Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Story of the Homer Tunnel Project - and of a Bedford Truck

The Eastern Portal of the Homer Tunnel 1935
and showing what is most likely a Bedford Truck
[Source :  Invercargill Museum & Art Gallery, Ref 2004.936] 

While completing a large family history I discovered that my family had purchased a 1934 Bedford WLG 26HP truck used on the Homer Tunnel project during the late 1930's. The tunnel enabled a road to be pushed through the mountainous Darran Mountain Range in Fiordland and onwards down the Cleddau Valley to Milford Sound. But not only was there correspondence concerning the sale of the vehicle but also photographs taken of the truck after this date so I felt it would be worthwhile to tell something of this story.

The Location of the Homer Tunnel on the Road
from Te Anau  through to Milford Sound
[Source Google Maps] 

According to IPENZ, which commemorates engineering heritage in New Zealand, the Homer Tunnel project  itself  commenced in 1935 with men using pick, shovel and wheelbarrows to bore a 1,240 metre long tunnel through solid granite type rock. The route through to Milford Sound had been promoted "because of the route’s potential tourism value." with the work to be undertaken by the New Zealand Government Ministry of Works. This would additionally provide useful unemployment relief work for men during the depression years. Work was apparently paid "on the basis of progress" with wages being extremely low.

Tunnel Construction by Pick and Shovel
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

But following an avalanche in 1937 which killed the Engineer-in-Charge, Mr D.F. Hulse, and the Tunnel Works Overseer, Mr T.W. Smith, the approximately 40 workers employed on the site were withdrawn for safety reasons. From 1938 the tunnel contract would then be let to Downer and Company Limited. But even then weather conditions and the ever present risk of winter avalanches would bring work to a halt with the men being withdrawn. Rocks falling from above the tunnel portals also presented an ever present danger. The tunneling work itself would not be without some risk although the only recorded deaths and major injuries were through avalanches. The work was also hampered at times by water within the tunnel, entering through fractures in the rock.

"Homer Camp"
[Source : University of Otago Hocken Collections] 

The conditions the men had to endure in this isolated alpine environment were, to say the least, severe. Accommodation was provided at the Ministry of Works "Homer Camp", a small settlement first of canvas tents then promitive wooden huts fitted up with fireplaces but no insulation and with no amenities within easy reach. The cold was all pervasive and made worse by alpine winds blowing through the valley. Weather conditions can be changeable at any time. Driving through the Gertrude Valley leading up to the eastern tunnel portal on my way to Milford in late November 2017 (ie, late Spring) we encountered a layer of cold, damp fog hanging over the entire valley. On the return journey, and again at the eastern tunnel portal, we were able to get out and inspect the icy deposits of snow that had not yet melted while a brisk wind whipped through the area. For public safety this is still a "no stopping zone" during the 'avalanche season'.

Vehicles waiting to enter the Homer Tunnel.
Taken on a cold, foggy morning, 24 Nov 2017
[From my own collection]

This area, which sees no direct sun for six months of the year, receives an annual rainfall of around 6,000 mm and frequent heavy snowfalls, is now constantly monitored during the colder months. Even in winter this is a prime tourist route but in summer becomes manic, the trip to Milford Sound being the highlight for most overseas visitors. The men who lived and worked in these inhospitable conditions probably had no realization of the impact this tunnel would have on the tourist industry in the decades to come or the pleasure this very isolated but stunningly beautiful (albeit still rather challenging) 144 mile Highway through to Milford Sound would give millions of visitors and tourists.

The Homer Tunnel Carpark which emphasizes
the extreme alpine nature of the area.
[From my own collection]

While communication was provided from the Camp via a phone line down to Te Anau I would suspect that it was probably no more effective than the telephone line to Milford Sound that existed through to the 1980's and which I had to use on a number of occasions in the course of my Post Office work. One could often hardly hear the Postmistress on the other end and wet conditions would mean that there was not enough power getting through the line to even make it ring at the other end so a radio telephone was used in Te Anau to alert Milford to pick up the phone. Often I would simply resort to sending a service telegram.

These twisted metal reinforcing rods are all
that remain of the "shelter" destroyed by
an avalanche in 1945.
[From my own collection]

The start of the Second World War led to a winding down of work on the tunnel although the initial 'hole through' was at least achieved in February 1940 prior to widening to the required dimensions of 5.5m by 7m. This work would be resumed in the early 1950's, there having been a shortage of labour in the years immediately after the war ended in 1945. The 1.2 kilometer tunnel rises from the western portal at a relatively steep gradient of 1 in 10 and remains partially unlined although it has been further widened in the years since full completion in 1953.

