History - Golden Bay: Industrial Dynamo

The Onekaka ironworks shows us what might have been in New Zealand’s most dynamic region, Golden Bay, makes you shiver to think about it | By Joy Stephens | Photography supplied by Nelson Provincial Museum

Hopes were high when the first iron flowed from the blast furnace at the Onekaka ironworks at 8pm on April 27, 1922. With all the necessary materials – iron ore, limestone, water, and coal – within a few miles of each other and ownership of a nearby wharf, the Onekaka Iron and Steel Company Ltd seemed virtually self-contained.

In 1905, government geologist Dr Bell forecast that with iron deposits of 50 million tons in the Onekaka and Parapara areas, a multi-million pound company would be established that would dominate world markets. It was predicted that Golden Bay would be the site of a great and prosperous city.

A Nelson Evening Mail article of the day suggested: “Is Nelson on the eve of a great forward movement? … The not distant future may see a populous industrial center on the shores of Golden Bay.”

But it was not to be. In its heyday, Onekaka produced 8000 to 10,000 tons of iron per year, but sales amounted to only half that of production.

By October 1925, production was climbing but the market was saturated and prices began to fall. In 1927, 600 tons of iron was shipped from Onekaka to Australia, where it sold readily, but the Australian Government increased import duty from £1 to £3 a ton, which ended Onekaka’s hopes for success in the Australian market.

A pipe foundry was installed in 1928 and provided pipes for many local authorities around New Zealand. But pleas to the government of the day for a protective duty to help the industry back to its feet fell on deaf ears. As the Great Depression took hold, local authorities had no money for pipes and the company soon found itself in financial difficulties.

By 1831, the Onekaka Iron and Steel Company Ltd went into liquidation. Between 1922 and 1935, more than 81,000 tons of iron had been produced, with up to 180 men employed at the works.

By 1940, Nelson’s Chief Mechanical Engineer wrote of the Onekaka Works:
“I have never seen such a collection of obsolete and dilapidated machinery. The power plant has evidently been selected in a second-hand ancient plant market.

Dreams of a prosperous, iron-clad development in Golden Bay had faded and the iron and steel industry was nationalized in 1938. In August 1939, with war imminent, the prime minister announced as part of his budget address that there was enough iron ore and iron sand at Onekaka to supply the iron and steel industry for 50 years.

The government proposed to spend £5m over a three-year period. The rejuvenated plant was to include a complete railway system, stock yards, power generation plant, an internal gas distribution system, lime-burning kilns, foundry, and repair workshops. It was envisaged that the Onekaka Iron Works would include a steel making plant, steel rolling mills, sheet and wire production, and a by-product plant. The Onekaka plant was overhauled at a cost of £100,000 as an emergency measure over 1942 and 1943, however no more iron was produced.

But hopes for Onekaka refused to die. In June 1951, the government announced it was considering re-opening Onekaka on a limited scale as it felt the area’s mineral wealth lay untapped.

However further investigations revealed the ore deposits in the area were not sufficient and by 1956 Onekaka’s fate was sealed.

The Onekaka/Parapara area is again a tranquil, nature-clad spot, with little trace of the previously flourishing iron industry. In 1966 William Bell wrote in the Nelson Evening Mail: “It needs extra-keen eyesight to spot from the road which sweeps around Golden Bay any trace of the once burgeoning iron industry … the towering blast furnace, the slender smoking chimneys, the aerial ropeway, the pipe foundry, the huge coal bins, and rambling ramp – all are gone. On the land, fern and gorse have spread a merciful shroud over such of the crumbling foundations as still remain.”

The information in this article is from resources available at the Nelson Provincial Museum’s Isel Park Research Facility.

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