1862: The Opening of New Zealand’s First Railway

February 3, 1862

The first railway line in New Zealand was opened with considerable fanfare. (At the time, New Zealand was a British colony; it gained semi-independent status as a dominion of the British Empire in 1907 and achieved full autonomy in 1947.) Horse-drawn train cars were used for this 13.4-mile (21.5-kilometer)-long privately owned and operated line, which was built in what was then Nelson Province in the upper portion of New Zealand’s South Island.

This transit service was constructed in the first place because of minerals such as chromite and copper that had been found on and near Dun Mountain, which is located southeast of the city of Nelson. The Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company was established in 1857 to develop a railway that would transport those mineral deposits to the port in Nelson for overseas shipping.

The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, which was the first newspaper published on  South Island, highlighted the significance of the Dun Mountain Railway a couple of days after its formal debut. This newspaper reported, “This is the first completed railway in New Zealand, and from which so much material good is expected to arise to the Province of Nelson, was publicly opened on Monday last.”

This article further stated, “Eight trucks, each laden with chrome ore, and accompanied by several of our townspeople and a band of music, left the Company’s deport, in Brook-street, at about twelve o’clock, and proceeded amid the cheers of the numerous persons by whom the several streets were thronged, to the port. After the chrome had been deposited on the wharf the trucks again returned to town and at about three o’clock, the local directors, and some friends, the engineer of the line, and the workmen employed in constructing the line, amounting to about 180 persons, sat down to a cold luncheon, which had been provided . . . at the Freemason’s Hall.”

Irish-born engineer Abraham Fitzgibbon (1823-1887) had been among those overseeing the design and construction of the Dun Mountain Railway and, during that celebratory luncheon, he took time to salute the workers who actually built the line.

The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle reported, “Preceding speakers had mentioned the advantages of capital allied with labor, and had also been pleased to mention, approvingly, the engineering skill displayed in constructing the line, but of what use were all those without the honest hearts and sturdy arms of labor? . . . For twenty years, although he was not an old man, he had been closely associating with working men, and was thus entitled to talk about them, and when needed to them.” This article went on to note, “He had been engaged in many undertakings, but had never experienced so much pleasure in any one of these as he had in making the Dun Mountain railway.”

Notwithstanding the high expectations for this railway’s role in transporting mineral deposits to the port in Nelson, both the local supply of and global demand for those natural resources were mostly exhausted by 1866.  The Dun Mountain Railway, however, continued to be extensively used for more than three decades as a passenger service. This railway remained in operation until May 30, 1901.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the opening of the Dun Mountain Railway, please check out https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TC18620204.2.6?end_date=10-02-1862&query=railway+dun+mountain&snippet=true&start_date=03-02-1862

Additional information on this railway is available at https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-NHSJ01_01-t1-body-d4.html

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