Opiki toll bridge: graceful relic of a thriving flax industry

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.

6 thoughts on “Opiki toll bridge: graceful relic of a thriving flax industry

  1. AB March 22, 2015 / 1:03 pm

    Interesting, I remember it well. It still functioned as a bridge when I was a child and I crossed it several times. Joseph Dawson was my great grandfather and I have his oak roll top desk. My great aunt had very large oak framed photographs of his bridges.

  2. Ted Fecteau May 17, 2016 / 10:43 am

    Is it possible to visit the current bridge site just to have a mosey? I have always looked from afar with curiosity when passing. I find this story quite interesting.

    • envirohistorynz May 18, 2016 / 5:17 pm

      Hi Ted, Looking at the Historic Places Trust entry about this site: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/9619, the bridge remains appear to be on private property, and so there is no direct public access (at least without gaining permission first). But there is a plaque by the roadside and you can get a reasonably good view from there.

  3. jaspersdoggyworld May 23, 2017 / 7:33 pm

    I can remember going over this bridge as a very young child. We live in Palmerston North. For some reason, I remember the road over the bridge as brick or tiles. Would that be correct?

    • envirohistorynz June 7, 2017 / 1:06 pm

      That is great that you remember going over the bridge as a child. My guess would be wooden planks suspended on the vertical wires? I vaguely remember reading this when researching Ravaged Beauty. Molly Aker’s book will give you the answer to this though. envirohistoryNZ

  4. Bridgehunter's Chronicles July 15, 2018 / 11:11 pm

    Reblogged this on The Bridgehunter's Chronicles and commented:
    A day after posting a guest post on the haunted bridge in New Zealand, the blogger referred me to another bridge that is of interest. It was built a century ago and served as a toll bridge until it was replaced by another toll bridge in 1969. The suspension bridge still stands today but as a relict, yet its history is worth reading as much as visiting it. Details here. Enjoy! 🙂

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