Thousand pound bet got the first train over the North Island Main Trunk
As the North Island Main Trunk neared completion in mid-1908, interest in the line from the public, politicians and newspapers grew rapidly.
A number of Parliamentary tours were arranged to the work sites and Ministers were often called upon to open new viaducts and sections of track.
The scheduled finishing date was towards the end of 1908 but an event in Auckland in August provided the impetus for an earlier completion.
Out-going United States President Theodore Roosevelt had decided that his newly-built fleet of battleships should make a world tour to remind Britain and Germany in particular about the extent of American power and influence.
The arrival in Auckland of the “Great White Fleet” as it was known, was a huge event for a small country. A series of celebrations was arranged for the days the fleet would be in harbour.
The Minister of Public Works, William Hall-Jones – effectively the Minister responsible for the railway building work – wanted to transport his parliamentary colleagues to Auckland for the fleet’s reception. He was philosophical about the reality that his colleagues would have to endure a stage-coach journey between the two rail heads. But the engineer in charge of the work, the energetic Frederick William Furkert, had other ideas.
He suggested to his Minister that the entire journey could be completed by rail. The story goes that Hall-Jones wagered one thousand pounds if Furkert could complete the line In time. It’s a bet that was to become famous in railway circles.
Furkert, his works crews and contractors, worked feverishly to complete as much of the line as possible before the fleet’s arrival. They didn’t quite make it, but they were able to lay temporary, un-ballasted track to bridge the gap and get the train through.
It’s not recorded whether or not Hall-Jones paid the one thousand pounds, but he did have the satisfaction of seeing 44 parliamentarians and 150 other passengers board the Parliament Special at 10.00 pm on 7 August 1908.
The train was made up of 11 carriages; there were no sleeping compartments and only one dining car that could seat 17 people at a time. Nor was there any steam heating to warm the carriages during the long night heading up into the central North Island high country.
The Parliament Special travelled on the Wellington and Manawatu Company Line to Longburn near Palmerston North. From there, a Railways Department locomotive took the train on to Waiouru. A Public Works locomotive took over as far as Horopito where three smaller, lighter locomotives were hooked up to negotiate the temporary, un-ballasted section of track.
Twenty hours after leaving Wellington, the Parliament Special was welcomed into Auckland at 6.30 pm by a cheering crowd.
The train completed the return journey a week later but by that time, the temporary tracks had been replaced by permanent rails and ballast.