The Ghosts of Waiuta

The drive to the ghost town was predictably ghoulish.  Of course it was in the middle of the woods and, of course we got there at dusk.  The fog was so dense it was as if we cruised through a crowded street of spirits as we wound our way down the dirt road into the forest.

Nobody goes to ghost towns to check out the scenery.  We are driven to these forgotten hamlets by the same self-seeking thrill that drives us to ride a roller coaster.  We are tempted by the notion that we may encounter something otherwordly and are eager to ground this vision in historic truths.  Some half-hearted Wikipedia research is attempted so that when we think we see a faint shadow of a man wielding an axe we can say, “shit, that’s Johnny,” and whisper into our friend’s ear, “he killed his whole family with that thing!”

When Felipe and I picked up the key to the old hospital from the Information Center in Reefton, I made sure to put down 99c for the “Waiuta – Victoria Forest Park” pamphlet located below a small memorial display case.

“Will there be anyone else staying in the town,” I asked as we paid a nominal fee for the accommodation.

“There were a few guys there a couple days back, but I think they’ve packed up and left by now.  It should just be the two of you… more or less”

I was hoping she’d say something like that – “more or less.”

As the pamphlet opened, “Waiuta, the town at the top of the South Island’s richest gold mine, was always regarded by its people as a good place to be.”  Well how ‘bout that?  So Waiuta was a good place.  Was this a preface for tragedy?  I read on…  As the history unfolded, it transpired that the only tragedy was that of time.  We industrialized humans build towns for an ascribed importance and flee once we’ve bled the heart of the land.  The story of Waiuta is the story of a small, “good” town that rose from nothing overnight, packed in a clan of 600 working families, and faded to obscurity in 50 years time.

In it’s day, Waiuta was the liveliest of towns.  The intersection in front of the old post office (partially standing) was the busiest in the area with main road traffic coming along from the right, Prohibition Mine road leading off to the left and the new road running off to the Blackwater Mine in the center.  The main road rambled past bakers, butchers, billiards, barbers and bootmakers on its way out of town.

The “Birthday Reef” was discovered on King Edward VII’s birthday in 1905 and by 1908 Blackwater Mine was fully operational.  Waiuta began its steady growth and by the late 20’s the town enjoyed facilities that many larger centers went without.  Indeed, as the map shows, there were almost as many public buildings as there were houses in the old mining town.  In the 1930’s Waiuta even got a 30m swimming pool near the sight of the original gold discovery.  Today, the old concrete box, made of washed mullock and cement, sits like a fractured timepiece among invading shrubs.

Prohibition shaft, on the hill above town, would become New Zealand’s deepest mineshaft at 879m with more than a third of it below sea level.  Yet, whatever strife these men endured deep underground did not seem to tarnish their amiable existence in Waiuta.  When the Blackwater shaft shut virtually overnight in 1951, the close-knit community ruptured and the families dispersed taking everything (buildings included) with them to start a new life.  The abandoned town was left to destitute scavengers who haunted Waiuta for years to come.

Today, what is left are three cottages, the police station, the barber’s shop, and heaps of relics and ruins. The impassioned conservation of Waiuta is a testament to its lasting effect on both those who were raised in the town and their descendants.  On the hilly Incubator alley, the lane between the old hospital and schoolhouse, is the Waiuta Lodge, built to mark the reunion of former townspeople in 1986.  Recreated to emulate the old hospital, it’s wrap-around porch stretches towards the old chimneys, overlooking the deserted streets.  Here, we would sleep among the echoes of elapsed time – alone, more or less.

The hospital/lodge was a recreation, but I allowed myself to think otherwise.  When sleeping in a ghost town, anything’s game.  I hoped to play the role of naïve tourist and have a bit of a fright.  I imagined ill miners lying in my very bunk coughing up the quartz dust that would plague them for life.

I’d like to say something incredibly unnerving happened.  I wish I could proclaim, “I now have hard evidence in the existence of ghosts!”  I could tell you that I saw ole Johnny with the axe and hid in a fort of hospital mattresses all night… but none of it would be true.  I heard some noises in the night, the doors creaked, the air was cold and stale, but I saw no ghosts and emitted no screams of mercy.  I came to Waiuta expecting a thrill, but what I got was something different altogether.

Most towns boom and bust but linger on for better or worse over several generations.  What makes towns like Waiuta so fascinating is that it rose, prospered, and fell into oblivion all in a single man’s lifetime.  Perhaps, what makes it even more intriguing is that is was such a “good” town.  It was a happy town with a library, bars, restaurants, even a hotel.  It had amenities that stretched beyond its company ties.

Empty football fields, crackling pools, rubble of a happy home – Waiuta is a symbol of the frailty of life.  It’s the story of the struggle for the workingman’s existence in the face of the corporation.  The people of Waiuta were “good” people.  There was no catastrophe here, no reason for a haunting.  Waiuta is not troubled by spirits, but saddened by time.

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