Founders Park


Founders Park: Nelson's Secret Village 

On March 1st, 1986, hundreds of Nelsonians gathered along Atawhai Drive to pay witness to the opening of Founders Park. Waiting outside the large red apple (removed 2011 and re-sited in front of the Harvestland Museum), that previously greeted visitors to town1  and an even larger replica grain-cutting windmill, Nelsonians were soon to take a walk through the streets of Nelson's colonial past.

Founders ParkA street view of Founders. Natasha Lubas
Click to enlarge

In the first two days that Founders Park opened 4,5002 people experienced the charming historical village. Several years earlier it had become apparent to the Nelson community that much of Nelson's transport history was being lost, and a search to locate, retain and restore artefacts began. In 1976 the Newman family, founders of the Newman Brothers coaching firm, donated $50,000 for a regional transport museum.2 A single large building was planned to exhibit these items close to the airport, however in 1977 a Board of Trustees was established which selected an alternative site near Neale Park. By 1980 the Nelson City Council had approved the land for the Park. Filled to a depth of 3-4 metres with city waste, capped with clay from Walters Bluff, the allocated landfill site required much engineering work to prepare it for development. 

Created with a combination of community skills, unemployed labour directed from the Labour Department, community service clubs, local businesses and a raft of volunteers, Founders officially opened in 1986. It had strong community support, with over 20,000 items donated by the Nelson community.

During the early period of development, which included extensive landscaping, many historic buildings were relocated to Founders while others were replicated. Following a period of uncertainty, the Nelson City Council assumed control in 1995.

The model for Founders Park was designed in 1981 by Matt Bennett (then in the sixth form at Nelson College), as part of a University Entrance course. Site work began in October 1982. The planned entrance for Founders was to be placed on North Road. A deal had been struck with Redwood College, formerly Sacred Heart Girls’ College, to acquire their 90 year old music block and chapel (known as the Granary) and use it as the main exhibition hall. The plan was to remove the building in three parts. the top two stories and most of the roof were successfully transported to Founders, however on May 9th, 1983, disaster struck and the remainder of the building became the victim of arson.3  The building was no longer suitable as a large exhibition hall, and without it plans had to be changed and an open spaced village layout was decided with the entrance placed on Atawhai drive.4

Founders Park is a replica historic village of our colonial days, dating from 1880-1930. The charming miniature township is filled with character streets and serene gardens lying on five hectares of land. Founders has over time played host to many events, including a weekly farmers' market (ceased on this site 2016), quarterly beer festivals and antique to retro shows as well as the renowned  annual Founders Book Fair. Along with the many historical buildings,  the park also has a Montessori Preschool and a classic 19th century church, where numerous weddings take place.

Founders Park - St Peters ChurchFounders Park - St Peters Church. Nelson City Council
Click to enlarge

St Peters Church was built in the late 19th century and moved to become part of Founders Park in 1983. Although St Peters has been restored to its original condition, filled with traditional Roman Catholic and Methodist furniture, the clock tower is a replica, as in 1941 it was demolished due to a safety hazard. The current St Peters clock was built in 1909 by Little John and Son from Wellington. It was originally placed at Nelson College to "be an ornament to the building for 100 years to come"5. However this was not to be, as when the 1929 Murchison earthquake struck the clock was removed and later stored in the College museum until it was later donated to Founders. St Peters is one of the many beautifully detailed buildings placed at Founders Park;  however many of the buildings are replicas or their original use has changed.

The Bank of New South Wales, which is now Westpac, was established in 1817. The replicated building now at Founders is a duplicate of the 1876 building that, in its time, incorporated grand architecture beyond anything ever seen before in Nelson. The Bank of New South Wales contains a giftshop. 

The Bakery, currently Ruck n Co,  is a replica of the 1876 Goodman's Bakery, which Thomas Goodman, a highly respected cheerful man ran in Motueka. 

The Crown Livery Stables of Founders Park is a fond attraction for many. It houses the history of the Newman's transport company, and it was the Newman family which originally donated a large sum of money to start a regional transport museum, which was the starting point for Founders Park.  Newman's Coachlines is now operated by Transit Coachlines and Ritchies Transport Holdings. The Crown Livery Stables is a replica of the Newman's stables. Take a look inside and you will find their coach lines and horse and carts, along with photographs and artefacts from our early transport days.

Founders Park is a village where historic buildings are bought, renovated and shown so people can get an insight into how people used to live around the turn of the 20th century in Nelson. Life between 1880-1930 was very different to the present time and whilst walking around Founders Park you can easily note the many contrasting aspects.

Life in Nelson 1880-1930

So what was life like between 1880-1930? Horses were very important,  being used to pull carriages, deliver goods and plough fields, however in 1903 came the railway boom and by the 1920's all classes of people could afford cars - an aspect of life which we take for granted. 1895 took the world by storm when moving pictures were invented, but it wasn't until around 1912 when feature films were available. However along with many new inventions of the time these were a luxury.

