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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 5, October 1985

The Picton Railway

The Picton Railway

The first railway in New Zealand was the Nelson Dun Mountain which was horse-drawn. This was one year and ten months ahead of the first steam line, Lyttleton to Christchurch, opened 1st December 1863 completed to Invercargill in 1879. Auckland to Onehunga opened 1873 but not far behind Blenheim to Picton on 17th November 1875. Actually the station was this side of Opawa River as the bridge had not been built.

First move for a rail in Marlborough came in 1860 when a man named Walter Long Wrey, who was also involved in the Dun Mountain Company, tried floating a company, but it was not until Vogel's development policy that enough capital could be raised.

The line surveyed was on the opposite side of the swamp to the road in 1871. The contract went to an English company Brogden and Sons who completed six other lines in New Zealand. Brogdens brought in many of their own men – E. Smith of Picton is descended from one. There is a record of 98 men, 14 of whom were married, with 26 children, arriving in Picton in 1872. The pay for these men was 5/- per day plus 12/- per week per family – cheap wages but they created the first rail strike in New Zealand through taking expenses from pay.

The rail was higher than the road so was not subject to floods although there were times when the trains were held up. In the big flood of 1911 the 4 p.m. train from Blenheim was stuck by a slip all night at Para. Towards the end of construction trouble was experienced obtaining rails. At this stage the Dun Mountain Company had ceased to operate and Marlborough was lucky in obtaining enough to finish the job from them. Otago were not so lucky and had to use some wooden rails which were not successful causing many derailments.

In 1873 two 20 ton engines arrived each able to haul 150 tons and with a top speed of 30 m.p.h. As a comparison by 1930 engines on lines weighed 120 tons and pulled 1150 tons. After a start in 1872 the line was opened with great ceremony on Wednesday, 17 November 1875. At 11 a.m. Miss Gwyneth Henderson, daughter of Brogdon's representative christened one engine, Blenheim. Miss C. Goulter christened the other engine saying "I name this engine Waitohi and in the words of the poet – may its course be onward and true to the line". With bottles of champagne and free rides the line was then opened by James Hodson, deputy superintendent.