Arrowtown is the historical heart of the Queenstown Lakes District. Nestled out of the prevailing winds beside the swiftly flowing Arrow River, it is one of the most photographed towns in New Zealand. With its preserved buildings, avenues of deciduous trees, walking and biking trails, it truly is a town that combines history with nature.
The Arrow Basin was formed when the great glaciers carved out the Wakatipu Basin.
Local Maori passed through the area on seasonal food gathering trips, to hunt native birds, and to extract pounamu (greenstone). Waitaha, the first tribe, were later joined by Kati Mamoe who were driven south after fighting with Kai Tahu. By the 1700s the three tribes were locked together by marriages and peace alliances.
William Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann were the first Europeans to establish farms in the area. Rees’ cadet, Alfred Duncan, provides us with one of the first descriptions of the Arrow River ‘flowing like silver threads through the blackened [matagouri] scrubclothed plains.’
It was not the silver look of the river but the gold it contained that caused Arrowtown to evolve. Jack Tewa, a shearer for Rees, was the first to discover gold around May 1861. He was followed by either William (Bill) Fox or the team of Thomas Low and John MacGregor, late in 1862. Being a forceful character, Fox took credit for the discovery and for a while the town was called Fox’s.
Although there were attempts to keep the discovery secret, Fox was followed when he left his hidden gorge to source supplies. The ‘rush was on. There were 1,500 miners camped on the banks of the Arrow River by the end of 1862. The first gold escort carried12,000 ounces (340 kg) of gold from the area in January 1863.
The Arrow gold rush was short lived. The strike on the nearby Shotover River lured some, as the Arrow gold eventually became harder to extract. The opening up of the West Coast goldfields in 1865 saw European miners heading for the riches there. This impacted on the Otago economy and in an attempt to stimulate it, the Otago Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come to the Otago goldfields. The Chinese created a separate settlement in Arrowtown, remaining there until 1928. In 1984 the Chinese
settlement was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Otago. Chinese huts and a storehouse were restored and recreated and this is now one of Arrowtown’s most popular attractions.
After the initial gold rush, a more permanent town began to be established. The avenues of trees were planted in 1867 in an attempt to make Arrowtown look more like the European towns the settlers had left behind. Churches, banks, masonic lodges and shops were built in the early 1870s. Arrowtown became a service town for the quartz crushing town of Macetown and for the surrounding farms.
Fire was always a constant threat. A large fire in December 1896 resulted in the destruction of the Morning Star Hotel, Campbell’s Bakery, and the top storey of Pritchard’s Store. The store was rebuilt whilst the site of the Morning Star Hotel was left empty and is now known as Buckingham Green.
After the Macetown mines closed down, Arrowtown went into a period of stagnation. The population dropped to 120 in the 1940s. In the 1950s a renaissance began as New Zealanders started buying sections to build holiday houses on. These houses were known as ‘cribs’ and were mainly used in the summer. With the opening up of
Coronet Peak ski field in 1947 some were used year round. Many of the original miner’s cottages were also saved and restored. Tourism really started to take off in the 1970s as people visited to enjoy the town’s history. The council of the day were enlightened by drafting historic zones within the town and rules to protect buildings and trees. This protection has continued and has ensured the town’s amenity values have been preserved. The row of miner’s cottages in Buckingham Street is one of New Zealand’s most photographed street scenes.
In spite of fires, decay and more recently, development pressure, Arrowtown has retained around 70 buildings, monuments and features dating back to the gold rush era. The charm of Arrowtown’s past continues to be its major drawcard but it is not a town stuck in the past.
By the turn of the 21st century Arrowtown had become a popular visitor destination and one of the fastest growing towns in New Zealand. This continues today with over 20 cafes and restaurants, excellent shopping and accommodation, extensive walking and cycling trails, the district’s museum, the Chinese Settlement and three golf courses on its boundary. Throughout the year Arrowtown hosts festivals and many sports and cultural events which are extremely popular. To the permanent population of 2500 it is a working town based around a strong and close knit community. The locals share their piece of paradise openly with around 600,000 visitors annually.
Arrowtown is a town for all seasons. It has hot dry summers, stunning autumns, when the tree colours are the best in New Zealand, cold clear winters with snow lying in the town at least a couple of times a year. and green verdant springs which see the avenues of trees spring back into life. The town has several ski fields nearby and is very close to the wine growing area of Gibbston Valley. Visit Arrowtown soon.