THE 'Mighty Clutha' forms the heart of one of the world’s most unique waterways. It traverses the dramatic semi-desert landscape of Central Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand, but the most spectacular river gorges, and much more, have been destroyed ... by dams. This is the unofficial story of the Clutha Mata-Au River and its stolen treasures. It is a story steeped in bitterness, shame, destruction, and sadness.

Deadman's Point Bridge

Deadman's Point Footbridge (second), 1926, by Albert Percy Godber.

Deadman's Point holds a unique place in the history of the Clutha River, and of the Lowburn / Cromwell area. Here, the full force of the river suddenly converged into a narrow chasm at the beginning of the infamous Cromwell 'Gap'. Here, the first bridge spanned the river, and here countless gold-miners crossed and re-crossed en-route to their diggings, witnessing raging floods, and occasionally death in the vortexing waters of the 'Point'.

The first bridge across the Clutha River was erected at Deadman's Point by Henry Hill and opened in May, 1863. It was a footbridge suitable for packhorses, and it provided the shortest route for gold-miners heading to the strike on the Arrow River, which was then accessed via the Cardrona Valley. Prior to this bridge, gold-miners would continue upriver to Sandy Point, where they could cross on a ferry established by George Hassing and William Ellacott in March, 1863.

"The connection between Cromwell and the country lower down the Clutha River, was a pack-bridge erected over that river by Mr. Henry Hill. Wagons with stores and goods had to unload, and everything was packed across on horses." - Past & Present, and Men of the Times, by Captain William Jackson. Barry.

Hill's bridge, however, was swept away that Spring by a devastating flood that ripped away riverbanks, mining-camps, and buildings along the length of the river, claiming over a hundred lives.

The Second Deadman's Point Bridge In Flood.

The Deadman's Point footbridge was eventually replaced (date unknown) by a well-built structure that survived subsequent floods. Although the footbridge was sited at the narrowest part of the river between Lowburn and Cromwell, the massive new traffic bridge, opened in 1866, was located at the Cromwell Junction directly adjoining Cromwell's main street, in order to facilitate traffic through the town.

The footbridge at Deadman's Point provided convenient foot and horse access to the diggings at Quartz Reef Point and Bendigo well into the 20th century.

Just how Deadman's Point acquired its name is unknown, but as the river at this point converged into a narrow precipitous 'gap' and surged with immense speed down a series of rapids to the Junction at Cromwell, it is likely that it was considered a 'point of no return'.

The reputation of the river was formidable, due in no small part to the perilous experiences of the log-raftsmen on the Upper Clutha. The log-rafting enterprise was started in 1862 by George Hassing and Henry Hill to supply much-needed lumber from the western forests to the virtually treeless interior. The first log-raft to negotiate the river as far as Clyde (Dunstan) arrived on October 6th, 1862.

"It was decided not to try and negotiate the gorge with these craft. They were navigated to a landing-place between Lowburn and Cromwell, but it was frequently a most difficult procedure to catch the landing-place. Once past it, there was absolutely no choice but to allow the raft to shoot through the roaring, rocky gorge above Cromwell. The raftsman had the alternative of either abandoning ship or of taking his chance aboard his craft. One man known as the Boatswain, having been caught in this predicament, took the consequences of remaining at the tiller. His raft, after entering the gorge, turned a complete somersault. He managed to climb aboard again and bring it into an eddy near the Kawarau Junction, where he was secured by a shore man - very wet, but grateful that he had escaped unhurt." - The Wanaka Story, by Irvine Roxburgh.

The Cromwell Gap, 1977, by Robin Morrison.

The Deadman's Point footbridge had always provided the most direct access to Bendigo, but only for travellers on foot or horseback. Obviously, the new 1866 traffic bridge at Cromwell provided access for wagons and later motor vehicles, and in 1938 when the new concrete bridge was opened at Lowburn, the old footbridge at the 'Point' was used even less.

By the 1970s the footbridge was gone, and the Clutha River was the focus of evermore speculation over future dams. During the following decades, hydro plans came and went, but almost all of them doomed the productive river flats around Lowburn to inundation. The eventual plan included the destruction of old Cromwell and the construction of new roads, and a new bridge, at Deadman's Point. In a bitter twist of fate, the towering columns of the new bridge rose above the site of the original footbridge, connecting the new Cromwell centre with the east side of the gorge.

The 'New' Deadman's Point Bridge, before the 'Point' was flooded, circa 1990.

Remarkably, Deadman's Point was not physically destroyed during the construction of the bridge. In the future, when the reservoir is decommissioned (it was planned to last 80 years) the 'Point' should be easily revealed when de-silted. By comparison, the distinctive Cromwell Junction, which was almost obliterated by earth-moving machinery prior to the filling of the reservoir, will be difficult to restore.

The 'New' Deadman's Point Bridge, after reservoir filling.

Today, the 'new' Deadman's Point bridge stands high above the flooded 'Point', and few people who drive over it realize the significance of either the name, or the location.


About This Site

Cromwell before the Clyde dam was set to become a tourism icon. Blessed with a dramatic location, numerous historic buildings and a spectacular bridge overlooking the famous Cromwell Gap, its potential was obvious, until ... "think big."

The Roxburgh Gorge, too, with its many amazing rapids ~ the largest whitewater in New Zealand, had vast tourism potential, offering Alexandra and Roxburgh a booming industry focused on high volume whitewater kayaking, rafting and dory adventures unlike anything else in New Zealand.

The Clutha Mata-Au, before the Roxburgh and Clyde dams, possessed many natural treasures in the form of extraordinary river features and rapids.

This website tells the story of those stolen treasures, and records the bitter fight of ordinary New Zealanders pitted against arrogant government technocrats and politicians who considered the Clutha River ripe for exploitation at any cost.

Finally, the rising waters behind the Clyde dam submerged the historic main street of old Cromwell, the Cromwell Gorge including the famous Cromwell Junction, the Lower Kawarau Gorge including Sargood's Rapid (rated the best whitewater rapid in the world), the Cromwell Gap Rapid, the Lowburn area, and numerous orchards and homes. A total of 2300 hectares of productive land disappeared.

This website is a tribute to the Mighty Clutha, and to the many dedicated people who have fought, over decades, to protect its natural treasures.

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