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I am proud to pay tribute to a testimony to the power of coal. If a grand old lady of over 100 years can still stand with coal power in a country seemingly obsessed with renewables I have to say this: try running her on wind power or solar panels. Or looking for a big enough power point to plug her into each night. She works 14 hours a day in the summer months when the days are long and there is always a brisk breeze on Lake Wakatipu but she still thrives on Coal. 

Anyone who has ever visited the beautiful town of Queenstown in New Zealand, will know the sight of the steamship Earnslaw. 

The TSS Earnslaw is an integral part of Queenstown’s pioneering history and to this day a Queenstown icon. She was commissioned by New Zealand Railways to service the communities around Lake Wakatipu. Launched in the same year as the Titanic, the TSS Earnslaw’s maiden voyage was on 18 October 1912. 

And this grand old lady runs on something that is demonised today -  hard back-breaking work and coal. 

The construction of the steamship Earnslaw and its assembly at Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand, is a story of both historical and engineering significance. The ship was built in the early 20th century and has served the people of Queenstown for over 100 years, becoming an iconic symbol of the area's history and culture.

The ship was named after Mount Earnslaw, a 2889-metre peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu. 

Queenstown experienced a population influx after gold was discovered in the Arrow River in 1862. 

The lack of roading in the region made it far more convenient to use sail and steam ships to transport the gold across the lake from Queenstown to Kingston to be transported further south by road to Dunedin or Invercargill. This transport route became even more convenient when eventually a railway was established between Kingston and Gore in the 1890s. The train service was used to bring in machinery to be used for gold mining and as there was still no road from Queenstown to Kingston or Glenorchy, ship transport across the lake was vital. The train service came to be known as the Kingston Flyer. source

TSS Earnslaw was originally intended to transport sheep and other goods between the different settlements around Lake Wakatipu, but it soon became a popular mode of transport for passengers as well. The ship was powered by a coal-fired steam engine that drove two paddle wheels, giving it a top speed of around 13 knots.

Work on Earnslaw began at the McGregor yard in Dunedin in July 1911, and when the hull was completed in November that year, the vessel was dismantled and then the carefully labelled and numbered parts were transported to the lakeside town of Kingston, 300 km away, to be reassembled.

I stumbled on differing reports as to whether she departed Dunedin or Bluff but am happy to stand corrected should I be misinformed. 

No matter what, the first challenge was to transport the heavy and bulky components of the ship from the port at Bluff to the nearest railhead, which was 20 miles away. This involved using teams of horses and bullocks to haul the components, which included the massive paddle wheels, the steam engine, and the boiler, to the railhead. The steam engine alone weighed over 10 tonnes, and the paddle wheels were 18 feet in diameter.

Once the components reached the railhead, they were loaded onto special railcars designed to transport oversized loads. However, the journey by rail was not without its challenges. The rail line was narrow gauge, and the terrain was steep and rugged, which made for slow progress. The transport of the components required the construction of temporary trestle bridges and other infrastructure to allow the railcars to cross rivers and gorges.

After several weeks of slow and arduous transport, the components of the Earnslaw finally arrived in Kingston, at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. From there, the ship had to be reassembled and launched on the lake. The reassembly process was no less challenging than the transport, as it required a skilled team of engineers and shipwrights to fit the various components together and assemble the ship.

The steam engine had to be lifted into place with a steam-powered crane. The paddle wheels had to be fitted onto the ship's stern shaft and aligned precisely to ensure smooth and efficient operation.

The reassembly process took several weeks, but the Earnslaw was finally ready to sail on Lake Wakatipu in October 1912.

The Earnslaw quickly became an essential part of life around Lake Wakatipu. It transported passengers and goods between the different settlements, including Queenstown, Glenorchy, and Kingston. 

TSS Earnslaw's 1912 maiden voyage on Lake Wakatipu was an event of such local significance that the day was declared a public holiday

With a passenger capacity of 1,035, and up to 100 tons of cargo or 1,500 sheep, 200 bales of wool or 70 head of cattle, Earnslaw and its crew of 11 played an important role for almost 50 years in keeping the isolated lakeside communities supplied and carrying livestock, people and produce to and from the surrounding high country stations.

On Easter Sunday 1914, Earnslaw carried a record number of 1,027 passengers – but over the next 30 years an increasingly extensive road network around the shores of the lake cut passenger numbers dramatically. Earnslaw became the only vessel to operate on the lake and helped to lay some telephone cables to connect local towns and villages in later years. 

 

The Earnslaw Leaving Queenstown NZ Tourist Series RPPC

 

The ship also played a crucial role in the development of tourism in the area. In the early years, the Earnslaw carried tourists on excursions around the lake, giving them a unique perspective on the stunning scenery of the area.

During both World War I and World War II, the Earnslaw played an important role in supporting the war effort in New Zealand.

