Cass History - Field Facilities Centre - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Front cover of
History and
Science in the Cass

History of the Cass Field Station

The history of the Cass Field Station is described in the publication:

CASS: History and Science in the Cass District, Canterbury, New Zealand. 1977.
Editor: C.J.Burrows
Published by the Department of Botany, University of Canterbury.


The first chapter of the book is included here with the kind permission of the editor Dr C.J.Burrows.


Chapter 1. History of the Cass Field Station. E. Percival & C.J. Burrows

Biological research and teaching at the University of Canterbury (formerly Canterbury College) and Lincoln College have been closely linked with the Cass Field Station (formerly Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station) since its foundation. Cass has also long been a centre for research and teaching in other natural sciences. All who have worked there, have come to love the place, owe a great deal to the foresight of its founders and to the wisdom of earlier teachers, especially Chilton, Foweraker, Percival and Philipson. Teaching and learning in the natural sciences has always flourished where field and laboratory observations could be closely combined. We are fortunate that such rich and interesting flora and fauna have been so easily available at Cass.

The Cass Field Station 1936
Untitled [Mountain Biological Station, Cass],1936.
By Rita Angus (Rita Cooke). University of Canterbury Art Collection.

A most important part of the work carried out there is the training of students in the use of various techniques in field situations. Not least of the advantages of extended field excursions are the benefits, to students and teachers alike, of the social relations resulting from day-to-day work and after work activities and this may be one of the most important functions which the Cass field courses have performed.

Great credit must accrue to Leonard Cockayne, one of the first ecologists in the world, whose botanical work in the Waimakariri basin, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led him to recognize the value of the area as a natural laboratory. He extolled to Charles Chilton and Robert Speight the desirability of establishing a field station. They, in turn, persuaded the University authorities, and the first buildings were erected in 1914. The long and fruitful history of the Station is best exemplified by the list of theses and publications at the end of this volume. Natural history studies in the area began in the earliest days of European settlement, however, because Taylor White of Mt White and John Enys of Castle Hill were keen observers and accomplished field naturalists, and Enys, in particular, had contact with most of the eminent resident and visiting biologists in New Zealand.

The Early History

This account of the early history of the Field Station is from the late professor Percival's notes for The Flora of Cass (Philipson & Brownlie 1958).

"Arising from his survey of the montane grasslands and his interest in the other vegetation in the high country of Canterbury, Dr. Leonard Cockayne, F.R.S., urged Dr. Charles Chilton, Professor of Biology at Canterbury College, to recommend the establishment of a high country station from which a continued study of the various aspects of the flora could proceed. The result of this was that Dr. Chilton reported to the Chairman of the Board of Governors about a discussion between him, Dr. Cockayne, and Mr R. Speight, Lecturer in Charge of Geology, leading to the proposal of a site at the Broken River, near the then railway construction camp. At that time, the railway ended at the Broken River and passengers went to and fro by coach between there and Otira.

It was proposed to have a hut with one sleeping-room, since mixed parties were considered out of the question, week-end visits alone being contemplated. The intentions being otherwise very modest, it was hoped to establish an alpine garden and to make collections in the vicinity.
In September, 1909, sixteen months after the first formal proposal, Chilton urged the building of the hut ready for the next summer and was making arrangements for students to be allowed to alight at the Broken River. However, by the following February, Speight recommended the removal of the site to Cass, towards which the railway was now pushing. In December, 1910, the construction camp was formally established at Cass, and a new region was open to the botanists. Broken River became a memory and the new region caught all attention. The Governors immediately agreed to the proposed change and asked for details of the proposed building.

