Lyttelton Rail Tunnel and the Bridle Path Walk

One of the greatest engineering achievements in colonial New Zealand was the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel which linked Christchurch with its port. The tunnel was driven under the Port Hills in the 1860s and opened in 1867. The stone portal of the tunnel at the Heathcote end can be seen near the base of the Bridle Path.

This historic track, used by the first pioneers, is a fine walk offering great views of the Canterbury Plains. A memorial at its summit commemorates the pioneer women of Canterbury.


Extraordinary engineering

In 1850, settlers sweated up over the steep, narrow Bridle Path from Lyttelton to the swampy site of Christchurch. The Bridle Path would never suit heavy goods, which had to be unloaded at Lyttelton, put aboard small craft and sent on the trip across the perilous Sumner bar up to Ferrymead, near the mouth of the Heathcote. From there it was unpacked again and put into wagons pulled, from late 1863, by New Zealand’s first steam locomotives, running to Christchurch. Ferrymead, however, was just a stopgap. Lyttelton was the only logical deepwater port.

People talked about a tunnel almost before the Four Ships finished discharging. Action replaced talk after William Moorhouse won the provincial superintendency in 1857. ‘Railway Billy’ convinced his council to think big: one of the longest tunnels yet contemplated and the first in the world to go through the walls of an ancient volcano, and all to link two townships with just 3000 inhabitants. George Stephenson’s nephew, GR Stephenson, prepared the estimates but when British contractors demanded more money, Moorhouse sailed to Melbourne to sign up Holmes and Co. On 17 July 1861 in appalling weather, he turned the first sod of the ‘Canterbury railway tunnel’.

Being Christchurch, it was hierarchical. While the elite banqueted in a large marquee, 1500 sodden folk rioted over the quality of the beer provided for them. The work was arduous. Miners prepared the tunnel faces with picks and long chisels, fired gunpowder charges and then returned to load the spoil into horse-drawn wagons. The two faces shuffled towards each other at about three metres a week. It was stuffy and wet and in one very bad stretch an iron shield had to be built over the miners so that they could keep working in all the water.

Breakthrough came in 1867. Nightshift workers still had three years of finishing work ahead of them, but by December passenger trains were running. After electric trains entered service, tunnel trips no longer included ‘smoke-filled carriages, grime and the odd cinder in the eye’.

This is no carefully tended shrine to Victorian Progress; hideous off-ramps bracket the Lyttelton portal. Nevertheless, as the coal wagons and container flats rattling through the entrance show, under the Port Hills it still links port and plain.

© 2002 Original text – Gavin McLean.

Further reading: WH Scotter, A History of Port Lyttelton, Lyttelton Harbour Board, Christchurch, 1968.

Great New Zealand Railway Journeys Stop the Train! I Want to Get on: Rediscovering New Zealand Railway Journeys The NZR Steam Locomotive Trainland: How Railways Made New Zealand New Zealand Adventures by Rail Last Train to Paradise: Journeys from the Golden Age of New Zealand Railways

Image Credits: Gabrielle Kuiper