One notable contribution the Earnslaw made during World War II was its involvement in the construction of the airfield at Glenorchy. The airfield was built to provide a landing strip for aircraft traveling between New Zealand and Antarctica, which was a crucial staging point for military operations during the war. The Earnslaw transported workers and supplies to Glenorchy to help build the airfield, which played a critical role in supporting the war effort.

The airport was primarily used for training pilots and aircrew, and it was an important base for the RNZAF's No. 5 Squadron, which flew reconnaissance and bomber missions throughout the South Pacific. The airport's location in a remote and mountainous area made it an ideal training ground for pilots, who could practice navigating difficult terrain and landing on small airstrips.

In addition to its role in military operations, the Glenorchy Airport also played a key role in the development of aviation technology during the war. The airport was used as a testing ground for new aircraft and engines, and many advances in aviation technology were made as a result of research and development conducted at the airport.

After the war, the airport was decommissioned and returned to civilian use. Today, the airport is primarily used for scenic flights and recreational flying, and it remains an important part of Queenstown's aviation history. The airport's wartime role as a training ground and testing facility is a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of New Zealand's aviation pioneers, who were able to adapt to the challenges of war and make significant contributions to the advancement of aviation technology.

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Despite its wartime service, the Earnslaw continued to operate as a passenger and cargo vessel on Lake Wakatipu after the wars. The ship became a popular attraction for tourists, and it remains in service today as a testament to its enduring strength and durability. The Earnslaw's wartime service is a testament to the ship's versatility and the importance of engineering innovation in supporting the needs of the military and the wider community.

After the war, the ship returned to its role as a passenger and cargo vessel, but the tourism industry was starting to become more important to the local economy.

Over the years, the Earnslaw has become a beloved icon of Queenstown and an essential part of the area's tourism industry. It has carried millions of passengers on sightseeing trips, dinner cruises, and other excursions. The ship has also played a vital role in the community, transporting people and goods around the lake and serving as a floating ambulance in emergencies.

In 1984, the Earnslaw was nearly lost in a fire that broke out while it was moored at the Queenstown wharf. Fortunately, the ship was saved by a team of local firefighters and volunteers who worked tirelessly to put out the flames. The ship was extensively damaged, but it was rebuilt and restored to its former glory over the next two years.

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Here are some current specifications for the TSS Earnslaw:

  • Engine: The Earnslaw is powered by a coal-fired triple-expansion steam engine that was originally built in 1912. The engine produces 500 horsepower.

  • Crew: The Earnslaw is typically crewed by a team of around 10 people, including a captain, engineer, stokers, deckhands, and hospitality staff.

  • Passengers: The Earnslaw can carry up to 250 passengers, although this capacity is typically limited to around 200 passengers to ensure comfort and safety. The ship operates a variety of cruises throughout the year, including scenic cruises, dining cruises, and private charters.

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  • Annual passenger numbers: The exact number of passengers carried by the Earnslaw varies from year to year, but it is estimated that the ship carries around 150,000 passengers annually. The Earnslaw is a popular tourist attraction in Queenstown, and many visitors to the area enjoy taking a cruise on the historic steamship to explore the beautiful scenery of Lake Wakatipu.

  • The TSS Earnslaw still uses coal to power its steam engine today, just as it did when it was first launched over a century ago. In fact, the Earnslaw is one of the last coal-fired passenger vessels in the world still in operation. 

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Nearly scrapped in 1968, she was rescued and leased by RealNZ and put to work once again carrying passengers around the Lake. 

Since then the TSS Earnslaw has been painstakingly restored to its original condition – everything you see is pretty much like it was 100 years ago. Today, the TSS Earnslaw is the only hand-fired, commercial passenger-carrying steamship in operation in the southern hemisphere, making her one of the most unique experiences in the world. 

The TSS Earnslaw has featured in several movies including a cameo in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an Amazon River Boat. Parts of the trawler SS Venture in Peter Jackson’s King Kong were inspired by the TSS Earnslaw. Famous composer Ron Goodwin composed a piece of music inspired by the rhythm of the TSS Earnslaw’s engines.

Today, the Earnslaw is still in service and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Queenstown. Visitors can take a ride on the ship and experience a piece of New Zealand's history while enjoying the stunning scenery of Lake Wakatipu. The ship is also used for private events, including weddings and corporate functions, and is a regular sight on the lake during major events such as the Queenstown Winter Festival.

I am proud to pay tribute to a testimony to the power of coal. If a grand old lady of over 100 years can still stand with coal power in a country seemingly obsessed with renewables I have to say this: try running her on wind power or solar panels. Or looking for a big enough power point to plug her into each night. She works 14 hours a day in the summer months when the days are long and there is always a brisk breeze on Lake Wakatipu but she still thrives on Coal. 

 

Yes, her old companion coal still stands by her side. With hail and hearty men putting their backs behind the shovel, she shows us that the old ways are often the best because they stand the test of time. 

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