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Our shaky and hidden history

The earthquake was felt across the nation and killed between seven and nine people, while five others were hospitalised with related injuries.

A report published by Greater Wellington Regional Council [GWRC] in 2005 said between four and six of the casualties were in Wairarapa, while only one was reported in Wellington, and it was likely two further people died in the Manawatu area.

GWRC said the low number of casualties could be attributed to the time of day the earthquake hit – and that it struck after a holiday celebrating Wellington Anniversary Day.

“Most people were in their predominantly wooden buildings or the local hotels, which were also mainly wooden.”

Wellington Region Emergency Management Office [Wremo] said the earthquake triggered New Zealand’s largest historical locally generated tsunami.

The tsunami towered at least 11 metres, smashing into Te Kopi at Palliser Bay, where a shed on a cliff 9m above the sea was swept away.

Wremo said in Wellington Harbour, water levels varied considerably. Shops along the beachfront at Lambton Quay, which has since been reclaimed, were inundated with waves about 1.4 to 2.4m above sea level.

It said there was significant uplift in Wellington City, most noticeably near the harbour, altering the city’s shoreline considerably.

“Today, Wellington’s Basin Reserve sports ground sits on land lifted by this earthquake; the area had previously been part of a waterway that led into the harbour.”

The earthquake also triggered extensive slips on both faces of the Rimutaka Range, along the Kaikoura coast, and in Wellington, where access to Petone was cut off by a large landslide of about 300,000 m3 of material that blocked the coastal track north, according to Geonet.

An account from Edward Roberts, a surveyor with Royal Engineers at the time, said the Rimutaka Range, which appeared to have been in the direct line of the subterranean action, was elevated nine feet.

He said the whole of New Zealand as far as Wai-nui [Wainuiomata] – about two miles northward of the foot of the road leading down the Pari-pari [near Paekakariki] – was raised with it.

Wairarapa plain remained at the same level as before, but local hills were also lifted, he said.

One of the more notable remnants of the 1855 earthquake was the formation of the Hidden Lakes.

An anonymous account provided to the Times-Age by the Wairarapa Archive said the lakes formed when a large section of the North-Masterton hillside “split open and fell towards the Ruamahanga River”.

“The river was reported to be blocked for three days,” the writer said.

When the blockage did eventually break open, it flooded nearby areas and claimed the lives of Maori living alongside the river.

“The ‘sump’ that was left at the bottom of the huge slip is what filled to form two lakes.”

The writer said the “bottomless” Lake reached a depth of about 33 feet [10 metres], with a deeper hole at the northern end.

“When I did try and reach the bottom of the hole, as a small boy in 1953, I ran out of line at 140 feet [42.6 metres].

Geonet said the 1855 earthquake was followed by many aftershocks, some of which were very damaging to towns across the region.

Although there is strong evidence the earthquake generated a local tsunami, Geonet said it was also possible that aftershocks caused small tsunamis.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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