Queenstown is well-known today for adventure activities, but it also has a rich historic legacy that’s worth exploring.
Early European settlers made their way through the mountains to establish farms, but the district really boomed with the discovery of gold in 1862. By the end of the 19th century, gold mining was over. Queenstown declined into a sleepy rural town, until tourism created a new boomtown a century later. Relics of early gold mining, farming, and commerce survived this cycle of boom and bust.
Here are seven places where you can explore Queenstown’s heritage to see how the locals once lived and worked.
Launched in the same year as the Titanic, TSS Earnslaw carried passengers, goods, and livestock to sheep stations around the lake before roads were built. Over 100 years later, the steamship is still in service, taking tourists on scenic cruises to Walter Peak Station.
The elegant wood-panelled cafe has wide windows offering views of the lake, but below the deck, it’s a different story. Standing on a walkway overlooking the engine room, you can feel the heat as the crew shovel coal into the furnace powering the historic steam engine.
Lakes District Museum
In gold rush Arrowtown, miners brought their gold to be weighed at the local Bank of New Zealand. The imposing building in Buckingham St is now part of the Lakes District Museum, dedicated to telling the stories of the Wakatipu region. The exhibits include farming equipment, gold mining tools, horse-drawn vehicles, old skis, photographs and more, showing what life was like for early Māori, European settlers, and Chinese miners. The museum hires out gold pans so you can try your luck at finding gold in the nearby Arrow River, as the early miners did.
Arrowtown Chinese Settlement
While Arrowtown’s main street is lined with solid colonial buildings, down the hill only the remains of the Chinese miners’ settlement can be seen. The reserve by the Arrow River contains two original buildings — Ah Lum’s store, built in the 1880s, and a stone outhouse toilet. Miners’ huts were reconstructed after archaeological excavations uncovered the settlement’s history. Information signs along the path tell this history, and it’s a particularly beautiful walk under golden autumn leaves.
The cottage was built in the 1860s on the shores of Lake Wakatipu by John Williams, a boat skipper, and it’s typical of houses of that era. The oldest remaining cottage in Queenstown, it’s now the Vesta Design Store.
Many original features of the house are visible while browsing the gifts and homewares on display in the small rooms. Because of its lakefront location, the cottage has been flooded several times, and water stains are visible in some places on the vintage wallpaper.
The crown on the roof of The Bathhouse restaurant hints at its origins as a commemoration of King George V’s coronation. The bathhouse opened in 1911 providing changing rooms and a diving platform, with separate hours allocated for men and women. When people complained that the fixed times didn’t suit them, the Council divided the bathhouse into men’s and women’s sections despite the whiff of scandal about “mixed bathing”.
After a flood wrecked the bathhouse, it was rebuilt in its current location further back from the water. The Bathhouse restaurant is still a relaxing spot by the beach, with dining on the deck replacing diving from it.
One Mile Powerhouse
When Queenstown’s first hydroelectric power station opened in 1924, the New Zealand Herald reported “The power-house is picturesquely situated on the One Mile Creek”. This description is still apt today, with the powerhouse preserved in a shady reserve just off the busy Fernhill roundabout.
Although the powerhouse is not generally open, the vintage electricity-generating machinery is visible through the windows and signs explain its history. The track following the creek from the powerhouse to the main road is a pleasant short walk, while the track going up the hill is for more adventurous trampers.
Kawarau Suspension Bridge
Building a bridge across the Kawarau River to the goldfields was a difficult task because of the terrain and the wind. The problem was solved by the Kawarau Suspension Bridge which won an engineering award in 1882 for its innovative design.
Today the Kawarau Bridge is well-known for bungy jumping, but it’s also the start of the Gibbston River Trail. This takes cyclists and walkers across the bridge and along the river to explore the area’s mining heritage, admire the views, and indulge in wine-tasting.
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