Denniston is a small settlement perched high on a rocky plateau on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Large deposits of coal were discovered there in the early 1870’s and the Denniston mines, in operation from 1879 to 1967, turned out to be the most productive coalfields in New Zealand.
Operated by the Westport Coal Company the miners had to contend with extremely rugged terrain and extended periods of cold, wet weather that produced difficult and dangerous working conditions.
Because of the steep landforms in the area, extraction of the coal was tremendously difficult and was achieved through the specially designed Denniston Incline – an engineering marvel that was the heart of coal production in the area.
It was a mining railway that carried coal wagons down a breathtakingly steep incline that dropped more than 500 metres in just over 1.6 kilometres – a slope of close to 40 degrees in its steepest part. A runaway wagon, loaded with coal, was a perpetual fear, and to minimise this danger two water-operated brakes were used. These slowed the descent of fully loaded wagons that also pulled up empty cars at the same time – a clever counterbalancing system that used gravity to do the work. This system, constructed in the most difficult terrain with manual labour, was a triumph of 19th century industry that was dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”.
Despite all the safety precautions accidents still inevitably occurred and there were several incidences of collisions, derailments and runaways.
After reaching the base of the incline coal was loaded onto a railhead and taken by train to waiting ships at the town of Westport.
The peak production year was 1910 when there were more than 450 miners on the job and close to 350,000 tons of coal extracted.
Falling demand for coal in the 1960’s led to the closure of the incline in 1967. However scattered remnants of the incline and the other nearby mining operations are still visible and today the area is listed as a Category 1 Historic Place by the New Zealand Government. There is also steadily rising tourist interest in the old operations.
Image: This c 1880’s image was taken at the base of the incline and shows the extreme slope of the hill behind, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.