'The Dunstan (Cromwell) Gorge is a scene such as Salvator Rosa would have loved to paint; and if it were brought within the reach of cheap steamboats or Parlimentary trains, it would be thronged with artistic visitors, and vulgarised by gaping tourists.' ~ Vincent Pyke, Chapter 3, 'The Story of Wild Will Enderby', 1873.
As early as 1873 it was apparent to Vincent Pyke and the residents of Central Otago that a railway might one day reach inland as far as Cromwell, providing not only a freight and passenger service, but also bringing tourists to admire the dramatic landscapes of the region.
Construction of the Otago Central Railway began on June 7, 1879, when Vincent Pyke turned the first sod at Wingatui, 12kms south of Dunedin. Progress was slow, however, and within a year the line had become a victim of the economic depression of the1880s. A decade passed before the first section to Hindon (27kms) was opened in 1889. Over the years, scores of labourers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and engineers worked through frozen winters and scorching summers to push the line further inland, reaching Middlemarch (64kms) in 1891, Ranfurly (123.5kms) in 1898, Omakau (178.5kms) in 1904, Alexandra (207kms) in 1906, and Clyde (216kms) in 1907. Here work stopped until 1914 after which the last 20km section of line through the Cromwell Gorge to Cromwell (236kms) was finally completed in 1921.
The Cromwell Station was opened in July 1921. It consisted of a station building, a 60ft x 30ft goods-shed, a loading bank, and cattle / sheep loading yards. Since it was a terminal station it also had an engine-shed, turntable and coal and watering facilities. The station sidings could accommodate nearly 100 wagons.
In 1942 the station burnt down and a new station was built. The fire was later attributed to leaking and self combusting science chemicals awaiting delivery to the local school. The station was closed in 1976, the same year that the site for the Clyde dam was chosen. The 20km section of line, through the gorge from Clyde to Cromwell, was closed in 1980. Officially, the closures were blamed on declining activity, but it's clear that the government did not want the line to remain open because of the dam project, and that this hastened its demise.
Various steam locomotives serviced the Cromwell Station, including a 37 ton E class, a 30 ton R class, the 57 ton UB class in the 1920s and 1930s, the 78 ton A class, the 72 ton Q class in the 1940s, and the 87 ton Ab class which was used on the line from 1936. The last regular steam-hauled train left Cromwell on 23 February, 1968.
Passenger services began on the Otago Central Railway in 1900 and were replaced with mixed trains in 1917, with passenger trains only running during the busier holiday periods. The passenger trains were reinstated in 1936. One of these trains was involved in the Hyde rail tragedy in 1943. Passenger trains were again replaced with mixed trains in 1951, and in turn replaced with Vulcan Railcars in 1956. The railcar initially ran to Cromwell, but was cut back to Alexandra in May of 1958. Railcars ceased running on 25 April 1976.
The line beyond Middlemarch was lifted during 1991, and the track-bed as far as Clyde was handed over to the Department of Conservation in 1993, becoming the Otago Central Rail Trail, now a major tourist attraction.
In 1995, the Otago Excursion Train Trust, in partnership with the Dunedin City Council, formed Taieri Gorge Railway Limited, purchasing the line to Middlemarch along with some locomotives. The 60km Taieri Gorge Railway has become one of Otago’s premier tourist attractions, operated with the assistance of the Trust’s volunteer members.
Sadly, the tourism potential of the Cromwell Gorge railway was never realized.