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12 Arthur's Pass
As we drive in our climate controlled vehicles from accommodation to cafe to restaurant it is easy to forget the downright hardships faced by those who toiled to build the roads, railways and settlements we take for granted. This walk evocatively couples the physical remains and old photos to throw us back to a time when life was not so comfortable.
The walk loops through the village but is best started from the large parking area on the opposite side of SH73 from the DoC Visitor Centre.
Pick up a brochure from the information centre before starting this walk, as it both elaborates on the information panels and provides a map.
When the West Coast goldfields opened up in 1863, a consortium of businessmen offered a £200 reward for the most promising access across the Southern Alps. The preferred route at the time crossed Harpers Pass at the head of the Hurunui and Taramakau. But with the procession of pack horses, boots and miners the muddy pack track turned to mush and became virtually impassable. Not good for a pass.
Chief Surveyor, Thomas Cass had commissioned Arthur Dobson to explore the upper reaches of the Waimakariri watershed to find a pass. On the advice of Maori chief Tarapuhi, Dobson found this pass to be the most suitable, although he noted it to be extremely steep, rocky and precipitous on the descent. He called it Camping Flat. Concurrently, Arthur’s father Edward Dobson, the provinces engineer, was asked to look for possible crossings around the head of Taramakau, Hurunui and Waimakariri watersheds. After taking the census, he concluded Arthur’s Pass was the best.
Disgrunteld MPs in Nelson, Canterbury and the West Coast were sick of their constituents being isolated due to lack of a railway. They lobbied the Vogel-Stout government to secure the funds for construction of the vital link. Private enterprise would drive the construction, while land grants would secure the access. Nelsonians’ isolation would end, Cantabrians would find employment during the 1880s depression and Coasters would have the necessary transport to export their coal and timber.
The English based New Zealand Midland Railway Company took up the contracts, with railheads at Belgrove in Nelson, Brunner on the West Coast and Springfield in Canterbury. Despite financial difficulties - a common problem for English companies underestimating the difficulty of the New Zealand terrain - lines linking the Grey to the Jacksons, Greymouth to Reefton were completed by 1894. When ‘King Dick’ Seddon, a coaster who later rose to prominence as Prime Minister, annulled the contract due to poor progress and passed construction to the Public Works Department.
After deliberation and recalculation the Public Works Department decided on replacing the proposed toothed centre-rail switchback railway between Arthurs Pass and Otira, with an 8.5 km tunnel. The contract was awarded to J McLean and Co, who opened proceeding with a ceremonious explosion detonated by Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward in 1908. Technical difficulties included slippage from the shattered shale, necessitating extra lining and timber work, and water inundation at thousands of liters per minute. The contractors pulled out and the public purse picked up the pieces half way through. World War 1 caused shortages of both labour and explosives and morale became as sodden as the portal communities at both ends.
Even to reach Arthurs Pass, the line needed 4 viaducts, 17 tunnels and 5 bridges. Pattersons Creek bridge alone had a span of 166 m and height of 36 m. Staircase Gully had a height of 71 m above the Waimakariri River.
When the moment of piercing the Otira tunnel arrived in 1918, the calculations for the 1:33 gradient were measured with an error of 29 mm horizontal and 19 mm vertical. The tunnel was formally opened in 1923.
The desired catalyst for resource export worked. Coal production doubled from 289,000 tonnes in 1922 to 609,000 tonnes in 1930. The link facilitated movement of goods, dairy produce, timber and people. Today the Trans-Alpine is on many tourists Wish List and one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world.
A note on apostrophes. Thanks to the Geographic Board policy on omitting apostrophes from place names, Arthurs Pass was spelled as such until an outcry by locals pressured a change. The apostrophe won and since 1975 the settlement has been known as Arthur’s Pass.
South Island ▷ Canterbury ▷ Arthur's Pass
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