Central Otago Railway
Cromwell Rail yard 1954. Photo Ron Murray Collection

This was part of the Railway network expansion into rural New Zealand which begun in the late 1800’s as an efficient way to transport people and goods between the coast and the interior.

These were known as branch lines, in many cases, they reduced the journey times from days to hours.

Nearly all these branch lines have since closed.

 The construction of the railway to Central Otago started at Wingatui just south of Dunedin in 1877.

The route chosen was through the Taieri Gorge and reached Middlemarch in 1891, 14 years later.

This was due to the route through the Taieri gorge requiring the railway route to be dug out of the side of the gorge, tunnels to be excavated and many bridges to be built including crossing the Taieri river.

Railway to Cromwell
Showing approximate location of Railway yard 2021. Photo Lester Scott

These were typical of the many construction challenges in New Zealand.

Another example of the obstacles the builders overcame were the Poolburn Tunnels No1 and 2, and the Poolburn Viaduct between Lauder and Oturehua.

Milestones of construction: – Ranfurly 1898, Omakau 1904, Alexandra 1906 and Clyde 1907.

Construction started in 1914 on the section through the Cromwell Gorge and was completed in 1921 when the railway reached Cromwell.

 A survey was done to continue the railway on to Wanaka/Hawea.

Some work was started but never completed.

There was evidence of a substantial bridge built over Firewood Creek.

Consider for a moment and the tools and skills the railway builders had at the time.

Pick, shovel, wheelbarrow, horse drawn dray, hammer, and chisel – a short one to shape the stones to build the piers for the viaducts and portals for the tunnels, or a long one when hit with a hammer, drilled holes to be filled with dynamite to blast the rock so it could be removed from the tunnels, a hand operated crane for lifting blocks of stone into place.

The Clyde to Cromwell section of the railway was closed in 1980 in preparation for the forming of Lake Dunstan.

The rest of the Railway line was closed and taken up in 1990 after the Clyde Dam was completed.

A section of the railway line was left as far as Middlemarch which become a tourist venture known as the Taieri Gorge Railway. 

References – Wikipedia Otago Central Railway