Making the Cut


It was a great day in the history of Nelson when the Cut opened on July 30 1906.

The report in the Nelson Evening Mail on July 31 is full of the pride that our forebears took in man's improvements on nature. It is hard to imagine a local engineering feat today on such an ambitious scale - or one that would be greeted with the same enthusiasm. Nelson Harbour Improvement - Successful and enthusiastic demonstration' trumpeted the Mail.

Rotoiti and IrisNelson Harbour Entrance Opening, Rotoiti and Iris. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Nelson Historical Society Collection: C93. Click image to enlarge

The Union Steam Ship Company's coastal passenger steamer Rotoiti  ‘did the honours' at the opening, by sailing in and out of the new entrance. She was packed to the gunnels with 800 Nelsonians who had paid sixpence for the privilege, subsequently totted up to forty pounds and handed over to the hospital. The paper states:

As punctually as possible the Rotoiti. . . left the wharf with her immense load, and never in the history of Nelson has a Union Company's boat gone out with so many people on board.'

As the vessel went through the Cut the Mail relates that ribbons including the Graham tartan (in honour of the Chairman of the Board John Graham) were stretched across the water: ‘The Rotoiti breasted the ribbon in fine style, and broke through the light barrier amid rousing cheers from on board and from the Boulder Bank.'

When the ferry was back at the wharf there were speeches. Mr Graham referred to the people who had opposed the project, dubbing it the' ditch'. He said when it was finished it would be wider than the Suez Canal and that he hoped there would be no more croaking'.

The Board and guests then retired to the Harbour Board offices for more speeches, toasts, singing of' For he's a jolly good fellow' and general congratulations. They popped out when word was brought that the Rotoiti was about to depart again - this time on her first 'real business passage to New Plymouth and Auckland.' Two rockets were fired as she steamed through the new entrance and the speeches were interrupted yet again, when Mr Graham related the information that the pilot had returned to port after just six minutes from departure, compared with 17 minutes using the old harbour entrance around Haulashore Island.

SS RotoitiSS Rotoiti Outward Bound for New Plymouth. July 30, 06. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 6x8 14. Click image to enlarge

An inkwell made from the base of the champagne bottle broken at the launch of the dredge (used during construction) was presented to Mr Graham, who said it would be a memento of one of the most important occasions in his whole life. The opening of the Cut over, people went home, a lucky few clutching snips of the ceremonial ribbon that were sold for one shilling.

Why the Cut?

The old entrance to Nelson was always difficult as the settler ship Fifeshire demonstrated when she was the first to run aground, right back in 1842. After the Waimea River changed its course in the mid 1870s the channel around Haulashore Island began to silt up and strandings increased. Unless something was done about the harbour entrance, ‘Nelson', reported the newspaper the Colonist, faced ‘not merely stagnation, but ruin.' The government would not agree to the expensive works on the Cut until a Harbour Board was formed, so the Cut marks the birth of modern Port Nelson in more ways than just as an engineering feat

Happy Ending

We'd like to report it was a happy ever after story, but in fact it was not too many years before ships had increased in size and the Cut was not wide enough. Mr Graham's opening day pride was dinted when the newspaper published a poem that began:

‘Oh had you made it wider John,
The Cut you've been engaged upon, so many years...'

Over the years further work has been done on the Cut keeping pace with the growth in the international vessels whose calls make Port Nelson our region's gateway to the world.

This article was first published in Port Nelson Limited report July 2006.

Updated May 25, 2020.

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  • My Grandfather John McHarg was dredge engineer responsible for creating the cut.A major undertaking back then with many problems to be over come.

    Posted by S.L. McHarg, 03/09/2014 2:00pm (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Making the Cut



  • Nelson Provincial Museum holds a piece of ribbon commemorating the opening of the Cut as well as images which document the occasion.

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