to proceed with publication. I would be happy to hear from copyright owners at any time to discuss usage of item. IF YOU GO TO THE PLACES WHERE MY OWN PHOTOGRAPHS HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED BY THE MODERATORS TO BE IN THE PHOTOS LAYER ON GOOGLE EARTH, MY HOPE IS THAT THE OTHER HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHS (which will not have been accepted by the moderators of Google Earth but which appear on these pages) WILL STIMULATE YOU TO THINK ABOUT THE ENGINEERS, ENTREPRENEURS, INVESTORS, THE WORKERS AND OPERATORS AND ALL THE PEOPLE, NOW GONE, WHOSE LIVES WERE INEXTRICABLY TIED TO THESE PLACES AND THESE ENDEAVOURS. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- MY E-MAIL ADDRESS IS AND I WELCOME INPUT INTO THIS WORK -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Bruce Comfort's conversations


In 1870, Oamaru was a pioneer town of just 3,000 people.

In the mid-19th century, wool was a much sought after commodity, particularly for military uniforms, and so wealthy families established very big pastoral holdings in North Otago. As there were no trees here, the land was immediately available for grazing sheep on the native grasses. Large flocks were introduced to meet international demand for wool. However the town soon needed some basic facilities before it could grow and become the town we see today, particularly before there was enough permanent wealth here to create our lovely limestone buildings.

The elegance of Victorian Oamaru's limestone buildings is well appreciated, but its 1880 public water supply, being out in the countryside and much less attractive than the white stone buildings, is not. It is however a work of considerable civil engineering competence which has its own elegance; an elegance which derives from its concept, design, execution and use. This use is a very unusual use but one which was central to the development of the town.

Water supply for the town, in 1870, comprised of wells and springs and a small ephemeral stream. Most households collected rainwater off their roofs.

The stream became polluted and muddy and the wells became unreliable. As the town grew, so did fire insurance premiums. A fire brigade with access to a reticulated town water supply became urgently needed.

Two factors influenced council decision-making: the effect of the poor water supply on health, and the cost citizens were forced pay for clean water. A reliable water supply would solve both these issues.

The hills close to and right above town had deep gullies which were suitable as reservoir sites. It was pretty obvious that any of these could, with just an earth dam, provide good water storage at a height above the town which would create a water supply delivering water at over 100psi. How to get water there, however, and where from, soon became one of the defining questions for Victorian Oamaru.

A few options were obvious, and some less obvious. A few ridiculous ones too, were proposed. Pumping from the Waitaki River with steam driven pumps was possible and there was coal nearby, but the cost and maintenance of this technology was daunting for the council. In the end, a gravity water race was decided as the best option. This decision started a complex process of selection and construction.

Commencing with what was, in effect a competition with a prize of £150 for a design, the council eventually appointed an engineering designer. They then commenced the appropriate fund raising, the publication of statutory notices, and tendering.

By 1876 a public water supply and distribution scheme had been designed and land was acquired, legislation passed, and the necessary finance raised on international financial markets in London and Scotland. Over the construction period, funding had to be increased twice to cover the final costs. By 1881 when it was finished, the race had cost £136,000 and servicing the loans bankrupted Oamaru for two decades.

Despite the fact that many of the town's citizens were unconvinced that it would work or was even necessary, this major public work needed careful and competent design.

As well as the physical remnants of the Borough Race which are illustrated on the panel adjacent, Oamaru still has the 70 sheets of original drawings created by the design engineer, Donald McLean. Duplicate copies (for the council and the engineer) are drawn on transparent linen in red and black Indian Ink and washed with water colours. The survey sheets are seminal to the project, and are remarkable. They are beautiful artefacts in their own right. The Borough Race, as it became called, is a fascinating item of New Zealand's industrial heritage. Not only was it well made and very functional as a town water supply, but also because the design, from the beginning, included 300HP of "spare capacity" to be available for motive power. This provision, required by the council, is what makes the race unique in New Zealand, and probably rare anywhere in the world.

The Borough Race is a long hand-dug channel with a very low gradient and its intake was a long way inland and at elevation. It terminated at a generous reservoir relatively high above town. The race traverses nearly 49 kilometres from its intake on the Waitaki River. It was carried over 19 streams or across substantial gullies encompassing small streams. This was done by constructing wooden trestle box aqueducts. Six tunnels were driven to penetrate a number of rocky ridges.
To protect supply quality, all along its route, there were comprehensive provisions to divert any small streams, watercourses and natural run-off generally over the race. This was achieved with wooden troughs called overbyes which were small aqueducts in their own right. They carried contaminated water away from the race. These structures also protected the race from over-filling and over-topping during heavy rain. If uncontrolled run-off entered the race in quantity, it would overload and over top the banks, causing catastrophic erosion. This happened a number of times in the history of the race.
The water in the balance of the race flowed at just walking pace.
The five tunnels have a combined length of 2.7 km and the 19 timber aqueducts have a combined length of 1.4 kilometres.
The tunnels are all still clear and they have a flat floor. Being over two metres high, they could be comfortably walked through to maintain them. They are partly lined with cut limestone and the arched portals are built from bolstered blocks. The aqueducts are on mixed wooden and limestone (block) piers and they have substantial timbers in their structure. For a water supply, some are quite big. One was very big. A few were rebuilt in the 1940s with concrete piers. The timber had to be sourced from outside North Otago and was tarred to make it durable. It was mainly kauri - huge planks! All the steelwork was made locally. The aqueducts were originally of rectangular box section roughly two metres by one metre, but all these flumes have been replaced over the years with half round steel. The fall was calculated to be 1:3964 (although the first four kilometres are steeper and three concrete structures were built to slow the water and break its force in that first section).

