Greymouth is situated on the northern part of the Westland Plain close to the south bank of the Grey River mouth. The main part of the town extends along a narrow coastal plain. Immediately east the country rises to bush-clad hills. The residential areas of Cobden, situated along the northern bank of the river, and Coal Creek Flat, east of Cobden, lie within the borough. The Christchurch-Ross railway and the Inangahua-Hokitika section of highway pass through the town. Greymouth is also the terminus of the coastal highway from Westport via Punakaiki and the junction for the Runanga-Rapahoe-Rewanui branch railway. By road Greymouth is 65 miles south-west of West-port via Punakaiki (94 miles by rail via Inangahua), 49 miles south-west of Reefton (47 miles by rail), and 25 miles north-east of Hokitika (24 miles by rail). Christchurch is 145 miles south-east by rail via Otira Tunnel. Greymouth is a river port with berthage and cargo facilities on the south bank in the town.
Sheep and cattle raising and dairying are carried on in the district. The most important primary activities, however, are large-scale logging and milling of indigenous timber, and coal mining. There are two compact groups of coal mines located in the vicinity of Runanga (5 miles northeast) and Dobson (6 miles east). Greymouth is the main administrative and commercial centre of Westland. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of concrete products, coal gas, joinery, furniture, clothing, beer and stout; saw-milling; timber treatment; and general and mechanical engineering. A milk-treatment station and railway workshops are located in the town.
The largest Maori settlement in Westland in the 1840s were at Mawhera (now Greymouth) and at the mouth of the Taramakau River, some 10 miles south-west. Sources of greenstone were located within the district and ancient overland routes converged on the area. Tasman's ships travelled northwards off the coast in December 1642. Cook followed in 1770 and d'Urville in 1826. Each regarded this part of the country as unfavourable. Small parties of sealers and whalers probably entered the Grey River between the early 1800s and early 1840s. The first explorers, Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy, with E Kehu, a Maori, travelled down the coast from Nelson in 1846 and were at Mawhera pa on 19 May. In 1847 Brunner visited Mawhera again and, on 25 January 1848, proceeded up the Grey River (which he named in honour of the Governor) in search of a route to Nelson. On the first part of this return journey he discovered the coal seam and the lake that now bear his name. In 1857 Captain John Peter Oakes and his brothers, Thomas and Joseph, brought their schooner, Emerald Isle, into the Grey River on a prospecting trip.
In 1857 and 1859 J. Mackay visited Mawhera and negotiated unsuccessfully for the purchase of the West Coast. The Maoris wished to retain the “greenstone country” enclosed by the Grey and Taramakau Rivers. Mackay returned in 1860 by way of a new inland route via the upper Grey Valley and, with James Burnett and S. M. Mackley, re-opened land-purchase negotiations. The deed of sale of the West Coast was eventually signed on 21 May 1860 at Mawhera.
In May 1863 a Provincial Government depot was established at the Grey River for surveyors and track workers and the relief of casual travellers. Charles Townsend was in charge and he is regarded as the founder of Greymouth. The town began as a small settlement around the depot. Following the discovery of payable gold in the Greenstone (Hohonu) area of the district, Reuben Waite, of Nelson, with a party of diggers, sailed in s.s. Nelson for the Grey River settlement, where he established the first commercial general store. The town site was laid out by Rochfort in 1865. Farming was begun in the Grey Valley in 1862 by S. M. Mackley and timber milling about the same time. Coal mining began at Brunner's seam in 1864. By the 1880s coal mining and timber milling had become the main industries of the district. Today gold mining is practically confined to a single dredge working not far from the once notable Greenstone Diggings. For a long time communication with Greymouth was chiefly by sea. In 1866 the coach road from Christchurch linked with the Greymouth-Hokitika beach route. A railway was built in 1876 to Brunner to serve the coalfield. The railway was opened to Reefton in 1894 and to Otira in 1900. The line to Christchurch via Otira Tunnel was opened for traffic on 4 August 1923. The Greymouth-Hokitika line was opened in 1893 and further extended to Ross in 1909. The Grey Valley line ultimately linked with a line from Westport in 1942. The main sections of the Runanga-Rewanui-Rapahoe branch system were completed successively in 1904, 1914, and 1923. Greymouth was constituted a borough in 1868. The settlement was first known as Crescent City, later Blaketown, then Greytown and, finally, Greymouth.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 8,865; 1956 census, 8,948; 1961 census, 8,877.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.