When James arrived in Hokitika 1865 over it’s notorious river bar, 67 of its 246 buildings were hotels. The rush on the West Coast coincided with the decline of the Otago rush, and additional miners were attracted from Victoria, Australia where the gold rush there was also near an end. This new rush coincided with a financial crisis in Otago in 1864, caused by the flood of diggers leaving the province after the rush had ended. While many diggers walked from Otago over the Southern Alps, many more went by sea. While this was convenient and quick, it was expensive (£5 from Nelson) and dangerous – 17 ships were wrecked on the Hokitika Bar in 1865 alone.
In his book ‘ Westland’s Golden Sixties (1959), historian J. Halket Millar quotes the impressions of a traveler journeying by sea from Nelson to Hokitika on a small sailing vessel in February 1865 at the start of the gold rush:
“Okitiki (sic) is at present represented by two long lines of buildings which stretch from the wharf, or rather the landing place, forming a street about 40 ft. broad. These buildings are mostly built of calico, and are occupied as stores for the sale of grog and provisions. A few of the Hotels and Bank Agencies are built of wood and iron, with some of the lower kind called shanties as mere tents…
The sandy flat on which the township is erected is covered over with driftwood that has evidently been brought down by the Okitiki [River] on some great overflow of its bed, and there are many who declare their belief that some day Okitiki shall exist, or cease to exist, at the bottom of a great lagoon of water caused by the flooding of the river. At present there is no limit of firewood to be had where one chooses to pitch a tent…
The place seems to be well enough supplied with stores, as I counted about 40 already erected, and about a dozen more in process of erection.” (17)
A few months later the geologist Julius Haast expressed his surprise at the speed with which Hokitika had risen up:
“The principal street, half a mile long, consisted already of a large numbers of shops, hotels, banks and dwelling-houses, and appeared as a scene of almost indescribable bustle and activity. There were jewellers and watchmakers, physicians and barbers, hotels and billiard-rooms, eating and boarding-houses, and trades and professions of all description […]
Carts were unloading and loading, and sheep and cattle driven to the yards; there was shouting and bell-ringing, deafening to the passers-by; criers at every corner of the principal streets which were filled with people – a scene I had never before witnessed in New Zealand.
Hundreds of diggers ‘on the spree’ and loafers were everywhere to be seen, but principally near the spit and on the wharf where work went on with feverish haste. Before arriving at Hokitika, I counted seven vessels at anchor in the roadstead, amongst them a large Melbourne steamer; whilst in the river itself, five steamers and a large number of sailing vessels were discharging their cargoes, reminding us of the life in a European port.” (18)
67 – 1. Hokitika River mouth, West Coast, with shipwrecks ashore. West Coast album. Ref: PA1-o-530-28. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22718718
17 – Millar, J. Halket. (1959) Westland’s Golden Sixties. H. & A.W. Reed,Wellington
18 – May, Philip Ross (1967) The West Coast Gold Rushes. Pegasus Press, Christchurch
68 – Excelsior Hotel (Hokitika) fl 1867. Businesses in Hokitika. Ref: 1/4-002714-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23251322
69 – Businesses on Revell Street, Hokitika. Ref: 1/4-002702-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22327242