The Lyttelton (Moorhouse) Railway Tunnel

I get the feeling that William Sefton Moorhouse drew in very deep breaths and rolled his eyes more than once when it came to dealing with his government colleagues.

The man never seemed to put his roots down for long, in fact he would drop everything to chase a dream or an idea. He seemed continually broke and never seemed to be tied down to the worries of the world. As the second Canterbury Superintendent, he showed the same attitudes. He got an idea, he had dreams and pursued them without a side-ward glance.The Lyttelton Railway Tunnel or the Moorhouse Railway Tunnel was one of these dreams.
Since the Provincial Council formed in 1853, an easier route from Lyttelton to Christchurch had been a hot topic. Only two ways seemed possible – a railway line following the harbour line around to Sumner OR a tunnel going through the hills. It wasn’t until 1858 that William Moorhouse – now in power – picked up the ball and began to run with it. £4000 were put aside for the hiring of an engineer to take a look and give the council his thoughts.
Provincial Engineer Edward Dobson (Arthur Dobson’s father – from the Arthur’s Pass fame) took on the challenge and I can just see him standing there in Heathcote Valley; hat in hand with the thud of a headache forming. Arthur was also there, learning the trade as Edward made his assessment. Fellow engineer William Bray (whose farm is now the suburb of Avonhead) also took a look and gave a different view of things…the pair gave the government a few things to chew over.Edward’s choice of going through Mt Pleasant, west to east was chosen. John Smith and George Knight’s mining firm back in England was chosen. The year was now 1859. 13 miners drove trail shafts into each end of the future tunnel. They encountered water (heaps of it) and harder rock – that had been the sample sent back to England. The firm demanded a further £30, 000 to continue, which the council declined. The English miners went home.William did not let the project die – he sought other engineers who would step up. Edward Dobson reappeared with Canterbury Museum founder Julius van Haast and together, the project was back on. They suggested drain holes should be made to let the excess water escape.Engineeers Holmes and Richardson from Australia took over in 1861 for the fee of £188,727. It took until May 1867 for the two ends to finally break through. Tracks were down by November, the first train traveling through on the 18th November 1867. It was not officially opened until June 1874.

William made this historic feat without much support. His biggest opposer was James Edward Fitzgerald. James, who had been the first Superintendent chose to return home to England instead of running for office again. On his return to Christchurch, he was horrified by the costs of railway tunnel project. He wrote a strongly worded letter to The Lyttelton Times newspaper (of which he was once the editor) against Moorhouse. A strongly worded defense was given back so James started his own newspaper where he could express his views unchallenged. The paper is what we know today as THE PRESS – first printed in 1861.

* The Lyttelton Tunnel is the oldest operational and longest (2.7km) railway tunnel in New Zealand.
* It is the first tunnel in the world to be taken through volcanic rock.
* Two men were killed on the project when explosives weren’t handled carefully enough.

One of them was John Stevens, killed on the 17th March 1863, he was just 23 years old. The explosives that were being used that day were not handled carefully enough and two men lost their lives.  John is buried at Barbadoes Street Cemetery.

* The tunnel closed down the first railway line that was opened in New Zealand in 1863 – the Ferrymead to Christchurch line.

*Photos taken by Chris Bulovic*

6 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    I noted the other day the vandals have been at work. On the left hand side of the tunnel portal they have been spraying graffiti along with some on the inside wall of the tunnel.

  2. Dave says:

    I have an interest in this area. I was the last NZR staff member there when the station was closed in the November of 1986.
    Then worked at the other end of the Tunnel until the Signal box there was closed in 1991.

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