It’s hard to believe now, but once, thanks to a major gold rush back in the 1860s, Hokitika was not only New Zealand’s biggest town but also had it’s busiest harbor.

Once the gold rush died, though, Hokitika soon shrunk, becoming just another small town on the South Island’s West Coast.

And small town it has remained, except for the annual population explosion every March when people come from far and wide for the annual Wild Foods Festival.

But as every traveler knows, small towns often have hidden treasures and Hokitika is no exception.

One such treasure is the Carnegie Free Public Library Building on the corner of Tancred and Hamilton Streets.

Built in 1908, it is one of the many ‘free library’ buildings built around the world in early 20th century, all funded by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American businessman and philanthropist.

Believing that the rich had a moral obligation to give away their wealth, Carnegie spent the later part of his life doing just that. In a time where access to libraries were available mainly to those with money, Carnegie set about establishing free public libraries that would allow everyone, no matter how little was in their wallet, to have a means of borrowing books and self-educating themselves. Between 1879 and 1917, he spent $56 million funding the building of over 2500 such libraries around the world.

Hokitika locals took pride in their Carnegie Free Library, calling it  the ‘finest building architecturally on the West Coast’.  The years, however, were not kind to this fine building and by the 1980s there were calls for it to be demolished.

Saved from demolition and restored by the the local Heritage Hokitika group, the Carnegie Building now houses the West Coast Historical Musuem, the Carnegie Gallery, and the i-site information center.

Featuring ever-changing exhibitions of local arts, crafts, and heritage, the museum and gallery are well worth a visit, especially if you happen to arrive in Hokitika when it’s raining.

(photo @Liz Lewis 2013)