She Was a (T)railblazer in New Zealand

August 8, 1863

The Lady Barkly, widely regarded as the first steam-powered locomotive to operate in New Zealand, went into service in the township (and present-day city) of Invercargill on the South Island. The experimental run of this 8-ton (7.3-metric ton) train in Invercargill marked a major transportation milestone for New Zealand and in particular its southernmost region (known as Southland).

Sometime around 1853, a larger-than-before number of English settlers started inhabiting the area that became Invercargill. In 1856, Invercargill was formally established as a township. Several key efforts were undertaken over the next few years to build and sustain the fledgling community’s infrastructure. In 1860, for example, an extensive jetty (wooden pier) was built at the end of Tweed Street in Invercargill to help serve the township’s commercial needs. The discovery of gold in the region further contributed to local growth. That gold rush was short-lived, but it did help expand Invercargill’s population from 3,455 in 1862 to 9,545 the following year.

There was now an increasingly vital need for reliable land-based transportation connecting the comparatively isolated township with the remainder of New Zealand and especially the seaport of Bluff (officially called Campbelltown at the time) elsewhere in Southland. Unfortunately, the swampy terrain in the vicinity of Invercargill posed serious challenges for horse-drawn wagons trying to travel through the area without getting bogged down. The construction of durable roads for those vehicles was a lot easier said than done.   

An entrepreneurial and far-sighted engineer named James M. Davies proposed a solution to the transportation dilemma besetting Invercargill: development of a railway linking the township with other communities, including the area colloquially known as “The Bluff.”  Davies had recently been instrumental in planning and building the Geelong-Ballarat Railway in southeastern Australia. To better ensure the success of that railway, Davies designed a steam locomotive that was then manufactured in 1861 by Hunt & Opie’s Victoria Foundry in Australia.

This customized locomotive was the Lady Barkly, which the Southland Times reported had been used “to great satisfaction” on the Geelong-Ballarat Railway for two years. Davies had the locomotive shipped overseas to Invercargill to help persuade skeptical public officials of the feasibility of steam railway service in Southland.

The Saturday afternoon debut of the Lady Barkly proved to be a great triumph, with the locomotive steaming across more than 984 feet (300 meters) of the township’s jetty. The Southland Times provided details on the test run a few days later. “Wooden rails were laid the length of the Jetty, and from one o’clock till five, the ‘Lady Barkly’ was driven up and down sometimes at a speed of 25 miles [40.2 kilometers] an hour, with the most complete success by Mr.  J.R. Davies,” reported the newspaper.

The Southland Times also commented on the locomotive’s passengers. “Crowds of spectators passed the afternoon at the Jetty in riding delightedly in the locomotive,” asserted the newspaper. “The motion was found pleasant and quite free from that oscillation and concussion, which distinguish traveling on iron rails with the usual engine.”

The enthusiastic public response to the Lady Barkly set the stage for local steam railways, including one between Invercargill and The Bluff, that were built and inaugurated later in the decade. While those lines were far from perfect, they likewise made important pioneering contributions to New Zealand’s rail transportation network.

For more information on the 1863 test run of the Lady Barkly, and other railway milestones in New Zealand’s Southland region, please check out http://southernsteam.co.nz/timeline/ and http://the-lothians.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-saga-of-southlands-wooden-railway.html.

Additional information on New Zealand’s railway network is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_railway_lines_in_New_Zealand.

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