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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 3 (July 24, 1926)

A Railway Picnic in 1877 — Thrilling Experience in a Tunnel

page 20

A Railway Picnic in 1877
Thrilling Experience in a Tunnel

An event of historical interest, still fresh in the memory of the writer, was the linking up of the Railway line between Christchurch and Dunedin early in 1877. To celebrate the occasion a Railway Picnic was held at Hampden, a small town about half way between Timaru and Dunedin. Two special trains, one from Timaru, the other from Dunedin, left early in the morning to convey, with their friends, as many railwaymen as could be spared from their labours.

Having just joined the service as a cadet, this outing was to me, as it was to many others, the day of my life. To travel a distance of 55 miles in a railway train, when I had never been more than five miles from home, was something to look forward to, and something to remember. Imagine, therefore, the eagerness with which I rose at 5 a.m. in the morning. I was too excited to snatch even a hasty breakfast; but my mother gave me some bread and jam to put in my pocket to eat on the way. I lost no time in getting to the station at Waimate, a town famous in those days for its timber traffic, and joined some other members of the staff. We left on a platform trolley for Waimate Junction (now Studholme Junction) to join the special train from Timaru due about 7 a.m. There was a hard frost that morning, and, as the sun rose, so did our spirits. We were a merry party, and all went well as the train sped along at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour on its way to Oamaru, the first town of importance enroute. It was the first time I had seen a town of that size—London would have seemed no grander to my limited vision. After a short stay, while the train was reversed and a few more carriages put on, the journcy was resumed. We eagerly scanned the passing vista of country we had never seen before. Passing Waiareka Junction, we came to the stone quarries, where huge blocks of white stone were being loaded into trucks. Hero and there we stopped to collect more picnickers, dressed in their Sunday best, their radiant faces expressing their joyous spirits. It was a bright sunny day, and as far as I could judge, there was nothing wanting to add to the enjoyment. Friendships, many of which I have no doubt have lasted to this day, were made, and many exploits on railway construction were related. All went well until we reached Otepopo (now Herbert), where our train was to cross another coming from the South. We waited and waited, but no train arrived. We became terribly impatient at the delay, and the stationmaster was urged to send on the train, but this he could not do as, just about a mile from the station, is the Otepopo tunnel, through which, owing to a bend in the middle, it is impossible to see to the other side. It must be remembered that, in those days, there being no telegraphic communication between stations such as we have to-day, the only way to find out what had become of the missing train was to send some one along the line to see. Eventually, it was decided to send a porter with flags in his hand to the top of the hill over the tunnel, and thence he was to signal if the line was clear. All eyes watched him eagerly as he ascended the hill. Soon we were delighted to see him waving. the green flag. “Seats please!” was called out in the proper orthodox fashion; the bell rang; the guard's whistle blew, and once again our train was on the move. Merriment reigned again, and the stories were resumed when, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in utter darkness, experiencing, for the first time, the sensation of being in a tunnel. Barely had we time to realise the fact when, suddenly, the engine brakes were applied, the whistle blew, and, greatly to their consternation, all those who were not firmly seated found themselves on the floor of the carriage, or sprawling over some one else. The engine seemed to be whistling louder than before, and the train soon came to a standstill in the middle of the tunnel. Not a light of any sort was visible, and soon, much sneezing and coughing, due to a horrible, choking sensation, took the place of the laughter that had filled the carriage but a few moments previously. Matches were struck, but nothing could be seen because of the dense smoke pouring in upon us. In a few moments —which seemed hours—the engine, still whistling, puffed again, and the train began to move slowly backwards. What passed through the minds of those passengers, many of whom had never been in a train, or a tunnel, before, you can better imagine than I can describe. It is sufficient to say that the most welcome sight that day, was the daylight that greeted