The Nelson Railway…to Nowhere

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Despite more than 80 years of drive and determination on the part of Nelsonians to work towards a railway that would end their isolation from the rest of the South Island, the resulting line was destined to be the railway to nowhere. 

Save our Railway

Nelsonians had dreamed of a railway that would link them to the rest of the South Island from as early as the 1860s.

Permission was finally given in 18711 to start work on a line intended to meet up with the main trunk line. Construction of the first 30.4km stage, from the city to Foxhill, began in 1873 and it opened in 1876.2 The line followed St Vincent Street, rather than the publicly favoured port route. It went over the relatively steep gradient of Bishopdale and through Stoke, Richmond, Brightwater and Wakefield, to Wai-iti, just short of Foxhill.3

Belgrove construction workBelgrove construction work by Midland Railway Company, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio collection,  179476/3
Click image to enlarge

An economic recession forced the suspension of construction until 1879-1880, when an extension to Belgrove was built.4

Meanwhile, in 1878, work had started on widening Haven Road to accommodate a line from the city to Government Wharf at Port Nelson.5 This followed the route of the closed Dun Mountain railway line and was opened in 1880.6

Work began on the Belgrove to Motupiko (Kohatu) section in 1890. A work camp was established and a 1352m tunnel built through the Spooner Range.7 This section opened in 1897, and in 1901 a start was made on the 16km stretch to Tadmor, via Tapawera. A rail and road bridge across the Motueka River was completed in 1906.8

Frustrations grew over the time taken to build the railway. It had taken 33 years to build just 66km of track.9 The line had been extended from Tadmor, through Kiwi, Tui and Kaka to Glenhope10 by 1912. Construction was again suspended, however, and the outbreak of war in 1914 brought a further halt.11

A 6km extension to Kawatiri began in 1920 and the Pikomanu railway camp was established the following year. A tunnel of 185 m. was cut, two bridges built across the Hope River and the section opened in June 1926.12

Services were reduced in the 1920s, with passenger numbers and freight volumes having decreased due to the rapid development of road freight and passenger transport. The Nelson Progress League was established in 1924 to campaign for the line to be extended to join the main trunk. It launched a pamphlet in 1925 calling on the Government to “Fill the Gap”.13

Between 1924 and 1929 a 6km section was built to Gowan Bridge, but this was only ever used for freight. With the country reeling from the Depression, all work on the railway was suspended from January 1931, terminating the employment of 300 men.14

The gap between the completed section of line and Inangahua Junction, where it could connect with the main trunk line, was less than 70km (42 miles).15

Toi Toi Valley trainToi Toi Valley train, The Nelson Provincial Museum, FN Jones Collection, 26713 
Click image to enlarge

From 1931 the line was under constant threat of closure and people were urged to “use it or lose it”. It was announced in 1952 that the Nelson line would remain open only until major highways were completed. Rail services were suspended in 1954.16

A public meeting resulted in a 12,000-signature petition calling for a change of the decision. The Prime Minister, Sid Holland, issued a challenge to Nelson to save its railway by guaranteeing 25,000 tons of rail freight per year. On June 12, 1954, an excursion took 400 passengers on “the last train to Glenhope”. A few days later the Progress League accepted the Prime Minister’s challenge and the line re-opened. Despite its best efforts, the League fell short of the target and the line was set for closure on September 3, 1955.17

Kiwi Protest 1955,Kiwi Protest 1955, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Geoffrey C Wood Collection, 8830 fr38 
Click image to enlarge

The last timetabled train arrived in Nelson on Friday September 2, 1955 and there was a last-ditch public meeting on the Church Steps.18 Ruth Page called her own women’s protest meeting, on hearing that work would start on pulling up the railway lines at Kiwi on September 20th.19 A group of women held a week-long sit-in on the line at Kiwi, with nine of them being arrested and convicted when they refused to move. It was to no avail, and the railway line, so desperately wanted and so long under construction, was gradually dismantled.20

The dream was over.

