It is hard to envisage in 2013 that the Westland town of Hokitika was once one of the most important towns in New Zealand. Today its economy relies on the surrounding dairy farms that feed the Westland Cooperative Dairy Factory, and tourism-based ventures. In 1866 however, Hokitika was the second biggest town in New Zealand after Auckland. Gold had been discovered on the West Coast in 1864 and the town grew rapidly as people flooded into the area to seek their fortunes. On one day in 1867 it was reported that 41 vessels were tied up at the Hokitika wharf, with more waiting off shore. How times have changed.
Ever since my first visit to the town way back in the 1960s I have been fascinated by the connection of the town with Andrew Carnegie. How could this rich American philanthropist have become aware of and have an interest in this far-flung isolated town in a distant corner of the southern Pacific Ocean? On a corner, one block away from the main street of Hokitika, is a grand building with “Free Public Library” emblazoned across the frieze above the columns at the entrance. It’s in that sign that the connection is made.
Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the iron and steel business. While still a boy working in his father’s cotton milling business, he and other boys working in the mill were granted free access the library of a local businessman. Carnegie became an avid reader devoured most of the 400 books in the collection. After he sold his steel milling business to banker J P Morgan in 1901 for $200 million, he set out on his philanthropic endeavors. In recognition of the help received from free access to books in his youth, Carnegie established a grant system to assist towns and cities in the English-speaking world to build library buildings on condition that access to and lending of books was free. Eighteen such libraries were built in New Zealand, including the one in Hokitika which was opened in 1908.
The building ceased to be a library in April 1975. It was later restored and reopened in May 1998 as home to the West Coast Historical Museum. So that’s how Andrew Carnegie came to be connected to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
In researching for this post I discovered another interesting fact about Hokitika. It has a digital 3D cinema, in a town with a population of just 3,078 (2006 census), plus another 828 people in the surrounding district. The Art-Deco Regent Cinema was built in 1936 and has served the town ever since. When in 1975 it was threatened with demolition due to its state of repair and lack of patronage, a group of concerned citizens lobbied for its retention and formed a trust for its preservation. Funds were raised to refurbish the building back to its Art-Deco heritage style and it has been turned into a successfully functioning cinema again – a digital 3D cinema to boot.
So there you have it, a boom town of the 19th century is booming again in the 21st century (albeit in a much different way).