Duncan House - Founders ParkDuncan House - Founders Park. Natasha Lubas
Click to enlarge

Electricity is another thing we currently take for granted, although it was not until 1930 that it was introduced to Nelson. Around Founders Park there are many examples of gas fittings or candles for lighting. These aspects are fascinating to the modern day person as the majority of us cannot imagine what life would be like without computers, cars, cell phones or even general medicine, none of which had been invented during 1880-1930.

Founders Park is important for Nelson as it links our current lives with a history that, at Founders, we are able to experience first hand.

This essay was written as part of a Nelson College for Girls history assignment, 2009.

For further information about the park, images and a map, see the Nelson City Council Founders Heritage Park interpretation panel, text by Janet Bathgate. (PDF)

The origins of the Park
(taken from the interpretation panel):
The generous donation of $50,000 by the Newman family, in 1976, to back their concept of a Nelson Regional Transport Museum, sowed the seed of today's Founders Heritage Park. The following year a Board of Trustees was established and by 1980 the Nelson City Council had approved the land for the Park.

Filled to a depth of 3-4 metres with city waste, capped with clay from Walters Bluff, the allocated landfill site required much engineering work to prepare it for development. Created with a combination of community skills, unemployed labour directed from the Labour Department, community service clubs, local businesses and a raft of volunteers, Founders officially opened in 1986.  During the early period of development, which included extensive landscaping, many historic buildings were relocated to Founders while others were replicated. Following a period of uncertainty, the Nelson City Council assumed control in 1995.

The Founders Park railway

The Nelson Railway Society, formerly The "Grand Tapawera Railroad Company",  began in the late 1980's when a group of dedicated volunteers decided to set up a working railway at Kohatu, using the old existing railway formations. However, in 1991 the decision was made to recreate a railway at Founders Heritage Park instead. The group laid approximately 1km of track, restored a 1903 carriage, a guards van and railway engine and partially restored a coal wagon, within its first five years - and purchased more rail vehicles which it has restored over the years, including two diesel locomotives, a railcar, carriages and guards van, various wagons and a jigger.

In 1996 a further 400m of track was opened, extending the line to 1.75 km - taking it as far as Sovereign Street, where Grove Station, formerly the old Spring Grove Station, was opened in November 2003.  It was a struggle to get resource consent to extend the line as it meant running over a main sewage outlet and reclamation water mains. 

Tui station, was moved from Tui along the old Nelson-Glenhope railway line (closed mid 1950's) to Founders and was opened in August 2008. The main station, Wakefield Quay, at Founders Park, was a former Nelson Railway building from Port Nelson. 

The Railway Society always intended to introduce a steam train to the track. They acquired a Wf 403 steam engine in 2000, which they spent over 10 years restoring. Built in 1907 in Dunedin, it is the only engine of its type which has been restored to working practice. In 2019 the Society progressively widened a length of the Park's two km track to run the train.

The Founders Park train currently runs from 11am - 4pm on every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month from Labour Weekend until Easter. The railcar runs from 11am - 4pm every Saturday and Sunday when the train is not running all year and daily during the school holidays, weather permitting.

Updated: August 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. The apple sign was the "gateway sign” on the main highway into Nelson for many years, erected by Jaycees sometime in the 1990’s
  2. Knight, David (2005) Founders Historical Park, Development analysis stage 2. Nelson, N.Z.: author
  3.  ‘Founders count fire’s cost’, Nelson Evening Mail, 9 May 1983, p.1
  4. Knight, David (2004) Founders Historical Park, Development analysis stage 1 1977-1985.Nelson, N.Z.: author
  5. Plaque at St Peters church

Want to find out more about the Founders Park ? View Further Sources here.

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  • I like the history of nelson and i think that it would grow and move nelson forward if you extended the founders train track so visitors to the nelson region can take a ride on the train track for views of over beautiful city.

    Posted by jak guirdham, ()

  • Hi Natasha. I have a small group of 4 for clubs this year and we are doing aspects of Nelson history. I found your article on Founders vey interesting. Well done. Mr Burt

    Posted by Murray Burt, ()

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Further sources - Founders Park


Held Nelson Public libraries:

  • Founders heritage park strategic plan, 1987-2012 (2007)  Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council
  • Knight, David (2005) Founders Historical Park, Development analysis stage 2. Nelson, N.Z.: author
  • Knight, David (2004) Founders Historical Park, Development analysis stage 1 1977-1985.Nelson, N.Z.: author
  • Wastney, N. (2003) Old St. Peters, Founders Park. Nelson, N.Z.: author


  • Currie, E. (2007) Window on Nelson's colonial heritage. Heritage matters 12, pp. 30-31
  • Founders Park grand opening, (1986, March 1) Nelson Evening Mail. Supplement

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