Brook Valley Nelson


The Brook Valley has been integral to the development of Nelson since the early days of European colonisation. From 1868 it was the site of the Nelson water supply reservoir.  Chromite was mined from the 1850s and the Dun Mountain Railway ran from the chromite mines to the Port from 1862. Coal was mined for a few years at the end of the 19th Century. The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary was opened in 2007 and work continues to turn it into a pest-free "mainland island" nature sanctuary.

Waimārama/ The Brook Stream

The Māori name for the Brook is Waimārama which translates as “clear or transparent water”. The stream has a catchment of 110 hectares in the Brook Valley and originates on the eastern side of Cummins Spur and Bullock Spur on the Dun Mountain. It travels approximately six kilometres before meeting the Maitai/Mahitahi at Domett Street Bridge.

The stream now runs along a concrete box channel from the Brook Dairy to Sowman Street. This was a response to the major flooding that occurred in September 1970. Roadways and river margins subsided, concrete bridges were smashed, and houses and sheds were undermined. One resident, a Mrs J.E. McCartney of Bronte Street was swept away to her death while trying to open a jammed door. An unfortunate consequence of the channel is that it speeds up the flow of water, inhibiting fishes travelling up this stretch of the stream. The concrete transmits heat during summer, lowering water quality, and the bare concrete provides no habitat in which fish can live. A number of fish passage “fixes” have been installed in the channel, and plants such as climbers and grasses have intermittently been installed to help provide shade.

Water Works

Early European settlers sourced water for drinking and washing from streams and rivers, just as Māori had been doing for generations. They also built shallow wells. But the increasing concentration of the European population required a stable water source for sanitation and fire-fighting. The idea of taking water from the Brook was first mooted in 1858-9 and in, 1865, the Provincial Government provided a substantial loan (20,000 pounds) for the purpose.

Brook reservoir. Nelson Provincial Museum. Hargreaves collection. 8470. Click image to enlarge

In September 1865, Crown Land within the watershed of the Brook Stream and its tributaries was reserved for the Nelson Waterworks, which was to include a dam about 13 metres higher in altitude than a reservoir, with a 30 centimetre cast iron pipe down to the reservoir and 18cm pipes to carry water to town.1

The gravel catch above the weir. Brook Valley. Nelson Provincial Museum. F.N. Jones Collection. Click image to enlarge

On April 13, 1868, John Blackett, the Provincial Engineer, reported that the dam was completed and cast iron piping had been laid from the dam to Nelson.2   The opening of the Water Works on 16 April 1868 was a public holiday celebrated with a procession to the reservoir and back to the Government Buildings in Bridge Street.3

It wasn't too long before demand for water began to exceed supply. In 1874, the Provincial Engineer, A.D. Dodson, stated "As the mains are extended year by year the necessity for an increased supply becomes more apparent..... I propose laying a 10 inch (25 cm) main from the dam to the reservoir, which will cost about £1,500."4

Brook reservoir. Nelson Provincial Museum. Kitching Collection: 317420
Click image to enlarge

In 1908, engineers found nearly half of the water inflow was being lost. The work had not being carried out to original design specifications, and inferior, porous concrete had been used. They recommended that leakage would be drastically reduced by a new concrete wall built inside the dam to a maximum height of seven metres. The report also recommended the construction of a second smaller dam further up river to provide increased water supply and pressure to the upper levels of Nelson.5

By March 1909, a weir was constructed 46 metres above the Big Dam at a cost of around £2,000. The weir, which is commonly referred to as the Top Dam, was 22 metres wide and 12 metres high and provided a reservoir of more than 18,000 cubic metres. The Big Dam was re-mortared and re-filled by 1911 at a cost of £2,418.

The Roding River water supply scheme was completed in 1941, with the combined output of the Roding and Brook schemes averaging 15% overcapacity for the water requirements of Nelson, Stoke and Richmond. The Maitai South Branch project was completed in 1963. The Brook Dam was decommissioned in 2000.6

In 1924, an American film company shot a film in Nelson called Venus of the South Seas. It starred Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. A section of the old Brook reservoir was glazed and filled with water to shoot underwater scenes. 

