Nelson the first rail passenger service provider in New Zealand 


Christchurch is acknowledged as the cradle of rail in New Zealand because that’s where the first locomotive-drawn passenger train ran in 1863.

But fellow South Island provincial centre Nelson also has a claim in the form of a horse-drawn freight railway that began operating a year earlier.

The Dun Mountain Railway, which opened in February 1862, was built by the Dun Mountain Railway Company. It linked the port to chromite mines almost 3,000 ft above sea level to the east of the city.

Chromite, as the name suggests, is an ore used in the production of chromium, itself an additive to steel to improve its strength and durability. At the time it was also used to produce yellow dyes used in the cotton mills of Lancashire.

Two Irish engineers, William Doyne and Abraham Fitzgibbon were contracted to build the Dun Mountain Railway. Railway track and rolling stock were imported from Britain and sleepers were made by local sawmills.

Horses were only needed for half of the journey. They pulled the wagons up to the mines but the incline was sufficient for gravity to bring them back down to Nelson. The track cost seventy-thousand pounds. While chromite was the principal cargo, passenger services between Nelson city and the port quickly became popular.

The Dun Mountain Railway’s right to cross Nelson streets was conditional on the company running at least one passenger service a day, effectively creating New Zealand’s first public railway.

An Act of Parliament dictated that maximum speed for travel through the city was to be four miles an hour.

In its first year of production, almost four thousand tons of chromite were mined and railed to Nelson’s port. But good quality ore was quickly exhausted and production dropped off quickly.

The American Civil war of the early 1860s also had an impact, limiting the supply of cotton to the English mills. Another deposit of good quality ore was found nearby, but not exploited because of the cost of extending the railway.

In 1866, mining engineer Joseph Cock reported to the company’s directors in London: "Gentlemen, it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that the present condition and future prospects of your mine are extremely unsatisfactory."

The Company went into liquidation in 1872 and railway services stopped – although a horse drawn tram independent of the mining business continued to run between Hardy Street and the Tasman Hotel at the Port until 1901.

The line to the mines was finally lifted in 1907. Today the route into the hills is a popular walkway.

Sources: Joy Stephens, 2008, Wild Tomato with the support of The Nelson Provincial Museum