Denniston, New Zealand

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Denniston is located in New Zealand
Coordinates: 41°44′17″S 171°47′44″E / 41.73806°S 171.79556°E / -41.73806; 171.79556
Country New Zealand
Region West Coast
District Buller District

Denniston is a small settlement in the northwestern South Island of New Zealand, in the West Coast region. It is on the small Mount Rochfort Plateau in the Papahaua Ranges 600 metres above sea level, 18 kilometres north-east of Westport.

During the early years of the 20th century Denniston's population was close to 2000, due to the large coal mine close to the town. It is now little more than a ghost town, with a population of less than 50. The location, history and fate of Denniston are similar to those of Millerton, New Zealand.

Coal is still mined at the nearby Burnett's Face and at the Stockton Mine. In 2010 Bathurst Resources announced the Escarpment Mine Project to mine for coal on the Denniston Plateau, a move strongly opposed by environmentalists.[1]

In March 2013 the Environment Court gave Bathurst the go-ahead, though groups such as Forest & Bird vowed to continue fighting.[2]



Denniston incline in 2013

During its heyday, Denniston had a large enough population to justify having its own lodges, churches, and sports clubs. It also had its own Returned Services Association, and five Lodges (Masonic, Druids, Oddfellows, Orange and Buffaloes). The last of these, the Buffaloes Lodge, closed in 1996 by which time it had relocated from Denniston to the former Waimangaroa RSA rooms. It also boasted a small school which now serves as a local museum. The town also boasted its own medical society, and several pubs. The last of these was the Red Dog Saloon, owned by Johnny Cotter until it closed in the 1960s when coalmining ceased. It did not have a cemetery as the ground was too hard; bodies were transported from Denniston to Waimangaroa initially down the Denniston Incline and later by road which allowed residents to leave the Hill without needing to use the Incline. Before this was built, the only means to access Denniston or leave it was by the Incline.

Industrial history[edit]

Denniston Incline, ca 1880s-90s.

The Denniston incline was a steeply graded incline railway that connected Denniston at the top with the Conns Creek Branch. It carried coal from the mines on the Denniston Plateau. The incline fell 510 metres in 1.7 kilometres, with some sections having gradients over 1 in 1.3.[3] The track gauge was the standard NZR track gauge of 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) and the system was designed to supply coal ships at Westport. The wagons used on the incline were the ubiquitous “Q” class hopper wagons that could be detached from their wagon bodies and lifted by wharf crane over the hold of a ship, and the bottom discharge doors of the wagons opened manually to discharge coal into the ships' holds.

The 'Incline' was actually two inclines. The higher of the two began at Denniston, and descended steeply to the appropriately named "Middle Brake". Here wagons were disconnected from the first incline's rope, and placed on the rope of the second incline for a more gentle descent to Conns Creek, where the accumulated wagons would then be marshalled into trains to be taken to Westport. The Denniston incline worked by gravity: the descending loaded wagons of coal pulled up the empty wagons. The braking system of the winding drums used hydraulic pistons to slow them rotation of the drums. The drum from Middle Brake, is on display at Westport's Coaltown Museum. The ascending side was known as the "Donkey Side", the descending side was the "Company Side".

The two inclines were single line operation with passing loops, where the empty and full wagons crossed. Collisions were not unknown: the remains of several wrecked wagons still lie beside the incline formation. A number of workers or people travelling on the inclinedied as a result of collisions and runaways.[citation needed]

The town[edit]

Denniston was always a working town; its life was the coal. The community at Denniston served no other purpose than to support the operations of the coal mines and the incline. Once the road was put through, people started to drift off Denniston to the warmer climate of Waimangaroa since it is said that the weather on Denniston is not for the faint of heart and is not the place many would consider to be an idyllic existence. The first of Denniston's communities to suffer the pinch were quite naturally the smaller settlements such as Burnett’s Face, the town half a mile up the plateau, whose main road was the constantly running narrow gauge skipway linking the coal face with the Bins at the head of the Denniston Incline. Burnett's Face was always a rough and ready outpost on the edge of civilisation, and by the 1950s little remained of the settlement. The skipway which had been used to convey coal from the mines to Denniston since the early days of the Denniston Incline, was replaced in 1952 with an aerial ropeway.

By the 1960s the writing was on the wall for the Denniston Incline and the decision was taken to close it by 1969, the actual last day of operation being 16 August 1967. The Conns Creek branch which connected to the foot of the incline was cut back to a siding about 1 mile long where the coal was loaded from trucks. A few months later the aerial ropeway from the mines also closed down in favour of direct trucking of coal from the mine to Waimangaroa. In May 1968 the Inangahua earthquake caused much damage to the incline, making the closure irreversible. With declining coal markets, and the fact the system was almost entirely reliant on the outdated "Q Class Wagons", it was seen to be more cost effective to truck any remaining coal from the plateau down the hill via the public road, rather than rebuild the Incline. Thus what was once described as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" by locals, faded into history. An estimated 12 million tons of coal was carried in the incline's working life.[4]

The closure of the incline didn’t necessarily mean the end of mining, and some coal mining activity remained on the plateau, albeit with the output being trucked down the hill.

The Incline’s remains and the formidable community of the Denniston Plateau slowly diminished over time following the closure of the incline in 1968, the relics of the past slowly disappearing. However, interest in Denniston has continued to grow, and this growth and interest in Denniston has been aided by The Denniston Rose, a novel by Jenny Pattrick.

With recognition of the historic nature of Denniston and its increasing status as a local tourist icon and one that is close to Westport, attention was needed immediately to ensure that what was left of the settlement and its coal mining past wasn’t completely lost forever. As a result a band of enthusiastic dedicated locals set about working to preserve Denniston’s heritage and interpret it in an effective way for the benefit of people making a pilgrimage to one of NZ's most infamous coalfield settlements.

Recent works include restoration of some of the rail tracks in the yard area where the coal loading bins were located, and this work also includes the restoration of a genuine "Q" Class coal wagon, permanently moored to some rail track laid on the precipice that is the top ledge of the incline just as it drops down from the yard level onto the incline, thus giving visitors an insight into what the incline would have been like in its operating days.


  1. ^ Westport News (2011-12-08). "West Coast mayors tell Aucklanders to back off". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  2. ^ "Bathurst closer to Denniston Plateau mine". 3 News NZ. March 28, 2013. 
  3. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ Coaling From the Clouds, R J Meyer, NZRLS 1971.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°44′S 171°48′E / 41.733°S 171.800°E / -41.733; 171.800