The Dominion Post
Mystery of the Milton Kink
Michael Palin once called Milton ‘small and inconspicuous’. But it has one unusual point of interest, writes Keith Lynch.
About 2000 people live in the small Otago town of Milton, about 50 kilometres south of Dunedin. It emerged as a milling town in the 1850s and its rise was fuelled by the gold rush of the 1860s.
In 1997, Monty Python star and travel writer Michael Palin called Milton a ‘‘small, inconspicuous town’’. Yet, this small, inconspicuous town, the second largest in South Otago, has a wonderfully detailed Wikipedia page.
Its streets are named after British poets. Its most famous daughter is (arguably) Sam Hayes. It’s home to the Otago Corrections Facility, dubbed the ‘‘Milton Hilton’’.
The main thoroughfare, Union St, is rather long, about 2.2km, and – according to Te Ara – rivals Carterton in the North Island for a main street’s length relative to the town’s size.
There’s also this thing called the Milton Kink. According to the Wikipedia page, this is an ‘‘unusual planning anomaly’’, and its origins have long been disputed.
Essentially Union St, part of State Highway 1, runs straight through the town. But for some reason, at its Springfield Rd intersection, it shifts.
‘‘Heading north on the main street the road moves a whole roadwidth to the west,’’ is how the Wikipedia page defines it.
So why exactly does State Highway 1 suddenly veer in the middle of this small town?
We started by contacting the Clutha District Council. Ian McCabe, planning and regulatory group manager, says there are no formal records of what happened.
But he has heard of ‘‘what could potentially be described as an urban myth’’ that suggests there were two sets of surveyors: one laying out the road from the south, the other from the north.
The road meets at the location of the kink. But something went wrong.
The story goes that each set of surveyors used a ‘‘line’’ to guide their build. One group’s ‘‘line’’ was the edge of the road, the other’s was the centre of the road. So when the roads met, they did not align.
But . . .
There’s another theory. According to some, the road changed course to avoid a large tree that once grew in the middle of Milton.
Nancie Allison is part of the Tokomairiro Historical Society and insists this is a total fallacy.
She says two lombardy poplar trees once grew on the main street, prompting the notion that an old tree led to a rerouting.
We wanted to dig a little deeper and reached out to Archives New
Zealand for answers. Archivist Vivienne Cuff says the history of Union St ‘‘goes back to the original survey of the Tokomairiro District and the creation of the road in 1860’’.
She suggests the shift in the road is probably a surveying error. The government would have set down a main line for the road itself, but the on-site surveyors had knowledge of local features that may have prevented them from following that line, she says.
OK. But why couldn’t they follow it? Well, there were some complications at the time that may well have made things a little awkward for those town planners.
Nearby Fairfax, now called Tokoiti, was meant to be the site of the township. But Milton spread.
The Tokomairiro Plain is floodprone. At the time it was basically a swamp and there would have been problems with drainage. A railway line was built in 1870, which would have created further obstacles.
So, no definitive answers. There was the option to ask Archives New Zealand to do further research. But that possibility was tempered when Cuff said ‘‘there is probably enough work for a masters in history’’.
The whole truth (well, kind of)
On to Land Information NZ (Linz), who were happy to help.
Firstly it turns out that the northern end of the road is ‘‘offset by 60 links (12.07 metres) west of the southern end’’. A link is an old surveying unit of measurement. According to Linz, the east side of the northern end of the road does not align with the west side of the southern end.
‘‘Neither does the centreline of the northern end align with the western side of the southern end,’’ Anselm Haanen, surveyor-general for Linz, explains.
That pretty much throws cold water on an earlier theory about the edge of the road. Haanen also notes the roads parallel to the main road on either side ‘‘are also offset where they cross Springfield Rd and Cross St, although by different amounts’’.
The Linz team did find very old planning documents based on 1847 survey work. These plans sought to identify and set out blocks of land in the area before the town of Milton even existed. These plans also show the kink in the road.
The plans were based on work by a surveyor called James Drake, who arrived in New Zealand in 1841. In 1844, the New Zealand Company purchased what was then called the Otago Block from Nga¯ i Tahu for £2400. The purchase essentially opened up the door to European settlement of the region.
Drake’s map shows the boundaries of roads and parcels of land subdivided for settlement.
Linz is uncertain if these plans were drafted by Drake himself, and when exactly they were created. What is clear, though, is that the boundaries on the plans were from Drake’s survey work, as the document has a note to this effect.
The parcels shown on the plans in the vicinity of the kink were likely sold by the Crown to settlers in the 1850s and later subdivided by settlers to form Milton, starting around 1862.
Throughout this process, the roads remained where they were.
So does this mean Drake mapped out the kink, and it was later followed by those who built the road? This appears to be correct, Linz says. But just why remains unclear.
So, are there any answers?
‘‘We don’t know for certain, but put yourself in the surveyor’s shoes in those days,’’ Haanen says.
In 1847, that land was essentially bare, and Drake mapped out these blocks without any of the modern technology available today.
Haanen suggests he would have surveyed the land on foot, roughly marking out blocks. This was imprecise and taxing work.
‘‘It was less accurate in those days and there would have been inconsistencies. It [the kink] was probably just the way it was laid out at the time.
‘‘They would never have expected a state highway to be running through the town.’’