2008 

Sources used in this story

  1. Voller, L. (1991). Rails to nowhere. Nelson, N.Z.: Nikau Press, p.25

  2. McAloon, J.(1997). Nelson: A regional history. Whatamango Bay, N.Z, Cape Catley Ltd., p.107; Voller, pp.28,33,35.

  3. O’Donnell , B. (2005), When Nelson had a railway: The life and death of New Zealand’s last isolated railway, 1876-1955. Wellington, N.Z: Schematics Ltd., pp.18-22, 34-61.

  4. Voller, p.50.

  5. O’Donnell, pp.24-33.

  6. Voller, p.74.

  7. Voller p.62-73.

  8. O’Donnell, 92-107; Voller, p.87

  9. Voller, p.89.

  10. O’Donnell, pp. 106,110,112-131,186-9.

  11. McAloon, p.123.

  12. Voller, pp. 116,119-122; O’Donnell, pp.132.

  13. McAloon, p.188; Voller, pp.114-5,124

  14. O’Donnell, pp.133-5; McAloon, p.172.

  15. Voller, p.136.

  16. Voller, p.139.; McAloon, p.188, O’Donnell, pp.197-199

  17. Voller, p.161-2,167; O’Donnell, pp.205-235

  18. O’Donnell, pp.236-239.

  19. Davies, S. (1984), Bread and roses. Auckland, N.Z: David Bateman Ltd, pp.98-105.

  20. O’Donnell, pp.247-273.

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Comments

  • The Spooners Tunnel is 1,474 yards long, which makes it 1.347 kilometres (using google to do the conversion!).
    Barbara

    Posted by Barbara Mulligan, 14/08/2013 4:36pm (12 months ago)

  • Great work !!!! would really like to see a map of the old Nelson railway added to this page. Ed. will try and find one we can add

    Posted by Belgrove resident , ()

  • I have just walked the Spooners tunnel and I am sure to is more than 303m long, perhaps 1.3, 1.4 km would be closer. Ed. - will check and amend as nec.

    Posted by Rob, ()

  • Not sure if it's what you're after, but there is a route map of the Nelson line here;
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Section

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, ()

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Further sources - The Nelson Railway…to Nowhere

Books

Articles

Articles (Newspapers, Magazines, Journals)
[Ask at your local public library about online access to articles from 1985-]

Other

New Zealand Film Archive - available to view on  MediaNet at Elma Turner Library, Nelson Public Libraries:

Photographs

  • In Their Tracks September 1955-2005 Calendar, (2006), Nelson, N.Z.: In Their Tracks Steering Group. [A Collection of photographs from the protest at Kiwi Station, September 1955 [Held in Heritage Room, Nelson Public Libraries]

Unpublished Resources

[held The Nelson Provincial Museum]

  • Field, L, William, L & Hemming, T.A. (1900-1960) Collection. AG412 Box 5 Railway
  • Firtzgibbon, A. (1863) Waimea Railway Plan. M1675
  • Jenks, C.F.L. (1947-1957) The Nelson Railway. QMS JEN
  • Jenks, C.F.L. (1947-1957) Nelson railway scrapbook.qMS JEN.
  • Lucas, W.D.A. (1955) Train Advice No 73: last train from Nelson - Glenhope UMS 457
  • Nelson Provincial Progress League (1931) Papers re railway. AG 399
  • Voller, Lois (1896-1985) Railway research papers. AG 396

Visit sites associated with the old Nelson railway line - check our map

Nelson

  • Nelson railway station. A memorial marking the site of the Nelson railway station is on the corner of Gloucester and St Vincent Streets where the fire station now is.

