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.

The Cromwell Bridge

Cromwell "Lattice" Bridge, circa 1866

The promontory overlooking the confluence of the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers was originally referred to as 'The Point' by the first runholders in the 1850s, but when a gold-rush town sprung up in the early 1860s it became known as 'The Junction.' On the 16th of October, 1866, the town officially became the borough of Cromwell, with Captain William Jackson Barry as the first Mayor.

Before the river was bridged, a boatman rowed travellers across the river charging 'half-a-crown per head.'

The first bridge across the Clutha River was erected at Deadman's Point, 4 kilometres upriver from the Cromwell Junction, by Henry Hill, and opened in May, 1863. It was a suspension footbridge suitable for packhorses.

"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.

In 1864 the Government commenced the construction of a single-lane truss bridge close to the 'point', at a cost of £28,000. Completed in 1866, this massive bridge, supported by three stone piers, connected the main street of 'The Junction' with the route from Clyde on the east side of the Cromwell Gorge. "Superintendent Thomas Dick conducted the opening ceremony amidst great jubilation. A bullock was roasted whole, free beer was served out, and the township was for some days what a euphemistie writer might term a scene of jollity." - The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1904.

The original Cromwell Bridge was of a timber-truss design, and having a lattice-like appearance it was sometimes referred to as the "Lattice Bridge." When the timbers began to age, the bridge was rebuilt in 1891 as a steel-truss structure. The dramatic location of the bridge, spanning the roaring Cromwell Gap rapid and commanding the junction of two great rivers of different colours, meant that it featured on numerous calendars and postcards.

Cromwell Bridge, circa 1988

Remarkably, this bridge served for a hundred years, until traffic was re-routed over the new Deadman's Point Bridge in the early 1990s. The decking of the historic bridge was removed, its Cromwell-side approach was entirely dug away, and it was inundated by the rising waters behind the Clyde dam in 1993.


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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