When driving north along State Highway 56 through the low-lying plains flanking the Manawatu River, a traveller cannot help but notice a suspension bridge to the north of the current road, a tall industrial chimney incongruously positioned at the western end of its span [click here to view map]. Now, its suspension wires dangle without purpose, as if suspended in time as well as space, but this graceful structure still strikes a dignified – if somewhat ghostly profile – on the landscape, hinting at an important role it played in the local economy in the not too distant past.

That important role was to facilitate speedier and more efficient transport of materials and people in an industry which once thrived on these plains. Makerua Swamp, an area of 14,500 acre (5,900 ha), was the centre of the New Zealand flax industry from 1900 to 1921. Between 1902 and 1921 three of about 30 local flax mills were at a river crossing, where the Opiki toll bridge still stands. The Rangitane Mill (1902 – 1919) and the Tane Mill (1915 – 1921) were on the western bank of the river, while the River Mill (1904 – 1918) was on the eastern side. The concrete chimney on the left of the picture is the site of the Tane Mill.

Initially, materials and workers crossed the river using a flying fox, a platform hauled across on a wire rope, but increased production from the three mills made a bridge crossing necessary. In 1916 the Tane Hemp Company commissioned Joseph Dawson (1843 – 1924) of Pahiatua to design and build a suspension bridge. This bridge was one of 15 suspension bridges designed by Dawson.

The bridge was opened in January 1918 and was used by the three mills and local farmers. A combination of economic factors and a disease which afflicted flax plants led to the ultimate end of the local industry in 1921. Mr Hugh Akers, a local farmer and part shareholder of the flax company, bought up the shares of the other shareholders and assumed responsibility for the bridge. From the mid-1920s, increasing numbers of people requested permission to use the bridge, and so Mr Akers decided to operate the bridge as a toll bridge, installing a toll keeper to supervise safety. The toll was used to pay for ongoing maintenance and public risk insurance, as well as the toll-keeper himself.

During a visit in 1938, the Minister of Works, Bob Semple, declared that a private toll bridge was unacceptable and that it would be replaced forthwith with a government-built one. However it was to be three decades before a new bridge would be built. The need for a replacement bridge became urgent when in 1960, it became clear that, following the planned construction of stop-banks (to be built in 1962), the toll bridge could be submerged, and maybe swept away, in times of flooding.

The new concrete bridge was completed in November 1969, at which point the old toll bridge was decommissioned. While the concrete structure still stands, the steel and timber deck structure was removed to prevent ongoing use. This structure is visible on a satellite map about 400 metres north of the current bridge.

Photo top: A view of the toll bridge today; Above left: the famous flying fox – the pre-bridge means of transport across the river; Above right: the toll-keepers house beside the bridge (date unknown); Left: A sign at nearby Alve Road, showing historic flood levels.

Sources/further reading: Opiki Toll Bridge on the living heritage.org website, written by Shane Chapman; Newspaper article about historic Akers Homestead.