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M.O.W Wellington Urban Motorway Construction
These images were taken by photographers working for the Ministry of Works (MOW) in conjunction with the Wellington City Council (WCC). They were taken between 1968 and 1973 to document the construction of the Wellington Urban Motorway and to photograph those parts of the city which were expected to be affected by it (including those areas which ultimately were not due to the cancellation of the final stage). This collection was deposited with the Wellington Central Public Library in the mid-late 1970s in recognition of the partnership between the WCC and the MOW that led to the motorway’s construction. They remain under Crown Copyright and are made available here on a Creative Commons basis. You are welcome to re-use these images on a non-commercial basis but please do not alter or transform the images in any way and always include the source & MOW negative number with any re-use. Please contact us if you have any information as to who the photographers involved were.
Today the Wellington Urban Motorway forms the principal vehicular link to and from the city. Before its construction, all of Wellington’s motor traffic had to move in and out of the city via Tinakori Road or the Thorndon & Aotea quays before feeding on to the Hutt Road running alongside the western edge of the harbour. Even in the 1950s when private car ownership was a fraction of what it is today, the choke-point at the northern end of Thorndon Quay resulted in huge week-day traffic jams. In 1956, the adoption of post-war planning concepts from Europe and the United States saw the City Engineer of the WCC propose that an elevated expressway be built along the waterfront to help alleviate the chronic traffic congestion. Similar to plans for elevated motorways which were being developed in cities such Los Angeles and Sydney, the concept enthralled many citizens as an excitingly modern vision of the future but the idea was soon abandoned because of the expected cost and the difficulty that residents living in the western suburbs would have had trying to access it.
An alternative proposal was suggested to the WCC by the MOW where a motorway would run through the Thorndon Gully and the Bolton Street Cemetery. Originally known as the ‘Foothills Motorway’, the scheme was largely kept secret from the public because of the recognition that the demolition of entire streets of houses which would be required to clear a path for the road would be hugely controversial.
In 1960 the City Council contracted an American firm of consulting engineers to devise an urban transport strategy. The resulting plan which was released in 1963 included street improvements, one-way road layouts, parking buildings (the construction of the Lombard Street Car Park by the WCC being one result of this) and even a proposed tunnel linking the top of Aro Valley with Chaytor Street in Karori. However, the most significant idea was a further refinement of the foothills motorway concept (with an elevated waterfront motorway as an alternative) running through to Te Aro via a tunnel under the Terrace; essentially confirming the basic MOW scheme from three years earlier. From the southern end of the Terrace tunnel, an extension of the motorway would continue across Te Aro to Mt Victoria where a second tunnel would eventually be bored through the hill to Hataitai, running parallel but slightly higher than the 1931 original road tunnel.
The Council re-zoned a strip of land from Thorndon to Mt Victoria as “motorway” under the Town and Country Planning Act and the Wellington mayor Frank Kitts prepared the WCC to formally adopt the scheme with the blessing of the National Roads Board. By now the public had begun to realise just how massive the proposed construction was going to be and how it would affect both the Thorndon community, where over 2000 people would have their houses demolished, and the Bolton Street Cemetery, where it was believed over 700 graves would need to be dug up and their contents moved. Protest groups and activists began a campaign to find an alternative route and many turned against Frank Kitts who to that point had cultivated an image as a consensus builder.
The motorway proposal became the dominating issue of the 1965 local body elections and a majority of councillors who were subsequently elected voted to re-think the scheme and look at alternative routes. With the amount of preparation that the MOW had already put into planned route, this attitude was seen as "dithering" by the National Roads Board and they angrily responded with a threat to withdraw funding if the WCC did not approve the scheme as it had been originally envisaged. Another independent consultant was appointed with the resulting report further confirming that the foothills route was "sound" apart for some minor reservations which he believed could be alleviated. With the report issued and pressure from the government continuing, the mayor and councillors of the WCC finally and unanimously approved the proposed route through Thorndon and the Bolton Street Cemetery.
Construction began almost immediately; streets of properties were compulsorily acquired under the Public Works Act and hundreds of houses were demolished. The first stage was completed in 1969 (terminating at Hawkestone Street and Tinakori Road) while the City Council worked on preparing the Bolton Street Cemetery for the second stage of the road’s construction through to Willis Street. It soon became apparent that the expected figure of around 700 disinterments had been wildly underestimated and when the work was finally completed in 1972, a total of 3693 human remains had been dug up and moved to a common grave. With this grisly work concluded, there was further demolition of dozens of houses on Bolton Street, Aurora Terrace & north of upper Ghuznee Street, the excavation of a massive trench and then the construction of the Terrace tunnel with what turned out to be the final stage of the motorway opening in 1976.
The proposed third stage which was supposed to cross Te Aro and terminate at the Mt Victoria tunnel was never built.