Port Nelson timeline


Port Nelson has been integral to the development of Nelson, and has a long and fascinating history in its own right. This timeline highlights significant events in its development to 2001.

Nelson Haven 1841Nelson Haven [1841] by Charles Heaphy. Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission must be sought from ATL for further use of this image
Click image to enlarge
  • Pre-European
    Nelson Haven known to Māori as spawning ground for snapper and other species.
  • 1841
    Haven discovered by Europeans. Vessels came in with tide and went out against it. Arthur Wakefield observed Haven entrance was too narrow to admit largest vessels but had sufficient deep water in harbour. Many strandings in early days. Fifeshire on maiden voyage in 1842 ran aground and wrecked.
    December: Stone wharf built near Green Point, buoys moored in Channel. Seven ships had entered Port by end of year.
  • 1841 onwards
    Port must adjust to increasing volume of trade and rapid growth in size of ships - ongoing problem. Port development hindered by meagre finance until 1901.
  • 1842, January
    Eliza returns with 500 weight of Whanganui coal for Nelson, 2 tons of whale blubber.
  • 1842/43
    Immigrant ships: Fifeshire, Mary Ann, Lloyds, Lord Auckland bring steady stream of immigrants. Wakefield says steam tug needed to ensure harbour safety.
  • 1842 onwards
    Skilled shipwrights build ships at Port and shores of Bay where timber grew: cutters, schooners and Blind Bay hookers.
  • 1843
    Port Nelson a bustling harbour. By May 1843, it had cleared at least 25,000 tons of shipping. Three main jetties under construction handling most shipping until late 1850s.
  • 1844
    Edward Baigent rafts timber from his Wakefield Mill to Port Nelson. By second half 20th Century, H. Baigent and Sons have become Port Nelson's largest exporter.
  • 1847
    First steamer piloted out on lowest tide show Port can be worked by steamers at any tide.
  • 1848
    Beacon visible from 12 miles built on Boulder Bank.
  • 1849
    Peak year with 98,500 feet of sawn timber exported, 18,561 pounds wool. Port facilities barely able to cope with increasing quantity of goods.
  • Throughout 1840s
    Coastal trade considerable especially with Wellington, also Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney. Imports exceed exports. Nelson exports bacon, potatoes, eggs, grain, ale, timber, wool. Casualties high among early Nelson vessels due to roughly charted coasts, few safety regulations.
  • 1850s
    Nelson pioneers steam communication on NZ coast. By end of 1854 two steamer services between Nelson, Wellington, Lyttleton, Melbourne. Port Nelson presents scene of activity and beauty with sea flecked with sails, lively coasters, schooners, stately English clippers, barques and full rigged ships.1
  • 1850-53
    Arrow Rock blasted to widen breadth of Channel. Beacons improved.
  • 1852
    NZ Steam Navigation Co. formed by Nelson merchants wanting benefits of steam.
  • 1854
    Queen's Wharf owned by Provincial Government, leased by William Akerston.
  • 1853-1900
    Character of ships changing rapidly: larger vessels, sailing ships reach peak of beauty and competence, ousted by steamers. Continuing problems with shoaling at Port entrance.
    A corner of Nelson HavenA corner of Nelson Haven. Nelson Provincial Museum. FN Jones Collection 26714
    Click image to enlarge
  • 1855
    Trade brisk. Timber exports decline. Wool exports half million pounds, grain exports steady, apples listed for first time (569 bushels). Revenue for year £250, customs receipts more than £8000.
  • 1856 - 1859
    First deep water wharf (Napier Wharf) built. 1859: taken out 40 feet with 12 feet water at low tide. Second deep water wharf the Albion built in 1857.
  • 1857-1860s
    Collingwood goldrush begins. Nelson flourishes on gold and coal from West Coast. Gold brings wealth, population, trade, robbery and violence.
    Albion WharfAlbion Wharf from Railway Wharf, Port Nelson ca 1879, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-018594-F
    Permission must be obtained from Alexander Turnbull Library for further use of this image
    Click image to enlarge
  • 1859-1860
    New Government wharf built extends 380 feet seaward, 40 feet wide. Vessels drawing 16 feet can lie alongside at low tide.
  • 1862
