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Otira – a West Coast settlement with a fascinating history

Dorothy - 06/05/05

Part 1
Otira’s early years till the opening of the railway tunnel which bears its name

Otira is not just the name of the Otira tunnel or the Otira Gorge with its dramatic scenery. It is also the name of a settlement at the foot of magnificent mountains and it has a fascinating history. Maori searching for greenstone passed by, coaches with gold-seekers and other adventurers stopped there, workers at the Otira end of the tunnel lived there, railway workers were housed in Otira, and now tourists visit and the remaining houses are all occupied by people who love this part of the West Coast. Chris and Bill Hennah who manage the hotel have scrap books filled with cuttings about the history of the town and encourage anyone who has photographs to provide a copy for general viewing.

Maori from the east coast in search of West Coast greenstone crossed the steep slopes of Arthur’s Pass and the Otira Gorge and travelled beside the Otira and Taramakau Rivers, though on their return when laden with greenstone they preferred the easier grade of the Hurunui saddle further north despite the extra distance it involved.

Soon after 1860 gold was discovered on the West Coast and access was difficult and dangerous. Crossing the bars of the rapid and treacherous rivers was fraught with danger. The track which Maori had used over the Hurunui saddle was long and rough. There was strong demand for a road over the mountains, particularly from Canterbury people who wanted the gold to be exported from Lyttelton, and in 1864 Arthur Dudley Dobson did the surveying for a road over the pass which was then named Arthur’s Pass. Work on the road was completed in less than a year and it opened in 1866, but the gold was exported by sea, much of it through Nelson, and only once was a small quantity taken over the pass. However, a rough road had been built and for 58 years coaches took passengers over it using especially sturdy models built to cope with the rough road and the thirteen river crossings. Their journey from Christchurch to the West Coast took three days.

A section of the road between Arthur’s Pass and Otira
A section of the road between Arthur’s Pass and Otira
Photo source a family album
Click here to view a larger version

Otira – a stopping place for the Cobb and Co coaches
The trip by coach over the pass and down the Otira Gorge left passengers ready for refreshments, whether they found the journey thrilling or terrifying. The first hotel was opened in Otira in 1864. By 1900 the railway from the Coast had been extended as far as Otira so the coach journey ended there. In Otira there was a West Coast welcome, food and drink and the Terminus Hotel offering accommodation.

The Terminus Hotel now called the Otira Hotel
The Terminus Hotel now called the Otira Hotel

Otira – the construction town
Information from “Pioneer Contractors – The Story of John McLean and Sons” by John McLean
Information about life in Otira over the years of the construction of the tunnel is not plentiful, but in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre in the Central Library of the Christchurch City Libraries I was referred to the reference-only copy of “Pioneer Contractors – The Story of John McLean and Sons” by John McLean. The author’s main purpose in doing the research was to record information about the business started by his forbears, but this is not just a collection of jottings gathered for his family. It is a professionally presented and well-written account with the sources for the information carefully documented. He has drawn information from manuscripts, family papers, old newspapers, personal interviews, New Zealand Railways Bulletins, and books, including Grace Adams’ book “Jack’s Hut”.. The firm gained the contract for building the Otira Tunnel and the book includes fascinating insights into life in the settlement from 1907 when work on the tunnel began until 1923 when the tunnel was opened.

Up until 1907 the settlement consisted of a railway station – the terminus of the railway from the West Coast, the Terminus Hotel, Cobb and Co’s busy stables, a school, two stores, a bakery and a handful of cottages near the station. Its population varied according to where the Public Works Department had its labour force which was responsible for the maintenance of the bridges and cuttings on the road. The work was labour-intensive as there was no mechanised equipment at that time. Their presence in the township affected school attendance and hotel occupancy. The majority of the workers were housed in tents at the work site.

Once work started on the building of the runnel a new township, “McLeanville”, was established on the bank of the Rolleston River, three miles from the station and a few hundred yards from the tunnel mouth. It was also known as “The Island”. It was on the only sizable area of flat land which was well-drained and high enough to be free of floods. The contractor’s first job was to build a road to this site and clear the area – a tough job using only hand tools.

The contractor had to provide ventilated huts. 12 x 12 by 8 feet high was considered sufficient for two men. They were built of timber with malthoid roofing and a corrugated iron chimney. When falling boulders damaged the malthoid roofs they were replaced with iron. Men living in the huts had their meals at the boarding house at the cost of a pound a week. Some three-roomed cottages were built for men with families and some married men built their own shacks. Of the fifty huts most were kept clean and tidy, some even homelike. Most had photos and newspaper or magazine cuttings on the walls. The lack of a rubbish dump meant that the site was littered with tins and bottles.

John McLean lists the Rolleston Gorge Boarding House, a butchery at Goat Creek run by Mick Fitzgerald the local Justice of the Peace, a bakery, a general store offering a wide range of goods, a billiard room, a barber’s shop with two chairs, and a drapery store selling clothes suitable for wearing in the mountains. Fresh vegetables were brought every Saturday from Jacksons further down the road to the coast. Every month a dentist called at the Terminus Hotel. There were large stables and a grazing paddock for the horses.

