Tuesday, 26 April 2016

"Washington" and "Josephine" Open the Christchurch to Dunedin Railway, 6th Sept 1878 (Part One)


K88 "Washington" with her original "wagon top" 
boiler. Taken at Rolleston in 1878.
[Source : Upper Hutt City Library]

Part One : Christchurch to Oamaru Section

It was on the 6th September 1878 that the first "through" express passenger train ran on the Christchurch to Dunedin section of what now became the Main South Railway. This blog shall relive that momentous twelve hour journey courtesy of on board correspondents who reported the journey at length in the newspapers of the day. The events described in this blog are entirely factual.


The route of our journey south, as
shown on a railway map from 1900
[Source : "New Zealand Railways to 1900"]

Finally Joined on the 7th September 1878

Construction of "The Great South Railway" (originally gauged at 5ft 3in) had commenced on the flat plains south of Christchurch as early as 1865 with Timaru being reached in February 1876 and finally Oamaru in February 1877. Construction of the line north of Dunedin had commenced with the 3ft 6in line to Port Chalmers being opened on the 1st January 1873. Most of the latter would form the future main line north. But between these two centres lay the challenging section north of Dunedin, specifically the hills up to Mihiwaka and down to Blueskin Bay and the equally challenging gradients of the Seacliff section. Thus the two lines would finally be joined at Goodwood on the 7th September 1878, being only 57 km north of Dunedin but 310 km south of Christchurch.


George Phipps, 2nd Marquis of Normanby &
Colonial Governor of New Zealand 1874 - 1879
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

The Governor of New Zealand

The first "through" express train would be honoured to include the Colonial Governor of New Zealand, His Excellency George Phipps, 2nd Marquis of Normanby, accompanied by his support staff, Lady Normanby, the Captain and officers of 'H.M.S. Nymphe', Parliamentary representatives and their wives, four native members of the House of Representatives [Hoani Nahi, Taiaroa, Takamoana, and Tawiti], Mayors and Councillors from both north and south, members of various Boards and Chambers, plus various other invited guests and groups. All up, around 300 passengers will be conveyed south to Dunedin with more joining in Oamaru.

The consist for the journey south comprised of ten new or newly painted carriages, that carrying the official dignitaries being emblazoned with the Vice-Regal coat of arms, and two "ornamental" style brake-vans. Upon daybreak the consist presented a "dazzling appearance".


K88 "Washington",
from a period engraving
[Source : Rogers Catalogue, 1886]

The "Star of the Show"

But undoubtedly the 'star of the show' for the journey to Dunedin is the "powerful" American built 2-4-2 locomotive K88 "Washington" having been built by the Rogers Locomotive Works of New Jersey in 1877, and entering service in March 1878. In stark contrast to the English built locomotives hitherto imported into New Zealand,  "...The [American] locomotives created quite a stir with their bar frames, 'Gothic' style wooden cabs, locomotive bell, ornate embellishments and, rakish appearances which were at odds with the traditional English locomotive appearance in New Zealand at the time and were described by one commentator [Charles Rous-Marten] as "a watch with all its works outside". But they quickly developed a reputation as fast and free running engines, "[They] are considered infinitely superior to the English locomotives... they are wonderfully equable in their rates of speed, and may be depended upon almost to a second".


Christchurch Railway Station, pre 1910
Opened Dec 1877, Demolished pre 1960
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

So Let Us Begin Our Journey :

Being at an early hour and still dark on a frosty Christchurch morning the station and platform are dimly lit, access to the latter being by card or invitation only. But with a crowd of passengers and their luggage to be got on board we are presented with a busy scene. A marked feature is the number of ladies present who will be undertaking the journey with us. The passengers busy themselves with reading the morning papers and an amusing little brochure describing what may be seen on the line south to Timaru "and the dangers that used to attend the old style of travelling".


An unknown driver (but reputed to be Ben Verdon)
on the footplate of K88 "Washington" in 1878
[Source : Upper Hutt City Library]

On the footplate are driver Benjamin [Ben] Verdon and fireman Tom Scott along with (for at least parts of the journey) the New Zealand Railways Locomotive Superintendent, Mr Allison Smith who was most interested to see how the engine would perform, having been personally responsible for ordering these flashy new American K Class engines. 

Finally, at 6.05 am and just before daybreak, the signal is given and with a sharp tug from K88 "Washington" our train is set in motion. The few spectators present (as none had been allowed on the platform) attempt to raise a cheer "but the effect was feeble, and rather dispiriting than otherwise".  


Christchurch Railway Station and platform in the 1880's
[Source : "The Weekly Press"]

 Despite being seven minutes late on departure two or three unlucky passengers are still seen frantically running for the train but on we glide and no more grace will be given. The celebratory mood of those aboard is enlivened by the Dunedin Glee Club striking up in one carriage with the Dunedin Railway Band in another. By now well beyond the city we are rewarded by views of a "glorious sunrise" on as fine a morning "as anyone could wish" with only a slight haze hanging over the plain. Our long journey will be broken by many watering and coaling stops plus the obligatory and rather tiresome "ceremonial" stops at various towns on the journey south.


The Rakaia Combined Road and Rail Bridge, built 1873
[Source : Christchurch City Libraries]

"His Best Foot Formost"

A steady pace of 23 miles per hour is maintained across the flat plains to the Rakaia River and the impressively long wooden trestle bridge. While this engineering feat brings forth "admiration" those on board, "...seemed to be a little disappointed at finding nothing but a few paltry streams in the [river] bed." Departing Rakaia at 7.30 am, and to make up time spent watering the engine, it is determined to get to Ashburton by 8 am. Thus "Washington" "had to put his best foot foremost" and we now reach the heady speed of 30 miles per hour.