    N.Z.'s first (horse drawn) railway opened from Dun Mountain to port. Chrome ore exported to Lancashire cotton mills for cotton dying.2 Lamp lit on NZ's second lighthouse on Boulder Bank.
  • 1860s
    Nelson merchants invest in steam. Many companies shortlived. Nathanial Edwards' company prospers, becomes Anchor Steam Shipping Company in 1880. Owns ships, foundry, Albion wharf. Up to 40 locally owned hookers busy in Golden and Tasman Bays: transport limestone from Tata Islands, timber from Havelock and Waitapu, grain, hops, flax, fruit and wool. Traffic puts severe strain on Port equipment.
  • 1876
    Cheap 1860 Government wharf rotten beyond repair. Province builds wharf - still Nelson's principal wharf in 1954.
  • Last part of century
    Transition for Haven. Steamship lines well established but sailing vessels continue to visit until end of Century. Shipwrights continue to build in spite of Depression and competition. Red Cross Line steamers (including the Waitapu and Lady Barkly3) run regular services in Bay.
  • 1880
    Railway line from Port to Town opens. Government Wharf handed over to Railway Department who operate it until Harbour Board takes control in 1921.
  • 1880s
    Gloomy years - no extensive improvements for 23 years. Shoaling at harbour entrance means overseas vessel visits decline. In 1860s, 30,000 tons entered port, 15,000 tons in 1876, 2,331 tons in 1884. Port income declines. As clippers and steamers visiting Nelson get bigger, navigation of Port grows more difficult. Waimea River adopts new channel meaning smaller amount of water to scour bar - harbour approaches deteriorate.
  • 1892-95
    Rocks blasted at harbour entrance. Dredging done inside harbour. In 1884 width between sand bank and Boulder Bank is 1800 feet, this is halved by 1890s. Nelson citizens realise drastic action required or harbour will be un-useable by overseas vessels and hopelessly inadequate for province's needs.
  • 1899, August
    Dunedin civil engineer Mr Leslie Reynolds recommends scheme to cut new entrance through Boulder Bank. Total cost estimate £58,000. Beginning of new era in Port's history.
  • 1900
    Nelson Fishing Company formed. Installs freezing machinery at Port in 1901.
    October 20: Harbour Board Act  (consolidated 1905) passed as Nelson needs to constitute a board and rate payers need to approve raising loan of £65,000.
  • 1901
    February 20: First Nelson Harbour Board elected to ‘rescue Nelson from imminent ruin"4. Board income £3000/annum, board committed to capital expenditure of £60,000. 
    November: Plans for cut approved by Government. Channel through Boulder Bank was to be 500 feet north of boat channel beacon, flanked by two rubble moles and dredged to 15 feet below low tide.
    Port Nelson and the WoodNelson_City_the_Wood. Nelson Provincial Museum. Tyree Collection 182157
    Click image to enlarge
  • 1902, June
    Construction of dredge, designed by L. Reynolds, named after first Harbour Board Chairman, John Graham.
  • 1906, July 30
    New entrance completed. Cut wide enough to accommodate overseas liners at high tide, however in a few years new larger liners too big to enter with comfort. Shipping at Port increases steadily as does board's income.
  • 1908
    Nelson Freezing Company formed; build freezing works at Stoke.
  • 1909, April
    NZ Shipping Co refrigerated liner Rakaia steams through Cut to collect 14,000 frozen carcasses from Stoke Works for England.
  • 1910, March 23
    First direct export of fruit from Nelson to England. Paparoa arrives to load 5400 cases apples, 7500 frozen mutton carcasses.
  • 1911
    Wharf additions completed. Berths have 25 feet of water at low spring tide - Port has sufficient deep water space for some years. As soon as dredging finishes for wharves, it begins in inner harbour where shoaling has occurred.
  • 1912
    Improvements not keeping pace with ever larger ships. NZ Shipping Co and Shaw Savill & Co. say Cut must be widened by at least 100 feet and dredged to give more depth to accommodate new ships. Leslie Reynolds consulted again.
  • 1914-18
    War intervenes, widening Cut postponed, decline in trade at Port, revenue falls sharply due to restricted shipping.
  • 1920s and 30s
    Timber supplies imported from overseas.
  • 1921
    Board accepts wharfinger functions. Board income £21,750; 81,455 tons cargo handled at wharf. Exports include: dairy produce, hops, vegetables, frozen meat, wool, fresh fruit.
  • 1929