Next month, in March, 1910, a sub-committee of the Board of Governors consisting of Mr. Opie, a member of the Board of Governors, Professor Chilton, Mr. Speight, and Mr. Mason, Registrar, visited the Craigieburn and Grasmere runs to select a site - They picked a triangular area with two patches of bush (now known as Reservoir and Middle), a rocky knoll, hillside slopes, a creek, a swamp, a shingle fan, and flat-land. They recommended this area to be reserved for an alpine station with a building opposite to the railway station. It was proposed also that 10 acres be reserved adjacent to Lake Sarah. At the April meeting of the Board, it was resolved to provide £200 for a building on the site chosen by the sub-committee, Chilton and Speight to prepare and to submit a plan. Next month, a plan was submitted. There should be a living room of 14 ft x 12 ft, bunk-rooms 14 ft x 10 ft (eight bunks), and 10 ft x 6 ft (2 bunks), and laboratory 14 ft x 10 ft. Mr. Collins, the architect, estimated £175 for the building and £20 for mattresses, besides the cost of transport. By March, 1914, the building was up, through the agency of the Public Works Department. Chilton stayed there that month. Evidently, the laboratory had fallen by the way, as the building consisted only of two bunk-rooms and a living-room. Two fire- places had been proposed and one only was built, in the living-room (Fig. 1-4).

Fig 1-4 The Original Cass Mountain Biological Station, 1915.
Charles Foweraker

In July of 1914, the railway station was transferred from Cass to the Bealey Flat, later to Arthur's Pass, and Cass became a flag station, which it still is, and the problem of providing custody of the keys of the building arose. Until about 1928, the keys passed through many hands as railwaymen and their wives came and went in the course of their work. Then they went into the hands of Mrs. Robertshaw, the postmistress, who held them (till her retirement in 1958). From then on, Chilton used to inform the Board of Governors of each excursion made to Cass, for whatever purpose, and he received a formal commendatory letter in reply.

With the building of the house, it became necessary to decide on the kind of work that should be done, but first of all, on July 29, 1914, the. place was formally named "Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station, Cass". Rules were drawn up for its use, among which was a total prohibition on disturbance of the vegetation immediately surrounding the house.

In November, 1914, Chilton reported on the first excursion of a party of 6 students for a weekend's field work. He was never tired of telling the Governors about the benefits to be gained by the students who visited the station, no doubt feeling a secret need to justify the expense. On the occasion of this November visit, he was impressed by the fire risk, as there had been a tussock fire extending close to the house, which fortunately has high concrete foundations. At this time, the refreshment room was shifted from the Cass Station, a matter which caused consideration of means of cooking in the house; a kerosene stove was needed, as well as cooking and feeding utensils. These were got.

By April, 1915, there had been three student excursions and the first honours student to use the place, C.E. Foweraker, later Senior Lecturer in Botany and Lecturer in Charge of the School of Forestry, was up collecting and observing for his thesis.

Chilton had written an account of the place for publication in the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute, the first of a series of "Notes from the Canterbury College Mountain Biological Station, Cass" by various authors. He urged the Board to establish a botanical reserve, and proposed to set up a station to observe the effects of tussock burning. He also started planting native trees for shelter, a modification of his intention not to disturb the immediately adjacent vegetation. No trace of the planting has been found; probably he soon saw that transplanting the local beech was not a simple matter. An approach was made to the Board for a reserve to be fenced, but without success.

In mid 1915, Chilton took two groups of four women students, one from Saturday to Tuesday and one from Tuesday to Saturday. These were days when two trains ran through each way, three times a week, and this made short excursions of these lengths most convenient.

Until the end of the first World War, little happened, except that signs appeared that more could be made of the place than by week-end teaching. In July, 1917, Mrs. Jennings went up to look at the flax ( Phormium tenax ) as she was working on flax as a potential trade article. Turning over the records we meet then, Dr. F.W. Hilgendorf, of the Canterbury Agricultural College, who was there to install a rain gauge and who set up small fenced plots on the fan to see what happens by keeping sheep off the grass. He also started an insect collection which was finally reported on as a "Cass Note".

