Helensville is changing. Inklings of the township’s close proximity to Auckland city are increasingly appearing throughout the township with the likes of modern-day eateries and state-of-the art facilities.
While the aromas of big city living are certainly appealing, they’re not overbearing in Helensville. The Kombuchery sits in close proximity to the kauri cottages, reminiscent of the township’s booming kauri trade in the 1800’s. The new and improved Mill Road Gym (now Forge Fitness) is a two minute drive from the old post office building which was built in 1911. The Kaipara river meanders through the township, paying homage to the unique rural landscape that put Helensville on the map way back when.
If you’re considering a move to Helensville, or just swinging by for a visit, it’s worth knowing a thing or two about Helensville’s fascinating history to truly understand its appeal. As they say, in order to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’re coming from.
The Mighty Kaipara Harbour
The Kaipara Harbour is situated on the west coast of Northland, approximately 80 km north of Auckland. It’s one of the largest harbours in the world.
The Kaipara River is the principal river feeding the Kaipara Harbour from the south. The river flows north from the northern foothills of the Waitakere Ranges, meandering through Helensville before reaching the southern Kaipara Harbour. The Helensville district was originally called Te Awaroa, or ‘‘the Valley of the Long River’ by local Maori.
The bar at the entrance of the Kaipara Harbour entrance is locally referred to as the graveyard, because it is responsible for more shipwrecks than any other place in New Zealand. According to Maori mythology, the Māhuhu canoe, commanded by chief Rongomai, was on a voyage from Hawaiki to New Zealand when it was overturned at the entrance to the harbour. Rongomai drowned. The first European shipwreck was the Aurora in 1840. A lighthouse was built in 1883 in response to the shipwrecks and is still there today.
Today, the Kaipara is a pleasant recreational harbour with stunning views, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
“Kauri is King” in Helensville
An abundance of kauri along the banks of the Kaipara River was an attractive drawcard for European settlers. Kauri was prized for its long straight trunks (useful for the spars of sailing ships) and its clean straight grained timber (preferential for building purposes).
From 1863 Helensville established itself as a timber port on the Kaipara river, and provided shipping services about the Kaipara. Prior to rail, large sailing ships would negotiate the bar of the Kaipara Harbour and venture down the winding river to berth at Helensville where they would load timber, along with flax, gum and other goods.
Kauri timber from the banks of the Kaipara were traded globally, supported by the local sawmill trade.
John McLeod was the first European sawmiller to move to Awaroa in 1863. John established a sawmill in Awaroa with his brother Isaac. John and his wife Helen built their home on a hill (now Nelson Street), and it was named ‘Helen’s Villa’. The township became Helensville, an adaptation of Helen’s Villa.
The kauri timber trade declined in the 1890s, around the same time as Helensville’s dairy farming industry, including the closure of the Kaipara Dairy company – the town’s largest employer. Luckily for Helensville, tourism kept the town afloat, thanks in large part to the Parakai hot springs situated 5 km west of Helensville. The Parakai hot springs continue to be a popular tourist destination today.
Helensville’s Railway Heritage
The first rail line in the Kaipara opened in 1875 for transshipment purposes during the kauri trade boom. It connected the Kaipara to a wharf in Riverhead. From here, people and goods were transported by boat to and from the Waitemata Harbour in Auckland.
Helensville North Station opened in July 1881. The station was part of the North Auckland Line, a major section of New Zealand’s national rail network. It served as the district’s main departure and arrival point for soldiers during the first world war. In 1927 it moved to its current location and is now called the Helensville Station. The Helensville station was a popular ‘refreshment’ or ‘cuppa’ stop on the line for passengers travelling North of Auckland. The new Helensville Station location rendered the Kaipara-Riverhead line redundant, and this line closed in 1881. The Helensville station closed in 1987.
Today, the railway station building houses tenants compromising a café, jewellery, antiques stores, and an art gallery. Adjacent to the station is the Helensville Railway Museum.
What separates Helensville from other rural New Zealand towns is its orchestrated symphony of small meets big, urban meets rural and of course, old meets new. No matter which way you look at it, Helensville truly is the best of both worlds.
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