The English name for the river comes from Sir William Heathcote, Secretary of the Canterbury Association, in London. When European settlers arrived, many crossed over the Port Hills at the Bridle Path and made their way down the Heathcote Valley, and crossed the river at several ferry points. The road from here to the settlement was one of the few well-made roads, and is what we know as Ferry Road. Rather than carrying all their goods over the hill, they were shipped around from Lyttelton in smaller vessels, (known as a mosquito fleet). This involved crossing the precarious Sumner Bar without incident, before entering the Estuary and navigating the channels to the Ōpāwaho Heathcote River.
At six to eight metres deep, the river was deeper than the Avon and was important for shipping in the 1850’s. The sharp bends in the river and the wind from the hills and the swamp flats made navigation difficult. A towpath was created on both sides of the river where horses or bullocks were used to tow the boats up the river as far as Richardson Terrace. By the 1860s up to 15 vessels were sailing up the river on a daily basis. It wasn’t a cheap exercise - it would cost almost as much to get goods from Lyttelton to Ferry Road, as it would to freight the same goods from London to Lyttleton! However once the railway to Ferrymead was opened in 1863 and the Lyttelton Railway Tunnel was opened in 1867, the role of the Ōpāwaho Heathcote River in transport diminished greatly.
In 1873 there were seven wool scours and five tanneries on the lower Ōpāwaho Heathcote River; by 1883 there were 11 of each. Subsequently, other industries gravitated to the Woolston area, notably a large gelatine and glue works and a rubber factory. The founding of Para Rubber, followed by the establishment of the Latex, Marathon and Empire factories made Woolston the centre of New Zealand’s rubber industry1.
By the1880s the river was too silted to use as a trade route. In the space of just 30 years settlers managed to fill up a water channel that was 8 metres deep. The source of the silt was primarily from the de-forested slopes of the Port Hills, but another contributing factor was that the river was used as a sewer or drain for the industrial factories.By the turn of the 19th Century, nearly a quarter of New Zealand’s industrial activity was located in this area with all their waste being pumped into the river. Stinky!
It wasn’t until 1971 (that’s over 100 years of industrial waste!), when the Woolston industrial sewer was completed, that industrial wastewater was sent to the Christchurch wastewater treatment plant in Bromley instead of running into the river. From a highly polluted, murky and unattractive lower reaches of the river and the Estuary, we now have a much healthier
and cleaner river, but there is still a long way to go!