Queenstown is well known today for its adventure activities, but it also has a rich historical heritage worth exploring.
The first European settlers pushed their way through the mountains to establish farms, but the district really took off with the discovery of gold in 1862. By the end of the 19th century, gold mining was complete. Queenstown grew into a sleepy rural town, until tourism created a booming new town a century later. The remains of early gold mining, agriculture and commerce have survived this cycle of boom and bust.
Here are seven places you can explore Queenstown’s heritage to see how the locals once lived and worked.
Launched in the same year as the Titanic, the TSS Earnslaw transported passengers, cargo and livestock to sheep stations around the lake before road construction. Over 100 years later, the steamboat is still in service, taking tourists on scenic cruises to Walter Peak Station.
The sleek, wood-paneled cafe has large windows offering views of the lake, but under the bridge it’s a different story. Standing on a gangway overlooking the engine room, you can feel the heat as the crew shovel coal into the kiln fueling the historic steam engine.
Lake District Museum
In the Arrowtown Gold Rush, miners brought their gold to be weighed at the Local Bank of New Zealand. The imposing Buckingham St building is now part of the Lakes District Museum, dedicated to telling the stories of the Wakatipu region. Exhibits include farm equipment, gold mining tools, horse-drawn vehicles, old skis, photographs and more, showing what life was like for early Maori, European settlers, and Chinese miners. The museum rents pots of gold so you can try your luck finding gold in the nearby River Arrow just like the early miners did.
Arrowtown Chinese Colony
While Arrowtown’s main street is lined with sturdy colonial buildings, down the hill only the remains of the Chinese mining colony can be seen. The reserve by the River Arrow contains two original buildings – Ah Lum’s store, built in the 1880s, and a stone outdoor toilet. The miners’ huts were rebuilt after archaeological excavations revealed the history of the settlement. Information signs along the way tell this story, and it’s an especially beautiful walk under the golden autumn leaves.
The cottage was built in the 1860s on the shores of Lake Wakatipu by John Williams, a boat skipper, and is typical of homes from that era. The oldest remaining cottage in Queenstown is now the Vesta Design Store.
Many of the home’s original features can be seen by browsing the gifts and housewares on display in the small rooms. Due to its lakeside location, the cottage has been flooded several times and water spots 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 the coronation of King George V. The public bath opened in 1911 and offers changing rooms and a diving platform, with separate hours for both men and women. When people complained that the set hours were not convenient for them, the council divided the public baths into sections for men and women despite the reek of the “mixed bathing” scandal.
After a flood destroyed the public bath, it was rebuilt in its current location further away from the water. The Bathhouse Restaurant is still a relaxing spot by the beach, where dining on the deck takes the place of diving.
One Mile Power Plant
When Queenstown’s first hydroelectric power station opened in 1924, the New Zealand Herald reported that “the station is picturesquely located on One Mile Creek.” That description still holds true today, with the powerhouse preserved in a shady reserve just off the busy Fernhill roundabout.
Although the plant is usually not open, the period power generation machinery can be seen through the windows and panels explain its history. The trail that follows the stream from the powerhouse to the main road is a pleasant short walk, while the trail that goes up the hill is intended for more adventurous hikers.
Kawarau Suspension Bridge
Building a bridge over the Kawarau River to the gold fields was a difficult task due to 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 bungee jumping, but it is 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, take in the views, and indulge in wine tasting.
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