The History of Mokau’s River Sunken Barge

There has been over seven ships sank in or close to the Might Mokau River.   This story is about one of them.





In 1884 New Zealand a Frozen Meat Company chose Waitara Township and it River Port for its new slaughter yards and chillers to process all of Taranaki animal produce.  Waitara is a twenty minute drive north from New Plymouth and 40 minutes south of Mokau River.  This decision made the Waitara River Port one of the buses sea ports in New Zealand.  In 1890 the company was sold and renamed to “Mt. Egmont Freezing Company”.  In November that same year the first shipment of meat was shipped directly from Waitara port to over sea markets by steam ships.

In the late 1800’s it was a very hard and dangerous job to load ships in Waitara as there was no wharfs and every thing was done by hand.  Horse-drawn carts took mutton (a lamb that over 1 year old), lamb and beef carcasses from the Waitara Freezing works across the small township to the punts, a punt is another name for a small barge. The punts were loaded with 100 tons of meat by hand off unstable muddy riverbanks. These punts were then towed out by small steamer to the ocean-going steam ships.  Once the punt was next to the larger ships all then meat had to be transferred by hand again.  The crews would load the carcasses into a rope net, and using the ship davit crane the carcasses where then, transferred to the ships hull.  It must have been a great to see there ocean-going steam ships being loaded this way with the punts and smaller steamers going up and down the river.  Also in Waitara is one of Taranaki larges Maori Marae’s.   This Marae is located on the north side of the river just above the port. 

A few years later the company changes it name to Borthwick and built a wharf.  From 1903 to 1918 Borthwick used lighters (large Barges) instead of punts, to carry the meat to the sea-going ships.  But the ocean-going ships also got larger and now could not fit safely into Waitara River.  This forced the ships anchor at a place called roadstead which was 4 miles off the Taranaki coast and the entire cargo to be taken out to the over the river bar.  This makes the process of loading the ships a lot more dangerous.

Borthwick had at least four Lighters that transport frozen meat from the Freezing works to ships. The company used this type of vessels, because lighters could handle the river bar and sea conditions. But a lighter is a ship hull that does not have an engine or propellers so it must be towed by another ship.

One very bad day a storm blew up quickly and the ship had to abandon its two lighters which had just unloaded 4 miles (10Km) out at sea. With no means of propulsion and no sign of their towing vessel all the lighter crew, who load and unload the meet, could do was to wait for rescue. When the storm cleared ships were sent out to find them but there was no sign of either lighters or their crew.  The lighters and the crew were eventually found at sea north of Auckland, having drifted at least 400 miles (1000Km). Luckily the men onboard had water and canned meat to live on and were none the worst for their unplanned sea voyage experience.

Waitara Harbour Board went out of existence in 1941, after 65 years of activity loading Taranaki meat onto ships. The Lighters then were put up for sale. One was sold to people in Whangarei and was made into a house boat, another to Napier where a gun was mounted on her deck. She was used to protect the Napier to Port in the First World War. One possibly two came to Mokau River.  Waitara Freezing works also shut down in 1970-1980’s causing Waitara to lose is biggest employer.



Once the lighter arrived in Mokau the locals mounted a large steam winch onto it.  It was then towed up the river and used to pull tress down the hills into the river.  One day the lighter sprang a leek.  As it was build of very large timber they could not fix it easily.  The decided to tow it down the river and beach it.  But the leek was too big and before the reached a safe spot it stared it sink.  The then pushed into the riverbank to stop it blocking the river.  They remove the steam engine but could not get the winch off before it sank.     
  When I was growing up and traveled the river by jet boat with my family.  We always passed it slowly at it block part of the river.  Please see attached photo.  As with most history we did not know anything about it so everyone call it “the Sunken Barge”. 3 or 4 years ago the last part of the barge slipped below the water level never to be see again.   The only thing that now remains is this story. 



On our trips we often point the location out to people as it has beautiful trees on the river bank and two well known whitebait stands.  Often we have people on board that remember seeing the barge as ask us what happen to it.  If you want to know where it sank please ask the crew of the MV Glenroyal when you board.