There were two hotels – the Gorge Hotel known as the Top Pub and the Terminus Hotel. The latter was destroyed by fire on 26 November 1911, but was quickly rebuilt to the same design. There was a lot of drinking and the tunnel workers established clubs to cut the cost of their beer. John McLean records that in giving evidence in court Neil McLean stated that about forty men were absent from work for three or four days after pay day.

Fights were frequent and the winner had to pay for drinks all round. There was also a lot of gambling through Two-Up schools. Some gamblers suffered serious losses but police were powerless to control this and it continued until the construction of the tunnel was finished.

Weather and storms
Otira has an annual rainfall of about 500cm. Snow falls on about four days, mainly between 1 June and 15 September. It usually melts after two days.

Otira village under snow
Otira village under snow
Photo source Sandy Robertson
Click here to view a larger version

An exceptional event
On 15 April 1910 Otira was hit by a tornado with rain, hail and snow and many were left homeless. The Rolleston Gorge Boarding House was seriously damaged and the workers’ huts had to be replaced.

There was a constant risk of avalanches and on one occasion as the people were running from their houses one man went back for his wallet and was killed by the falling stones.

Sporting and social events
The tunnellers organised games of cricket and athletics in summer, sports and a dance at Labour weekend, a Christmas party for the children, and a dance at New Year to which the men wore their best clothes and dancing pumps and white gloves. Dances were regularly held at the Gorge and Terminus Hotels. The children were taken and put to sleep in the cloak room. The publicans provided the venues and the food, and the tunnellers provided the music. On 27 March 1908 a concert was held in the tunnel hall to raise money for the Kumara Hospital.

John McLean also gives a figure for the number of men employed during the construction of the tunnel – 60,000 which included all types of people drawn from right round the world. During World War I there was a higher percentage of families as most of the single men were overseas in the armed forces. Although the people in the community varied greatly and included some very rough types there was a strong feeling of unity and support for each other in difficult times. No theft or attacks on women were reported to Constable Calwell who was stationed at Otira for thirteen years.

“Doctor in the Sticks” by D. A. Bathgate, published Collins, 1972
Dr Bathgate has written an entertaining and informative account of his years as a country GP. He was the Otira doctor in the early 1920s during the construction of the tunnel. He so enjoyed working on the Coast that he next moved to the isolated coal mining town of Denniston.

His account of his time on the Coast begins with a description of a somewhat hair-raising journey by coach from Arthur’s Pass to Otira. He started work in his new position during this trip when the driver, who was suffering from a hangover, was inserting chocks to keep the coach stationary for a safety inspection. He jammed two of his fingers between the rim of the wheel and the stones and required first aid. This episode might be regarded as a forerunner of his work at Otira as he describes a number of emergencies associated with drinking during his years in the township. Drinking in the pub was the men’s relaxation after long hours of unremitting toil in the tunnel, and some overindulged.
Dr Bathgate’s appointment stipulated that he care for the settlement at the Arthur’s Pass end of the tunnel as well as Otira and the farming community some miles down the railway below Otira. His grand title was “Surgeon Superintendent of the Otira Cottage Hospital.” The tunnel workers had threatened to strike if a doctor was not appointed quickly to replace the previous doctor as the nearest doctor was sixty miles away in Greymouth or Hokitika.

At that time the population of Otira was between 600 and 700 people, and the doctor had to be general practitioner, surgeon, anaesthetist, dentist, dispensing chemist and obstetrician. He had no car and to reach his patients for home visits he had to walk, take a railway jigger or hire a hack to ride to Arthur’s Pass, as the coaches made the trip only three times a week. The Otira settlement was an example of ribbon development so even within the small settlement the doctor had to walk long distances in a day with patients anywhere from the Island near the tunnel mouth down to houses below the station.

Most of the patients at the hospital were maternity cases, and the charge was three guineas for a primipara (a woman having a first baby) and two guineas for a multipara (a woman who had already had a baby).There were other in-patients and a lot of out-patients. While the men played rugby there were a lot of injuries, partly because of the rough stony ground. When they changed to soccer the rate of injuries decreased markedly.

Electricity for the hospital came from a hydro-electric power station which provided power for the work in the tunnel and also provided lighting for the houses.

While Dr Bathgate could be said to have written about the adventures of the Otira people he also gives a picture of a supportive community. There was always someone willing to assist him when he needed an extra pair of hands or transport to an emergency. When the hospital was burnt down the matron, the nurse, the doctor and his sister who was staying there lost all their possessions. They left in their night clothes, but the residents lent them clothes and later put on a soiree in the local hall and gave them money to refund their losses. This money had been contributed by the local people.

The Government takes over the final stages of the tunnel construction
The government took over the final link as the contractors had to inform the Government of their inability to finish the work at the price set down in the contract – 600,000 pounds.
The engineers of the Public Works Department completed the link in the tunnel which was five miles 554 yards in length.

When the two headings met the difference in level was only 1.125 inches and the difference in direction was only .75 inches.

Tunnel opened 1923
On 4 August 1923 the Otira Tunnel was opened by the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable W. F. Massey and the rail link between the east and west coasts of New Zealand’s South Island was finally complete. For Otira change lay ahead.


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