Port of Auckland history

From ancient times, trade and commerce have centred on ports. As people and products gathered at waterfronts, communities formed around the activity-filled harbours.

Like many great cities around the world, Auckland is a City Port, with the Port developing hand in hand with the community and regional economy it serves.

In Auckland, this can be traced back to the 1300s when Maori settled in Tamaki Makaurau and the shores of the Waitemata served as a hub for people and goods for hundreds of years. One of the many names associated with the Tamaki Makaurau area is ‘Tamaki herenga waka’, meaning ‘the resting place of many waka’ or ‘where canoes may be tethered safely’.

It wasn’t until the 1840s, following the European discovery of New Zealand by Abel Tasman in 1642, Captain James Cook's 1769 voyage to map the coastline of New Zealand, and some years after New Zealand had been settled by British colonials, that the Port of Auckland was officially established.

There was an urgent need to establish a suitable capital and trading centre at this time and, shortly after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the Bay of Islands on 6 February 1840, Captain William Hobson, Lieutenant Governor of the new British colony of New Zealand, chose Auckland as New Zealand’s first post-Treaty capital specifically for its potential as a port.

Despite unsatisfactory wharf facilities being sited on the large tidal mudflats at Official Bay and Commercial Bay, the township quickly grew into a hub for maritime trade. In 1843, just over 3,000 people were living in Auckland, and most of them depended on the port to provide them with a living either directly or indirectly.

Queen Street Wharf, 1904

Queen Street Wharf, 1904

Control of the Waitemata Harbour passed from the Governor to the Auckland Provincial Council in 1853, following the Constitution Act. Over the next 18 years, the Council made many improvements to port facilities, including the construction of the first Queen Street Wharf for overseas vessels – a bustling wharf jutting out nearly 500 metres into the Harbour from the base of town, a quay along Customs Street for coastal and other small ships, and a breakwater from Britomart Point – once a prominent landmark on the harbour horizon.

This was a time of exponential growth for the young nation and its ports. Of 112 ports in New Zealand, 26 of them engaged in overseas trade. Trade was especially active with England and Australia, and a coastal shipping trade was well established. Auckland’s port provided the important commercial services and shipping centre that linked the timber miller, the farmer and the gum digger with international traders. By the end of the 1860s, Auckland’s population had quadrupled since its beginnings, growing to more than 12,000.

The Auckland Harbour Board was established to administer the Port by an Act of Parliament in 1871. The Board was governed by an elected Board with three-year terms of office and administered by permanent staff. In 1875, the Auckland Harbour Foreshore Act was introduced, giving the Board over 5,000 acres of the Waitemata Harbour seabed. There was intense demand for better port facilities and over the following 20 years the Auckland Harbour Board completed substantial works and reclamations around Auckland’s foreshore. Work around Mechanics Bay, Customs Street, Point Britomart and Hobson Street enabled the construction of a railway wharf and better dockyards. Auckland was by this time also home to many passenger services bound for ports such as London, Sydney and San Francisco. Development between today’s Princes Wharf and Kings Wharf, now part of the Bledisloe container terminal, was completed between 1904 and 1924. During this time, the wooden Queen Street Wharf was replaced by the present-day concrete wharf (1906–1913), Marsden Wharf was built (1909–1911), the ‘red fence’ was erected for added security (1913–1923, Princes Wharf was constructed and named after the Prince of Wales who visited Auckland in 1921 (1913–1923), and Captain Cook Wharf, named for Captain James Cook, was built in 1922.

Princes Wharf, 1928

Princes Wharf, 1928

The Western Reclamation and Western Wharf extension were completed in 1931.

With the Second World War in 1941, part of America’s Pacific fleet was based in Auckland. During 1943, more than 100 warships and 280 transporters called in to Auckland, highlighting the need for more storage facilities, reclamation and round-the-clock work hours to cope with demand.

Bledisloe Wharf was built between 1937 and 1948 and was originally designed for frozen export cargo. Jellicoe Wharf, originally built solely for imports, and Freyberg followed in 1952 and 1961 respectively.

The sea freight business began to change dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, from a labour-intensive operation towards one dominated by machines and new technology. The introduction of containerisation, and the revolution that followed, saw more and more cargo being shipped in containers.

The Columbus New Zealand was the first container ship to call at Fergusson Wharf, 1971

The Columbus New Zealand was the first container ship to call at Fergusson Wharf, 1971

The Fergusson container terminal was built as a specialist container operation in 1971 and Bledisloe Wharf (now Bledisloe container terminal) was also redeveloped to handle more containers. The first container ship, the Columbus New Zealand, called in to  Auckland's Fergusson container terminal on 23 June 1971. It was unloaded using ‘A Crane’, the first ship-to-shore container crane in New Zealand.

The structure of port management and administration changed again in 1988, with the Port Companies Act. In 1988, Ports of Auckland Limited was formed, purchasing the Auckland Harbour Board's land and assets for a mix of cash and equity amounting to approximately $250 million, and took over the operations of the commercial port. Shares in the company were listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange, with 80% being held by the Auckland Regional Authority and 20% being held by the Waikato Regional Council.

During its first years, the business made substantial changes to the organisation’s structure to increase productivity and efficiency.

More recently, investment in the Port’s capacity and capability has continued, as has the focus on improved productivity and efficiency. Highlights in the Port’s recent history include the addition of new container cranes in 2001and 2006, the addition of 3-over-1 straddle carriers to the container operations, and a great focus on rail and supply chain solutions to best serve its customers, Auckland and New Zealand as a whole.

In 2002,  the Company opened its first inland port in East Tamaki and, in 2005, opened another in Wiri, South Auckland.

Reclamation work has also continued, although on a much smaller scale than that by the Harbour Board, at the Port’s Fergusson container terminal. A $60-million project to deepen the shipping lane and extend the terminal by 9.5 hectares began in earnest in 2003. The dredged shipping lane was officially opened in August 2007 and Stage One, the first 5.8 hectares, of the Fergusson extension was completed shortly thereafter.

At the same time, the Auckland Port has also moved eastwards as operational requirements and new technology has allowed, enabling land in the west – more than 70 hectares since 1996 – to be released for alternative use. On 1 April 2007, the Company’s land holding at the Western Reclamation was officially transferred to its shareholder and the Wynyard Quarter redevelopment, overseen by Waterfront Auckland, is now under way.

After delisting from the New Zealand Stock Exchange in 2005, the Company is, today, wholly owned by Auckland Council Investments Limited, council-controlled investment company. Ports of Auckland’s profits, through dividends to our shareholder, are reinvested in the region to support stormwater and infrastructure projects.