Masterton is one of the oldest inland towns in New Zealand. It has no natural lake nearby and for many years its citizens and politicians looked for ways to create some ‘ornamental waters’. A water supply dam on Lansdowne Hill, behind the Hansells factory, was a popular site from the 1890s until 1924 when it was destroyed in a flood.
The Masterton Park lake was formed in the early 1900s, on land recently added to the park. This land was used to create some ‘ornamental waters’. A horse-drawn scoop was used to remove the stony soil from the bed of what was to become the lake, then clay was added to ensure that the bottom of the lake was “puddled” in. A line was taken from the Waipoua River (which then ran a lot closer to the park than it does today) and Masterton’s first ornamental lake was created.
In the 1930s a group of local people led by Henry Major, farmer Jack Bennett and Wairarapa College teacher Harry Glen formed a Geological Society, to study local natural history. On one of their trips they studied some of the waste lands on the northern banks of the Ruamahanga River, and came to the conclusion that this land would be suitable for a fresh water lake. It then housed a small dairy farm and a sewage disposal system for Lansdowne.
In 1966 Henry Major revisited his dream of creating a fresh water lake for Masterton. He convinced a number of his fellow citizens of the worthiness of the plan, and formed the Henley Trust with Eric Hodder, Jim Long, Don Spiers, Jack Mackley, Bob Dunderdale, and John Maunsell.
The name itself probably gives some indication of the motivation of those involved. They were very keen to create a lake of at least 100 acres, large enough to hold rowing regattas, and for small yachts to use.
The basic concept was very simple. The trustees intended to mine the gravel found just underneath the surface of the soil and to use the royalties derived to fund the further development of their lake.
In 1972 the Masterton Borough Council decided the scheme was to be part of the town’s facilities, and gave its backing. The Masterton County Council also gave their support for the scheme, as did the relevant government authorities. The first plans for the future lake were also drawn at this time and show a large lake filling almost all the site now occupied by the lake and the wetlands.
During the 1970s and 1980s the gravel was mined from the site and large empty pockets created. In 1982 the Masterton Licensing Trust announced they supported the plans for the development, giving it their “Major project” status. The Henley Trust was keen to make the most of the opportunity they were offered, and engaged Wellington landscape consultants Boffa Jackman and Associates to develop a concept plan The plan called for a ‘Fantasyland’ style development, complete with miniature trains, paddle steamers, and was met with community opposition. Many people thought that the idea was grandiose and a more passive style of facility was called for. In the end the plans were modified.
Even before the Boffa plan, the 100 acre lake was stymied. The Wairarapa Catchment Board had strong reservations about the sustainability of a large lake and a smaller version, of about 30 acres, was created.
In 1985 local engineer George Evans drew the final plans for the lake and a contract was let for the construction. In 1987 a tree lover’s appeal was started and over 3000 trees were planted around the lake. In 1988 the waters were opened and the lake was filled for the first time. As an added attraction over 1500 rainbow trout were officially placed into the lake. They were soon joined by a flood of unofficially released perch.
Masterton architect Neil Inkster joined the trust in the late 1980s. His input was substantial, and he designed many of the lake features.
In 1992 the administration of the lake was handed over to the Masterton District Council. Since then a number of groups have been involved in various projects around the lake and the wilderness areas.