Thomas Eckford arrived in New Zealand by the most humble means. He apparently worked his way out aboard one of the immigrant ships. It may have been a humble beginning but the skills he learned enabled him to take advantage of the burgeoning trade between the North and South Islands. By one way or another he bought the steamer Mohaka in 1881 and began a bi-weekly service between Blenheim and Wellington.
Gradually, the business built up and he expanded his fleet. Several setbacks occurred including a collision between the Mohaka and another steamer as well as the wrecking of the Neptune at the Wairau Bar in 1897. The following year he commissioned his own ship the Opawa, an 80 ton steamer. This crossed Cook Strait in 8 hours and carried 18 passengers.
Thomas Eckford suffered a heart attack and died in 1917 while at work. His two sons Alec and Sugden who by now were well versed in the run took over running the company's two ships, the Opawa and the Wairau, and in 1920 added the A.S Echo to the fleet. A fourth ship, the Omaka, bought at about the same, ended in tragedy when it sunk with all hands at Wellington Heads in 1921.
With three ships, business thrived for a time but the 1930's saw staff lay offs and the loss of the Opawa at the Wairau mouth. During World War 2 the Echo was bought by the government and loaned to United states for use in the Pacific leaving only the Wairau. When the war ended the Echo was bought back and business improved again but it was only short lived. In 1954 the Wairau was laid up owing to lack of work. It was sold to a company in Nelson but never sailed again.
The Echo continued the crossing twice weekly, now under the command of Captain Tom Eckford, grandson of the company's founder. Although the competition from Picton and Lyttleton was strong, it was not until the introduction of the rail ferry Aramoana in 1965 that the Eckfords finally gave up.