Discovering environmental history in unexpected places…

A mother and son outing today was a reminder that environmental history can be discovered in unexpected places. Carter and I went to Wellington this morning to check out the RailEx Model Train Show. As soon as he entered the expo room, his eyes lit up, in unison with the eyes of all the other little boys (and girls – but mainly boys) who ran excitedly from one exhibit to another. Mum was pretty enthralled too, but wasn’t expecting the event to produce any intellectual gleanings of any kind.

But then we discovered the bush tram running through the bush-clad landscape of Kerosine Creek. According to the man operating the exhibit, this bush tram, used to cart out milled logs from the Kerosine Creek Sawmill in the northern foothills of Tongariro [click here to view approximate location], was operated until the 1960s.

Bush trams played an integral role in the sawmilling history of New Zealand; their use dating back to the 1850s. These early trams were powered by teams of up to eight horses: some larger mills stabled up to 40 horses, an expense which eventually led to the introduction of new technology, making the milling operation more cost-efficient.

It is estimated that around 1,000 tramways were built, with a total length of around 5,000 kilometres – almost as long as the public railway system at its peak. Click here to view map of sites of bush tram remnants. An 1877 report by an overseas forester stated: “The universal use of the tramway forms a marked feature of the treatment of New Zealand forests. I have seen them of all descriptions and no sawmiller ever dreams of working a forest without one.” By the early 20th century, most forest on accessible flat land had been logged. Bush tramways had to reach into hilly country beyond, and became longer and steeper. New Zealand’s economy was booming, and larger sawmills were built. Horse teams had a top speed of only 6 kilometres per hour. Steam locomotives, steel rails and eventually rail tractors spelled their end. The last horse-drawn bush tram stopped operating in 1938.

Small steam-powered locomotive engines were first used on bush tramways in 1871. In the early 1900s, the advent of steel rails allowed for geared locomotives; these locomotives were designed for the extremely steep grades, sharp curves, and uneven tracks in the bush.

Photos top and third down: “Kerosine Creek” model “layout”, originally created by Raoul Quinn 23 years ago. Now owned by Grant Morrell, who has maintained and updated the model. To the right of the top scene, the bush tram can be seen, laden with logs. The bottom scene shows Doughty’s General Store, owned and operated by Jim Doughty. This was still in operation until 1957, servicing the timber mills. The trees in the bush landscape were incredibly realistic, and obviously took great skill (and patience) to make. When I commented on this, the man operating the exhibit told me that these are made from a weed called yarrow – commonly found along roadsides in New Zealand. Second down, right: Carter enjoying the sights and sounds of one of the exhibits. Bottom centre: Knight’s tram at Raurimu (1917), Logging train owned by the Tamaki Sawmill Co., Raurimu (B Len Knight, manager). Photographed by Albert Percy Godber. Raurimu is about 20 km south-west of Mangatepopo Valley, to the west of Mount Tongariro. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image, APG-1208-1/2.

Sources/further reading: Bush tramways, Te Ara Online Encyclopedia; The era of the bush tram in New Zealand (2004), by Paul Mahoney. View slideshow of this model by clicking here.

One thought on “Discovering environmental history in unexpected places…

  1. The Kerosene Creek layout is completely fictitious. A synopsis was created to help with the modeling of the landscape and to tell the story of an industry that once had great importance for backblocks New Zealand.

    Raoul Quinn

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