Shipping and trade on the Opawa River


At one time, Picton was described as Marlborough's front door and the Opawa River as the tradesmen's entrance, but in the early days of European settlement, river trade was essential to the developing province. Early Wairau settlers received goods and imported wool and grain by river schooner.1

The early Beaver settlement was sited at the confluence of the Omaka and Opawa Rivers, with  the Opawa River flowing into the seaward end of the Wairau River. Blenheim's shipping trade dates back to 1849 when small coasters such as the Triumph and Old Jack discharged and collected cargo inside the Wairau Bar.2

The OpawaThe ship `Opawa' at Eckfords Wharf, Blenheim. [Sydney Charles Smith]. Alexander Turnbull Library:  Click image to enlarge

Marlborough produce was ferried across the Wairau Bar to larger vessels waiting in Cloudy Bay or at Port Underwood,3 and goods were transported to Blenheim on whaleboats towed by horses walking along the riverbank.4  

It wasn't until a  major earthquake in October 1848 caused the Wairau  Lagoons to subside, resulting in greater tidal flows  which scoured out the Wairau (and Opawa) river mouth bar, 5  that navigation became less difficult and schooners and steamers could transport wool directly from Blenheim to Wellington. 6

In November 1848, the first recorded trading vessel to cross the Wairau Bar and navigate the 20 kilometre route along the Opawa River to the small settlement of Beavertown was the Triumph, a 10 ton schooner with Captain Samuel Bowler  at the helm.7  Bowler and his partners owned a fleet of small boats which ferried wool from Wynen's Wharf to the Boulder Bank.8

From 1860 it was realised that vessels up to 40 tons could travel up the river9 and within a  few years, a fleet of small trading vessels sailed between Blenheim, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch.10

In 1861, the Nelson Marlborough Steam Navigation Company began trading across the Cook Strait with the 84 ton paddle steamer the Tasmanian Maid, which was wrecked on the Wairau Bar in 1862.11  She was followed by the Lyttleton, a 78 ton paddle steamer, which began a Wellington-Blenheim-Nelson service on 20 October, 1866.12

Echo stranded on the Wairau BarA.S. Echo stranded on the Wairau Bar, 1956 (courtesy Seddon Station Master) 0000.900.0812. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
Click image to enlarge

Numerous ships were stranded on the hazardous Wairau Bar and and several were wrecked completely.13 The bar is formed where the Wairau River flows into Cloudy Bay and its shape is altered depending on river flows, flood waters and tidal flows in and out of the Wairau Lagoons.14  The Wairau became a designated port with a pilot and, by the turn of the century, the Port of Wairau was controlled by the Wairau Harbour Board based in Blenheim.15

The steamer Neptune

The steamer Neptune being repaired on the 'Sandspit', Opawa River, Blenheim. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
Click to enlarge

There was keen competition for the Cook Strait trade and Captain Thomas Eckford joined the fray in 1881 with the 30 ton steamer, Mohaka.16   The Eckford Shipping Company eventually handled most river trade to Wellington, operating between 1881-1965. They outlasted competitors such as the Wairau Steamship Company, which owned several  passenger and cargo steamers in direct competition with the Eckford's Opawa.17 

The best-known Eckford ship was the Echo, an auxiliary scow, with a flat bottom ideally suited to shallow river conditions and stranding inside the Wairau Bar.18  The Echo carried a range of cargo including peas, apples, Grassmere salt, cars and newsprint for the Marlborough Express.19   At one time, she was nicknamed ‘the breakfast ship' as she carried eggs and bacon on the hoof from Blenheim to Wellington.20

 In 1939, James Cowan described the passage of the Echo which made three trips a week between Wellington and Blenheim. "The farmer on the bank of the Wairau exchanges greetings with the little ship working up the river under engine power. Out with the cargo and general merchandise and in with farm produce...and the Echo is off...for the Wairau Bar and the sea; then up with the sails for Cook Strait." 21

The advent of the Cook Strait ferries in 1962 22  sounded  the death knell for the Eckford family and, after 45 years of outstanding service, the Echo made her last voyage on  17 August 1965.23  


Sources used in this story

  1. McIntosh, A.D.(ed.)(1940) Marlborough a provincial history. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough Provincial Historical Committee. p 311
  2. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand: industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations. V.5 Nelson, Marlborough and Westland provincial districts.(1897-1908) Wellington, N.Z.: Cyclopedia Co. p.371
  3. Holdaway, B. (1995). Some Christmas thoughts on the siting of Blenheim. Marlborough's Past and Present, 3. p 18
  4. Buick, T. L. (1900) Old Marlborough, or The story of a province. Palmerston North, N.Z.: Hart and Keeling. p 330
  5. Eiby, G.B.(1980)  The Marlborough Earthquakes of  1848 [DSIR Bulletin No 25].Wellington : New Zealand Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research
  6. Eckford, H.S. (Bert) (1995) History of the Eckford Shipping Co. and Blenheim river traders 1881-1965. Blenheim, N.Z.: H.S. (Bert) Eckford. p 10
  7. Andrews, J. (1989) Marlborough river transport of bygone days and some of the colourful operators. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1989, 2(3), p 13.
  8. Buick, p 331
  9. Buick, p 332
  10. Cyclopedia, p 371 
  11. Ross, John O'C. (1977)  Pride in their port; the story of  the minor ports. Palmerston North, N.Z.: Dunmore Press, p 141
  12. McIntosh, p 312
  13. Eckford p 25-27
  14. Eckford, p 10
  15. Ross, p 142
  16. Eckford, p 11-12
  17. Eckford p 23
  18. Eckford, p 51
  19. Eckford, p 54
  20. McIntyre, D. and Field, M. et al.(1983) Cook's wild Strait ; the Interisland story. Wellington, N.Z.: Reed. p 99, 107
  21. McLean, Gavin (2001) Captain's log : New Zealand's maritime history. Auckland, N.Z.: Hodder Moa Beckett,  p 167
  22. McIntyre, p 83
  23. McIntyre, p 107

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  • "ECHO", signal flags dressed from the mainmast marking the cessation of the Wellington - Blenheim shipping service, departed Queen's Wharf No.13 on her final voyage down Wellington Harbour on the afternoon of Friday, August 20th, 1965 - for Blenheim, stranding inside the Wairau Bar near the Opawa River mouth shortly after midnight on the 21st August (Saturday)1965.(date corrected for the record).

    Posted by Martin Berthold, ()

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Further sources - Shipping and trade on the Opawa River



  • Adeane, J. (1998, Aug 9) Café-museum Echo from past Sunday Star-Times. p. A 11
  • Adeane, J (2004)  An undying Echo. New Zealand Memories, 49,  pp. 44-45
  • Andrews, J. (1989) Marlborough river transport of bygone days and some of the colourful operators. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1989, 2(3), p 13.
  • Barnes, P. (1994, May 18) Role for Echo/Echo set for tourists. The Picton Paper. pp.12-13
  • Berry, K.. (2003, Sep 10) Future good for Echo. Blenheim Sun. p.10
  • The Echo 1969. (1972, June) Marlborough Pictorial  pp. 1- 6 Holdaway, B. (1995). Some Christmas thoughts on the siting of Blenheim. Marlborough's Past and Present, 3. p 18
  • Leahy, P J (et al)(1972) For the record. New Zealand Marine News, 24(1),p.1,18-32
  • Opawa River (1997) New Zealand Memories, 1997, 2(10), p.636-637
  • Wilson, Peter. (1997, June 21) Echo often landed up where she shouldn't have been! Saturday Express. p.3



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