It's a truly unique transport system and one that's just as useful today as when it was built 100 years ago.

"Initially it was the only one in the Southern Hemisphere, now it may be the only one in the world," historian Penny Robinson said.

"The fact that the elevator has a tunnel that leads you into something that goes up through the earth - that's the remarkable thing about this elevator."

Whanganui's elevator was built to facilitate the development of Durie Hill.

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"Residents had no real access to Durie Hill. There was a bit of a coach road on one side and the steps were built in 1897 but the suburb development wasn't going particularly fast," Robinson said.

"They liked the concept of an elevator because it was going to be effective and cheap. It's a major feat of engineering."

A vital part of the city's heritage, its working parts remain in almost original condition.

"We still run it at AC current so then it goes through the mercury rectifier which changes it to DC current," said Facilities Manager Pete Tantrum.

"We don't do anything to it. All we've got is a fan in the bottom to keep it cool and we've got a heater in the side to keep it at a constant temperature."

A recent overhaul of the machinery revealed surprisingly little damage. The only work was a 90 litre oil change, replacing the old castor oil which was traditionally used.

"It gooed up everything," said Gordon Brewer who was one of the maintenance crew. "It clogged it up when you added other oil to it and what was left just turned into a kind of tar."

At least 50 people ride the elevator each day. Photo / Georgie Ormond.
At least 50 people ride the elevator each day. Photo / Georgie Ormond.

A more recent addition to the elevator's history, is the family legacy that keeps it running. For the past fifty years, it's been operated almost entirely by just one family, one of whom is Raywyn Tangaroa who has been operating the elevator for 29 years.

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"Our father started the dynasty here," she said. "He started here in 1969. My sister, Zina started in 1981, she was the first woman to work here, there were only ever men.

"Her daughter works with us, she's been here 19 years. And then, just to carry on another generation, her grandson comes and does work experience here - he's been doing that for a couple of years.

"So that's four generations. I reckon we should just about own the place!"

After 100 years, Durie Hill is still going strong, servicing approximately 50 people day.

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