In the mid - 1800s, shepherds searching for grazing land beyond the Canterbury Plains were the first Europeans to explore the mountain wilderness of Arthur's Pass National Park. Yet long before this time, Maori travellers and traders had crossed the Southern Alps via the then un-named Arthur's Pass. It was the lure of gold however that would be the driving force that shaped the regions destiny.
Gold was first found on the West Coast in 1863. The newly arrived English settlers of Canterbury were prepared to leave their homes and trek hundreds of kilometres on the merest chance of making their fortune. However the awesome barrier of the Southern Alps lay between them and the alluring goldfields.
The first European explorers, like the Maoris, preferred to cross the Southern Alps by the Harper Pass route at the head of the Hurunui and Taramakau Rivers. As an endless train of gold-seekers, packhorses, cattle and sheep reduced the bridle path to a boulder strewn mud slurry by 1863, an alternative route was imperative.
In February 1864 the surveyor Arthur Dobson and his brother Edward, responding to information obtained from the Poutini Kaitahu (from Tarapuhi - the clan chief), rode horses up the Waimakariri River in search of a new route west. On reaching the Bealey Valley, they followed this to its head, then crossing a moraine wall, they made a descent to the Rolleston River confluence.
On his return Arthur Dobson pronounced the route extremely difficult, if not impossible, because of the precipitous descent from the pass on the western side. He wrote "There was enough width for a zig-zag cutting to be made in the head of the gorge, but a good deal of heavy rock cutting would be required beyond." The search continued, but no better route was found. In 1865 Arthur's father, Edward Dobson senior, the Canterbury provincial engineer, decided a road would be cut through Arthur's Pass.