Change has come to Pukekohe. Less frequently are tractors seen on our streets, instead rows of houses march their way across the fertile growing soils which for many hundreds of years have sustained mankind in this district. Planned highways and high-rise buildings will further alter the character of this rural township, maybe beyond recognition. Historic buildings may fall victim to regeneration and the ideology of progress. Still, there is a chance to preserve a part of Pukekohe’s built history, a part which connects us back to the earliest days of our settlement.
The railway is intrinsic to the story of Pukekohe’s development from a one horse town in the middle of nowhere, hamstrung by poor road access, to a prosperous community. It was the coming of rail transport in 1875 which changed everything. Suddenly the town went ahead in leaps and bounds; shops, a hotel and houses sprung up around the station area. Prior to this it was hard to make a decent living in Pukekohe as cartage costs were prohibitive. The only way in or out of the area was on primitive dirt tracks optimistically called ‘roads’ which often became impassable in wet weather. Reliable, regular transport transformed our little backwater into the centre for commerce in the Franklin District. Settlers could make money from the abundance of trees which had previously been viewed as a nuisance, sending out Puriri railway sleepers by their thousands. As timber went out in waggon loads, cans of cream came in from Papatoetoe, Pokeno and Ararimu for processing at the dairy factory. The resulting butter was first class and much of it ended up on London tables.
Every day the train delivered parcels, mail and the all-important newspaper- one of the only links with the outside world in the early days prior to radio and telephone. Travel into Auckland became a comfortable day trip whereas previously many hours were spent in a jolting cart just to reach the Runciman or Drury stations. Land values increased at Pukekohe, as proximity to the station was viewed as an asset.
Rail continued to drive the prosperity of Pukekohe and surrounding districts into the 20th century. After 37 years of service the old 1875 station was relegated to a goods shed when the current building was constructed in 1912, during the time when Scottish born architect George Troup was design engineer for NZ Rail.
By 1914, around 60,000 bags of potatoes per year left the area by rail. Sheep, calves and fat cattle destined for the sales and freezing works departed the station regularly. Bone-dust, an early fertiliser used on the farm was brought in by train. On a single day in 1915, 25 tons of butter were moved from the NZ Dairy Association’s factory to the railway.
When the spectre of war loomed over New Zealand, soldiers were sent off to training camps from the station, many never to return. For others, the station holds happier memories – as the departure point for a honeymoon, or a school trip.
It continued to be a focal point in the town until the advent of improved roads and affordable cars in the 1950’s saw reliance on rail begin to wane. Deregulation sounded the death knell for rail transport in the 1980’s, removing limits placed on the distance goods could be moved by trucking companies.
However in the 21st century, commuter travel via rail has enjoyed a revival since the motorway became subject to gridlock. New facilities at Pukekohe were constructed to service growing numbers of passengers. Advances in technology replaced the local signal box with a fibre optic cable, controlling train movements from Wellington. Until November 2017, ours was the very last remaining signal box station on the main line.
Now, KiwiRail want the station gone. With little maintenance carried out over the last few decades the building is showing its age. On the outside the hardwood shiplap weatherboards could do with a new coat of paint, the original ticket hatch is long unused and the roof leaks in places. Inside, the time-worn kauri floors, decorative ceiling roses and cornices adorning the ceilings hark back to the elegance of a time long past. Tongue and groove boards line the office walls beside a solid metal safe and the brick fireplace which once warmed the stationmaster. The station sits in limbo, waiting for the axe to fall as it has for so many other historic places. Its heritage status is tenuous; it is not listed on the Heritage Register of the district plan and it is not classified by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Years of neglect mean it will need significant investment to renew the roof and repair the sub floor, plus other work to remedy the ill effects of modern additions. However a heritage assessment noted it was an ‘important surviving station’ and that it is ‘both appropriate and possible for the station to be restored’. It was also mentioned there are a limited number of this type of station left intact in New Zealand.
There are some who will question why bother to try and save such an old building? Yet after more than one hundred years the station has become a repository for many poignant memories of importance to the community. The station’s narrative embodies the story of Pukekohe as a town.
On a purely physical level it is an opportunity to preserve the craftsmanship of this era; the long lasting, high quality materials like hardwood and steel coupled with good design principles have stood the test of time. Surprisingly, the station was completed in a little over four months using hand tools and despite most of the work taking place in less than ideal building conditions during winter and spring.
By looking back into the past it can be observed how we have come full circle. Pukekohe once depended on rail, which was displaced by cars and trucks. Now as the population grows and environmental concerns mount, the value of public transport and rail freight is once again realised.
Still, there will always be those who don’t appreciate the need to preserve heritage. They feel progress can only be achieved by replacing old with new, as if advancement can be measured by the tearing down of buildings. Maybe progress is a realisation that a successful society should be truly sustainable, reusing and repurposing instead of throwing away?
With the hope of saving our station, a long awaited meeting with KiwiRail to decide its fate took place on 18th November 2020. Among those present were members from the Franklin Local Board, Franklin Heritage Forum, Franklin Historical Society (FHS), and Auckland Transport. KiwiRail’s plan for a new station layout requires the old building to go. If removed, KiwiRail would make a financial contribution equivalent to the cost of demolition, which could be used to cover removal costs. In addition they would include protection staff and free access to the line for the removal contractor. The FHS proposed three sites to KiwiRail and although all three were initially vetoed, option C, an unused gravelled area at the bottom of Custom Street is still considered a possibility. Adjoining the bus stop area this site is very accessible to commuters and the general public; an ideal spot if the station is to be repurposed as a café. The only drawback is the building would have to be stored offsite until 2024 as this area would not be available until after the redevelopment has taken place.
Keeping the building in the vicinity of the railway area is vital, as removal to another area would see it lose its relevance and identity. The ‘Pukekohe Station’ ceases to be a place of importance once devoid of its location and historical context.
Members of the FHS have set up a steering committee to form a trust to ensure the future of the station. A number of submissions in favour of keeping the station appeared in the recent Franklin Local Board district plan but significant public support will be required to save it from the bulldozers and time is running out. A final decision regarding whether the station is moved or demolished will be made by KiwiRail on the 24th of February. The meeting will involve the FHS, Franklin Heritage Forum, AT and local representatives. By this date the committee will need to show that they have funding, public backing for the proposal and a future use for the building. A secure location to store the building is also needed urgently and will be crucial to the success of the project.
To show your support, head to the Facebook page “Friends of Pukekohe Rail Station Building” before February 20th and fill out a brief survey where you can share your thoughts on the future of this district icon.
If you would like a paper copy of the survey or you can help in any way, contact the Franklin Historical Society at franklinhistsociety@gmail. com or call 021 123 7960.