"Gaily Festooned"

Arriving at 8.10 pm, a large crowd awaits us at Ashburton but only the Mayor and councillors have been permitted onto the platform. With the Governor on board the inevitable addresses need to be read first. Dignitaries are then duly acknowledged before the Railway Band strikes up again and the official guests depart in a waggonette to the town hall. Here tables have been laid with breakfast for about 350 officials and guests. A formal arch had been constructed outside the hall "gaily festooned with evergreens, and surmounted with flags" and bearing the words "Success to the Christchurch and Dunedin Railway". Quite surprisingly, and despite the formalities involved, the train and official guests still manage to depart at 8.30 am sharp for the long run south across the flat South Canterbury plains to Timaru.

"By this time a clear view could be obtained of the country, and it was with admiration that those who had not seen them before scanned the bold line of the Southern Alps. Very beautiful they looked in the morning sun, with their snowy crests sharply defined against the blue sky, and relieved by the chocolate hue of the lower slopes."


The turning of the first sod of the Temuka to Timaru
Railway Section of the Main South Railway by the
Mayoress of Timaru, Mrs Cain, 4 Oct 1871
[Source : NZ History Net]   

The Dizzying Speed of 40 Miles Per Hour

Residents and school children at Orari and Winchester cheer us as the train passes by before stopping for another water stop at Temuka,

Timaru is reached at 10.05 am, in fact a little before the scheduled arrival time, the journey having been completed at an average speed of 25 miles per hour although for a considerable distance where the line was flat with no crossings the dizzying speed of 40 miles per hour had been achieved. The rails laid south of Ashburton are recorded as being new and "half the weight of the 70lb rails north of Ashburton" which caused "Washington" to "rattle furiously", even at 25 mph.

With "half the town" of Timaru waiting to greet the guests. a salute is fired by the artillery before the guard receives His Excellency. The Town Clerk then reads the formal address of welcome. A "very pretty" triumphal arch has been constructed close to the station bearing the words "Welcome", "Success to Agriculture, Industry and Commerce", and "Progress, Canterbury and Otago United".


Timaru Railway Station and Yard
taken looking south
[From a period postcard]

The Train Departed Without Them

While the Governor and some of his party repair for a ten minute visit to the Grosvenor Hotel for champagne "to wash down the dust which had become rather thick in the carriages", others partake of a tour of the town on the many carriages provided for this purpose. But upon returning to the station "some who indulged in this amusement", are taken aback to find that our train has departed without them! These included the Mayors of Ashburton, Hokitika and Greymouth. The Commissioner of Railways [ie, the General Manager] for the South Island, Mr W. Conyers, having determined to keep to the set timetable, had allowed only a 30 minute stop instead of the 45 minutes expected; "The feelings of the disappointed ones may be better imagined than described".

Departure from Timaru took place at twenty minutes to eleven, accompanied by another artillery salute and an even larger crowd of spectators "cheering with hearty goodwill".  


Rogers K94 and English built J82
about to depart Tinaru Station
[Source : "Grand Old Days of Steam"]

We Almost Touch the Sea Beach

"The way lay for many miles through the lovely downs of South Canterbury... [before encountering] ...a succession of cuttings and bridges until the plains beyond the Waimate Junction appear. The sea is close on the left; in fact, in places we almost touch the sea beach, and on the right, the nestling farms, the broken contour of the downs, and the rugged peaks of the Alps  bathed in a flood of sunshine..."


The long Rakaia combined road and rail bridge
taken pre 1956. An overhead water tank can be
observed to be used in case of fire.
[Source : "Rails In The Hinterland"] 

Nearly Double the Normal Speed

Now running "at nearly double the normal speed", we travel past the junction with the Waimate branch railway then over the level plain beyond. We next cross the "splendid cylinder bridge" over the Waitaki River which brings forth a rush to the carriage platforms as we cross at a "moderate" speed. [The bridge supports were constructed of cylindrical iron and may still be seen in the river bed]. Having only departed Timaru two hours previous we now leave behind the Province of Canterbury and enter the Province of Otago. Now "putting on more steam" we have but 15 miles further to travel before reaching Oamaru just a few minutes after 12.30 pm.


Oamaru Breakwater in the late 1880's and showing
the Railway Line onto the Normanby Wharf

[Source : NZ History Net]

Another Address is Inflicted on the Governor

Guests leave the train only for a few moments at Oamaru "while another address is inflicted on the Governor", a salute fired, three cheers given, then our train steams onto the breakwater. Here another address is given, this time by the Oamaru Harbour Board, a truck or two of stone is run down the line to the breakwater, and the opening of this short industrial line is proclaimed under the name of the "Normanby Wharf". A luncheon then follows in the goods shed with the usual speeches and toasts being given.


Part Two of this blog featuring the decidedly eventful Oamaru to Dunedin section will follow next week.


Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- New Zealand Electronic Text Collective / Te Pūhikotui o Aotearoa
- The New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1934
- "The New Zealand Listener", 1983
- New Zealand Historic Places magazine
- "New Zealand Railways to 1900", by C. Rous-Marten (from my own collection)
- "Otago Centennial 1848 - 1948" (from my own collection)


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