Home' Greymouth Star : October 31st 2015 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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6 - Saturday, October 31, 2015
In 1886, British electrical engineer Walter Prince ‘lit up’
four hotels on Reefton’s main street, Broadway. Two years
later, it was the Oddfellows Hall, that was transformed into
a ‘fiery furnace’ with electric light.
Prince designed and constructed the local hydro-electric
power scheme, making Reefton the first town in the
Southern Hemisphere with a public electricity supply.
That pioneering scheme lasted until 1946, when a tunnel
Graham Hunter, who started his career as an apprentice
electrician, worked there for a short time. The water came
upstream in the Inangahua River, travelling 1.8km from
Blacks Point, down through tunnels and open flumes to
the powerhouse at Rosstown, directly opposite Reefton
township on the other side of the river. New buildings were
added in 1908 and 1935.
When the tunnel collapsed, there was no talk of repair;
luckily there was a diesel back-up. Miners at Burkes Creek
helped dig the holes for powerlines that carried electricity
from the Grey Valley.
Graham tendered for the old powerhouse buildings, using
the timber for boxing, and his shed. The machinery was sold
The timber that held the flume walls in place was removed
and some used to put bars over the windows, to stop
vandalism and thefts. And that ’s how it remained for more
than half a century.
Then, one night, a few men, all with ties to the electricity
industry, had a beer or two, and discussed how it should be
saved, before it deteriorated too much.
They formed a trust, and the town’s electrician Greg Topp
became chairman. He talks animatedly about the restoration
project, while wearing his sparky overalls. It ’s that sort of
project — hard graft, and lots of paperwork. And lots of
good sorts helping out.
Trustees include a Department of Conservation historian
and a finance expert. Lawyer and former Buller mayor
Martin Sawyers (a Reefton boy) has been offering his
legal expertise, and they have also had help with the
After a few years and with nothing concrete to show
(other than a huge and growing pile of paperwork), the
volunteers started to clear the path to the powerhouse. Up
to 40 large trees overhanging the river’s edge were removed,
and protective rockwalls installed.
Interpretative signs went up — including one where
you wind a handle and lights come on. The walk now goes
as far as the swingbridge and longer term, it will continue
to Blacks Point. Already, locals are using the walk in great
“The feedback has been unreal,” Greg says. “ We’d been
working hard for three years, but there was (now) something
The heart of it all — the powerhouse site — remains
fenced off. And so the work continues.
The Buller District Council turned them down for a share
of the $2 million Development West Coast money.
“They were right, the (application) was not factual
enough,” Greg says. So they did it again and got $400,000,
which they had to match dollar for dollar.
“It was bloody hard work,” he says.
Now they are working on easements and the like. The
resource consent application will follow.
Apart from re-creating the historic powerhouse, they are
creating a working hydro scheme, so just like any power
company they need resource consent and have to supply a
raft of specialist information, including hydrology reports.
Allan Archer meanwhile, has created detailed drawings —
about 270 hours’ worth, Greg says. “All voluntary.”
A building designed to look like the old ones will be
installed, but with new generating plant.
The idea is that tourists will pay to go through, and enjoy
an interactive look at Reefton’s electric past.
The project will be sustainable, the tourist attraction and
power generation itself making enough money for any
future renewals. It will also create jobs.
Already they have a free mobile app, ‘ The Powerhouse
They have come so far, and have a long way to go. But
there’s lots to celebrate. And it ’s not too hard to imagine
how it was in the days when Walter Prince walked on
“Come and have a look,” Greg says. “Go for a walk.”
Trust members include: Dave Hawes (Buller District
Council), Jim Staton (Department of Conservation), Kim
Hughes (secretary-treasurer), Roger Fensome, Pat Russell.
For more information: search for the Reefton Powerhouse
Charitable Trust Inc in Facebook.
In the 1940s, Graham Hunter helped take apart Reefton’s old hydro power scheme. He even
used some of the parts to build his shed. More than 60 years later, he’s part of a group that plans
to rebuild the powerhouse and generate electricity again, to celebrate Reefton’s place in the history
books. LAURA MILLS was given a tour of the abandoned scheme and the town’s new riverside
Lighting trial at Oddfellows hall
The night was
favourable for the
display, and an
immense crowd of
people gathered in
the street to witness
the exhibition, and
when, shortly before
8pm, the powerful
light of the arc-lamp
burst forth, like the
flash of a mighty meteor, a murmur of admiration rose from
the spectators, and there was an immediate scampering of feet
towards the scene of the display.
As on the former occasion, the light throbbed a good deal, but
at its maximum of brilliancy illuminated the town over a very
wide area with its cold, cheerless, phosphorescent rays.
The illumination reached far upon the mountains round the
town, and gave a very sepulchral appearance to the hill-sides, the
trees and stumps standing out in the strange pallid light, like so
But if the arc-light was an attraction outside, the interior of
the Oddfellows Hall was infinitely more so. Rows of lamps
were suspended down the building, encased in a variety of
fantastically shaped shades of different colours, and the whole
scene was one of striking splendour.
It was indeed a hall of dazzling light.
Inangahua Times, August 6, 1888
Powerhouse, manager’s residence and tailrace, 1904.
The original powerhouse and intake flume.
Gregg Topp at the powerhouse site across the river from Reefton, at Rosstown.
Graham Hunter looks into the pit where the turbine was situated.
An interpretation panel.
Powerhouse Trust chairman Gregg Topp, left, and Allan Archer on the swingbridge.
Allan Archer at the powerhouse site.
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