West Coast: How Denniston rose again

By Jim Eagles

The top of the Denniston Incline which has been partially restored to the way it looked 50 years ago. Photo / Jim Eagles
The top of the Denniston Incline which has been partially restored to the way it looked 50 years ago. Photo / Jim Eagles

When I arrived at the top of the Denniston Incline it was a clear day so my eyes were able to swoop down the impossible drop of the old cable railway - described in its heyday as the eighth wonder of the world - that once carried 12 million tonnes of coal down the mountainside to the ships and towns of the West Coast.

It was very different to the last time I was up here when the swirling mists obscured that spectacular view, and the small flat area at the top of the incline seemed populated with the ghosts of the hardy people who once dug coal out of the belly of the Southern Alps.

Back then, with dark shapes occasionally looming through the clouds, it was possible to imagine that the houses and hotels, schools and swimming pools built to support a population of 1500 were still here.

But in the clear light I could see that all those accoutrements of civilisation had gone: the houses cut in three so they could be trucked down the narrow winding road and re-assembled in Westport; the bricks chipped apart and carried off in triumph to make fireplaces elsewhere; even the railway lines taken to make tracks to newer mines.

Of the bustling community which once thrived in these bleak surroundings little now remains, apart from a scattering of abandoned fireplaces, some rusting tangles of iron cable and the memories which inspired Jenny Patrick's best-selling The Denniston Rose.

Except...except that my reason for revisiting Denniston was that some of that mining history, which began in the 1870s and lasted until 1960, is being brought back to life.

There are hopes that a couple of developments - costing around $5 million in total - might see Denniston's remarkable story doing for the West Coast economy tomorrow what its mines did yesterday.

The start point for that strategy is down at Westport's Coaltown Museum, which I visited earlier in the day, with its marvellous recreation of the coast's turbulent history, its gold, timber, shipping and brewing industries, and especially its coalmining.

Shortly the museum is to close and move to a new site, in an old warehouse in the middle of town, where over two to three months it will be redeveloped as - in the words of manager Chris Hartigan - "the start point for a Denniston Rose pilgrimage."

As well as its displays of miners' picks and shovels, candleholders and crib boxes, lanterns and helmets, and the amazing coal ship's engine which starts up if you pop 50c in the slot, the new museum will have some special features aimed at giving visitors a real taste of mining.

For instance, said Hartigan, the replica coal mine visitors can walk through, one of the highlights of the present Coaltown, would be "made longer and narrower, more like a real mine, to create the feeling of how cramped it was."

The museum's replica of the Denniston Incline, which shows one of the Q wagons running downhill on a track at 45 degrees, would be doubled in size to show just how impressive the cable railway was.

"And," Hartigan added excitedly, "if we can get a bit of extra funding we're also going to have a virtual ride down the incline - based on a film a National Film Unit cameraman made in 1967 recording his own ride - with tilting seats and sound effects so people will get the full experience of what it must have been like."

But that is only the start of the plan to turn Denniston into a major tourist attraction.

Peter Robertson, chairman of the Denniston Heritage Trust, explained that visitors who wanted to get even more of a mining experience would be able to sign on as miners, at which point they'd be given a union ticket telling them what their job is, kitted out in overalls and helmet lamps, handed a crib lunch and taken by bus up the steep road to Denniston itself.

"On the way they'll be told what their duties are. If they're been designated as miners it could be loading coal with a banjo shovel. If they're clippies they'll have to clip the chains on to the wagons. If they're spraggers it'll be their job to hold the wheels with a wooden sprag.

"Or they could be union bosses or mine managers or winch operators or wagoners."

Up on the hill visitors will find - as I discovered when I arrived - that the brakehead at the top of the incline has been restored, with several newly laid tracks leading to where the incline plunges 518m down the hill to Conn's Creek, where it links up with a normal railway.

One of the huge old wagons, which used to run down the incline, now stands at the head with a couple more wagons lined up behind it, as though ready for the trip.

Sadly, there are as yet no plans to re-open the incline itself - though Prime Minister John Key, when he visited the project, was apparently so enthusiastic he suggested the money should be found to do it - but you can walk a short way down the track to a spot from which the precipitous route is visible.

And shortly a new platform will be built giving a spectacular view of the incline and the coastal plain below.

What is now being restored is 500m of the old railway that once ran into the nearby Banbury Mine - the oldest on the hill, first worked in the 1870s - which will take the visitors arriving from their Coaltown Museum briefing right into the mine to experience life at the coalface.