Construction work began in 1877. The race design comprises an open channel about two metres wide and one metre deep, pretty much following the hundred metre contour from the intake on the Waitaki River at about 126 metres above sea level to the reservoir at Ardgowan [above the town] where the water level is 97 metres above sea level.
The race was unlined and only puddled or plastered with cement in a few places. At first it leaked, but this eventually stopped as silt built up and the banks became colonised by water plants.

The race was maintained along its whole length by a team of about seven racemen who lived with their families in small houses along it. Their job was to clean and maintain the waterway and the land beside it. Each had a specific ‘beat’ to look after.

Because the race flowed slowly, it didn't naturally flush material down its length. While this was a boon for water quality, it required a team of dedicated racemen to keep it flowing and the banks free of build-up and growth. It was de-watered every Wednesday and the racemen would go into the watercourse to remove plants and contaminants like mussels and waste matter. Horses and drays were kept at two locations and a centrally located engineering shop and forge was used for maintenance and to create the required hardware. In later years, when the hillsides were more heavily stocked with cattle, the race needed full fencing on both sides for its whole length. This required around 150 kilometres of fencing.

Apart from small take-offs permitted for domestic drinking and stock watering along its length, the intake water was delivered in its entirety to Ardgowan. The race was not used for irrigation of pastoral land, but in the 1960s some irrigation of orchards and berry farms was permitted. As the water was reticulated right around the business area of the town and because it was over 100psi, it was quickly recognised as being ideal for running electricity generating turbines. The first electricity was generated from the town supply in 1887. It is thought that there might have been up to 100 independent DC generating plants in Oamaru at the peak of the technology. As soon as it was built, and the very large cast iron mains laid throughout the town, the spare 300HP designed into the race was put to work through water engines, turbines, Pelton wheels and other water motors. One water engine rated at 135HP ran a large Haslam refrigeration compressor for the local freezing works. The New Zealand Refrigerating Company had an built an abattoir at Eveline (near the outfall of Boundary Creek) in the late 1870s. Carcasses were taken into Oamaru for freezing on board specially provisioned refrigerated sailing ships and then shipped overseas. The ‘frozen meat business’ was seminal to Oamaru's later growth and wealth and is a whole story in itself.

The NZ Refrigerating Company, realising that ships could turn around more frequently (and profitably) if the carcasses could be frozen on land while incoming vessels were in transit, built a freezing chamber and store in Oamaru. The company was however, continually at odds with the council over its massive consumption of water and the rate it paid for it, and eventually its compressors were run on steam.

By about 1895, grain growing had overtaken sheep farming in North Otago, and large flour mills and grain stores on the waterfront dominated business. These too used the mains water supply to run water engines and turbines for motive power.

The first DC power was created using a genuine Pelton designed (patented) wheel connected to a Compton Bipolar generator, just three years after the Pelton wheel was patented in America.

When it was switched on, the Red Lion Flour Mill was lit by 23 electric light globes. Urban myth has it that on that evening Oamaru had more electric lights than London – and we still have the generator here in town!

By 1915 the borough council recognised the potential for reticulated AC electricity to be generated from the water in its supply pipes. It decided to build its own Pelton wheel powered plant running off the water delivered to the reservoir by the Borough Race. Although it took until the middle of WWI in 1917 to see the fruition of this vision, Oamaru became the fourth town in New Zealand to have council-supplied, fully reticulated AC power.

The race was in use for 103 years and was de-commissioned in 1983. Some of the remains of the race are still here and the tunnels and a number of the aqueducts survive. The bywash sluice gates and the fence that kept the stock out over the whole 50km (on both sides) can still be traced. Four of the racemans’ cottages are still lived in today.

Sadly all the easement land is now back in private ownership and the artefacts are slowly slipping into the past.

This water supply is an inspirational an example of Victorian engineering and is an achievement of Oamaru should be very proud.

The artefacts comprising the race are sort of protected by the Historic Places Act which makes it an offence to modify anything both created before 1900, and associated with our heritage. However many of the aqueducts have been demolished, some prior to the Act, and some after. Many of the demolitions can very easily be defended on the grounds of safety. Luckily some of the more remote aqueducts still survive in excellent condition for their age.