    Franzens Wharf and Ship Chandlery, which serviced Blind Bay hookers from earliest days, was demolished.
  • 1930
    Six acres of reclamation north of wharves completed. Gives Port Nelson land needed for industrial expansion. Provides rent as well as deflecting wall protecting wharf from silting. British Imperial Oil Company (now Shell) leases two acres for bulk storage of petroleum products. Trade at Port reaches peak justifying past improvements but making others imperative. Peak year for fruit exports through Port: 555,574 bushel cases fresh fruit. Cargo totals 153,000 tonnes. Port revenue £41,534 (four times 1919 revenue).
  • 1930
    Mr Reynolds consulted on how to make Port Nelson semi-final loading point for ships up to 12,000 tons. Repeated former advice that Cut must be deepened, widened and protected by a north mole. Urgent as shingle moving south along Boulder Bank has closed channels. Work shelved due to Depression.
  • 1932
    Board's first loan of £65,000 due for repayment. £36,000 borrowed from AMP Society to cover it.
  • 1933-34
    Only 105,383 tons cargo handled. Board income dwindles to £29,124 in 1934.
  • 1935, April
    Board's land endowment includes best site for aerodrome for Nelson. Board empowered to establish and control airport for commercial aviation.
  • 1938
    First overseas petrol tanker, Henry Dundas, discharges part of cargo into newly erected storage tanks.
    8 October: Airport opened by Robert Semple, Minister of Public Works.
  • 1938-40
    Five acres reclaimed beside 1930 reclamation. Vacuum Oil Company and Texas Company lease acreage for bulk petroleum depot. Two hectares reclaimed to be leased by petrol companies. First tanks erected on site during WW2 as part of decentralisation programme in event of enemy attack.
  • 1939-45
    War and rationalisation of air services changed ownership of airport to Public Works Department.
    Overseas shipping centralised to main ports- fruit etc had to be transshipped through Wellington. Reduction of cargo handled to annual average of 144,000 tons.
  • 1939-1952
    Timber trade virtually ceases.
  • 1941
    Cargo Shed No. 5 converted to cool store with capacity for 35,000 cases fruit so fruit can be cooled prior to shipping to Britain.
  • 1943
    Centralisation of shipping introduced. Nelson closed to overseas cargo vessels. tankers. Only oil tankers come into Port until 1951.
  • 1948
    Geological investigation of harbour bed finds areas of clay and mudstone which can be cleared with explosives plus dredging; sand and silt ideal for dredging and pumping into reclamation. Nelson Harbour Board Empowering Bill, 1948, gives authority to borrow £500,000 for dredging, reclaiming land and wharf extensions. Plans are made to reclaim 40.5 hectares mudflat north of Haven Road, dredge outer shoal, inner channel and harbour approaches, widen and lengthen swinging basin, extend and widen main wharf and build more cargo sheds.
  • 1949
    Shipments of timber for Wellington total 746 cubic metres.
  • 1950
    Minister of Marine announces Port Nelson reopened to overseas shipping.
  • 1951
    Nationwide Watersiders' strike. Fruit left to rot on trees or cases dumped in sea. Nearly 500,000 cases fruit exported from Nelson to U.K. (national total 690,000 cases).
    McGlashen Quay McGlashen Quay Nelson (1960's). Nelson Provincial Museum. PhotoNews 1005 fr5
    Click image to enlarge
  • 1952
    Tasman Bay, single screw grab hopper dredger built5
  • 1953
    Karitea, a suction dredge, assembled on reclamation edge and launched. Dredging begins in earnest.
    April: End of era. Anchor Company withdraws Ngaio from Nelson-Wellington passenger service. First shipments of pinus radiata to Australia total 2448 tonnes or 2713 cubic metres.
  • 1956
    McGlashen Quay constructed - a breastwork wharf along western side reclamation. Nelson-Glenhope railway closes.
  • 1957
    More than 500,000 cases of fruit shipped overseas directly from Nelson for first time. Port petroleum storage facilities comprise 20 tanks with 24 million litre capacity.
  • 1959
    First shipment of logs to Japan. Total timber exports jump from 13,000 tonnes in 1957-58 to 23,374 tonnes in 1958-59. Peak year for wool handled at Port - 10,114 bales. Nelson declared grading port for dairy produce. Milk Treatment station became first industry established on reclamation. Reclamation and construction of new berthage on McGlashen Quay. Apple and Pear Board lease area along quay.

