History in Motion: Travelling through Time on the TSS Earnslaw

October 26, 2019
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LIVING in Queenstown has its attractions.

Not just the scenery. But also the history.

History sounds like a contradiction in terms for New Zealand, right?

Well, no. Queenstown’s nearly 160 years old now. If you look really closely at the building at the extreme top left, you can see that it was built in 1872.

Ballarat Street, Queenstown, in the great flood of 1878. This section of Ballarat Street is now called The Mall. Image MA 1259793, Te Papa.

It’s all still there. Though the wild colonial town’s a bit more cafe-society these days.

There’s lots of old gold-mining pubs in the outlying areas, too. Like this one, serving drinks since 1863.

But of course there’s old buildings in most places. The real historical scoop in Queenstown is the town’s 1912 lake steamer, the TSS Earnslaw.

TSS stands for Twin Screw Steamer. As for Earnslaw, it’s a Scottish dialect word of part-Viking origins meaning ‘Eagle’s Crag’. It’s the name of a historic village on the Scottish borders near Eccles, though you won’t find it on maps now.

The nineteenth-century surveyor John Turnbull Thomson’s father came from Earnslaw. The younger Thomson named a big mountain near the top of Lake Wakatipu after his paternal village. The name then descended to the lake steamer Earnslaw when it was launched.

Earn’s the part that means eagle. Above all, the black-and-white sea-eagles of the north’s cold seas of which the American Bald Eagle is one variety: eagles called Örn or Ørn throughout the Scandinavian realm. And law means hill or crag, supposedly an Anglo-Saxon word though it might also be the same as Icelandic hlið, a ledge or shoulder of a hill.

Such a name seems appropriate for the local landscape.

The Earnslaw under Walter Peak, 2017

The Earnslaw was built in Dunedin in 1911 and transported, in pieces, to Kingston, a railway terminus at the south-eastern end of Lake Wakatipu, to be reassembled and put into service in 1912. Here’s an image of the Earnslaw shortly after her launch, pipe band and all.

Archives New Zealand CC-BY-2.0. NZ Railways Reference Print E5838, Drawer 33.

The most amazing thing about the Earnslaw is that it still plies the lake today.

From 1912 on, the Earnslaw was operated for more than half a century by the New Zealand Government Railways Department, sailing the length of Lake Wakatipu from the railway terminus at Kingston by the foot of the lake. From Kingston, it’s 80 kilometres (fifty miles) along Lake Wakatipu to the top of the lake where the settlements of Kinloch, Glenorchy and Paradise are located. Queenstown is part-way along.

Lake Wakatipu, with key towns and localities along it and roads leading away from its ends. Background is a NASA WorldWind false-colour Landsat-7 image via Wikimedia Commons, in public domain. North at top.

In government service, the Earnslaw carried anything that needed to be carried up the lake, from visiting royalty to vast mobs of sheep (not necessarily at the same time). But as roads were put in in parallel to the lake, to Queenstown in the 1930s and to Glenorchy in the 1960s, the Earnslaw started losing money hand over fist.

In 1968 the Minister of Railways decided that the Earnslaw should suffer the fate of one of the earlier steamers, the Ben Lomond, which was stripped of anything valuable and then towed out into the middle of the lake and sunk in deep water in 1952.

The plan to sink the Earnslaw led to protests, after which a firm called Fiordland Travel, forerunner of its present owners Real Journeys, stepped up and bought the Earnslaw off the government. Fiordland travel figured that the Earnslaw might still be able to make money on shorter tourist excursions, and so it turned out.

From having once nearly been scuttled, the Earnslaw’s come to be listed as one of a dozen top heritage objects in Otago, a sizable region of southern New Zealand.

Almost as lucky is the fact that the Railways Department hadn’t got around to taking out the old steam engines and putting in Diesel; which would have been more efficient but far less romantic.

Ron Goodwin, the composer of the theme tune for the 1969 epic The Battle of Britain, sailed on the Earnslaw at one time and was so impressed that he composed the ‘Earnslaw Steam Theme’.

The Earnslaw Steam Theme, composed and conducted by Ron Goodwin; a 1978 recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

The Earnslaw Steam Theme, composed and conducted by Ron Goodwin; a 1978 recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

The ship that is perhaps most like the Earnslaw elsewhere is the Liemba, launched in 1913 as the Graf von Götzen on Lake Tanganyika, when that part of Africa was a German possession

In the days when it was still powered by steam, the Götzen is said to have been the inspiration for the 1951 Humphrey Bogart / Katherine Hepburn bodice-ripper, The African Queen.

Fair use via Wikimedia Commons

But the Liemba was converted to Diesel power in 1970. Say what you like about the technical inefficiencies of the classic old steam engine as compared to modern Diesel, it’s still not just quite the same. Especially when the steam engine in question is fed by a sweating stoker with a shovel, as it still is on the Earnslaw. The boiler grate glows white, like the fires of Hades, and the grille is soon slammed shut.

The Earnslaw makes twelve knots or sea-miles per hour in ordinary sailing — 22 kilometres per hour — or thirteen knots as the upper limit of normal speed, sixteen with mechanical blowers into the furnaces, and nineteen (35 km/h) if run flat-out with no concern for efficiency.

At least, those were the original specs. I think it’s been de-rated since. At 107 years of age the old ship can probably afford to take it easy a bit, and not exert itself as much as in younger days.

In 2010, two years before its high-profile centenary, the Earnslaw gained its first woman commander.

Here’s a video my editor Chris Harris and I made a few months ago, of the Earnslaw in Queenstown Harbour:

And here’s one we made more recently, a much longer video, which talks about the whole historical picture to a much greater extent. It includes footage of the interior and the engines, of the piano player who belts out popular numbers from bygone days, and also some scenes we filmed of the Earnslaw in dry dock and of a little island that featured in the film Willow, one of the first of many to be filmed in these parts.

And of the Real Journeys tour itinerary, which involves sailing from Queenstown to a ranch called Walter Peak Station. Once upon a time, Walter Peak station made a fortune from sheep. But those days are long gone, sheep farming having pretty much collapsed in the 1980s.

Today, Walter Peak’s a sort of farm park with a handful of sheep remaining. Shearers show the tourists how it’s done. Friendly goats, llamas and colossal highland cattle line up patiently so that tiny children can hand them food pellets across the fence.

With its stately architecture and gardens, Victorian books on the shelves and sepia-toned photos of officers and men ready to face the foe, it has to be said that Walter Peak is another blast from the past. They do an amazing Devonshire Tea, and dinner too. But it’s funny to be among another reminder of past glories in a young country, when you think about it.

Nobody knows how long the Earnslaw will keep going. Officially forever: but you have a sort of dread that during the next winter refit they’ll find something fatally wrong and after that, it’ll just be tied up forever and turned into a floating restaurant like La Dame de Canton, the Chinese junk I once helped sail across the Indian Ocean.

So head down to Queenstown and hand over the modest fee to Real Journeys while you still can, if you’re ever in New Zealand. A young country — but not that young.

Postscript: I have a couple of other posts on Queenstown and Wakatipu themes, here and here.


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