Dun Mountain Railway (1862-1907)


The Dun Mountain Railway was officially opened amidst great fanfare on Monday 3 February, 1862. From the port, across the city, the horse-drawn tramway then climbed from Brook Street to a height of 2870 feet where it terminated at the chromite mines situated east of Nelson.

Opening of the Dun Mountain RailwayOpening of Dun Mountain tramway, Nelson region,3 Feb 1862, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-018188-F [permission of ATL must be obtained for further use of image]
Click image to enlarge

Early Māori quarried argillite for adzes and tools from Nelson's Mineral Belt (a strip of serpentine- rich ground running from D'Urville Island to Lake Rotoiti). European interest in the mineral deposits dated back to 1852 when copper ore was found. Mining engineer, Thomas Hacket, eventually pronounced the copper lodes to be worthless, however he did recommend mining the chromite deposits on Wooded Peak- a summit nearly two miles  northwest of Dun Mountain.

Initially constructed to carry the chrome ore from the mines to Nelson's Port, the railway also provided a well-used passenger service between the Port and Nelson city for nearly four decades. When the Dun Mountain Railway Company applied for permission to cross Nelson's city streets with its railway lines, the Provincial Council and Government required the Company to run at least one public passenger train per day - New Zealand's first public transport. A new Railway Act required that the locomotives travel through Nelson at a maximum of four miles per hour.

Two Irish engineers with considerable railway experience, William T.Doyne and Abraham C. Fitzgibbon, were engaged to construct the railway which was to climb through heavily bushed mountainous country. Tons of railway track were shipped from England and more than 24,000 wooden sleepers were provided by local sawmills. Rolling stock, consisting of 20 knocked down wagons, arrived from England in 1861, with another 25 wagons arriving a year later.

Scene at Dun Mountain, 1862Scene at Dun Mountain, 1862, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-160121-F [permission of ATL must be obtained for further use of image]
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The Dun Mountain Railway cost £75,000 to build and was so popular that by the end of February 1862, the Company advised people they could not ride up and down the line any longer - the wagons were required to haul ore to the Port. Horse-drawn along the railway up to the mines in the morning, gravity assisted the loaded wagons down the hill in the afternoon, with brake-men controlling the speed. Horses pulled the wagons to the Port.

Dun Mountain RailwayDun Mountain Railway, Copy Collection, The Nelson Provincial Museum, C2634
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In 1862, 3843 tons  of chrome ore were extracted and carried down Dun Mountain by the railway. However, only 1363 tons (1236 tonnes) were mined over the next two years and, in the autumn of 1864, it was found that only low grade ore remained in the existing workings. In addition, the American Civil War (1861)  had stopped the export of cotton from the United States to Britain and the Lancashire cotton mills, which used chrome to produce yellow and mauve dyes, eventually closed.

It was left to mining engineer, Joseph Cock, who arrived in Nelson in mid-1864, to inform the London directors of the Company of the true state of affairs. While Cock assiduously explored mountains, gullies and stream beds, he found the remaining ores were patchy and low grade. He discovered another deposit of high grade ore, which a four mile  branch line would access, but decided the cost of constructing such a line would not be recovered.

By January 10, 1866, Cock reported to the directors that the chrome deposits were completely exhausted and he had suspended mining operations: "Gentlemen, it is my unpleasant duty to inform you that the present condition and future prospects of your mine are extremely unsatisfactory."

The Company went into liquidation in 1872. But the last remnant of the railway - the horse drawn tram - continued to operate half hourly between Hardy Street and the Tasman Hotel at the Port until 1901. The line to the mines was finally lifted in 1907, but the route is still followed by the popular Dun Mountain Walkway.

Written by Joy Stephens, 2008, and published in Wild Tomato with the support of The Nelson Provincial Museum

Sources used in this story

This story uses sources available at the Nelson Provincial Museum's Isel Park Research Archives, plus

  •  Johnston, M.R. (1966) Nelson's first railway and the city bus. Nelson, N.Z.:  Nikau Press

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Further sources - Dun Mountain Railway (1862-1907)


  • Barclay, A. (2008) Snippets of history. Nelson, N.Z.: Marsden House [held Nelson Public Libraries] Bell, J.M. (1911)
  • The GEOLOGY of the Dun Mountain subdivision, Nelson. Wellington, N.Z.: Govt. Print. 
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/154171963 [and held Nelson Public Libraries]
  • Horrocks, S (1984) Historic Nelson Wellington, N.Z. : A.H. & A.W. Reed
  • Johnston, M.R. (1966) Nelson's first railway and the city bus. Nelson, N.Z.:  Nikau Press
  • Johnston, M.R. (1987) High hopes : the history of the Nelson Mineral Belt and New Zealand's first railway Nelson, NZ.: Nikau Press
  • Johnston, M.R. (1981) Dun Mountain : New Zealand Geological Survey Bulletin. Wellington, N.Z.:  Govt. Print.  [held Nelson Public Libraries]
  • Palmer, A.N. ( 1975) New Zealand's first railway Dun Mountain Railway, Nelson Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society



  • Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company (1857-1872) Records [Mainly specifications and contracts for construction of the Dun Mountain railway], Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection, and Alexander Turnbull Library Micro-MS-0701

Web Resources