When I was a very young child living in Ireland, I had an ungodly obsession with trains. I loved everything about them – there was just some elusive appeal that drew me to anything that slid on rails and went “choo-choo”.
I loved my Thomas the Tank Engine toys so much that I used to bury them in the vegetable garden and dig them up days later.
I bet that by now somebody in rural County Wexford has dug up a few neglected toy trains that fell victim to playtime Stockholm Syndrome.
Later on when we lived in Cobh, which was the last port of call for the ill-fated RMS Titanic, my mum and I would ride the train right into Cork City to go shopping, which was a very fast and comfortable ride overall.
Reminiscing about my childhood obsession got me thinking about the history of rail in Ashburton. While the topic of rail in Mid Canterbury may seem as straightforward and monotonous as the tracks themselves, there are some interesting anecdotes and events to be explored.
Our patch of New Zealand is home to a fair bit of ghost track now, due to disuse and the rise of the automobile, and the remnants of a once revered mode of transportation can be found scattered about.
Mostly useful engines
Trains were both revered and detested by the general public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The papers lauded the quick and easy travel times, while reports and reviews bore complaints of bumpy, sickening rides and luggage problems.
Regardless of any issues, and the likelihood of the occasional accident, rail travel was popular and widespread in Canterbury.
The residents of Mount Somers used a now defunct railway known as the Mount Somers Branch, or Springburn Bbranch, for decades, and it served as a crucial lifeline for the town’s exports and residents.
Construction on the line began in 1878, and it reached Mount Somers in 1885. In tandem with the Mount Somers tramway, according to I D Maffey, these two lines led to the rapid development of the town, thereby saving the area from remaining a desolate backwater.
The history of the Sharplin Falls tramway, however, was forever tainted by an incident which occurred in early 1898, when a man named Frank Henry was killed on the bridge due to a derailment while on a trip with a large group. According to the Guardian on the March 1, 1898, a large stone had caused the trolley to wobble violently and veer off the bridge, and all who were riding it managed to jump clear except Henry, who unfortunately couldn’t react in time.
That’s not to say that accidents were uncommon on New Zealand tracks, but this one particular incident stood out as particularly eerie since the group took a photograph mere hours before the accident, thus warranting a quick mention.
Closures and clearances
Sadly, many lines around our district became defunct and were shut down, including the Mount Somers line, which was one of the most significant railroads in Ashburton history, excepting the main Christchurch-Dunedin thoroughfare.
The last train to Mount Somers ran on the December 30, 1967, and the day was a bittersweet affair overall which included a mock funeral ceremony.
Today, little remains of the branch apart from the occasional bit of formation, some loading banks, ballast, and goods sheds at Mount Somers, as well as loading banks at the Westerfield yard site.
Of course, a section of track has been preserved at The Plains Vintage Railway & Historical Museum in Tinwald.
Maybe one day widespread passenger rail will make a comeback in a more sustainable form than coal combustion and diesel – and a quick trip to Mount Somers by rail will be back on the cards. We’ll just have to wait and see
By Connor Lysaght
This article first appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 10th of September 2019, and was modified for publication to this blog.
- Methven station under snow with a railway engine pulled in, 1901.
- Advertisement for the last train to Mount Somers before line closure, 1967.
- Mount Somers railway line, taken by Florence Wright around 1900.
- Photograph taken shortly before the death of Frank Henry, 1898.
- Ashburton railway bridge, 1902.