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Queenstown’s steamy lady celebrates 100 years

Queenstown’s steamy lady celebrates 100 years

After a century on the job, Queenstown’s steamy lady TSS Earnslaw celebrated her birthday with a working holiday - a week of special outings delighting hundreds of locals and visitors. Clocks were turned back on the big day for a rowdy celebration as a huge cheering crowd on Steamer Wharf welcomed this remarkable survivor of the romantic steamship era back into port.

Real Journeys, who took over operation of the vintage steamer from New Zealand Railways in 1969, planned the celebrations to highlight the significance of TSS Earnslaw as the oldest remaining passenger steamship in the southern hemisphere.

A favourite local tourist attraction, the whiff of coal-fired smoke billowing from TSS Earnslaw’s red funnel as she crosses Lake Wakatipu, is as much a part of Queenstown’s identity as the Remarkables mountain range towering above the alpine resort. She has carried royalty from Britain, Belgium and Japan, and made appearances in international movies.

The anniversary sailings included nostalgic visits to the lakeside high country stations that the steamer serviced with passenger, freight and mail deliveries for almost 70 years.

Lady of the Lake
The ‘Lady of the Lake’, as she is affectionately known, marked her official centenary with a re-enactment of her maiden passenger voyage on Lake Wakatipu from Kingston to Queenstown on 18 October 1912.


Three hundred and fifty guests, dressed in period costume, were on board for the journey, witnessing an historic moment as the TSS Earnslaw drew into Kingston Wharf, at the southern end of the lake, to meet another grand old-timer - the Kingston Flyer vintage steam train, carrying passengers from the south, waiting just as it had a century earlier.

The Earnslaw then headed back to Queenstown Bay with flags flying and whistle blasting, making a victory lap flanked by a flotilla of boats that turned out in force to form a guard of honour.

Emotional journey
This was an emotional journey for many passengers who held strong links with the steamer, among them Olive Lady Hutchins - who with late husband Sir Les Hutchins founded Fiordland Travel which later became Real Journeys - and 34 members representing four generations of the extended Hutchins family.

Fiordland Travel purchased TSS Earnslaw in 1969 from New Zealand Railways, and has been operating the steamer as a tourist attraction for the past 43 years.

Fellow passenger Ross Williams of Melbourne - grandson of naval architect Hugh McRae who designed the TSS Earnslaw - paid tribute to his grandfather’s work.

“The steamer has had a lot of ups and downs and it’s good to see her in such excellent condition. My grandfather would have been very happy to know that she still remains in service 100 years to date.”

Consultant engineer Russ Morton, who assists with the vessel’s biennial survey, says that in 2012 the TSS Earnslaw’s engines are working harder than ever, yet she is still in peak condition.

“She is completing an average of 2000 running hours a year which is much more than she did when she was owned by New Zealand Railways in the early days. She is using 2,000 tonnes of coal a year, all hand stoked, and travelling 40,000km a year, the equivalent of a circumnavigation of the world.”

Background: TSS Earnslaw history

TSS Earnslaw - named after Mt Earnslaw which sits at the head of Lake Wakatipu but often referred to as the ‘lady of the lake’ - has a captivating history traversing a century on the lake.

The ship, designed by Hugh McRae, was built in Dunedin - a coastal port 176km / 283 miles from Queenstown - by shipbuilders John McGregor and Co in 1911. After construction she was dismantled and transported by rail to Kingston on the southern shores of Lake Wakatipu.

A temporary shipyard was established at Kingston Wharf and the hull was launched on February 24 1912. It was moored at the wharf while final construction, installation of the engines, boilers and internal fittings, was completed.

Significantly, 1912 was the same year as the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. But the Earnslaw was built to survive to claim the title of the southern hemisphere’s oldest coal-fired passenger steamship.

TSS Earnslaw made her maiden passenger voyage from Kingston on October 18 1912 with a passenger list of Parliamentarians, local officials, and members of the public keen to be part of the historic voyage. A huge crowd gathered on the purpose-built Queenstown Wharf to welcome the steamer, and the next day was declared a public holiday for the ship to make a debut trip to the Head of the Lake with around 550 passengers who had paid 2s6d fare.

The Earnslaw went into service under New Zealand Railways operating two days a week to Kingston to pick up coal supplies, freight and passengers, and three days a week to the Head of the Lake calling at lakeside stations en route.

For tourists to Queenstown, the elegant state of the art steamer with its polished brass, kauri timber panelling and velvet seating offered the best way to see the lake and spectacular surrounding alpine scenery.

Passenger numbers peaked in 1963/64 when the steamer carried almost 37,000 passengers, but by the late sixties declining patronage - due to the introduction of new roads and coach services - saw the NZR service discontinued. In late 1969 TSS Earnslaw was sold to Les and Olive Hutchins of Fiordland Travel Ltd.

Since 1970, Fiordland Travel - rebranded as Real Journeys in 2002 - has been committed to retaining the TSS Earnslaw as a heritage vessel. Apart from some modifications, the ship is virtually the same as when launched, and under a category one heritage artefact classification has long-term protection as part of the local district plan.

Fare-paying passengers support the on-going preservation of the vintage steamer which is subject to a 25-year rolling maintenance programme that includes biennial inspections on a purpose-built slip. In preparation for the centenary celebration, the ship underwent a significant spruce up with new paint, saloon upholstery, decking and flooring.

Today TSS Earnslaw runs daily trips across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak high country resort, carrying more than 150,000 passengers a year.

TSS Earnslaw fact file:

TSS stands for Twin Screw Steamship
TSS Earnslaw carried the Duke of York in 1927, the Duke of Gloucester in 1935, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1990. Other royal passengers have included the King and Queen of Belgium, the Prince of Thailand, the
        Emperor and Empress of Japan.
Former president Bill Clinton travelled on board TSS Earnslaw in 1999.
TSS Earnslaw made a cameo appearance in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) as an Amazon River boat, and certain parts were used as the basis for SS Venture in King Kong.
TSS Earnslaw uses 1 tonne of coal every hour.
TSS Earnslaw was launched in 1912, the same year as RMS Titanic.
TSS Earnslaw travels 1.5 times the circumference of the earth each year.
Composer Ron Goodwin created a piece of music inspired by the rhythm of the TSS Earnslaw’s engines. It was first performed by the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
TSS Earnslaw inspired the illustrated children’s story book Pot the Dragon by Brian High. Pot will be 24 years old in 2012.