Tourist complaints prompted Railways to buy lake steamer service

New Zealand Railways’ first shipping activity was not coastal but on a Central Otago lake and happened because tourists were complaining about a privately-operated passenger steamer service. In 1901, Railways bought the three small ships operating on Lake Wakatipu from the Lake Wakatipu Shipping Company. The price was fifteen thousand pounds.

At the time, PS Antrim, PS Ben Lomond and PS Mountaineer were the only way to get from Kingston at the head of the lake, to Queenstown which even then had an international reputation as a tourism resort.

The steamers started sailing around the lake during the gold rushes of the 1860s and later to service the high country runs around Lake Wakitpu that followed them.

Rail reached Kingston from Invercargill, 87 miles away, in 1878. A second route connecting Kingston with Gore across the Waimea Plains opened in 1880.

Queenstown’s beauty had international visitors comparing Lake Wakitipu to Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, but while the scenery was captivating, the means of getting there wasn’t.

Mounting complaints prompted the Government to buy the existing steamer services and reschedule timetables to coincide with trains arriving at and leaving Kingston.

The next step was to look around for a ship that would satisfy the most demanding visitors, preferably a vessel that could be built in New Zealand.

In 1910, Railways accepted the 20,850 pound tender from the Dunedin firm of John McGregor & Co Ltd to build a 160 ft, 330 ton vessel capable of an average cruising speed of 12 knots. The ship was built to carry 1000 passengers in first and second class saloons as well as to carry 100 tons of freight. The keel was laid on the 4 July, 1911. Parts were numbered and railed to Kingston for assembly. The ship launched in the presence of a large crowd but without ceremony on 24 February 1912. Lake trials followed before being commissioned on 12 October.

The newcomer was named the TSS Earnslaw after a prominent Dunedin politician. People travelled in special trains from all over Otago and Southland for the ship’s maiden voyage, crowding the lake for a view of the newcomer and enjolying a public holiday the following day.

Earnslaw enjoyed a busy but uneventful life until 1936. Janet Smith was the daughter of a saw-miller who established a business at the head of the lake. In a contribution to 2012 centenary celebrations recalled: ”It was always exciting on boat day as the mail and papers arrived along with anything that had been ordered from the outside world.

“All our groceries were ordered in bulk and sent up on the Earnslaw, enough for three months at a time.”

During the economic depression of the early 1930s, unemployed men had started a Government work scheme to build a road around the foot of the Remarkables range to link Kingston and Frankton. They were to put an end to the glory days of Lake Wakatipu steamers.

The road was finished in 1936, opening the way for buses and cars to drive to Queenstown. A year later, buses replaced trains on the line to Kingston, apart from some holiday and excursion services. The lake steamers were to continue serving the farms and stations around the lake until the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy was opened in 1963.

In 1952 the 80-year-old Ben Lomond was taken out of service and scrapped leaving Earnslaw the only steamer still sailing on Lake Wakatipu.

By 1962, annual losses were mounting and Railways decided Earnslaw should follow her predecessors. There were a number of proposals for the ship’s future including sinking, but this wasn’t an option Queenstown people were prepared to tolerate.

Marygold Miller, who had arrived in Queenstown with her husband in 1963 recalled her fight to save the Earnslaw with then Railways Minister Peter Gordon whom she dubbed “the Great Train Robber”. “We tried to protest,” she said during the 2012 centenary celebrations. “However, the Great Train Robber said, `Rubbish, it's going'.

"I kicked up a fuss because they said they were planning to sink it on the end of the Queenstown park. But instead of sinking it he (Peter Gordon) agreed to compromise and set it up at the end of the (Queenstown) gardens as a museum. But a lot of people backed me up and we tried to block it." The ship was laid up until it was leased initially to an Auckland business consortium. That ended messily when the navy had to be called in to occupy the Earnslaw.

In December of 1969, Earnslaw was leased to travel business, Fiordland Travel Ltd and then sold to the company1989.

It has been used for tourism cruises ever since and remains an important feature of Lake Wakatipu. The ship carried royalty at least twice and was imortalised in music by orchestra conductor Ron Goodwin. After a steam trip in 1978 he was so impressed by the rhythm of her engines that he created a composition called the "SS Earnslaw' Steam Theme", first performed in Invercargill by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Sources: NZ Maritime Record; TSS Earnslaw Centenary Website.