In the early 20th century the Railways Department became one of New Zealand’s largest house-builders and landlords. The department had purchased or built houses for stationmasters and other staff since the late 1870s. By the 1900s it faced a serious accommodation shortage, especially in the North Island.
The Frankton factory
After the First World War the department decided to establish a modern sawmill and kitset house factory at Frankton Junction, using rimu and mataī timber from its own central North Island forests. The factory eventually employed more than 60 workers and even had its own plumbing department to produce baths, sinks, pipes and spouting.
From 1923 to 1929, when it closed, the factory produced almost 1,400 prefabricated houses, as well as pre-cut timber for wagons, signals, office furniture, stockyards, sheds, huts and other buildings. Railway houses were identical apart from their dimensions, which differed according to employees’ rank, and some variations in their front porches and roofs.
Parks and parties
Gordon Coates, who was railways minister from 1923 to 1928, wanted to ‘see every railway settlement a garden suburb’,1 so each had its own roads, drainage systems, parks and recreation facilities. The largest, Frankton, had 160 houses and its own Railway Institute Hall, which was packed every Tuesday and Saturday night with workers and partners dancing to the tunes of the Railway Orchestra.
Whole settlements housing railway workers were built along the North Island main trunk line, at Frankton, Taumarunui, Te Kūiti, Ōhakune, Taihape, Marton Junction and elsewhere, and at Kaiwharawhara, Ngaio and Petone in Wellington. Houses and single men’s huts also appeared in remote locations like Summit and Cross Creek in the Remutaka Range, and along the isolated Stratford–Ōkahukura and Gisborne–Moutohorā lines. In many towns the Railways Department was the biggest employer and landlord, and railway kids filled the rolls of local schools.
The department’s housing stock peaked at over 6,000 in the 1950s. The reduction in the rail workforce, centralisation of functions and other changes in the 1980s led to the demise of the distinctive railway communities. Thousands of houses were sold to private buyers, moved or converted to other uses. The Wellington City Council and Ruapehu District Council have recently sought to preserve surviving railway precincts like Ngaio’s fashionable Tarikaka Street settlement, Ōhakune’s ‘Railway Row’ and Taumarunui’s ‘Sunshine Settlement’.