    Aerial of Port Nelson (1960's). Nelson Provincial Museum. PhotoNews. 3213 fr1 

  • Early 1960s
    Timber exports: logs to Japan and sawn timber to Australia amount to between 20,325 tonnes and 30,488 tonnes per annum. 21 fishing vessels registered in Nelson, 33 full time fishermen. Channel widened to full designed width- 152 metres, maximum permissible draught increased to 8.5 metres. 1906 design finally achieved.
  • 1961
    Whakatu launched. Tug provides assistance to smaller vessels, towage of Karitea, maintenance of lights and moorings. Leases totaling 18.4 hectares of reclamation taken up including five oil companies, NZ Apple and Pear Marketing Board, Transport Nelson Holdings. One million cases fruit are shipped from Nelson in one season.
  • 1962
    41 hectares enclosed by embankments, 31.5 hectares fully reclaimed. Total cargo handled in Port for year = 282,520 tonnes.
  • 1964
    Bitumen storage plant installed at Port to store hot liquefied bitumen for northern South Island.
  • 1965
    Formation of N.Z. Sea Products Ltd. Fish filleting and packing factory operational by 1967. Company in receivership after two years. Peak year for serpentine shipped to fertilizer works in Wanganui at 46,748 tonnes. First direct shipment of car parts for new Standard Triumph plant (Britain). Plant capacity increased to include Land Rovers and heavy truck chassis.
  • 1966
    1.5 million cases of fruit shipped direct from Nelson.
  • 1967
    Nelson Fisheries Ltd build processing factory and storage space with 30.4 metre wharf alongside eastern end McKellar Quay on reclamation extension.
  • 1968, April 10
    Wahine storm damages more than 405 hectares of mature exportable radiata pine. Harbour entrance and wharfside berthage dredged to accommodate deeply laden log ships.
  • 1969
    244,768 tonnes of timber exported from Port compared to 98, 235 tonnes in 1968. Nelson Pine Forest Ltd builds chip mill. 1.4 hectares adjacent to McGlashen Quay leased to stockpile chips.
  • 1970
    Hijiri Maru makes 10 trips to Nelson lifting 152,899 tonnes chips. March: Kingsford Quay opened, particularly suitable for handling bulk cargoes such as fruit, logs and sawn timber.
  • 1971
    Jaguar and Rover 3500s cars shipped from Nelson Triumph plant to Australia. McGlashen Quay completed to full designed length of 445 metres. Greater margin of depth required in outer approach channel. Australian dredge engaged and excavates 79,511 cubic metres from channel and 16,261 cubic metres from swinging basin.
  • 1972
    Record 23,303 tonnes sawn timber, 225,143 tonnes wood chips, 222,525 tonnes logs exported through Port Nelson. Second tug W.H. Parr commissioned ‘to relieve any reluctance shipping companies may have to use port'.6 
  • 1973
    Excavation of berthage to 9.1 metres depth, pumped to reclamation for new roll-on roll-off berth known as Brunt Quay. Downward trend with only 674 bales wool handled at Port. Farmers opting for cheaper and more convenient road rail transport to get wool to Wellington and Christchurch sales.
  • 1974
    Nelson Freezing Company taken over by Waitaki NZ Refrigerating Ltd who announce $2 million expansion. Shell Company relocates No 3 tank to Haven Road. New offices built where Europeans first landed 20 October, 1841.
  • 1976
    Survey shows maximum number ships at port any one time is 81, compared to 12 in 1970. First shipment of milk powder (1500 tonnes) loaded aboard Yarra bound for Spain. Roll-on terminal at Brunt Quay opens (84,000 tonnes cargo to Australia go over linkspan in first two years). Provides 173 metres berthage. Capital Cost $1.1 million. Total cargo handled during first year of operation: nearly 30,500 tonnes.
  • 1976/78 seasons:
     Two million cartons of fruit shipped direct to overseas ports.
  • 1977
    Car parts now shipped in containers, discharged at Wellington and transshipped to Nelson through Picton.
  • 1978
    Conference Lines withdraws regular sailings to Nelson. Ends long association with Port.Total of 20 oil tankers visit port. Average quantity of oil products exceeds 140,000 tonnes. 25,000 tonnes gypsum imported for Golden Bay Cement Works - second most important inward overseas trade commodity for port. Trucked to Tarakohe as that port is not deep enough for Japanese ships.
    Fishing industry starts to grow: transformed from a largely inshore fleet of small boats to deep sea fishing and joint ventures, with fish caught by Nelson boats and processed in Nelson exported worldwide.
  • 1978/79
    More records set: cargo totals 775,000 tonnes, 290 ships visit, total exports 542,000 tonnes. Construction of 14.5 hectare Mahitahi/ Maitai reclamation approved.
  • mid-1980s
    Coastal trade, once fundamental to Nelson's economy withers and perishes. Timber products and fruit were the crucial exports, petrol and oil products key imports.
  • 1984
    $730,000 pipeline taking sewerage and fish waste across Haven and through Boulder Bank completed; paid for by Sealords and Skeggs.
  • 1985
    Falling cargoes saw end of Nelson as general cargo coastal port. Union Shipping Co. abandoned key Nelson-Onehunga route in favour of Cook Strait rail ferry service. New Vickerman Street fishermen's wharf completed with about 40 berths.
  • 1987
    Maitai recreational complex opened. Marina, boat ramp and amenities for boaties completed at cost of $600,000.
  • 1989
    Government restructuring: final Nelson Harbour Board meeting held after 88 years of successfully developing and operating port. Board handed over commercial functions with considerable regret. Commercial child Port Nelson born with board assets and responsibilities split equally between Nelson City and Tasman District Council. Total cargo handled 1,048,000 tonnes (exports 750,000 tonnes, imports 297,000 tonnes), 411 ships visited; roll on roll off linkspan mothballed but trans-Tasman trade 106,000 tonnes.
  • 2000
    Record cargo volume through Port Nelson: 2.39 million tones consisting of 45% forestry products, 14% petroleum products, 14% fruit, 4% vehicles. New $4 million layup reclamation officially opened.
  • 2001
    Negotiations completed with ENZA (now T&G) for buy back of lease on site adjacent to Kingsford Quay for log storage use

