Beaumont is a small town nestled in the foothills of Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand. Located in a fertile valley beside the Clutha River, Beaumont is the gateway to Central Otago, and is 106 kms from the city of Dunedin. The town is on the Beaumont Flat, between the Beaumont Gorge (upriver) and the Rongahere Gorge (downriver).
The Beaumont community has lived with the threat of hydro-electric inundation for decades. In the mid-1990s a petition against a proposed hydro-electric dam that would flood Beaumont was signed by 26,000 people, and the project was finally "shelved."
In 1996, Contact Energy inherited these controversial plans and numerous properties in the area that their predecessor, Electrocorp, had bought up. The land in question consists of 4,400 hectares, including two commercial properties, 15 residential sections, nine farms, 15 lifestyle blocks and 43 "small properties". These properties are situated between Millers Flat and Tuapeka Mouth, including properties in the township of Beaumont. Contact Energy has refused to sell back this land, effectively stifling local investment. Some would describe this as a tactic to weaken opposition to proposed dams, in an area starved of economic development.
The proposed dam near the Tuapeka Mouth would inundate the Rongahere Gorge, Beaumont Flat, and the Beaumont Gorge, drowning a total of 3,400 hectares of land. The reservoir would be 50 metres deep and extend some 50kms up the valley to Miller's Flat. It would be approximately a third larger than the Dunstan Reservoir.
The settlement of Beaumont was originally named Dunkeld by the surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, but the nearby Beaumont Burn was more familiar to residents of the area who continued to go to “the Beaumont” or the “Beaumont Ferry.” The location afforded a natural river crossing and the first ferry punt was established in the early 1860’s, to serve the influx of gold-miners during the Otago gold-rush. The settlement expanded to meet the needs of the miners.
The first bridge across the Clutha at Beaumont was opened in 1875, and around the same time the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel and a store was completed nearby. A high toll was charged for crossing the bridge, so the ferry continued to operate successfully in opposition. The great flood of 1878, however, promptly wrecked most punts and bridges on the entire Clutha River. Debris from the Roxburgh and Miller’s Flat bridges took out the Beaumont bridge, all of which later took out the Balclutha bridge. The ferry was re-instated and remained the only means of crossing at Beaumont for nearly a decade. The present bridge was opened in 1887.
From 1863 to 1939 steamboats plied the Clutha River between Balclutha and Beaumont, which was at the head of navigation for trading vessels and a staging post for freight and travellers heading inland. The wreck of the steamboat Matau, which operated between 1882 and 1901, is still in the river near the Clydevale Station below the Tuapeka Punt.
The town’s location at the beginning of the Beaumont Gorge meant that it boomed during construction of the Beaumont to Miller’s Flat Railway which opened in 1925.
The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel was replaced in 1897 by an impressive two-storey hotel, and this in turn was replaced by the present Beaumont Hotel in the 1930’s. Located beside State Highway 8 near the historic Beaumont Bridge, the hotel has always been the social centre of the community, and a favourite meeting place for travellers. Today, river users, such as school groups partaking in kayak training on the nearby Clutha River, regularly stay at the hotel's camp-ground, which also serves as a caravan park for holiday-makers.
Opened on March 3rd, 1887, the Beaumont Bridge was the first '4 iron' bridge to be completed in New Zealand. It has three 35m and two 17.8m wrought iron trusses supported on concrete piers. It was constructed by John Anderson of Christchurch, and it is the longest and first single span structure of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It has recently been closed for maintenance, which has been lacking for many years. Authorities have been reluctant to allocate funds for bridge maintenance or replacement because of the lingering threat of inundation.
Beaumont above Rongahere Gorge
If the massive Tuapeka dam was built at Tuapeka Mouth, the reservoir would consume the Rongahere Gorge, Beaumont Flat, and the Beaumont Gorge, extending some 50-60kms up to Miller's Flat. The reservoir would be 50 metres above the existing river level at the dam site and some 30 metres above the town of Beaumont, where about fifty homes, the Beaumont Hotel, the community hall, the cemetery, and many fertile farms would be lost. Hundreds of people would be displaced.
In total, the reservoir would inundate 3,400 hectares of land, destroying around 180 farms. Some of the region's most fertile land would be lost, including 200 hectares of prime grazing in the Beaumont Flat, approximately 250 hectares of forestry and 800 hectares of native beech forest in the Rongahere Gorge, and some 70 hectares of orchards at Miller's Flat and Beaumont.
Nine kilometres of State Highway 8 would be submerged, as would the roads along the Clutha River in the Rongahere and Beaumont Gorges. State Highway 8, the Rongahere Road, and the Beaumont Gorge road / trail, would need to be re-routed. The Benger Bridge would need to be replaced, and a new 2.2km causeway would be needed across the reservoir at Beaumont in 30m of water, where three earthquake faultlines meet. Contact Energy describes this monumental engineering task simply as the "construction of a new bridge for State Highway 8 to cross the reservoir at Beaumont".