Port Nelson
Review and History

Port Nelson lies at the mouth of the Matai River at the head of the Tasman Bay at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island. Port Nelson is a popular resort and retirement center for people from the Port of Wellington (165 kilometers east across the Cook Strait) on North Island. Port Nelson supports a rich livestock and agricultural region, and it is home to food-processing plants, engineering works, and sawmills. Exports leaving Port Nelson include fruit, meat, timber, and tobacco. Petroleum products are Port Nelson’s major import.

Named after Admiral Horatio Nelson in honor of his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, many of Port Nelson streets and public areas are named for people and ships involved in that battle. Nobel laureate Lord Rutherford, who appears on the country’s $100 banknote, was born in Brightwater about 19 kilometers away from Port Nelson. In 2006, over 45 thousand people called Port Nelson home.

Port History

Before Europeans settled Port Nelson, the Maori lived there for over a thousand years. The occupation of the area by several Maori clans is well-documented. In the 1820s, though, northern tribes raided the villages, decimating and replacing the local population.

Planning of the settlement of Port Nelson was performed in London by the New Zealand Company. They hoped to buy around 800 square kilometers of Maori land and divide it for sale to settlers, although sales were slow. When Captain Arthur Wakefield led three ships from London into the harbor, they learned that the colony’s new governor, William Hobson, would not support their purchase of land from the Maori. After some time, the governor permitted them to look at Tasman Bay on South Island’s north end.

The New Zealand Company selected the site of Port Nelson based on its harbor. However, the area lacked land suitable for farming, certainly less than the Company had originally planned to sell to settlers. They bought an undetermined area of land from the Maori for about 800 pounds that today contains Nelson, Whakapuaka, Waimea, Riwaka, and Motueka. The lack of clear boundaries would lead to much conflict in the following years. Within a year and a half, 18 ships had carried over a thousand men, almost 900 women, and 1384 children to Port Nelson. Unfortunately, few of them had the money to purchase land.

The new Port Nelson settlement enjoyed a short period of prosperity, but the shortage of land and money crated a long period of hardship. Immigration basically stopped until the 1850s. Workers’ wages were cut, and skilled laborers and artisans began to leave Nelson. By 1846, about a quarter of the new immigrants were gone. The city needed more land. Disagreements with the Maori over what lands had been purchased led to an attempt by the settlers to take the land, and 22 of them died in the attempt. The government found that they had no claim to the land and exonerated the Maori of any wrong-doing.

Port Nelson finally prospered during the 1860s gold rush. Port Nelson’s lighthouse first operated in 1861. Still a popular landmark, the cast-iron lighthouse was constructed in England and shipped to Port Nelson in pieces. In the 1970s, the lighthouse was decommissioned (on its 120th birthday), but it was classified “A” by the Historic Places Trust in 1983.

One of the first difficult jobs taken on in 1906 by the Nelson Harbour Board was The Cut, a huge dredging project to provide an approach in what was a land connection between Haulashore Island and Boulder Bank. Despite many difficulties, The Cut was opened in 1906, and the Union Company’s ferry steamed into port with a full load of 800 passengers.

Port Nelson’s apple industry began in the 1850s when it began exporting apples to the Port of Wellington. By the end of the century, apple-exporting began in earnest. In the 1930s, huge volumes of apple exports to the United Kingdom were straining port facilities. Fruit making the trip through the tropics arrived in poor condition. In the 1950s when modern handling methods were adopted, Port Nelson’s apple exports increased to a half-million cases.

Modern Port Nelson owes much to William Henry Parr, who served as a member and General Manager of the Nelson Harbor Board for many years. He proposed the plan in 1948 to develop and expand the port, create a deeper harbor, and add wharf space. Promoting the plan at 13 public meetings, Parr convinced ratepayers to support the plan, and Parliament authorized the Harbour Board to raise the money to implement it.

The vast area of land created in Port Nelson by dredging the harbor now houses New Zealand’s largest seafood-processing factories, a engineering and marine refitting sector, and a more than 500-berth marina.

Port Nelson is protected by a natural breakwater, and the harbor is dredged to a minimum of 9.8 meters. Port Nelson’s facilities are located on flat land reclaimed from the harbor just south of the berths, and the port has direct access to Nelson city and to the nation’s road networks.

The region surrounding Port Nelson is rich in natural resources that provide a healthy export base that attracts international shippers. With the second largest apple-growing area in New Zealand, over five million cartons of apples are exported through Port Nelson each year. Nelson Pine Industries is the world’s second biggest single-site producer of medium density fiberboard, and nearly 90% of its products are sold off-shore. Port Nelson’s fishing fleet holds rights to more than half of New Zealand’s sustainable catch. Major forestry companies in the region ship huge volumes of sawn timber and logs for export through Port Nelson.

With a sheltered marina and quick access to Tasman Bay and the Marlborough Sounds, Port Nelson is a popular spot for yachters. Port Nelson offers excellent repair and haul-out facilities. The Nelson Marina is managed by the Nelson City Council, and it offers visitor and permanent marina berths for vessels up to 15 meters as well as larger berths for bigger yachts. The super-yacht berth can accommodate vessels to 60 meters.

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