Port of Wellington
Review and History

The Port of Wellington lies on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. It is the capital of New Zealand, an important commercial center, and a busy seaport. Wellington Harbour is one of the world’s best harbors, with Cook Strait as the small entrance to the sheltered harbor that protects the Port of Wellington from winds and weather. Located about 125 kilometers west of Port Nelson, much of the Port of Wellington was built on reclaimed land. Lying in a fault zone, the city has weathered many earthquakes. In 2006, about 179.5 thousand people lived in the municipality, and 370 thousand lived in the urban area of the Port of Wellington.

As New Zealand’s hub for communications and transportation, the Port of Wellington is linked to inland North Island by road and rail. It is linked to Picton and Port Marlborough on South Island by ferry. The Port of Wellington supports domestic and international trade. Imports coming to the Port of Wellington include petroleum products, minerals, and vehicles, while the port exports meat and dairy products, wood products, fruit, and wool. The economy of the city is based on business services, finance, and government, but tourism is important. The Port of Wellington is also home to a growing film industry.

Port History

Maori legends say that the Polynesian explorer Kupe explored the Port of Wellington area in the 10th Century, returning to his home, Hawaiki, to collect others to move with him to the newly-discovered New Zealand. The Maori called the Port of Wellington Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui, meaning “the head of Maui’s fish.” They say that Maui, a Polynesian seaman, caught a huge fish that transformed into North Island. Evidence of several early Maori settlements has been found at many sites across Wellington peninsula.

In 1839, the ship Tory arrived carrying a party from the New Zealand Company arrived at Wellington Harbour. Later that year, settlers arrived who built homes on the site of today’s Petone on the north side of Wellington Harbour. The area was too damp and prone to flooding, though, so they moved to the modern site of the Port of Wellington.

In 1848, the Port of Wellington experienced several earthquakes that caused serious damage. In 1855, one of New Zealand’s strongest earthquakes, estimated to have been over 8.2 on the Richter scale, raised land out of the Port of Wellington harbor and created a tidal swamp in the area and moved the existing port some 150 meters inland. That land is today part of the Port of Wellington central business district. The Port of Wellington continues to rest on a series of fault lines that run though the middle of the city.

The Port of Wellington replaced Auckland as New Zealand’s capital in 1865 due to concern that the gold fields in South Island would lead those communities to form their own separate colony. Wellington was chosen for its excellent harbor and central location. At the time, fewer than 5000 people lived in the Port of Wellington.

Through its first century, the Port of Wellington and the waterfront area were out-of-bounds to residents of the city. Wellington’s Harbour Board and City Council controlled the land and activities in the port. At the waterfront, the Harbour Board was the governing authority: City Council actions did not apply. The port was busy with cranes and trucks moving mountains of cargo, and the port was a dirty, loud, and dangerous place.

Changes started in the Port of Wellington in the 1980s. Commercial shipping activity had moved to Aotea Quay, so the inner harbor wharves were less busy, and less heavy machinery was used there. A new park added some greenery to the otherwise drab area. In 1895, the first waterfront motor race was held, and the dragon boat festival began in the late part of the decade. In 1989, Wellington’s Harbour Board and City Council merged, giving the city direct control over waterfront development at the Port of Wellington.

A new publicly-owned organization, Lambton Harbour Management (now Wellington Waterfront Limited), was formed to managed the Port of Wellington waterfront and oversee future development, balancing recreational and commercial uses and opening the waterfront to the public. The waterfront is under almost continuous development today.

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