Upon seeing this wonderful painting of the road between Canterbury and Westland it reminded me of a very interesting – and mostly unknown additional adventure concerning Arthur Dudley Dobson and his now much-beloved passage through our Southern Alps.
Arthur was barely 23 years old when the Canterbury Provincial Council sent him off to find the quickest route from the Canterbury Plains to the goldfields of the West Coast. At this time in our history, the Canterbury Province included Westland and it’s such an odd thought that along with Otago, Canterbury was once considered gold country! As there was no road to the coast, many of the wannabe gold miners were taking to the mountains via many dangerous and unpredictable tracks. I’m sure many of these young lads never made it, killed by rockfalls, river crossings, nasty weather or just plainly getting lost.
The Canterbury Provincial Council had to act fast – not only for the safety of these lads but also for the struggling banks of Canterbury who would profit greatly with this mining. You would think that the council would have been better prepared as it was they who encouraged people to search for gold in Canterbury in the first place. They even offered a reward for anyone who could find a substantial goldfield – which they refused to pay when it was only discovered in the rivers of Westland.
Fortunately for young Arthur, he spoke fluent Maori and had many good friends amongst the Ngai Tahu. It was through these connections that he learnt of an old Maori track that led right through greenstone country. So, with native trackers and his dogs, Arthur went about his work but upon his return to Christchurch, his choice of route was instantly doubted. Arthur’s father and fellow surveyor, Edward Dobson, were sent in to confirm this find on 14th March 1864.
One of these doubters was former Canterbury Superintendent James Edward Fitzgerald. He was in his 3rd year of running the ‘Press’ newspaper and along with his farm ‘The Springs’ (now the township of Lincoln), he was really feeling the recent depression of the economy. Soon fed up, he wrote to Samuel Bealey informing him that he was establishing his own survey party of 6 to source a realistic route through the Alps via Arahura in North Canterbury. The Provincial Council gave him £100 towards this adventure. Unlike Arthur and Edward Dobson though, this survey group, known as the ‘Picnic Party’ rumbled into the Alps not on foot but via two Cobb & Co coaches, taking on rocks the size of armchairs! Also too, not ones to camp out if it could be avoided, they spent nights at farmhouses: first at Castle Hill (the same year the Porter Brother sold it, they are now remembered in the naming of Porters Pass), Craigieburn (then owned by Joseph Hawdon, now remembered in the naming of Hawdon Valley, River and Lake Hawdon) and then Cora Lynn (then owned by the Goldney Bros).
They were only a few days in when they first encountered some of the work crew belonging to Edward Dobson. They left a note with them so Dobson would know of their plans but unbeknown to them, Dobson had already ruled out Arahura and had approved putting a road through Arthur’s Pass. Not even two days later, on 10th April 1864, a rockfall ended the adventures of the Picnic Party, with an injured surveyor forcing them to return to Christchurch.
Fitzgerald failed to see his expedition as anything less than a great adventure, writing up a full report for the ’Press’ of what he saw, experienced and had nothing but the highest praise for the American made coaches belonging to Cobb & Co!
But of course, he was soon complaining that the road construction was taking too long!
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