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Otira – a West Coast settlement – 1923 till today

Dorothy - 06/05/05

Part 2

Otira has had fluctuating fortunes since 1923 and now the Hennah family is injecting new life into the old.

An overview of the history
In the last eighty three years Otira has seen major changes in its role. After the tunnel opened it became a busy railways settlement with passenger trains, a station tearooms, a school, a heated swimming pool and a busy hotel. Since the 1980s most of the passenger trains no longer run, except for the TranzAlpine tourist train passing through twice daily. The station restaurant and the school have been closed. Many of the houses have been pulled down or vandalised. For a brief time more people came there during the construction of the Otira Viaduct. Then in 1997 the old hotel had a For Sale sign and the township started to look like a ghost town. More recently the town has sprung into new life since the arrival of Chris and Bill Hennah.

The hotel welcomes travellers even on the few snowy days.
Photo source Sandy Robertson
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After 1923
After the tunnel was opened Otira became a railway settlement with drivers, guards, maintenance staff for the rolling stock and the staff houses, and engineers to service the steam engines which pulled the trains between Otira and the coast and the electric locomotives which pulled the trains up through the tunnel.

Chris Hennah at the Otira Hotel has been enthusiastically researching the history of the settlement. Her email reads:
“Thought you might like another piece of information about the houses in the Railway village. These were built in Frankton Junction (near Hamilton) then taken apart and numbered and transported down to Otira by rail. I think this might have been the first large scale prefabrication of houses in New Zealand. They were erected each side of Settlement Road in 1923 and I understand Eddie Evans (Senior) was involved in this part of the construction.”

Passenger trains stopped at the Otira station refreshment rooms. There was a hostel for women working for the railways. As there were no cooking facilities they had all their meals at the station. In the 1960s there were over 600 people in the settlement.

Walking over the Pass a popular pastime for visitors
From the time of the tunnel opening a popular outing for people staying in Arthur’s Pass was to walk over the pass and down the Otira Gorge and catch the train back.

A group of teachers from Addington School in Christchurch wait for the train at the Otira Station in 1926
A group of teachers from Addington School in Christchurch wait for the train at the Otira Station in 1926
Photo source family album
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More changes
With the privatisation of the railways and the changes in the 1990s the population of the village declined. Then the building of the Otira Viaduct brought a temporary increase and good patronage of the Otira Hotel. With its completion in September 1999 and opening on 6 November of the same year the numbers dwindled again.

In 1998 Chris and Bill Hennah bought the lease of the land, ownership of the hotel, seventeen houses, the community hall, the fire station and engine and the swimming baths. Later they also bought the school.

Bill and Chris Hennah
Bill and Chris Hennah

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In The Road from Arthur’s Pass to Otira – s spectacular journey along Highway 73, an NZine article published in August 2002, Chris describes how it happened.

“I was born in Hull, E Yorks England and came to NZ in 1952 (age 6) and have since become a NZ Citizen. We lived on Auckland's North Shore until I married. Bill was born in Paeroa and brought up there and in Mt Roskill, Auckland. We married in 1970 and have three adult sons. I also have a son of 36 from an earlier marriage. We lived in Manurewa before coming down to Christchurch to visit my eldest son. We took a trip on the TranzAlpine. My son mentioned that the pub was for sale and we came back by rental car and stopped to check it out. We felt sorry for the dilapidated pub and run-down houses and decided to buy.

"Living in an isolated area was not a new experience for us. We lived for about a year on a farm which was pretty isolated. We knew how to run a bar because Bill had been President and I had been Treasurer of a dart club in West Auckland. We also had a restaurant/take-aways at one time, but I find mostly the hotel is being run on what I would like if I was the paying guest. Having brought up four sons also helps.”

Chris Hennah describes people's enthusiasm for the project.
"The walls of the hotel are covered in photos that I have found and been given - it seems the more I put up, the more I receive from people who used to live here. Many people call in who went to school or worked here and they are very pleased to see things up and running again, especially those who drove through when the pub was closed before we bought it.”

The fate of the houses
The houses which had stood empty for some years had suffered badly from vandalism. Fire surrounds and kitchen and plumbing fittings had been removed. Bill Hennah, supported by other family members, has worked consistently to make the houses habitable and improve the hotel building. Ten of the houses are now rented, .two of the Hennahs’ sons live in two of the houses, one is rented as a holiday home, one is a motel unit, and three have their power disconnected.

The Hotel
Now the hotel serves tea and coffee and snacks all day and meals are available. Bill does the bistro cooking and Chris cooks a family style meal for her own family and guests in the evening.

Eight double or twin rooms in the hotel are available for $25.00 per person per night.

The motel unit can be rented for $85.00 per night for two people and $15.00 for each extra person. It sleeps up to seven people.

Resident Arthur McIver in front of the house available as a motel unit
Resident Arthur McIver in front of the house available as a motel unit

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The heated baths cannot be opened as regulations state that there must be a certified operator and the water must be tested hourly. The operator has to be re-certificated regularly. These requirements cannot be met by the small population.

The community hall was used for a time as an art gallery, but the artist has moved on. The children in the village used the school to work on their correspondence school lessons, but this year the sixteen primary school children are taken by bus to the school at Moana.

The school building, now empty, could become a school’s mountain lodge
The area around Arthur’s Pass and Otira has been popular with school parties since W. A. Kennedy began bringing young people to the Pass to experience being in New Zealand’s mountain country in the 1920s. With minor modifications the school building would serve well as a mountain lodge for a school.

Two teenagers list plenty for active young people to do
I talked to Joshua and Freedom, two secondary school students studying for NCEA by correspondence. I asked them what they did in their free time and they listed hill walks, water rafting in the Otira River, tree climbing, bush walking and computer games. Joshua’s parents run a backpackers on the main road through Otira. Contact with travellers provides sociable time for Otira residents.

Joshua and Freedom
Joshua and Freedom

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The Backpackers

The Backpackers
The Backpackers

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Short walks and longer tramps
Walks in the area include the Cockayne walkway at Kelly’s Creek; a walk to the tunnel mouth and the site of the construction village; to the reservoir; up the road or the river to Goats Pass and up the Deception River; or along the south side of the Taramakau River and Griffith and Harrington Streams, just below the junction of the Otira and Taramakau Rivers..

Experience Otira for yourself
Visit there summer or winter. Experience it in hot summer weather, mountain rain, or brief snowy days. Be prepared for cold nights in winter but there are many beautiful clear days.

The famous TranzAlpine train stops at Otira. On the journey to Christchurch three extra engines are added to pull the train uphill through the tunnel.

Passengers stand enjoying the warm sunshine while extra engines are added to the train.
Passengers stand enjoying the warm sunshine while extra engines are added to the train.

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Talk to people who have lived there for a long time like Arthur McIver, or to Sandy Robertson or Neville Bennett who have bought one of the few freehold houses in the village and so enjoy being in Otira that they travel there from Christchurch on most weekends.

Read the hotel’s cuttings about Otira’s history, view the photos of trains in the Lounge Bar and TV room, and of coaches and the hotel in the Public Bar.

Enjoy the relaxed hospitality of Chris and Bill who are working to fulfil a dream of the restoration of a historic hotel and village at Otira.


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