In the early decades of European settlement in New Zealand, most travel of any distance was by water. Towns and villages grew up along the coast, or on navigable rivers, and for many years the little coastal steamers transported the bulk of passengers and freight.
New Zealand's first railway lines were built in the South Island in the 1860s. By 1880 the South Island's main trunk line had been completed—and the North Island's had not yet been started.
The South Island's eastern plains, where the island's largest settlements were, made building the railway comparatively straightforward. It was a far more difficult task to build a railway line through the central North Island, with its mountains and ravines, requiring some impressive feats of engineering. The central section has towering viaducts and the dramatic Raurimu spiral, with tunnels and sharp curves and a line that circles back on itself.
|Makatote Viaduct, Mt Ruapehu in background, c.1910|
|Raurimu Spiral. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-42886-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. natlib.govt.nz/records/22707381|
The North Island Main Trunk line was officially opened a few months later, in November 1908, when the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward ceremonially drove home the final spike.
The last scheduled steam train service was in 1971, but today journeys by steam train are a popular recreational activity.