  • Founders Park Atawhai Drive, Nelson. Home of the Nelson Railway Society, which has created a railway characteristic of the old Nelson to Glenhope line. Restored trains, identical to the type and class of those used on the Nelson line, run between the park and Sovereign Street, with plans to extend the line further. A workshop at the park has restoration projects underway and passengers on the short rail journey can stop at one of three stations: theWakefield Quay Station at the park - originally an NZ Railways freight building located behind the Customhouse at Port Nelson); the restored Tui station, which was restored and moved from the Tui Property in 2008; and the Grove Station at Sovereign Street, which was the old Spring Grove rails station. There is a display about the railway at Wakefield Quay Station, plus Mind the Gap – The Story of Nelson's Unfinished Railway. A new permanent exibition at Founders Park.

  • Walter’s Bluff. The hillside opposite Founders Park (Atawhai Drive, Nelson) received its name after a 1960 election year promise made by the Prime Minister Walter Nash, that a rail link would be built between Nelson and Marlborough, came to nothing. The proposed line was to have started from a station on reclaimed mudflats near Trafalgar Park and run along the waterfront to Wakapuaka and on to Havelock to join the main trunk line between Picton and Blenheim. Mr Nash posed for a photograph with his foot on the first load of spoil dumped on the site of the proposed station but the project was scrapped when a new government was elected. A sign was erected on the hillside with the slogan “Walter’s Bluff,” a name that stuck.

  • Railway Reserve. This public corridor follows the route of the railway line out of the city to the Wakatu Estate. A 15km stretch of it is sealed with foot and cycle paths. Follow the maps and route directions in the Nelson City Council’s Bike Nelson (pp.16-17) and Walk Nelson (pp.110-111) booklets to traverse the reserve from the city to Stoke. Towards the Saxton Road end of the reserve, view Mike Hindmarsh’s “Arrival and Beginning” sculpture, made of railway sleepers.

Tasman

  • Railway Reserve - The reserve walkway continues, unsealed, from Queen Street, Richmond to State Highway 60 at Appleby, running parallel to Gladstone Road. The old railway overbridge at the Appleby end was built in 1930 after three fatal road accidents prompted a safer route across the railway track. Despite the lack of a railway these days, the traffic overbridge remains in use across the railway reserve. See the Tasman District Council’s Walk Tasman booklet for a map and route direction (pp.18-19).

  • Belgrove railway windmill. This is the best remaining example of a wooden railway windmill in New Zealand. It was used to pump water for the engines beginning the steep climb to the tunnel through the Spooners Range. There were originally 100 in use and this one operated between 1898-1955. See the information on Day Out 

  • Belgrove/Spooners Range rail tunnel. This is New Zealand’s longest closed tunnel at 1352m long and its summit is 303m above sea level. It took 15 months to complete (1890-1892) with 15 men working 3 shifts each with pick and shovel and a team of men and boys making concrete blocks. (Info from http://trains.wellington.net.nz/tunnels2.html)
    The tunnel is on privately owned forestry land and is closed to the public. Special tours run in the summer, advertised in local media. Groups can arrange tours – contact Bob Stewart 5448502 (visitors need to be relatively fit). The railway line is no longer in place apart from some totara sleepers, but there are cave weta, worms and fungi. Location map

  • Kiwi Station. The original Kiwi station near where the protest sit-in of a group of Nelson women took place in 1955, has been relocated to Tapawera where it is now used as an information centre.

  • Glenhope Station. This is still situated at Glenhope and is being used as a storage shed

  • Kawatiri Tunnel. The tunnel took three years to build, some of it hand-drilled through quartz. It was finished in 1923 and is at Kawatiri Junction, 24km south of Lake Rotoiti. The short walkway goes through the tunnel and includes a rail bridge and the site of the Kawatiri station. Interpretation panels give detailed information about the Nelson to Glenhope railway line. Opposite the tunnel is the site of the Pikomanu camp where several hundred railway workers lived. Location map.
    See also http://trains.wellington.net.nz/tunnels2.html and http://www.dayout.co.nz/attraction-subject-results.asp?subject=tunnel&x=7&y=5t=tunnel&x=7&y=5

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