Story: West Coast places
Page 3 – Westport
2013 population: 4,035
A river port near the mouth of the Buller River, 99 km north of Greymouth. Westport is the main commercial and administrative centre for the northern part of the West Coast, also known as Buller.
Westports of the world
Worldwide there are more than 20 towns called Westport, mainly in North America. New Zealand’s Westport is the only one in the southern hemisphere. A thriving organisation, Westports of the World, holds annual conventions, hosted in New Zealand in 1988, 1997 and 2006.
During exploration of remote parts of Nelson province in 1858, John Rochfort entered the Buller River from the sea in the cutter Supply, and showed that it could be used as a port. After gold was discovered in the middle reaches of the Buller River, a small trading settlement grew up on the eastern side of the river mouth. About 80 people lived there at the end of 1861, in a township known as Buller. The name Westport was proposed for the settlement by J. C. Richmond in 1863, apparently because of its similarity to Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. At the height of the gold rushes in 1867 the population grew to 1,500.
The discovery and mining of high-quality bituminous coal near Westport led to the progressive development and expansion of the port. Breakwaters confined the river to a defined channel, with a minimum depth of 4 metres at low tide. Until the railway through the lower Buller Gorge was completed in 1944, all coal was exported by sea.
Westport had a peak population of over 5,500 in the 1950s. It has gradually declined to just over 4,000.
Although the output of coal from the Buller coalfield has increased since 1990, the number of people employed in coal mining has declined. Almost all the coal is now transported out of the region by train.
In 2015 the largest employers were Solid Energy and the Holcim cement works, which manufactures cement at a plant near Cape Foulwind from local limestone and coal. Ships carrying cement were the main users of the port, although some of the cement was transported around the South Island by rail. In the early 2010s Solid Energy reduced staff numbers, while in 2015 Holcim announced that the works would close in two to three years.
Parts of Westport were damaged by large earthquakes in 1910, 1929, 1962 and 1968. The worst was the 1929 Murchison earthquake, when the post office tower and several other buildings collapsed. Although other West Coast towns suffered damage in these earthquakes, it was generally more severe in Westport. On the positive side, Westport has a number of fine art deco buildings, constructed after the 1929 earthquake.
Increasing agricultural production
Westport is surrounded by flat land – a sequence of uplifted marine terraces formed during past inter-glacial periods. Although the land appeared suitable for agriculture to early settlers, iron layers (called iron pans) have produced sour, infertile soils, locally called pākihi (from a Māori word that originally meant open country). Hydraulic excavators have allowed the development of the technique of ‘flipping’, where the soil is dug to a depth of 2–3 metres, inverting and mixing it as well as breaking the iron pan to improve drainage. With the use of fertiliser, there was a substantial rise in dairy production, and large areas of previously abandoned land were farmed.
Located on the western side of the Buller River, about 5 km from Westport, Carters Beach is the only sheltered sandy beach on the West Coast suitable for swimming. An 18-hole golf course and Westport airport are located nearby.
On the coast, about 12 kilometres west of Westport, Cape Foulwind is a rocky headland jutting into the Tasman Sea. Granite was quarried here for the breakwaters that protect Westport harbour. A circular walkway goes past the lighthouse, and there is a seal colony at the southern end of the walkway, near Tauranga Bay.