The Borough Race is not a listed (historic) item or place and is under-appreciated by the community. Many Oamaru people do not know anything about it and certainly not that it was used to generate electricity so early in New Zealand's electrification history.

However, many of the landowners with histories that intersect the place and the period when the race was operational are well aware of it and its stories, and that it had significant potential right up until the day it was de-commissioned.

as of March 2012, this wheel has been cut through and partly removed from the site and is in storage being restored. The last time I looked, the bottom quarter of the wheel was still buried in detritus in the wheel pit. A trust has been formed to restore the wheel and its surroundings and this is certainly well overdue, however there may be some discussion still going on about what exactly can be done and in what fashion, because the wheel (and one must suppose its wheel pit and surroundings) are heritage items under the protection of the NZ Historic Places Trust.

This building was affectionately known as Ferguson's Castle.

It must have been built at the commencement of the work on the hydraulic power network, that is in 1887 and it will have had a steam powered pump or pumps. It is close by Shed 21 so one could assume that the accumulator in the North tower of Shed 21 (pictured) was the first accumulator on the network.

The Wellington Harbour Board hydraulic network would also have been converted to electric power when either the Harris Street generation sets were enlivened, or when the Evan's Bay power plant was built. IPENZ will shortly be establishing a record (database) entry for the WHB network, to be submitted by Bill PITT and these questions will be answered definitively then.

This building is included under the tag "Wellington Harbour Board hydraulic network" and "The Borough Race", because it, like a few other Wellington premises (some small bakers,confectionery makers and butchers) and others like The Government Printing Office and the printing business of Henry Blundell (which became The Evening Post) were also water powered at one time or another and in the case of all the Wellington enterprises except the Harbour Board, that water power came from the town (public) water supply, as did similar installations for commercial and industrial purposes, in Oamaru, at about the same time.

As far as I can tell at this time (March 2012) Wellington and Oamaru were the only two cities that had a range of businesses with hydraulic power equipment run off their gravity fed, high pressure domestic (town) water supply networks.

This line drawing shows the working components of a Schmid reciprocating self-valved water motor. These motors were of Swiss design and few complete motors survive as the moving parts were all made from machined cast gunmetal and this material was in such great demand for munitions during the First World War that all such sources were "mined" and exploited. Patriotic churches on both sides of the conflict would have donated church bells for use by their respective British or German arsenals, although it has been said that in the British Commonwealth countries the Lutheran Churches had their bells confiscated!

What is not shown in the drawing is the trunion and the mechanism which held the oscillating cylinder down onto the semicircular shoe - a system of levers and adjustable screws which maintained enough pressure to keep the device moderately water tight whilst still allowing it to "rock" without absorbing too much energy. The machines did leak and all working engines will be mounted on a base which can collect the run-off and direct it to drain.

Here is an You Tube video of a similar water engine working

Inside Hor Dai Chun. Electricity, a couple of houses with telephones, no running water and no toilets (one toilet for the whole village)

The small building made from river stones was the house of our great great grandfather.

There are not many ways a whim can be configured and I guess that one made by any competent foundry and engineering shop would look like one from anyone else, but these do bear a close resemblance to whims from the Elswick works of Sir William Armstrong and considering that the hydraulic network was established as the business of Armstrong was peaking in Tyneside UK and that the Harbour Board purchased Armstrong hydraulic cranes from the UK in the early days (to be confirmed - as I haven't examined the Board files in archive) it may be that these are Armstrong whims. No marks were visible to me on my first inspection.

Shed 21 was a wool store and dump (a descriptive term for the place/facility where wool which had arrived in bales from farms at a modest density was re-packed to minimise shipping volume).

Most sheep farms had screw presses to squeeze the wool into tight bales, but the density was capable of being increased at least twice and often three times by pressing two or three bales together in a facility which had hydraulic machinery. These facilities were located at just a few export ports around New Zealand and Wellington was the collection and export point for nearly all the wool that was grown in the North Island from The Manawatu and The Wairarapa.

The building had travelling gantry cranes and was fully open to the roof (a three story high space) It is now in three floors and partitioned as apartments.

The faceted tower held one of the two hydraulic accumulators on the Harbour Board network. It is clear from what remains that the weights that were driven up by the hydraulic pumps went (traversed) the full three floors and that they (or it) filled the whole void of the tower, the guide rails are on opposite faces and wear on the guides extends to nearly floor level. The implication may be therefore that the hydraulic cylinder was sunk entirely below floor level (3 stories down) and that it may still be in place under the new concrete floor of the tower which has been converted to a stair well.

The logo comprises a Dolphin and Crown and an Anchor on a blue ground.. Heraldry buffs will have a "proper" way to describe these symbols!

The motto "Union is Strength" reflects the turbulent past of the Harbour Board I think - it grew out of necessity but it had a difficult passage!

The most comprehensive and beautiful book about Wellington Harbour is WELLINGTON HARBOUR by David Johnson ISBN 0 9583498 00 and this link will take you to an interesting 70 page guide to the harbour.


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