In January, 1918, Chilton urged on the Board Hilgendorf's scheme to enclose two blocks of land of 10 acres each, for observation on growth free from sheep and fire. That year, also, Cockayne, H.H. Allan, and Wright, Cockayne's assistant, on a survey of montane grasslands for the Agriculture Department, went with Chilton to Cass and Cockayne proposed to establish a garden for experimental grass-growing. Enclosure was to cost £100 and Chilton applied to the Board for a grant of money for the purpose. The Board refused a grant and asked if a smaller area would do, to which Chilton answered, 'No'. The Board was apparently waiting to see what the Agriculture Department would do about Cockayne's scheme and was evidently aiming to pass on the spending of money while giving its blessing. In the end, the Board deferred the fencing project on the ground that, for the present, it was too costly.

In 1919, a combined excursion of Chilton's botany students and Hilgendorf's agricultural students was made to Cass to the benefit of all concerned. Chilton was impressed by the useful exchange of information between the two groups. Late that year, unseasonable burning destroyed Hilgendorf's plots and Chilton complained again to the Board about the careless burning by the tenants. The Board promised to do something. The living accommodation was by this time becoming a little congested, and Chilton asked for an extension. Nothing came of it.

At New Year, 1920, Dr. R.J. Tillyard, entomologist, visited the place while collecting material for the purpose of his theory of the Panorpoid Complex of Insects. He described, as a Cass Note, a new species of the large, archaic dragon-fly, Uropetala chiltoni which has more recently been merged in the species, U. oarovei . Again, at this time, Chilton asked the Board to define the botanical reserve, but without success, and the matter fell into abeyance.

Two further attempts were made to impress the Board with the potentialities of the Cass Station, one by Cockayne, in 1927, in a formal letter to Chilton describing the occurrence of polymorphic hybrids and their value to evolutionary theory, and the other from Dr. J.P. Lotsy, a Dutch geneticist, in 1926, also emphasizing the importance of hybrid material there and its use in evolutionary studies. A letter, also, from Dr. G.E. Du Rietz, a Swedish student of lichens, reinforced the view that the Cass Station was potentially a valuable tool in botanical research. However, Chilton retired without being able to bring about any further development of the place. Up to the middle of 1927, there had been, according to records, 18 student classes at Cass and four visits by other scientific groups. A student class would have been rarely more than four people besides the leader and an assistant.

1929 and Onwards

We have seen that Chilton aimed at using the Cass Cottage for small parties and for short periods, and had failed to convince the Board of Governors that much more could be made of the place. He tried to keep the area enclosed by the fence in its primitive condition, while hoping to grow a few active trees in it. When I saw the place in early 1929, it was a mere habitation with the barest elements for living and with nowhere to work. As far as subsistence went, rain-water and stream water were obtained for cooking and washing and were adequate for the earlier needs. The Cass district had been viewed through the eyes of botanists and had been passed as zoologically unimportant. Naturally, what was not looked for was not usually found.When I took the Chair, I was asked to report on the Cass facilities and recommended the addition of a laboratory and the provision of an adequate coal stove, a source of hot water, and a bathroom. The Board agreed to these proposals. Water was drawn from a pipe which supplied the tank at the railway station and in the Spring the place was extended. For years, until 1937, kerosene was the source of artificial light, but in that year, the Railway Department agreed to supply electricity, which made a great difference to the amount of microscopy that was done.

I began, in 1929, to take the advanced zoologists for a period of 10 days immediately lectures finished in October. There was plenty of teaching material to be found in stream and lake and spring, in the forest floor, tussock grassland, scree slope and river-bed. These classes were taken until 1945, when a change was made in the character of the field work. Honours students prepared theses on material in the area and spent considerable time there. It was customary to take honours zoologists to Cass for field work prior to the written examination, to round off their elementary experience beyond marine and shore biology.

From 1937 to 1943, students of Civil Engineering carried out field work in surveying for two weeks in the May vacation and during that period the first year students of Geography spent the Easter vacation on field work. Geographers and Geologists have used the place in other vacations but not in such large parties as the Easter geographical or the May surveying groups.

