Riding past the historic Waitaki Dam, its hard to know that this has a strong claim to fame as part of NZ’s social and construction history. This was the first major dam to be built in the South Island, and the last to be built by pick and shovel.
Waitaki Power Station under construction in 1932
Standing at the lookout overlooking the working dam, with some imagination you can pick out the line of the old access road on the slopes on the northern hills above the lake. This was part of the access way used to build the dam which started in 1928 through to 1934. The 105MW Dam was the last to be built by pick and shovel and to build it took a work force of more than 3000 workers, toiling through freezing winters and burning summers.
The Birth Place of NZ’s Social Welfare System
NZ’s social security scheme owes its origins to the dam’s construction where a scheme was run with the Waitaki Hydro Medical Assn deducting monthly fees from wages. The 1935 election saw Labour into power and with it, Dr David McMillian and Rev Arnold Nordmeyer. This pair based the development of the revolutionary social legislation on the scheme developed by the dam project. The work force of 3000+ including families were housed across some 350 houses and 700 huts in the area, with 40 of the management staff and their families housed in the 8-10 surviving distinctive structures.
Opening of the station in 1934
Today the Waitaki hydro scheme consists of eight power stations from Lake Tekapo to Lake Waitaki. The Waitaki Dam village is unoccupied – and also up for sale, so for those seeking a change of life with a part of NZ’s history, this could be an ideal purchase.