Work on the railway was under way when I turned up, with sections of rail being bolted on to sleepers, then pushed down the track already laid, taking the line steadily closer to the mine entrance.

A bonus from this project is the number of artefacts uncovered in the course of clearing a century of accumulated silt and rubble from the route.

As we walked along, Department of Conservation historic assets ranger Jonathan Thomas was constantly stopping to point out 100-year-old glass bottles and china plates, rusting chains once used to haul the wagons and even some of the original rails still in position.

"We've taken the best stuff away for protection," he said, "but there's certainly plenty of material for a fascinating display.

"Look" - he pointed excitedly - "there's even an old wagon here which can easily be restored."

Meanwhile, down in Westport, retired engineer Jack Powick is restoring a little electric locomotive which once hauled the coal trains at Denniston but then spent 40 years rusting in the wild mountain weather, preparing it to pull the passenger carriages down the relaid track into the mine.

"I've had to machine all the parts - you can't buy them - except for some springs that amazingly were still available," he said when I paid a visit.

"Luckily I'm able to use an electric motor from a forklift to provide the power. It's just the right size and it can run off a battery. It'll do the trick."

Work will also start soon on restoring the Banbury Mine but when I visit it is still blocked off by a wire barrier a few metres inside the surprisingly small entrance.

The restoration, Thomas said, would include reinforcing the mine roof - "although the fact that it's sat here without maintenance for 100 years and survived some major earthquakes suggests it's pretty stable" - as well as running the railway line 170m inside the mine and creating an underground area where tourists in their overalls and hard hats will get a real feel for what it is actually like inside a coal mine.

The coal face would be kept realistically small, maybe 3m wide and just 1.7 to 1.8m high, to convey the cramped conditions in which miners had to work, recordings would be used to convey the sounds of an active mine - the creaking of props, the tapping of picks and the noise of a distant blast - and, Thomas added, "we're hoping to use a holograph of an old miner to tell the story of the mine and talk about what a miner's life was like."

Those on this mine experience tour will also have the chance to perform their assigned jobs and to see for themselves the pick marks, candle holders and carved names left behind by the real miners all those years before.

Standing a couple of metres inside the entrance of the Banbury Mine I poked idly at a vein of coal still running through the rock and tried to imagine what it would be like trying to stand in a dark space only 1.8m high and use one of those banjo shovels, with their huge blades, to load coal into a wagon.

"I think," I said to Thomas, "if I come back after the opening and do the tour I'll sign up to be the union boss. Or the mine manager."

ONE OF A KIND TOURISM VENTURE A COMMUNITY EFFORT
The coal mine experience being created at Denniston is a unique development for New Zealand tourism and conservation.

The project is being carried out by the Denniston Heritage Trust, a multi-agency body including the Department of Conservation (which is taking the lead role), Solid Energy, Development West Coast, Friends of the Hill and Buller District Council.

The aim, according to a background document, is to provide for both heritage preservation and appreciation. Or, as DoC heritage ranger Jonathan Thomas put it, to protect the history of Denniston, allow visitors to enjoy it to the maximum and make the exercise self-funding.

DoC has asked for expressions of interest from private operators to run the tourist experience when it is completed.

It will, as the background document says, be "a turnkey operation where a potential tourist operator can step in and start business straight away ... This project is an excellent example of how heritage preservation can also benefit a community socially and economically with Denniston set to become one of New Zealand's leading tourist attractions."

It's certainly a project which has enthusiastic support from the community. Thomas tells of going into a hardware store, inquiring about a saw blade hard enough to cut old railway sleepers and being told it would cost $600.

"The guy asked me what it was for and when I told him he said, `Oh, it's for Denniston. Just take it. Glad to help. I had family up there.'

"We get that all the time. Big outfits like OnTrack and little local businesses are all happy to support the project. It's got amazing goodwill. The local community really wants this to happen."

The new Denniston experience is due to open on December 14.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has several flights a day to Westport out of Wellington and Christchurch. Avis Westpor provides rental cars from the airport.

Where to stay: Steeples, on Lighthouse Rd at Cape Foulwind, offers a cottage, studio or a room in the main house with an ensuite.

Where to eat: The Bay House is an excellent restaurant with fantastic views of Tauranga Bay and Cape Foulwind.

What to do: You can find out about the Coaltown Museum here.

The Friends of the Hill Society, at Denniston, has a website at denniston.co.nz.

The Department of Conservation has lots of information.

Further information: For more about visiting the West Coast see west-coast.co.nz.

Jim Eagles visited Westport as guest of Tourism West Coast.

- NZ Herald

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