In 1933, botanical excursions were revived and on a larger scale, for longer periods than formerly. Collecting was further a field than in Chilton's time, he being handicapped by the loss of a leg at the hip joint. C.E. Foweraker took parties to Woolshed Hill, Mt Horrible, Mt Baldy and the Cass and Hawdon riverbeds.

Many workers have used the place apart from those from the University. Persons and parties from the Department of Agriculture and from the North Canterbury Catchment Board have more or less often made it their base. Members of the Botany Division, D.S.I.R., have used it as a base when looking at their plots in the locality. Field parties from the Canterbury Agricultural College have used it, and parties from the Christchurch Teachers' Training College used it yearly in the 1950s. Altogether, in the period since 1933, the Cass facilities have been used to an extent hardly imagined by the founders and have played no small part in the growth of biological interest in this country.

Changes in the Area Since 1929

Shortly after 1945, a diversion of the stream draining Grasmere into Lake Sarah was made to supply an electric generator, the water being finally led into the stream leaving Lake Sarah. (The effects of this are described in section 18. (Ed.).)

Up to 1929, it was customary to use for fuel fallen branches which, no doubt, served for the relatively small amount of heating required. From 1929 onwards, over-mature trees were cut, split, stacked, and dried in the Reservoir Bush, later carried out and transported by wire cable across the gully. The cable was set up in 1930 and a second cable installed to make use of Middle Bush, in 1957. (This practice stopped about 1965 and wood is now brought from other places (Ed.).)

The removal of large trees opened the canopy, letting in light. In the illuminated areas regeneration has taken place, especially on the south side of the stream. The north side is drier than the south and young growth has not done well there. In spite of the presence of deer, regeneration in the Reservoir Bush appears as complete as if no deer were present.

From 1929 onwards, wood ash from the stove has been thrown on to the enclosure in front of the cottage. It was soon found that Disoaria disappeared inside a year and that the tussocks would not long survive after a treatment of ash. There was also a profound effect on the earthworm population. Exotic grasses appeared which are eagerly grazed by sheep, allowed in the enclosure to keep down the growth. This green sward was instrumental in preventing a fierce grass fire.from reaching the wooden structure. The fire was started by a red hot cinder from a train, about a mile north- wards . It burnt the scrub on the rocky knob on Cass Hill near the cottage, swept up the hillside/ singed the marginal beech of Reservoir Bush, went up between it and Middle Bush and some distance up Cass Hill, finally finishing in the shelter of Sugar- loaf to the south. It split just in front of the cottage, the parts rejoining round the back. The only serious damage was the destruction of the W.C. This fire took place in September, 1947, the year that the Catchment Board took over control of burning in the Waimakariri drainage area. In 1956, a fire-break was bull- dozed east of the streams from the Waimakariri to Lake Sarah.

Modifications to the Buildings

Fig 1-5 Cass railway station 1936.
Rita Angus (Rita Cooke).
Held in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery Collection

About 1935, the wall between the two bunk-rooms was shifted to allow a redistribution of bunks, now 4 and 6, instead of 2 and 8. This eased the accommodation of mixed parties, a problem that Chilton had not solved. In 1937, kitchen room was increased by the inclusion of an open verandah, resulting in a more spacious living-room and including the bedroom door which formerly opened on the verandah.

The original footbridge across the Grasmere Stream was converted for use by motor cars in 1934 and the deck replaced in 1951 .

In 1939, a water-closet was installed, draining into the stream, and in 1953 the house waste-pipe was connected with the drain.

After the installation of the house water-supply and the wet- back stove, the lack of drain cocks led to the bursting of many pipes and of the wet-back in the winter of 1930. In the following years, a complicated system of drain cocks was set in to drain the whole pipe system in case of frost. Along with this, about 1939, a frost alarm was installed by a member of the Physics Department.

Some of the student visitors in the 1930s began to explore the peaks and valleys of the surrounding district and added to the maps much knowledge of the geography. The Station and surroundings were the subject of paintings by Rita Cooke (Angus) and others (Frontispiece, Fig. 1-5)."