Timeline produced for the Nelson Provincial Museum, 2005 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Allan, R.M. (1954) The history of Port Nelson Wellington, N.Z. : Whitcombe & Tombs 
  2. Parr, W.H. (1979) Port Nelson - Gateway to the sea.  Nelson, NZ : Nelson Harbour Board. p, 241
  3. S S Lady Barkly : a Tasman Bay personality. (1969) New Zealand Marine News, 20(4), pp.113-115
  4. Allan, p.57
  5. Parr, p. 84
  6. Parr, p. 125
  7. Parr, p 252

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  • Hi I am looking for my birth father. His name is Malcolm George he was born in 1963 and was an electrician on a ship in Nelson on 9 Feb 1962 and again Jan-Feb 1965 Are there any ship/ portrecords that may help me locate him or his ship. Thank you.
    Regards Peter Moore We have replied to Peter about this. Ed.

    Posted by Peter Moore, ()

  • I too am looking for the father of my partner. We understand that his father worked on a Merchant ship that visited Littleton harbour in the late 1940's. We are looking for the names of Merchant ships that visited Littleton Port June 1949 - September - 1949. Any information would be appreciated

    Posted by Debbie, ()

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Further sources - Port Nelson timeline





Unpublished resources

  • Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co. (Y3790) Plans. (for power schemes and Port Nelson Docks) (1910-1946) The Nelson Provincial Museum AG 346
  • Crapper, James Leslie John, 1938-1992 (1966-1982) Papers [ Launchmaster at Port Nelson for 35 years; 13 work diaries and 1 Nelson Harbour Board time sheet book] , The Nelson Provincial Museum ,AG 151
  • Lukins Family (1872-1892) Papers The Nelson Provincial Museum AG 241[Arrived Nelson1860; James Lukins established a lime kiln at Green Point, Port Nelson and built a wharf there  Papers include 2 leases for land frontage in Nelson Harbour and receipts for lease rentals]
  • Nelson Harbour Board (1891-1899) Papers, The Nelson Provincial Museum AG 378 Letters, 1899, regarding appointment of Leslie H Reynolds and the subsequent investigation over his professionalism by the Nelson Harbour Board - 'Cut' controversy.]
  • Nelson Harbour Board (1960) A decade of achievement [Nelson Provincial Museum] Nelson Habour Board (1969) Facts and figures [Nelson Provincial Museum]  
  • Nelson Harbour Board (1924-1979)  Records The Nelson Provincial Museum, AG 13
  • Nelson Harbour Board (Y4183) Register of accidents to seamen and expenses incurred on account of same (1917-1939) The Nelson Provincial Museum qMS NEL
  • Nelson Harbour Board (1980-1988) Annual Report: growth of trade [Nelson Provincial Museum]

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