Story: Engineering

Page 2. 19th-century engineering

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Most of New Zealand’s large and spectacular engineering works in the 19th century were needed for the developing rail network.

The first major achievement was the Lyttelton railway tunnel, drilled through volcanic rock between Lyttelton and Ferrymead to connect Canterbury to its port. It took from 1861 to 1867 to complete. Its technical difficulty daunted the English engineers approached by the Canterbury Provincial Council – a Melbourne company finally took on the job.

Night at the end of the tunnel


The end of construction of the Lyttelton Tunnel was celebrated by ‘an Arabian Night Entertainment’. It was attended by Provincial Council dignitaries (including supervising engineer Edward Dobson), the contractors, and two hundred of the labourers who had worked on the project. Tables were laid over the Lyttelton end of the train track, and the whole area was decorated with flags and greenery. Geese, turkey, chicken, lamb, ale, stout and champagne were consumed, and numerous toasts proposed, followed by singing and cheering.


Larger-scale railways followed from 1870 as part of a policy implemented by Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel to open up the country. The government wanted to integrate the disparate provinces and to push through areas held by Māori tribes in the North Island.

Rail provided some of New Zealand’s large and spectacular Victorian-era engineering. The Denniston incline was constructed in 1879 to bring coal down to Westport from plateau-top mines: wagons weighing at least 12 tonnes descended 518 metres on 1,670 metres of track, a very steep grade.

Main trunk line

Although the 1880s were a period of economic depression, several large state projects pushed ahead. The North Island main trunk railway line, linking Wellington and Auckland, was the most significant. Progress was slow, and the line wasn’t completed until 1908. Cost was a problem, and so was the technical difficulty. A major challenge was the central section through hilly country between Te Kūiti and Hunterville.

Structures built along the way included the 289-metre-high Mangaweka viaduct, and the Raurimu spiral. This extraordinary piece of line, with its sinuous twists and turns, was designed in 1898 by R. W. Holmes to lift the railway 122 metres in just 1.6 kilometres, without the gradient being too steep.

Road bridges

Bridges such as the North Waianakarua bridge of 1874 and the Kawarau Gorge suspension bridge of 1880 spanned cavernous spaces in difficult terrain.

Plans for the Kawarau Gorge bridge were drawn up in just 16 days, though designer Henry Higginson insisted that the work did not suffer from the hurry. The bridge clung to steep rock banks high above the Kawarau River in Central Otago.


Transport by sea and by river was critical in 19th century New Zealand – roading was often inadequate or non-existent – and harbour engineering was important. Some towns such as Wellington had good natural harbours, but wharfs, jetties, reclamation, dredging and lighthouses were still required.

Other towns depended on engineers to create harbours from scratch. Ōamaru was a notable example. The Ōamaru coast had no natural harbour and was buffeted by fierce storms that beached and sometimes completely wrecked ships. The town depended on surfboats to bring people and goods ashore. Work on the first jetty began in 1865, and development of the harbour continued into the 20th century.

Private-sector engineering

From the late 19th century small-scale private mechanical engineering firms were established and manufacturing companies flourished, particularly in Otago. These included woollen mills, sawmills, and early meat freezing works.

Light-engineering businesses making machines and spare parts and repairing machines sprang up. There were large government engineering workshops, but also big and successful private companies.

Alfred and George Price, mechanical and manufacturing engineers, ran a notable North Island engineering firm. The brothers first developed and sold an effective flax-scraping machine, then went on to cash in on the mining and railway booms. The firm made a wide range of heavy machinery, rolling stock, and locomotives.

Public-sector engineering

Engineers were also employed by local authorities and provincial and central governments to construct harbours, roads, dams, waterworks and sewerage systems. They often designed the work and supervised its building.

Gas and electricity

Gas and electrical supply was undertaken by both the private and the public sectors. Engineers oversaw gas plants and transmission systems, worked on telegraph transmission, and later electricity generation and transmission. Engineers were also engaged in the electrification of manufacturing and industrial processes.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Wright, 'Engineering - 19th-century engineering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Matthew Wright, published 11 Mar 2010