Geological Studies

In the 1920s and 30s, R. Speight was almost the sole contributor, with studies on general geology, moraines and faulting. In the late 1950s, M. Gage began his very important studies of the glacial geology of the Waimakariri Basin, the first such study in New Zealand using modern concepts and methods.

Botanical and Zoological Research in the 1940s and 50s

Following the earlier work of L. Cockayne, C.A. Foweraker, F.W. Hilgendorf and R.J. Tillyard, research in the area is linked with the names of the botanists J.B. Hair (Hebe cytotaxonomy) , Elizabeth Flint (phytoplankton) , B.C. Arnold (Hymenanthera, beech mycorrhizas) and F.J. Fisher (screes, Ranunculus). Zoological research included studies by E.C. Percival (limnology, fish), L. Wolfe (Uropetala) and A.G. Macfarlane (Caddises).

Changes Since 1958

An era ended with the death of Professor Percival in 1959. He had contributed very actively to research on the lakes and rivers and had worked hard on the upkeep of the Station at a time when teaching and research depended on shoestring budgets. Although he could be fearsome, his students held him in very high esteem as a scholarly, intelligent, yet down-to-earth and human person. It is fitting that his ashes were strewn near the large glacial erratic boulder beside Reservoir Bush. A plaque commemorating him has been affixed to the boulder. It bears the quotation from Thucydides (Pericles' oration on the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian war) "For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on, far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men's lives".

Changing emphasis in the teaching of Zoology made it appropriate that charge of the Station should be transferred to Professor W.R. Philipson of the Botany Department in 1959- Botany received new emphasis and direction from Professor Philipson's activity at Cass. Regular week-long trips with 2nd and 3rd year Botany students had been held through the 1950s. Interest in various aspects of plant systematics and ecology was stimulated by Professor Philipson and this was followed by research in plant taxonomy and evolution, ecology and morphology. A considerable effort was made to collect and identify the vascular plants, mosses, liverworts and lichens prior to and following the publication by the Botany Department of The Flora of Cass (Philipson & Brownlie 1958).

Because of increasing student numbers another addition to the building, estimated to cost about £2370, but constructed by the University Maintenance Department for less than this, was made in 1959. It is linked to the old building by a passageway. The addition included two shower rooms, a coke-burning boiler to heat water for these, two new bunk rooms of 140 sq. ft each, with 6 bunks each (bringing the total beds up to 22) and a living room of 450 sq. ft which doubled as a work-room during field trips. Despite the simplicity of the building plan (drawn on a piece of off-cut by Mr P. Lummis) the building has been very serviceable. The field station began to receive much more regular usage for teaching and research and some researchers lived there for protracted periods.

The changes made to the water system resulted in a nightmarishly complicated series of operations needed to drain or refill the pipes during the frost season. Inevitably people made errors and burst pipes ensued. A second lavatory was added at this time and there were several frost-burst porcelain bowls before it was realized that stainless steel bowls were needed. Concern about the emission of untreated sewage into the Grasmere Stream prompted the construction of a septic tank in 1968. Mr Colin Hales and, before him, Mr Phil Lummis, both ever-patient, have been closely involved with all these recent repairs and improvements. A new bridge was also installed in 1968.

The large increases in undergraduate student numbers from the mid 1960s onward made the teaching of second year classes at Cass difficult. At times weekend trips were held but these were no substitute for the longer trips. Pressure was applied by the Botany Department to the University authorities to have a further addition made to the buildings at Cass. In 1973 a sum of $75,000 was obtained from the University Grants Committee but, since inflation overtook it, this was inadequate before plans could be drawn up. In 1974 a further $25,000 was obtained. Mr H. Smith, the Buildings Registrar, had much to do with the raising of these funds. The contrast with the cost of the first building at Cass is astounding. Such are the times!

