The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 6 (September 1939)
A Town with a History — Queenstown 76 Years Ago
Unless some other industry springs up, the glory of a mining township fades when the diggings are worked out and the miners depart. In this respect Queenstown was more fortunate than her Central Otago neighbours. Many of the villages which were thriving townships for a few years in the heyday of goldmining are deserted now. They lie dreaming in the sun, yet living in history because of the gold yielded by the hills and river-beds.
Queenstown, like these other townships, sprang up in a night. In December, 1859, Mr. W. G. Rees took up land beside Lake Wakatipu, and in the following year brought sheep to his station. The first shearing was in December, 1861. Early in August, 1862, two men called at the station saying they were making their way to the West Coast to visit Maoris who lived there. One of these men, Maori Jack, showed Mr. Rees some gold which he had found in the Arrow River. Mr. Rees had been at the New South Wales diggings ten years previously, so knew gold when he saw it. He felt certain that within a few months there would be an influx of diggers to the district.
Three months later one of Mr. Rees's shearers found gold in the Shotover River at Arthur's Point (the shearer's name being Arthur, the point was named in honour of the discoverer).
It is an old story how, when the news became known, the largest rush ever known in Otago set in to the Wakatipu district, and where once a peaceful homestead nestled by the shore of the lake, a canvastown rapidly sprang up.
Within seven months, Queenstown consisted of several streets, closely lined with stores and hotels, concert rooms and a theatre for pleasure-seekers, and several churches. It had a newspaper of its own, a public treasury and a courthouse with their attendant officials, and a hospital, five miles from the township, supported partly by voluntary subscriptions and partly by Government assistance. Jetties and wharves were built out into the lake for the safe landing of passengers and merchandise, and three steamers, a schooner and a small fleet of boats and cutters lay upon its waters.
Messrs. Brydone and Co. began a coach service between Invercargill and Kingston. Their line of coaches ran three times a week with a well-known identity, Mitchell, as driver. The fare was £5 a head, and the time taken on the journey of less than 100 miles, was 14 hours. Good business was done by the firm.
As might be expected, food prices were high. Sugar was ½ to ¼ lb., bacon 2/6, potatoes 7d. to 9d. Brandy was 35/r and whisky 24/- per bottle. An amusing account of price-cutting was published in the “Lake Wakatip Mail,” on 10th June, 1863. It reads:—“The bakers, after supplying in the kindest manner the inhabitants of the town with bread at the modest price of 4/- per 4 lb. loaf, have at last been imbued with a noble spirit of emulation, and each is trying to discover to what impossible rate he can reduce the price of bread. A firm at the corner of Rees and Ballarat Streets astonished the weak nerves of the remaining knights of the dough by announcing that they would sell the 4 lb. loaf at 2/6. Another instantly offered the same article at 2/-, while a third benefactor, resolved not to be outdone in generosity, has declared his ability and intention of disposing of his “bread at 1/6. This absurd competition must soon arrive at vanishing point at this rate. But while the trade is thus engaged at the game of ‘Pull devil, pull baker,’—the gentleman in black being represented by the purse,—the public have a right to complain of the exorbitant rate charged before this competition took place. Flour can now be obtained at between £55 and £60 a ton, and this, at the latter price, is £6 a bag. This is capable of being made into seventy 4 lb. loaves, but as the bread of Queenstown, owing to atmospheric and other causes, is usually 3 ½ lbs. in weight, it is natural to suppose that the baker can turn out more than that number. However, taking the number we have stated—70 loaves—as the fair number, the vendor pockets at 4/- per loaf, £14, and deducting the price of the material, this leaves him £8 on every bag of flour for profit and expenses. Not a bad bargain, we should think. The firm who took the initiative in reducing their monstrous charge deserve the strongest support.”
In the same paper, which, incidentally, is still flourishing, notes from their Arrowtown correspondent were prefaced with these words: “The following letter from our Arrow correspondent should have arrived in time for our Saturday's issue, but, owing to the messenger who was sent with it getting more than a ‘wee drappie in his e'e,’ its arrival was delayed until Saturday night. Our efforts to obtain the latest intelligence from the outlying districts are often baffled by the entire absence of the necessary means of communication, and until something like an approach to a road be made our readers must not blame us.”
By this time the rivers and mountains of the district were “christened.” The “Von” River was named by Mr. Rees after his friend and fellow-explorer, Von. Tunzelman; “The Greenstone” from several Maori weapons found there; “The Shotover” after the property of Mr. Rees's partners near Oxford, England; “The Dart,” “The Rees” and “The Arrow” by two cadets who lived in the locality of the Buckleburn at the head of the lake. Of mountains, “Ben Lomond” and “Alfred” were named by young Duncan, Mr. Rees's cadet, and the Crown Range by Mr. Rees.
The peaks, “Coronet,” “Walter” and “Cecil” were named by J. McKerrow, Surveyor-General, when conducting the Reconnaissance Survey of the lakes district in 1862–63. The chain of ranges now known as the Remarkables was first called by the characteristic term of the “Cross-cuts” from their summits being so jagged-looking and saw-like. The more modern appellation was given them by Alexander Garvie.
Nowadays Queenstown is better known through its beautiful mountains, rivers and the lake, than through its gold. The tourist attractions, aided by road and lake services, have spread its fame abroad. The mushroom town of 76 years ago has grown into something more abiding.