Mangaweka on the main trunk line

Mangaweka is a small town located in the Rangitikei district of the North Island. It developed in the 1890s due to the railway being constructed through the central North Island; known as the Main Trunk [Railway] Line, it was a major engineering feat and opened up the central North Island. But in 1890 the future site of Mangaweka was still native forest.[1]

By 1884 Parliament had approved the route of the railway to connect Auckland and Wellington and construction began on 15 April 1885 at each end with the intention of meeting in the middle. By 1887 the line had progressed as far south as Te Kuiti and as far north as Marton. In December 1891 work began on the Manganoho-Mangaweka railway line and a site for Mangaweka was selected as a railway centre. In 1892 the Te Kapua block was registered with Lands and Survey, opening the Mangaweka area for settlement. The remaining section of railway line to be completed crossed difficult terrain which necessitated the construction of a number of tunnels and viaducts, one of which was the Mangaweka Viaduct, seen here in 1904.[2]

Mangaweka viaduct

The construction of the Main Trunk Line was completed in 1908 after the 23 year project to complete the central section. (For some historic film footage of the event see this Archives New Zealand film. Drag the cursor to 3 minutes in.) The majority of it was built using the co-operative labour system which meant that the railway was divided into manageable chunks for groups of six to twelve men to complete. They were supervised by the Public Works Department rather than by private ‘middlemen’ contractors, as had been the usual way until then.[3] According to a hotel licensee in nearby Taihape, he had never previously been at a place where co-operative labourers were: they were ‘absolutely lawless… the men stood six deep in front of the bar, one man paid for a drink and the wrong man got it and would not give it up. There was no use reasoning with these men, physical force was the only means…’ (Wanganui Chronicle, 30 June 1904, Page 7). His hotel liquor licence was renewed. This item was from a few months later[4]:

Mangaweka oddfellows news

Mangaweka was originally known as ‘Three Log Whare’ (a whare being a Maori-style of housing often made of punga (fern) logs or raupo (bulrush)). In 1893 businesses were established in the fledgling township and a school opened in 1894; by 1897 ‘the number now on the roll is ninety-eight, and there is an average attendance of seventy-three’.[5] The census results for Mangaweka in 1900 showed a population of almost 1000 and 232 houses and tents – ‘not a bad record for a five-year township’.[6]

In 1908 the NZ Cyclopedia went so far as to claim that Mangaweka was a ‘comparatively old settlement.’ After the railway was completed, saw-milling and farming were then ‘the chief pursuits of the settlers, and the country is well suited for grazing purposes. Mangaweka has one principal street, extending from the railway station through the township. It contains a large hotel, three boarding houses, a post office and savings bank, a public school, churches, two public halls, a public library, a local newspaper, and a branch bank.’[7]

There were at least four churches: a Wesleyan (a photo exists of it in 1897); Anglican (St Martin’s); Presbyterian, and Catholic (St Patrick’s) – these latter three all dating from about 1900. However, as this newspaper item observes, in the early days, church-going had to compete with far more popular sport.

Observer, 15 September 1900, Page 15:

Mangaweka wesleyan news

Perhaps the missionary had his way, however, as a few days later the New Zealand Herald observed[8]:

Mangaweka football news

This photo of Mangaweka shows it in the early 1910s.

Mangaweka churches photo NAT LIB

Stewart, Frank, fl 1910s. View looking down on Mangaweka township. Ref: 1/2-000693-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

After the railway workers left town Mangaweka may have settled down to a more orderly life, but as a report from 1917 said: “It would not be divulging any secret to say that Mangaweka is not a booming township.”[9]

And the churches? The Presbyterian Church (seen in the foreground of the above photograph) was moved in the 1960s – the land the church was on was taken by the Ministry of Works and Development for realignment of the Main Trunk Line and the church was shifted to its current site in Mangawharariki Road where, painted yellow, it has been used as a gallery for some years. St Martin’s Anglican Church was moved even further – to Rathkeale College near Masterton in 2005 for use as a school chapel. St Patrick’s Catholic Church (the one with the steeple in the background of the photo) has survived but is now multi-denominational. I don’t know what happened to the Wesleyan church, but I think it may also have become a gallery.

St Patrick’s (from Google street view)

Mangaweka churches (1) Mangaweka church

I am surmising that the ex-church with the sign saying “the Old Church 1897” is probably the former Wesleyan. I took the top photo years ago, and the bottom image is from Google Street View.

Mangaweka even lost its 1904 viaduct: after a major realignment of the railway line (called the Mangaweka deviation) in the 1970s and 1980s, that earlier viaduct was dismantled in 1982. The photo below shows a new viaduct under construction in 1974 – one of three built for the realignment which opened for use in 1981. Mangaweka 1974

View of the south pier of the Mangaweka Viaduct. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1974/4481A/12-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

PS: 30 June 2015: Since writing this I found another photo of a church that I took in Mangaweka years ago. I don’t know what this one is at this time.  [See the comment below from Stan, who says this is the former Methodist church in Taihape and is now the area’s museum. So my labelling it as being in Mangaweka is incorrect!]

Mangaweka churches (2)


[1] Mangaweka and district’s first 100 years, Mangaweka and District Centennial Committee, 1985, p. 9

[2] Heritage New Zealand List entry for Makohine Railway Viaduct:

[3] Heritage New Zealand List entry for North Island Main Trunk Historic Area: See also Rosslyn Noonan, By Design: A brief history of the Public Works Department / Ministry of Works, 1870-1970, 1975, pp. 71-75

[4] Manawatu Standard, 22 December 1904, Page 4

[5] The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District], The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1897, Wellington

[6] Wanganui Herald, 25 July 1902, p. 1.

[7] The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay & Wellington Provincial Districts] The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1908, Christchurch

[8]  20 September 1900, Page 6

[9] Evening Post, 31 October 1917, Page 10


One thought on “Mangaweka on the main trunk line

  1. Hi, The last photo is the former Methodist Church in Taihape, which is now the area’s museum. Really enjoyed seeing the photos of Salmon’s; which have made me really want to go and look at.


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