The new building, designed by Mr K.H. Mackenzie, is to accommodate 40 persons with sleeping, cooking, eating and living space. It is similar to the Forestry School field station at Harihari. Foundations were laid in 1975 and it is hoped to have most of the building completed in 1977. Construction is by the University Maintenance Department. The power supply will be from a diesel generator and a new water supply, from Middle Bush, is being tapped. At the same time the oldest parts of the Station are being converted into more convenient and comfortable accommodation for research workers and the 1959 addition into a laboratory, office and store for use during undergraduate field excursions.

It is appropriate here to mention the very cooperative relationship we have had with the run holders at Grasmere, David McLeod and his wife Mary from 1930-1971 and lan McLeod from 1971 onward. Much of the research and undergraduate fieldwork done at Cass would have been impossible without their tolerance and friendly help.

Changes in Research Emphasis Since 1960

Long established research interests in plant and animal systematics and morphology, ecology and population dynamics have continued (W.R. Philipson, R.L. Pilgrim, A.G. Macfarlane, P.M. Johns, B.A. Fineran, E.G. White, R. Bigelow, F.R. Nurse, D.A. Craig, B. Wiseley, V.L. Benzie, D. Lloyd). There has been an intensification of work in limnology and stream ecosystem structure and dynamics (V. Stout, D. Staples, M. Winterbourn, R. McCammon).

As new staff members and others have come to the University of Canterbury, so has the research emphasis changed. Since 1960 the main new fields of research have been Quaternary palaeobotany (N.T. Moar, C.J. Burrows, W.H. Lintott, B.P. Molloy), wetland vegetation (A.T. Dobson), beech forest ecology (C.J. Burrows), climatology (J. Rayner, D. Greenland, J. Hay), experimental geomorphology and climatology (J.M. Soons, I.F. Owens). A major study of flower biology has recently been started by R. Primack.

Other Institutions

The main kinds of pure and applied research in the Waimakariri basin since 1960 by members of the Staff of Lincoln Agricultural College, the North Canterbury Catchment Board and the D.S.I.R., which have been based, to some extent, on Cass, include studies of the management for stock-grazing of the modified native grasslands (K.F. O'Connor, R.D. Dick), the microbiology and .fertility of soils (I.D. Blair, A. Adams, J. Robinson) and fundamental soil genesis studies (C. Vucetich and others).

Table of Contents

The following is the table of contents of CASS, History and Science in the Cass District, Canterbury New Zealand. Editor C.J. Burrows.

1. History of the Cass Field Station
(E. Percival, C.J. Burrows)

History of the Cass District (D. McLeod, C.J. Burrows) (Appendix: Brief History of the Upper Waimakariri Runs)
3. The Farming Endeavour (D. McLeod, I. McLeod)
4. The Geology of the Pre-Quaternary Rocks Around Cass (J.D. Bradshaw)
5. Glacial Geology (M. Gage)
6. The Geomorphology of the Cass District (Jane M. Soons)
7. Weather and Climate at Cass (D.E. Greenland) (Appendix:
Climate Records from the Cass Field Station)

Soils of the Cass District (E.J. Cutler)
(Appendix: Representative Soil Profile Descriptions)
9. Plant Systematics (D.J. Lloyd)
10. Post-Glacial History of Vegetation at Cass (N.T. Moar, W.H. Lintott)
11. The Fire History (B.P.J. Molloy)
12a. Vegetation in the Cass District and its Ecology
12b. Alpine-Subalpine Rock, Rock Debris and Scree Vegetation (C.J. Burrows)
13. Grassland Vegetation (C.J. Burrows)
14. Riverbed Vegetation (C.J. Burrows)
15. Scrub Vegetation (A.T. Dobson, C.J. Burrows)
16. Forest Vegetation (C.J. Burrows)
17. Mire Vegetation (A.T. Dobson)
18. Adventive Plants (A.T. Dobson)
19. Biology of the Stream Fauna (M.J. Winter-bourn)
20. Biology of the Fauna of Lakes and Tarns (Vida M. Stout)
21. The Biology of the Terrestrial Fauna (P.M. Johns)
22. Checklist of the Flora of Cass
23. Checklist of the Fauna of Cass
  List of Contributors
  List of References (Theses and Published Papers)