The Zig Zag – Sumner Road

As James Edward Fitzgerald sat in his over-sized dogcart while it was being transported across the Heathcote River by punt – he was feeling quite exhausted with Christchurch. He was fast approaching the end of his term as Superintendant and his health and temper would improve much due to that very fact.

Beside and behind him were four of his dearest friends and colleagues, their unfailing trust and admiration in him had helped him in many of the lowest parts of his political career. And now, they would support him again this last time as he faced what was considered a death defying drive – even to the point that one of them updated his own will the previous day – up Evans Pass Road and down the ‘Zig-Zag’ of Sumner Road to a waiting crowd at Lyttelton. It was 24th August 1857 and the opening of Sumner Road.

James knew full well that among his well-wishers there were those who wished to see him fail. The fight for this day had been a tiresome battle and finally the end was at hand…which hopefully would not be him sliding off Sumner Road, horses and all.

The construction of Sumner Road had begun in 1849 under the instruction of Canterbury Association’s Chief Surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas. When John Robert Godley arrived in April 1850, he halted the work as it was already causing the settlement to slip into debt. Where the road was stopped became known as Sticking Point or Windy Rock.

It began with the idea of being the main passage to Sumner and the city of Christchurch – the rough horse track that would become known as the ‘Bridle Path’ was quickly improved for pedestrian use.
This would be the only way to Christchurch (except by sea which was very expensive) for the next six years. Finally, after many an argument between the founding fathers, the road had been completed.

Now James Edward Fitzgerald sat, reigns in hand, about to close the chapter of the Sumner Road project which he had supported whole heartedly. Great public fear had risen over the new treacherous road so James himself offered to drive it – officially opening the road and putting people concerns to rest.

With a quick glance up the Evans Pass and a crack of the whip, his two horses – harnessed in tandem – sprang to life. A second wagon full with a musical band (the first version of a car stereo with sub-woofers maybe) and many individual horsemen followed this historical trip.

It was 10.30am.

The dog-cart that James’ was driving had earned the nickname of the ‘Circulating Medium’ which boasted of 6 foot high wheels that made no effort in crossing the ditches and ruts that were Canterbury’s roads at that time. As the wheels were painted scarlet, the boldness of this ride up the dusty Port Hills was proudly further stated by them.

“…the dog-cart stood on top of Evans Pass, and the harbour of Lyttelton lay below; so far well. Beneath the pass the road led away in a series of zig-zags, not by any means inviting, and down this dog-cart went, Mr Fitzgerald still driving; but the passengers evidently thought that discretion was the better part of valour, and preferred walking on foot of the zig-zag.” – unnamed witness

As James drove on alone in this historical feat, this was not his first adventure on this road. One of his first roles in Christchurch in 1850 had been as sub-inspector of the police. He was known to walk the streets of Lyttelton as a cop would walk his beat. One day, while in the company of his younger brother Gerald, the two walked the incomplete Sumner Road. They came across an escaped convict of Lyttelton Gaol and all three gave each other a fright. Everyone froze.
Gerald finally broke the silence by saying that James should arrest the man. James replied that it was not his job to attain anyone and an argument erupted between the brothers. Seizing the opportunity, the convict snuck away, leaving the pair to their heated conservation.

“Towards Lyttelton the procession moved on steadily. All fear, all thought of danger gone, and into Lyttelton at 2 o’clock, the appointed time, it moved, not only without accident, but almost without a single unusual precaution against accident. There was a triumphal arch of banners suspended across the spot where the Sumner Road empties into the town of Lyttelton, and, passes under this, amid the cheers of a large crowd, the vehicle which had done the deed full of passengers, and His Honor still driving…” Crosbie Ward – Lyttelton Times

James Edward Fitzgerald was never as popular as he was that day and he would never be that popular again. As he stood amongst the cheers and toasts, his thoughts may have strayed to all that had to be done before he and his young family boarded the ship back to England.

His parting gift was designed by Benjamin Mountfort – fellow passenger of the ‘Charlotte Jane’ and architect who would go to design the Canterbury Museum, Arts Centre to name just a few – and his partner Isaac Luck. A marquetry table made of 1500 pieces of 17 different types of New Zealand wood.

“The top of this table is octagonal and about thirty inches in diameter, having a chess board in the middle, slightly elevated…On one side the FitzGerald arms, and on the other side the Canterbury arms are inlaid in shell. The board lifts off and discovers a backgammon board, and beneath a compartment to hold the pieces.”

England would not keep the Fitzgerald’s long as James was back in the Provincial Council Chambers a few years later, taking the role has the harsh critic of William Sefton Moorhouse – his replacement as Superintendant – and his Railway Tunnel project. You would think that after surviving the opposition he faced with the Sumner Road project, James would have related to William Sefton Moorhouse and his push for progress a little better. Apparently not.

*image courtesy of Nathan W’s*

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