The Opening of a “Famous” Tunnel in New Zealand

June 4, 1929

A new tunnel was officially opened for trams (streetcars) traveling through Northland, a suburb of New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington. (Northland is specifically located between two other Wellington suburbs, Karori and Kelburn.) That day’s edition of the Wellington-based Evening Post highlighted the new Northland Tunnel and what it meant for local public transportation. “The long-looked-for tramway service between the city and the growing suburb was inaugurated this morning,” announced the newspaper.

The origins of this tunnel can be traced to the steady increase in population in the Wellington area during the first two decades of the 20th century and the consequent need for reliable transit routes throughout the region. Construction on the Northland Tunnel began in 1923, and it proved to be anything but a smooth process.

By 1925, there were widespread concerns about the overall safety of the tunnel even as it was still being built. These concerns led Bob Semple, a member of the Wellington City Council and also that city’s chief engineer, to carry out inspections at the construction site. Semple, who later served as New Zealand’s minister of public works, found several large cracks in the concrete within the part of the tunnel that had already been completed. He also discovered that the thickness of various sections of that concrete was only about six inches (15.2 centimeters) instead of the needed 18 inches (45.7 centimeters).

As a result of Semple’s findings, major efforts were undertaken to replace the concrete lining of the tunnel and strengthen the entire structure. These efforts included reinforcing the tunnel’s stability with steel arches every few feet (meters). All of this additional labor, along with a steelworkers strike in 1927, further delayed the completion of the Northland Tunnel.

On the day that the tunnel was finally opened, an event was held in the evening at St. Anne’s Hall in Northland to celebrate that long-awaited debut. The celebration was promoted in the Evening Post as “Grand Commemoration Joy Night,” and the festivities included music and dancing. The newspaper also noted, “Take a tram to Northland through the ‘famous’ tunnel, then join the Merry Throng at St. Anne’s.”

The Northland Tunnel has remained in service since that time, and it is now also an important historic landmark.  According to a website for the Wellington City Council, “The Northland Tunnel is part of the legacy of the tramways system in Wellington and a physical reminder of the expansion of the tramway system throughout the first part of the 20th century and the role that it played in Wellington’s suburban development . . . The Tunnel contributes significantly to the sense of place and continuity in in Wellington and acts as an important link between the city and the suburbs of Northland and Karori.”

For more information on the Northland Tunnel, please check out http://www.wellingtoncityheritage.org.nz/buildings/objects/41-northland-tunnel and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northland,_Wellington#Tunnels

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