Cromwell is situated in Central Otago, in the fork of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers, on wide flat terraces. The town is surrounded by mountains. By road Cromwell is 35 miles south of Wanaka, 40 miles east of Queenstown, and 19½ miles northwest of Alexandra. Dunedin is 144 miles south-east by road and 155 miles by rail. The main rural activities of the district are sheep farming and fruitgrowing. Stone fruits, especially peaches, apricots, and plums, and wheat, barley, and grass seed, are also produced in the district. Much of the timber produced and large numbers of the cattle raised in Southern Westland are brought over the Haast Pass to the railhead at Cromwell. Cromwell is a servicing and distributing centre for a large but sparsely populated district. There are wool stores, a seed-cleaning plant, and stock saleyards in the town.
Nathaniel Chalmers, with two Maori guides, traversed the district in September 1853 and was probably the first European to visit the area. Official explorations of the northern and western parts of Central Otago began in the late 1850s, but detailed surveys did not commence until 1861. In the meantime all the easier country had been explored and occupied by sheep farmers seeking runs. During the winter of 1862 Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly made rich gold discoveries on the western bank of the Clutha, just below its junction with the Kawarau. A rush of miners to the district followed, and the wonderfully rich goldfield was proclaimed on 23 September 1862. A township sprang up which became known as The Junction, but about the middle of 1863 the name of Cromwell was given to the town, apparently on the suggestion of J. A. Connell, a surveyor from the north of Ireland. Gold mining activities expanded in the district and the town became the main service and distribution centre for diggings at Bannockburn and Bendigo, and in the Cardrona, Arrow, Shotover, and Nevis Valleys. The gold-dredging boom of the late nineties was shortlived, and inevitably the population of the town declined. Desultory mining activities continued until the late 1930s, and gold dredging on the Clutha survived a few years longer. In the early 1920s an irrigation scheme, using water diverted from the Kawarau River, brought a large area of semi-arid land into production at Ripponvale (4 miles west). Cromwell was constituted a borough on 17 August 1866.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 838; 1956 census, 885; 1961 census, 942.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.