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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, November 1955

The Dun Mountain Railway

The Dun Mountain Railway

The Dun Mountain is about fourteen or fifteen miles from Nelson city, and is the highest point in the Mineral Belt—a belt of igneous rocks which stretches from D'Urville Island down to Tophouse, near Rotoiti. These rocks are of unique geological interest. They were thrust up, while in a molten state, from miles below the overlying sedimentary rocks. There is a great diversity of minerals to be found on this belt. Rodingite and Dunite are both of a very unusual composition and are to be found nowhere else. Other minerals of interest are ores of copper and chromium. An attempt has been made to mine both these, but both ended in failure. The story of these mining projects goes back to 1856 when samples of copper ore were sent to England for analysis. There the ore created such a favourable impression that the Dun Mountain Mining Company was formed in London. An engineer and staff of labourers and railway plant were sent out. The mine did not turn out to be profitable, however, and it closed three years later—in 1859.

The company, having given up hope of a profit from copper still hoped to mine chromate of iron successfully, and early in 1861 work was started on the railway itself. On July 24th, 1861, the Dun Mountain Railway Act was passed by the General Assembly of New Zealand, and within twelve months of starting, the first railway in New Zealand was completed and opened with much ceremony on February 3rd, 1862. It was horse-drawn, as the Act forbade a locomotive in the city and forbade any speeding above 4 miles per hour!

page Thirteen

An extract from the "Examiner" (23/4/62) described the project well: "The whole range of mountains … is rich in mineral wealth and only awaits capital and labour to develop it. How best to use it and get it to the Port from these inaccessible mountains is the problem. Fortunately the matter of carriage has been solved for us by the Dun Mountain Railway Company, whose railway, constructed at a cost of about £2000 per mile, rises in 14 miles to 2800ft., coiling like a snake around the face of almost precipitous mountains, down the sides of which a hundred tons of chrome ore are weekly conveyed by the laws of gravitation to the outskirts of the town, and thence are drawn along by horses to the Port for shipment, at an expense of about 10/- per ton for carriage. The amount shipped is limited only by the number of horses required to pull the empty trucks up to the mine…" (Before the railway was constructed the Company paid £6 per ton for packing the chrome ore down and found it impossible to get any quantity of ore delivered at that price.)

In England this chrome ore was used for the dyeing of cottons in the Lancashire mills. From the salts of chromium it was possible to obtain yellow, "rosaline", and "a new colour called mauve". Chrome iron ore was considered an indispensable raw material, the use of which must yearly increase. To quote from the "Examiner" (30/4/62): "Our friends need not be at all apprehensive that the demand for chrome iron ore will decrease, or that the Home market will be overstocked by Nelson shipments for many years to come; especially while our Local Provincial Government exhibits such apathy and shows so little desire to assist in developing our mineral wealth in chrome and copper…" The Provincial Government was receiving much criticism as the time for it lack of energy and enterprise. It was interesting to find that, even then —a hundred years ago—Nelson was spoken of as "Sleepy Hollow".

The Company did more than mine chrome and copper. It supplied firewood, timber, slates and limestone for the city. It had its own limestone kiln, the remains of which can still be seen at Fourth House. These "houses" of which practically nothing remains today, were the homes for the employees. Third House was where the overseer lived, and where the horses were stabled and the timber stacked.

At the end of 1862 we read that the prospects of the Company were better than anyone had ever expected. They had a capital of £80,000 and in January a new reef of chrome ore of considerable extent and richness was discovered. Why, then, a month later, had the mines ceased working? The answer to this is—the American Civil War! This stopped the export of cotton, closed down most of the cotton mills in the north of England, and threw thousands of people out of work. The demand for chrome ore ceased, and after only one year of activity, during which several thousands of tons of chrome ore had been shipped, the Nelson directors were asked to ship no more. It was thought this stoppage would be only temporary, but apparently no chrome ore was exported after February 1863, and the mining of chrome and copper was finished.

The passenger service to the Port, however, continued to run for fifty years, and there was an excursion to the mines, too, that was popular. In 1907 the lines were pulled up and the old track now forms one of the loveliest walks in New Zealand—eight miles of it through beautiful beech forest. (Little else remains of the Dun Mountain Mining Company, which failed after only twelve months of intensive operation, because of the American Civil War.) The only man who did not lose money from the venture was Mr Thomas Cawthron, who eventually bought the area and gave it to the city of Nelson. And so we have Cawthron Park, many thousands of acres of beautiful native bush quite close to our city.

Note: The Handbook of N.Z. Mines, 1887, gives the following tonnages for export of chrome ore, most of which came from the Dun.—1858-'61, 179 tons; 1862, 3,843 tons; 1863, 595 tons; 1864, 768 tons; 1865, —; 1866, 281 tons.