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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 5, December 1961

The Dun Mountain Railway

The Dun Mountain Railway

Early in 1852. three young men (Bachelor, Carter and Thorn), on a hunting expedition in the Dun Mountain area, found an ore that aroused their curiosity (1). They showed this to Mr Walter Long Wrey, a mining surveyor in Nelson, who stated that it was a copper ore. Mr Wrey visited the area and in May, 1852, in company with Mr W. T. L. Travers and Mr W. Wells, made further investigation and obtained a lease of the area (2).

After favourable reports on the area by Dr E. Davy, Government Analyst at Adelaide, the prospectus of the Cook Strait Mining Company was issued in October, 1852, with £56.000 capital in £1 shares, with Mr D. Sclanders, of Messrs Morrison and Sclanders, Mr E. W. Stafford and Mr W. R. Nicholson, merchant of Nelson, as honorary and provincial trustees (2).

After further investigations and reports, Mr Wrey was sent to England, arriving there in March, 1854, just at the time England had declared war on Russia. After consultation with Mr Alexander Morrison (the Company agent) and others in London, it was decided to raise £10,000 for preliminary expenditure and, owing to the dearth of experienced miners in Nelson, to send 26 officers and men out from London under Mr page ElevenWrey, with Mr J. How as second-in-command. It was stated that Mr Wrey, although far advanced in years, had stipulated that the payment made to him should be in shares in the projected company.

The 24 men consisted of navvies, smiths and carpenters, plus four miners, obtained with the assistance of a Cornish gentleman. After being entertained by the promotors at a farewell lunch at the Falcon Hotel, Gravesend, the party sailed for Nelson in the ship Sir Allen McNab, arriving here on August 8, 1855, and bringing with them the necessary gear and plant for starting operations. On arrival in Nelson they found that Travers and Wells had gone on with the development of the mine.

Some Concern Felt

Some concern was felt in London in 1856 when one of the miners, returning to England, stated that the leads at the summit on the Dun were quite worthless. However, several tons of copper were sent to England, and other reports being sufficiently favourable, the Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company Limited was formed in London in March. 1857, with a capital of £75,000. of which £6000 in unpaid shares was allotted to the original promotors, the Cook Strait Mining Company (2).

By November 9, 1857. Mr T. R. Hacket, sent out as manager of the undertaking, reported in his first letter: "It was disappointing to find not so much as a single ton of copper ore in sight on the surface anywhere." and in Nelson he stated "the report of masses of ore, all moonshine".

On March 3, 1858, he reported that, despite the absence of copper, the chrome ore "holds down in four places where we have worked on it and is more than 12 feet wide… I cannot but condemn the copper mine entirely."

It is interesting to record that Mr George Duppa had spent a considerable time on the mineral belt prior to this and was responsible for the discovery of chrome ore (2 & 3).

In a circular issued in London in 1858, the company stated: "Our engineer has discovered in considerable quantities a rich vein of mineral known as chromate of iron, of which large quantities can be shipped. At Liverpool it is worth about £8/15/- a ton, and from about 1000 to 2000 tons can be readily sold," adding that "it is extensively used in this country in manufacturing into chrome and bichromate of potash and colours, and consumption is kept down by the difficulty of obtaining a free supply of the raw material."


Turning its attention from copper to chromate, the Dun Mountain Mining Company continued to develop and on July 17, 1860, two engineers arrived in Nelson to build the Dun Mountain railway line. They were both highly competent men who later had distinguished careers, Mr W. T. Doyne and Mr A. Fitzgibbon, who was his assistant. Before coming to Nelson they had just constructed the well-known railway from Colombo to Kandy in Ceylon. Mr Doyne had previously been engaged in railway construction in India, and Mr Fitzgibbon in the United States and Canada. Mr Doyne spent the rest of his life being called in to advise in practically all the Colonial Govern-in Australia and New Zealand, ment's important works, and Mr Fitzgibbon, after remaining in Nelson for a year in charge of the Dun Mountain operations, was appointed Engineer-in-Chief for Queensland and laid down its railway system.

In "The Examiner" of February 9, 1861, the following particulars page Twelvewere published on completion of the survey of the line:

Distance Grade
m. ch.
Port to Nelson 1 10 Level
To Brook Street School 2 60 1 in 76
To Wairoa Saddle (3rd house) 9 60 1 in 20
Maitai Saddle 10 40 1 in 70
To edge of forest 12 50 1 in 33
To chrome working 13 30 1 in 33
1 in 20

Gauge 3 ft; 14 bridges; frequent curves of 1½ chain roads: at a cost not exceeding £2500 a mile.

On September 12, 1861, "The Examiner" reported that the earth work and bridging had been completed and on the opening of the line on February 3, 1862, Mr Fitzgibbon stated that the work had been accomplished within the means of the company.

"The Handbook of New Zealand Mines" gives the following tonnage of extracted chrome ore, most of which came from the Dun:

1858–1861 179 tons
1862 3843 tons
1863 595 tons
1864 768 tons
1865 none
1866 281 tons

The demand for chrome had been greatly stimulated in the 1850's when Sir William Perkins, an eminent English chemist, used it to produce a new colour, mauve. This first synthetic dye immediately came into great demand.

Unfortunately for Nelson chrome mining, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 stopped the export of cotton from the United States to Britain, closed down most of the Lancashire cotton mills and thus, for the time being, destroyed the demand for chrome ore. However, it appears that the Dun Mountain deposits of chrome ore were by no means as extensive as first supposed. The Geological Survey Report on the Dun Mountain (Bulletin 12) issued in 1911 says of the chrome deposits there, that "the quantity mined there was by no means great and very little now remains" (4).

(To be continued)


(1) "Nelson Evening Mail", 8-4-1925.
(2) "Nelson Examiner", Supplement, 25-12-1858.
(3) "Nelson Examiner", 15-12-1858. "Nelson Examiner", 14-3-1860.
(4) "Nelson Examiner", 9-2-1861. "Nelson Examiner", 13-9-1861. "Colonist", 4-2-1862. "Colonist", 13-5-1862. Furket, F. W.: "Early New Zealand Engineers", "Colonist", 2-10-1863.