The small town of Ōkārito was established in October 1865 during the West Coast gold rush. Now home to around 30 permanent residents, at its peak the population of Ōkārito reached 4000.
Several West Coast settlements were established at this time as thousands of people flocked to the region in the hopes of 'striking it rich'.
The town boasted 25 hotels, 3 theatres, 2 banks, and several general stores. However, the gold rush declined rapidly and so did the population. Take the time to explore and imagine what it was like in days gone by.
Ōkārito remained the main service town for South Westland for many years, until the inland road through Harihari and Whataroa meant that a port was no longer required.
In the spring of 1865 miners flocked to Ōkārito in search of gold. Prospectors had been to this region before, searching the rivers, but now the previous metal had been discovered in the black sand beaches and the rush was on.
By Christmas 1865, Ōkārito was a township of 800 people. Three months later, the population was 1500. The town supported one of the busiest ports on the West Coast, boasted 33 stores, considerably more pubs and it contemplated building a University. Another 2500 people sought their fortunes just south, at Three Mile and Five Mile beaches, both of which had their own stores and hotels.
Eighteen months later Okarito and the Three and Five Mile Towns were virtually deserted. By the end of 1867, the miners had worked out the black sandss. Those who stayed moved back from the beaches and built massive waters races to aid sluicing and later to run dredges.
Little remains now. If you take the track to Three Mile Lagoon or the beach to Five Mile, you may see some relics of the gold days – reminders of the human industry once here.
Today Donovan’s Store is the oldest known building on the West Coast. With its colourful history, it has become an icon in Ōkārito as one of the last remaining buildings of the old town.
It is a rare survivor of a type and style of building which was once common in gold rush towns and is of national significance.
Donovan’s Store was built during the first months of the gold rush, originally as the “Club Hotel”.
In the 1890’s the building was converted to a general store and run by James and Eva Donovan for around 60 years. James Donovan was a local identity on the Coast, known for his involvement in local government.
In the 1950s the Robertson’s took over ownership of the store and it remained open until the 1980s. In 1987 they bequeathed the property to the Crown, and DOC took over the management of the building.
DOC began restoring the building in 1994 and has worked closely with the Ōkārito Community Association on this project.
The aim is to restore the building’s unique construction once common to the goldfields, and create a building that is the social hub for the village.
The Ōkārito Community Association has donated funds and works with DOC to look after this category 1 historic building.
The end vision has always been to provide a focal point for the community. Although restoration is not complete Donovan’s is now regularly used by the community for events, a location for a library and a place for travelling musicians and artists to perform. It is predicted that this facility will eventually attract more than 40,000 visitors per year.