Spectrum 157. It could never happen here

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Spectrum was a long-running weekly radio documentary series which captured the essence of New Zealand from 1972 to 2016. Alwyn Owen and Jack Perkins produced the series for many years, creating a valuable library of New Zealand oral history.

In this episode, Jack Perkins visits Cromwell to look at the human consequences of the Clutha Valley hydro development scheme. He visits some of the more historic parts of the Cromwell township which will be submerged when the Clyde Dam is completed and Lake Dunstan is created, flooding the valley to 640 feet above sea level.

Perkins provides a brief history of Cromwell. Two local businessmen, Leo Mangos and Ron Usher drive through the town with him and identify some of the early buildings including the Hotel Cromwell, the old Bank of New Zealand, Jolly's store, Golden Age Hotel and London House from the1860s. They drive out of town to the 640 foot water level mark posted under the DG7 scheme.

Perkins interviews 92 year old Mrs Bella McElligott, affectionately known as “Aunty Bella” who’s lived just outside Cromwell all her life. She recalls the 1880s; the era of gold miners, the old smithy and sly grog shops. However, she is not opposed to the hydro scheme as she appreciates the benefits of electricity.

The power project, the building of six dams and flooding of 3,500 acres, will take twenty years to complete. The town will need to be relocated to higher land. The project has been hanging over Cromwell since the mid-1960s.

Mangos and Usher describe the decline in maintenance of the commercial buildings since the project started gaining momentum in the 1960s, with absentee landlords reluctant to do much work. The building of the new town will eventually increase the population by six times.

Despite their concerns or regrets at the impending changes to their town, local residents Mrs Barbara O’Kane and Bob Allen remain philosophical, accepting that development is inevitable.

By contrast the orchardists and farmers living upstream in Lowburn and Luggate are much more upset about the dam developments, as their much valued land and community buildings will be submerged by the lake.

Perkins speaks with Keith Lake whose farm will survive, losing only winter pasture. He explains the angry reaction of the Lowburn community at the announcement of the 640 foot watermark, which will see the loss of their hotel and community hall.

Bob Allen, a strong supporter of the Lowburn cause, describes the beauty of the area in spring; peach blossom, nectarines, plums and cut grass. He tells how every tree, the church, all the homes and the hotel will disappear under 20-30 feet of water.

Ashley King, wife of an orchardist explains how hard it’s been for their family to comprehend “Scheme-H”. Although the orchard is not financially rewarding, the investment was for the long term, for their children and now they are at a loss as to what to do. For King, Central Otago has always been home and she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

One of many residents who’s been campaigning, King’s not against the development but opposes the higher 640 feet mark under ‘Scheme-H’. The government however has refused to make any more, of what they consider to be further, more expensive concessions.

As Perkins approaches Mrs Peg Stena she calls her husband over, thinking he might be a government compensation officer. Steyne Stena explains he came here after the war, when rabbits were rife and they’ve lived in their Ministry of Works ‘lean to’ for over thirty years.

They feel sorry for the young people who will miss out on what their families have been building and investing for them. From their experience compensation programmes have never been generous and state some things just can’t be compensated for.

The new township will feature a swimming pool, tennis courts and offer new work opportunities. A teen says although she has enjoyed sports activities like skiing, boating and fishing in Queenstown and Wanaka, currently there is nothing for her age group to do in Cromwell and teens are bored.

King suggests that local residents held the view 'it could never happen here' for so long, that they missed their chance to have a real say on how the development was planned. Mrs Stena shares her sadness at the pending loss of the river itself, from which she draws a lot of joy and peace.

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Year 1975

Reference number 33204

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Credits Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Producer
JUDD, Mike, Studio engineer
McElligott, Bella, 1883-1986, Interviewee
MANGOS, Leo, Interviewee

Duration 00:28:05

Date 1975