As well as skidding, logs were taken from bush to sawmill along tramways, which usually had wooden rails in the early days. The logs were carried on bogies – wheeled trucks that were hauled by a locomotive, bullocks, or horses.
Bush tramways were an extreme form of railway, with steep grades, even steeper inclines, tight curves, rickety viaducts, makeshift brakes, and little maintenance. They were hazardous workplaces. Although hidden in the backblocks, the tramways fascinated people for their daring engineering, scenic settings, and intriguing machinery.
Tramways quickly caught on in New Zealand, where the earliest date from the 1850s. 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.’ 1
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.
Most 19th-century bush tramways were laid with wooden rails and worked by teams of up to eight strong horses. Longer teams could not be used because of the sharp bends. In charge was a bushman known as the trammy. Reins were not needed – the trammy relied entirely on verbal commands, and was helped by the front horse.
The hard-working animals were well cared for, being shod, groomed, housed in stables and adequately fed. Some larger mills stabled up to 40 horses, a costly overhead that triggered technology change.
Decline of horse teams
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.