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Like so many small Otago townships, Hyde has had its ups and downs, from gold rush town to loosing its hotel, shop, post office and school, and now thriving again in part thanks to the Otago Central Rail Trail and the energy of one woman.
A brief history of Hyde must begin with Maori from Otago’s east coast. Whether using the Hyde area as a staging post for travel further inland, for food gathering or as a refuge from disputes on the home front, they would have found plenty to eat in the form of moa, weka and the large fleshy taproot of the cabbage tree.
The land around Hyde was first taken up for grazing in the late 1850s. These tracts of land were large runs later to be known as Taieri Lake, Deep Dell and Highlay amongst others.
Gold was first found in 1862 at the Fillyburn and Mt Highlay area and caused a minor rush. The following year gold was also found at Hyde Gully and within a short time the “Eight Mile rush” was in full swing, eight miles being the distance to the Hamilton Diggings. A canvas town of up to 2000 people soon developed, including a canvas prison!
It is reported that Hyde in the 1890s had two blacksmiths, seven carriers, two forwarding agents, three carpenters, three saddlers, one shoemaker, one wheelwright and four stonemasons.
A number of different claims were mined well into the 1900s. Some miners, business operators and shepherds bought land when the large runs were split up; others settled in what became the Hyde township.
The first school was established in 1869 in the Union Church building which a pupil, J J Ramsay, later described as an “old tin shed, with no ventilation, unbearably hot in summer, and unspeakably cold in winter” (Otago Witness, 1906).
A new school was built in 1879 and served as a community focus until it closed in 1999 due to a falling roll. Students now attend Strath Taieri School in Middlemarch.
The Otago Central Railway reached Hyde in 1894. The railway station, stationmaster’s house and stockyards were built two km south of the township on a suitably flat area. A siding immediately to the south of the present Otago Central Hotel provided passengers with access to the township itself.
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand Otago & Southland 1904 states that “hares and rabbits abound on the surrounding hills.” Meant to embellish Hyde’s standing, this is hardly music to the ears of farmers today. However, at one time rabbits provided a livelihood for many people. Along with wool and stock, rabbit skins and carcasses were regular freight items in the earlier part of the 1900s.
Tragedy struck on 4 June 1943, when the Cromwell to Dunedin Express with 113 passengers on board failed to take a bend 4km south of Hyde. Twenty-one of the passengers were killed and 47 injured. It left the community scarred. A memorial was finally unveiled in 1987 on SH87, close to the place of the accident.
Today, mining in Hyde has not quite ceased. A renowned clay deposit just north of Hyde delivers high-quality pottery clay, and to the southeast a quarry produces schist rock used in landscaping and house building around the country. Hyde is also the home to Cooks Transport, a family-run business that has prospered since 1976.
In 1990 the Otago Central Railway line between Middlemarch and Clyde was closed having served as a vital link for Central’s farmers and fruit growers and as a passenger service for 100 years.
However, this set back turned to opportunity when the Department of Conservation in 1993 bought the rail corridor with the idea of establishing a recreational cycling track. With funding from the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust, the Otago Central Rail Trail was developed, bringing with it new business opportunities for the rural communities it traverses.
Ngaire Sutherland put Hyde on the map with her restoration of the old Otago Central Hotel, turning into a much-loved Rail Trail accommodation place and cafe. She also bought the old Hyde School and turned it into a convention centre.
Many farming families have taken the opportunity to diversify their farming operations to include Rail Trail accommodation. The impression of Hyde today is of a thriving township.
There is no doubt the calamitous railway disaster in 1943 when the passenger train AB352 derailed near Hyde had a huge impact on the community. Elizabeth Coleman's family was one of the families affected by the accident, which claimed the lives of 21 passengers and injuring dozens more. Elizabeth and her son-in-law Greg Mason have written about this accident. Their books are compelling.