Earthquakes are a hot topic in Wellington these days. There have been quite a few rattles and shakes over the past few months, reminding us of the city’s volatile setting beside the Cook Strait faults. What is less known is that much of downtown Wellington only rose up from the seabed in 1855 following New Zealand’s biggest earthquake in modern times.
It happened like this. In 1855 Wellington had only been settled for 15 years and was a relatively young, but busy, town. It was the end of a holiday weekend celebrating this milestone and most people were at home relaxing. The 8.2 earthquake was massive, heaving the whole region like a quilt being shaken. Buildings and chimneys fell and big fissures opened in the land. The initial shake lasted 50 seconds and was followed by a significant tsunami. There were another 250 quakes recorded in the following 11 hours. They were to diminish in size but continued for months afterwards. Surrounding hills rose up to six metres in height while other areas dropped several metres.
The Hutt Valley rose up through its swampy base and is now the site of the bustling Hutt City. Land around the base of the cliffs at the head of Wellington Harbour rose several metres providing better road and rail access to the Hutt Valley, previously only reachable by rough road or boat. You can drive this motorway between Wellington and the Hutt Valley using your Wellington Airport Car Rental. But the biggest change was in central Wellington where the waterfront rose several metres, creating the large flat area where, along with some reclamation, central Wellington was subsequently built on. This explains why Lambton Quay is actually several hundred metres inland and the Basin Reserve, once tagged as a mooring basin for local shipping, is now the city’s beloved Basin Reserve cricket grounds.
It also explains the plaques you will find on the pavements around central Wellington showing where the ‘waterfront’ once was. They are often several blocks from the sea. Under the Old Bank Arcade the remains of the ship, ‘Inconstant’, have been preserved in the mud for 160 years and were found during the excavation of the foundations for the building. They are now preserved under glass and can be seen from the basement of the building on the corner of Lambton Quay and Willis Street. The ship was moored along Lambton Quay when the earthquake struck.