Kaitangata is situated in the lower Clutha basin on the Matau branch of the Clutha River and 4 miles upstream from the mouth. The town site is level, but immediately south and south-east of the town the land is broken by low hills. Kaitangata is 8 miles south-east of Balclutha and 54 miles south-west of Dunedin by road or rail. A branch railway, which serves the coal industry only, links Kaitangata with Stirling, 4 miles north, on the South Island Main Trunk line.
Sheep and dairy farming are the principal rural activities. Coal mining is the major primary industry. There are two main collieries: the Lockington Mine, near the town, and the Wangaloa Mine, 5 miles east. The opencast system of coal mining is well developed in the district. Kaitangata functions as a servicing centre and a dormitory for miners employed in the State coal mines. The only important industry in the town is the manufacture of cheese.
That portion of the Otago Block lying between the Clutha and the Tokomairiro Rivers was surveyed in detail by Joseph Thomas and R. J. Harrison under the direction of Charles Henry Kettle in 1847. The locality now occupied by the town was marked on their map “Site for a Village”. Settlement in the district commenced from Port Molyneux in 1849 on Inchclutha and other places in the western parts of the lower Clutha basin. In 1855 John Lovell built on his freehold section at Kaitangata and became the town's first resident. During Frederick Tuckett's expedition to locate the site of the New Edinburgh (Otago) settlement, he discovered coal on the coast at Coal Point on 6 May 1844. But there was no mining until the late 1850s, transport being a major obstacle in mining development. In 1861 J. G. Lewis contracted with the Provincial Government of Otago to lay a railway from the coalfield to the Matau. In 1863 s.s. Tuapeka came into service on the Clutha and shipped coal and farm produce to Port Molyneux for transhipment to Dunedin by coastal craft. The first sale of town sections took place in February 1862. Gold mining activities at Gabriels Gully stimulated the growth of the settlement. In March 1869 and in 1870 mines were opened near the town and in 1872 the Kaitangata Coal Company came into existence; in 1875 being reconstructed as the Kaitangata Railway and Coal Company. On 1 September 1875 the Main Trunk line from Dunedin reached the Clutha River and on 16 June 1876 the branch railway, constructed by the company from Kaitangata to Stirling, was completed. On 19 June the first consignment of coal from the company's colliery was railed to Dunedin.
On 21 February 1879 there was a tragic disaster at the company's colliery and 34 miners were killed as a result of an explosion. The company's mine closed down in October 1959 and since then all production has come from the State coal mines. The Mines Department also took over the branch railway which, in 1959, was the oldest surviving privately owned line. Access to the main highway and Balclutha (Clutha Ferry) remained primitive during the early period of settlement and the Matau branch of the Clutha continued to be the highway for Kaitangata until the middle 1870s. During that period it was easier to trade with Dunedin by ship, despite the existence of a bar at the original mouth of the Clutha at Port Molyneux. After the flood of 1878 the Clutha River cut two new mouths for the Koau and Matau branches, and the bar difficulties were intensified. Coastal shipping soon declined but as late as 1883 occasional small steamers came up and loaded at Kaitangata. It was created a town district on 28 April 1882 and in August 1887 borough status was attained.
The meaning of the Maori name is obscure.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,247; 1956 census, 1,286; 1961 census, 1,249.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.