The history of Waipapa Point Lighthouse
Waipapa Point marks the scene of New Zealand’s worst civilian shipwreck. On 29 April 1881, 131 people were drowned when the passenger steamer Tararua was wrecked on a reef off the point. Tararua was on one of its regular trips between Otago and Melbourne, via Bluff.
The sad tale of the wreck, in which only 20 of the 151 on board survived, is explained in Ingram’s New Zealand Shipwrecks.
“A particularly heavy sea swept over the forepart, and nearly a score of people were washed overboard. Only one person, the chief cook, succeeded in reaching the shore safely, after making a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to save a lady passenger. Towards evening those still surviving were forced to take refuge in the rigging and on one occasion were heard cheering by those on shore; it was supposed at the sight of the steamer Kahanui steaming from the Bluff. Up till 11pm lights in the rigging were occasionally seen, as though matches were being burned. At 2.35am on April 30 the closing tragedy in the disaster occurred. Those on the beach heard the piercing shrieks from the doomed people on the Tararua, and a voice, said to be that of the captain, calling for a boat, which could not be sent, as the Chief Officer’s boat was damaged when it capsized, and could not be repaired. At daybreak the steamer had sunk almost out of sight, and bodies were coming ashore.”
After the shipwreck a Court of Inquiry, investigating the loss of the Tararua, recommended a light be erected on the point. A light was ordered from England immediately, and work began on building the wooden tower and houses for three keepers and their families. It was the second to last wooden lighthouse tower built in New Zealand. The light was lit for the first time on New Year’s Day in 1884.
Two other recommendations submitted by the Court of Inquiry were put into effect, marking an important turning point in New Zealand’s maritime safety procedures. From 1882, lifebelts had to be provided for every person on board a ship, and crews were to regularly practice life-boat evacuation procedures.
Not far from the tower is a small plot of land known as the Tararua Acre. It is here that many of the bodies recovered from the wreck are buried.
Operation of the Waipapa Point light
The station was automated and the last keepers were withdrawn in 1975.
In 1988 the site was converted from mains to solar power and a modern filament lamp beacon was installed.
In December 2008 a new LED beacon was installed externally on the balcony of the lighthouse. The new light is powered by battery banks charged by solar panels.
The light is monitored remotely from Maritime New Zealand’s Wellington office.
Life at Waipapa Point light station
The light station at Waipapa Point was located close to the port town of Fortrose which meant the families were able to get supplies and attend church and send their children to the local school.
Despite the relative closeness of Fortrose, Waipapa Point was still an isolated location. The isolation may have contributed to one of the keepers taking his own life in 1903. This keeper had been in the lighthouse service for 25 years, since he was 21.