The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 9 (December 1, 1938)
Southland's Wooden Railway — An Experiment Of The ‘Sixties
The story of Southland's wooden railway forms one of the most curious chapters in the railway history of New Zealand. The interest which attaches to this courageous but ill-advised project is both technical and historical.
In 1863 the little province, which just two years before had been separated from Otago and entrusted with its own government, contained a population of fewer than 9,000 people. The chief difficulty confronting the local authorities under the visionary Superintendent Dr. Menzies, was the lack of natural communications. The infant capital, Invercargill, was cut off both from the interior and from its harbour at the Bluff by tracts of flat, swampy ground, which, in its unimproved condition, forbade wheeled transport altogether. Road-making was hampered by the lack of metal in convenient localities, and attempts to construct gravel highways across the morasses resulted in little but the expenditure of money.
The discovery, in the latter part of 1862, of rich goldfields in the vicinity of Lake Wakatipu, opened out tantalising prospects to the young province. Although the diggings were situated in Otago, their natural outlet lay through the wide valleys at the foot of the lake leading to the Southland plains. If something could be done to establish a permanently practicable route across the dozen miles or so of wet country in the vicinity of Invercargill, Southland stood to reap a rich harvest from the goldfields trade.
When, therefore, the Provincial Council met in February, 1863, Menzies laid before it a scheme to borrow £120,000 (subsequently increased) to build a railway to the Bluff, and also a second sum of £130,000 to lay down a horse tramway for twenty miles up the Oreti Valley to touch the drier gravel plains of the interior.
The Council consented to the former plan, but was not prepared as yet to sanction the latter. They voted a special grant of £20,000, however, to keep the existing road to the north open during the winter.
The provincial chief surveyor, Heale, who was regarded as the best local authority on engineering matters, reported favourably on the scheme. Even if it proved a total failure, he contended, the line could easily be converted into an iron one by using the wooden rails as longitudinal sleepers. The cost he roughly estimated as £88,000, with an additional £27,000 in the event of its being found necessary to lay an iron track.
Before the Provincial Government committed itself to the scheme, a demonstration was provided. Davies had imported a little engine known as the Lady Barkly, which he had used in Victoria. Rails were laid on the Invercargill jetty and on 8th August the trial was held. It was considered a complete success. All the afternoon the Lady Barkly steamed up and down, attaining at times a speed of 25 miles per hour, with crowds of delighted citizens riding on the engine. “The motion was found pleasant,” reported the Invercargill Times, “and quite free from that oscillation and concussion which distinguish travelling on iron rails with the ordinary engine.”
In the early part of 1864, however, trouble began. Reports were abroad that the materials being used were not those specified. Enquiry elicited the fact that white pine was being used for rails contrary to the terms of the contract, that the sleepers were composed of unsuitable timbers, and that the embankment contained much slushy stuff from the swampy ground adjacent to the line, instead of the excavated earth from the cuttings, as the agreement demanded. Davis claimed that he had done nothing without the permission of Marchant, the provincial railway engineer. Marchant admitted the fact, pleading that in view of the necessity of haste, he had felt justified in exercising his discretionary power. Marchant was promptly dismissed, but was reinstated when it was proved that he had received permission for the alterations from the Deputy-Superintendent, in the absence of the Superintendent from the province. Consulting engineers reported that, considering the desirability of completing the line before the winter, the use of inferior materials was possibly expedient, and the work was continued.
The province, however, was now in sore financial straits. The Bluff railway proved more expensive than was anticipated, the debentures issued to cover the cost of the Oreti line proved unsaleable, the bank refused further advances, and the final blow came when the Colonial Government refused to advise the Governor's assent to the raising of a further loan to pay off creditors. As a result, work on the railways was suspended in May, and when, nearly three months later, the Oreti line was resumed, the Government had to face a large additional expenditure for compensation to the contractors for expenses incurred during the stoppage. It was now possible to complete the line only as far as Makarewa, a distance of about eight miles. At length this section was ready, and on 18th October the official opening was held.
The day was declared a public holiday, and at noon the train started from the gaily decorated station. Tickets had been issued by invitation so that the party was a select one. Makarewa was reached in sixteen minutes and the travellers picnicked on the river-bank, while Davis provided the means of merriment for his workmen. On the return to Invercargill a formal luncheon was held on the station platform, and the success of the Oreti railway was toasted with enthusiasm.
The general public, however, felt aggrieved at their exclusion from the celebration, and there were hostile demonstrations on the departure of the train. A meeting of protest was held and it was decided that a second “opening” with no restrictions should be held a week later. On the day before the proposed excursion an unfortunate accident occurred, a youth employed on the engine being killed by falling from it on to the line. If this was a bad omen, circumstances more disquieting for the future were soon revealed.
On the 25th the train made three trips to Makarewa, carrying fully 2,000 people. There were scenes of hilarity and boisterous revelry in striking contrast to the more sedate enjoyment of the previous week. Sports were held during the afternoon, but as the day wore on rain began to fall. The multitude of feet treading the wet enbankment plastered the smooth surface of the rails with clay, and when the heavily loaded trains left Makarewa, again and again the wheels spun helplessly on the moist rails. On top of this the engine developed leaky tubes which almost extinguished the fire. It was midnight before the last trip was accomplished, and a grand ball that was to have been held had to be postponed because the band had not returned. Great numbers, indeed, failed to find accommodation on the returning trains and were forced to trudge weary miles back to Invercargill or camp out miserably in the wet, finding what shelter they could.
The railway had thus been twice “opened,” but the sequel was a sad anticlimax. The unsoundness of the embank-
(Continued on page 67 ).