For safety reasons traffic lights restrict the traffic to one way although two passenger vehicles could now - and for awhile did - pass within the tunnel.  At the eastern portal can be seen the remains of a solid reinforced long concrete shelter, having been built to reduce the risk from avalanches. But this extended portal entrance would itself be destroyed by an avalanche in 1945, only the reinforced and twisted mountings being visible today. A very solid looking steel truss avalanche and rock shelter has now been constructed at the western portal to reduce the obvious risk from the sheer cliff face above.

The Challenging and Steep Hairpin Bend Road Leading
up the Cleddau Valley to the Western Tunnel Portal
under the Sheer Face of the Homer Saddle
[Source : Google Maps]

If you would like to experience the steep drive up the Cleddau Valley hairpin bends and then up the 1 in 10 gradient through the tunnel here is a great 4 minute 52 second video of the journey (best to watch full screen to gain a proper perspective of the climb up the valley) :

But returning to our Bedford WLG truck, my Uncle sent a telegram to a Mr A.L. Knipe at Homer Tunnel in July 1941 inquiring about the availability of the truck. It appears that the truck and other plant had been advertised for sale as the work had wound down due to war conditions.

The Telegram from Homer Tunnell to Heddon Bush
[From my own Collection]

The extant reply, being a telegram from "Homer Tunnel" to "Heddon Bush", would without doubt be pretty unique today. It would appear that Knipe was the Officer in Charge and was selling the truck on behalf of Downers, his employer. I have endeavoured to find out more about Mr A.L. Knipe but so far without luck. His name is only listed in the Homer Tunnel history as he was a Downer's man rather than an M.O.W. employee. Possibly a brother, "C. Knipe" is also noted. The truck had previously been fitted with a "cutter" and an "engine" which would have been used on the tunnel widening, both being sold separately with the truck "chassis" which cost my Uncle £40.0.0  Knipe refers at one point to an item having been sold at "the sale" and as the truck was then located in Tuatapere in Western Southland the sale may have occurred here, perhaps in the form of a works equipment 'clearing sale'.

In correspondence dated the 10th July 1941 Knipe provides an interesting insight into the isolated work conditions at Homer Tunnel; “I am considering chucking this job as it is so difficult to get anything done but I am also hanging on because there is a probability of me being transferred and I might get quite a good job out of it. It is all in the lap of chance for a few days.”

Knipe writes again in August that; “Things are not going well here or at any rate they don’t suit me because they are tying most of us down to 40 hrs a week and it not worth staying out here for.”   

The "Homer Tunnel" Bedford WLG on the
family farm at Heddon Bush, circa late 1940's
[From my own collection]

After some difficulties encountered in moving the truck from Tuatapere a Motor Engineer then gave it a thorough overhaul costing £115.16.10 The itemized list would indicate that the truck had had a fairly hard life at Homer. But no sooner had my Uncle refurbished the truck when the NZ Army issued a "Warrant of Impressment" then a "Notice to Repossess", in other words that it be handed over to the New Zealand Army for the duration of the war. Duly scrubbed up and looking spic and span (as it was photographed on the day) it was then taken down to the Invercargill A&P Showgrounds for inspection on the 2nd March 1942. But it was, for whatever reason and no doubt to my Uncle's great relief, rejected. I can only assume that wear and tear had taken a toll on the vehicle.

While fuel restrictions would initially limit its use there was still a considerable saving in having to pay for commercial transport and I know my family made good use of it. Thus the trusty 'Homer Tunnel' Bedford would continue to faithfully provide farm transport until March 1956 when it was sold to local Engineer and Farmer, Mr Alfred (Alf) George Heenan of Heddon Bush for £80.0.0 I have been unable to ascertain what became of it in later years but I suspect that Alf would have sold it around early 1968 when he gave up his lease on our farm on the Hundred Line due to ill health and moved to Winton. A 1934 Bedford WLG truck would be quite collectible now so if a 2 ton WLG Bedford with the Engine No 435079 and Chassis No 0126090 should ever turn up I would naturally be rather interested!

Finally, if you love old trucks and automotive history check out the Bill Richardson Transport World in Invercargill [Link Here], it is simply the largest private automotive museum of its type in the world, is full of surprises, and has plenty to appeal to a wide range of people even if you thought you were not a fan of automotive history!  

All Rights Reserved.

Sources :

- Personal Family Papers and Photographs
- Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- University of Otago Hocken Collections 
- IPENZ Engineers New Zealand
- NZ History 

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