Westport is a town in the West Coast region of the South Island of New Zealand. It is located on the northern bank and at the mouth of the Buller River, close by the prominent headland of Cape Foulwind. It is connected via State Highway 6 with Greymouth 100 kilometres to the south, and with Nelson in the northeast, via the Buller Gorge.
The town is thought to have been named for Westport in Connacht, Ireland, although the choice of name was no doubt also guided by the town’s location.
Photo supplied by Captain David Barnes.
There is evidence that Māori settlers lived in the Buller (Kawatiri) area from very early on. Legends actually place the first visit as early as 950 AD via the waka Tahiriangi with its chief Ngahue. The settlers appeared to live mostly coastal lives, though they explored the mountains for pounamu (jade or ‘greenstone’), which they then traded with other iwi.
The first white settlers came to Westport in 1861 as gold miners, and the first European vessel known to have entered the river was the sealing schooner THREE BROTHERS in 1884. The 1880s saw many exploratory parties of geologists and surveyors combing the area for the presence of valuable resources and taking the measure of the land. Amongst them were Charles Heaphy, William Fox and Thomas Brunner.
While gold brought initial interest to the area, and for example, led to large areas of the coastal areas (covered by sediment from the river) being dredged for the valuable mineral, the area soon became much more famous for coal mining, still a dominant concern in the region today.
The first railway of the area was being built as early as 1874, extending from Westport up to 18 km to the coal fields, most of them located to the north of the town. The first section of railway from Westport to Fairdown via Sergeants Hill opened on 31 December 1875; this line ultimately reached Seddonville in 1895 and was known as the Seddonville Branch. From this beginning, an isolated network of branch lines was developed and it was not linked to the national network until the completion of the Stillwater – Westport Line through the Buller Gorge in 1942.