Coal and Chrome Ore

"The whole range of mountains ... is rich in mineral wealth ....How best to use it and get it to the Port from these inaccessible mountains is the problem. Fortunately the matter of carriage has been solved for us by the Dun Mountain Railway Company, whose railway...coiling like a snake around the face of almost precipitous mountains, down the sides of which a hundred tons of chrome ore are weekly conveyed by the laws of gravitation to the outskirts of the town."7

The mining of chrome ore (a source of chromium) began in Nelson in the late 1850s and continued intermittently until about the turn of the century. Production peaked in 1862 when 3486 tonnes, valued at £24,719, was exported from Nelson to Lancashire cotton mills.8 Chromium was used in cotton dying, mainly to produce yellow and mauve colours, but the English market collapsed and the Dun Mountain ore became patchy and low grade.  The Dun Mountain Mining Co. Ltd went into liquidation in 1872.9

A stroll to the Brook Reservoir. Nelson Provincial Museum. Hargreaves Collection
Click image to enlarge

Coal was first noted in the Brook Valley as early as 1853.  In 1894, the Brook Street Coal Prospecting Association was established to prospect the east side of the Brook.  About 2.7 tonnes of hard, good quality coal was extracted in that year. Unstable ground and a shortage of capital to develop the mine shafts saw this venture fail.

The Jenkins Hill Prospecting Association was also established in 1894 and found a vertical seam of coal, which reached a thickness of 37.8 metres in places on the west side of the Brook.  The mine eventually produced 1337 tonnes of coal but lack of capital and a fire at the mine eventually saw the mine sold in 1895 and no further coal mining was done.10

The Environment
An aerial shot of Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, looking west. NZ Conservationist.
Click image to enlarge

In 2002, it was announced that a group of Nelson environmentalists hoped to develop the abandoned Brook dam area as a ‘mainland island' nature recovery project. The sanctuary was to be a wildlife corridor to encourage more native birds into Nelson city.11

After an extensive and ongoing pest control campaign, to eradicate both animal and plant pests, The Brook Waimārama Sanctuary opened to the public in 2007, with funding from the Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council and other community and funding bodies.12 A $2.6 million, 14 km fence was designed to enclose the Brook Valley water catchment area and create a sanctuary for birdlife, by keeping out rats, mice, possums and other mammals.13 Construction of a 14.4 km predator fence began in 2013 and completed for an official opening on September 29 2016,14 and there is now a visitor centre, an immersive outdoor classroom,  pedestrian bridges and well maintained visitor tracks (some of wheelchair standard). The plan is also to reintroduce native species to the sanctuary.15

2013 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, Retrieved September 2021:
  2. Newport, J.N.W. (1983) Nelson City. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies 1(3), p.14.
  3. Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
  4. Newport
  5. The high level scheme (1908, June 3) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  6. Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
  7. Editorial (1862, April 23) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.3
  8. Newport
  9. Stephens, J. (2008) Dun Mountain Railway
  10. Johnson, M.R. (1985) Coal mining near Nelson City. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies 1(5), p.4
  11. O'Loughlin, J. (2002, February 18) Brook area suggested for ‘mainland island'. Nelson Mail. p3
  12. Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
  13. Cull, B. (2004, March 4) Fence designed to stop pests. Nelson Mail. p.1
  14. Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
  15. Tramping party's experience (1912, May 14) Colonist. p.4

Want to find out more about the Brook Valley Nelson ? View Further Sources here.

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  • It is noted in this Prow article about the 1970 flood that the person who died was a Mrs McCarthy. The Nelson photo news and recent online comments give the name as McCartney. Ed. Thank you - an error and we will amend

    Posted by Carol Stewart, 19/08/2022 7:05pm (2 years ago)

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Further sources - Brook Valley Nelson


  • Bell, J. (2008) Returning nature to the Nelson Region: the Brook Waimarama Santuary. Nelson, N.Z. : Nikau Press
  • Butler, Dave; Lindsay, Tony & Hunt, Janet (2014) Paradise saved: the remarkable story of New Zealand's wildlife sanctuaries and how they are stemming the tide of extinction. Auckland, N.Z. : Random House    
  • Nelson City Council (n.d.) Brook Water Supply
  • Offer, R.E. (1997) Walls for water: Pioneer dam building in New Zealand. Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press


From Papers Past:


  • The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary Nelson New Zealand : leaves from the Brook : the newsletter of the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary (2003-)

  • The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary : Brook Waimarama Sanctuary Trust application for resource consent and assessment of effects on the environment (2008) Nelson, N.Z. : Brook Waimarama Sanctuary Trust
  • Butler, D (2003) The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary concept plan for Nelson City Council. Nelson: project steering group [available Nelson Public Libraries]

Web Resources