THE 'Mighty Clutha' forms the heart of one of the world’s most unique waterways. It traverses the dramatic semi-desert landscape of Central Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand, but the most spectacular river gorges, and much more, have been destroyed ... by dams. This is the unofficial story of the Clutha Mata-Au River and its stolen treasures. It is a story steeped in bitterness, shame, destruction, and sadness.

The Cromwell Gorge Railway

'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.

Cromwell Station, by Albert Percy Godber, 1930.


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.


Wool bales from the Criffel run arriving at the Cromwell Station, circa mid-1920's.


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.


Cromwell Station with Ab663, by Stephen Buck, 1958.


Diesel-electric locomotives were introduced on the Otago Central Railway in February 1957 with the Dh class running as far as Clyde. They were re-classed as Dg in 1968 and withdrawn by 1983. These Dh/Dg class engines were too heavy to run on the lighter rails of the Cromwell Gorge. However, when the much lighter Dj class diesel locomotives (with 10.3 tonne axle loading) were introduced on 26 February, 1968, they were allowed to run through to Cromwell, replacing the remaining Ab class steam engines which were withdrawn. Di class diesels also worked on the Otago Central Railway from 1978 to 1984 but being fewer in number were seen less often than the Dj class engines, which were the mainstay of the line until its closure in 1990.

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.


Cromwell Gorge Railway in winter, by Robin Morrison, 1979.


The Otago Central Railway played a major role in the development of the region transporting thousands of tons of livestock, wool bales and fruit to market. One of the line’s busiest years was 1960 when almost 500,000 sheep left Central Otago in double-decker sheep wagons heading to sale yards and freezing works. In a good year up to 4,000 tons of fruit would leave Central Otago orchards by rail for destinations as far as Auckland. The railway also served as a supply line for equipment, food and merchandise, mail and newspapers, and excursion trains ran for the Blossom Festival and at Easter.


Ab663 in the Cromwell Gorge, 1962.


Although other branch lines in the South Island declined in the 1980s, the line to Clyde was kept open to transport construction materials such as cement and steel to the Clyde dam project. When the dam was completed, the line had little other traffic and the section from Middlemarch to Clyde was closed by the New Zealand Railways Corporation on 30 April, 1990.

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.


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About This Site

Cromwell before the Clyde dam was set to become a tourism icon. Blessed with a dramatic location, numerous historic buildings and a spectacular bridge overlooking the famous Cromwell Gap, its potential was obvious, until ... "think big."

The Roxburgh Gorge, too, with its many amazing rapids ~ the largest whitewater in New Zealand, had vast tourism potential, offering Alexandra and Roxburgh a booming industry focused on high volume whitewater kayaking, rafting and dory adventures unlike anything else in New Zealand.

The Clutha Mata-Au, before the Roxburgh and Clyde dams, possessed many natural treasures in the form of extraordinary river features and rapids.

This website tells the story of those stolen treasures, and records the bitter fight of ordinary New Zealanders pitted against arrogant government technocrats and politicians who considered the Clutha River ripe for exploitation at any cost.

Finally, the rising waters behind the Clyde dam submerged the historic main street of old Cromwell, the Cromwell Gorge including the famous Cromwell Junction, the Lower Kawarau Gorge including Sargood's Rapid (rated the best whitewater rapid in the world), the Cromwell Gap Rapid, the Lowburn area, and numerous orchards and homes. A total of 2300 hectares of productive land disappeared.

We said "Never again ..."

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