The city's administrative area of 53,962 hectares makes it the second-largest city, by council area, in New Zealand.
Maori occupied various settlements in the upper Hutt valley.
Richard Barton[?], who settled at Trentham[?] in 1841, in an area now known as Bartons Bush[?], is identified as the first European resident. Barton subsequently subdivided his land and set aside a large area that was turned into parkland. James Brown settled in the area that subsequently became the Upper Hutt town in 1848.
The railway line from Wellington reached Upper Hutt on February 1, 1876. The line was extended to Kaitoke[?] at the top end of the valley over the next 2 years, running that far from January 1, 1878. The line was continued over the Rimutaka ranges to Featherston in the Wairarapa, opening on October 12, 1878. A notable feature of the section of railway between Upper Hutt and Featherston was the steep gradients. To assist with the 1 in 15 grade on the Featherston side of the range, the Rimutaka Incline[?] employed Fell Engines[?] that used a raised friction traction centre rail to haul trains up the steep grade. The less steep 1 in 40 grades between Upper Hutt and the small settlement and shunting yard at Summit could be managed by ordinary steam locomotives. The only other rolling stock able to traverse the incline unaided were the small bus-like rail cars, colloquially known as "Tin Hares".
By the 1950s the Fell system had become too expensive to operate and was closed on October 29, 1955. To replace it, the Rimutaka Tunnel[?] had been constructed, finally opening in 1955. In conjunction with the Tunnel, the laying of a new route, new bridges, and substantial realignments and double tracking of the rest of the line from Wellington as far as Trentham station had occurred by June 26, 1955. The line was also electrified as far as Upper Hutt Station. Today, Upper Hutt is served by a regular urban rail service that is a major commuter transport link.
Upper Hutt was originally part of Hutt County, (which was constituted in 1877). The Town Board was proclaimed on April 24, 1908. Upper Hutt became a Borough on February 26, 1926. It was proclaimed a City on May 2, 1966. The northern areas of Hutt County's Rimutaka Riding were included in the City on April 1, 1973. This expansion produced the second largest land area of any New Zealand city. The area administered by the Heretaunga-Pinehaven District Community Council was added when the Hutt County Council was abolished on November 1, 1988. A year later the Heretaunga-Pinehaven District Community Council was abolished on November 1, 1989, producing the city in its current form.
Towards the end of the 1980s significant travel delays were being experienced with road access to Upper Hutt. With central government reluctant to fund any road improvements in the area, Upper Hutt City Council itself commissioned the construction of a high speed bypass route that became known as River Road. The road promptly ran at full capacity and, after several serious accidents, that were a legacy of its origins, it was enlarged and re-engineered to cope with the growing traffic volume.