Denniston Plateau

As tourists flock to New Zealand in ever increasing numbers to ogle at the spectacular scenery and open spaces the country is famous for, other non-scenic attractions are now being added to the list of “things to see” in this small South Pacific nation.


The South Island town of Westport is located at the mouth of the Buller River on the storm ravaged west coast. With the discovery of coal deposits around the area in the 1870s, a railway was built from Westport along the coastal flats to the Mokihinui Mine. When a rich coalfield was discovered high up on the Mt. Rochfort Plateau, 600 metres above sea level, the challenge was how to transport the coal to Westport. The problem was solved in 1879 with the construction of the remarkable Denniston Incline. This allowed coal to be shifted down the steep mountainside to Conns Creek where a regular steam locomotive belonging to New Zealand Railways, took the loads to Westport, 19km away.

Base of the Denniston Incline 1890s

This 1960s film takes you on a scary ride in one of the wagons as it flies down the Denniston Incline. It gives you a great idea of just how dangerous it must have been to work at this terrifyingly steep little railway with its heavy wagons moving up and down the dramatic incline.

Top of the Denniston Incline

As the Top of the Denniston Incline Appears Today


Henry William and Robert Austen, two young engineers working for the Westport Colliery Company, were given the job of designing the extraordinarily difficult transport system that would be called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.  A bridge 35 metres long and raised 12.5 metres above water level was the first thing needed before the hard work on the incline could start. The bridge was followed by a wooden viaduct that was needed to carry the rails to the start of the steep1 in 1.3incline. At Middle Brake, the appropriately named midpoint of the incline, coal trucks were swapped from the lower incline to the upper one where the grade was as steep as 1 in 1.34.  On the 7th June 1879, the first coal carts reached the top of the incline. The full completion of the railway up the Denniston Incline was completed on Friday 24 October 1879.  It was at this time that the town of Denniston came into existence. It eventually became home to 1500 people and by 1887 there were three hotels, three butchers, three bakers a postal and telegraph office and four general stores in Denniston. However, the bitter winds, rain and fog over the winter months, drove many people away and the population began to shrink in the early years of the 20th century.

View down the Denniston Incline 1900


A public holiday was held in Westport to celebrate the opening of the railway incline and trainloads of excited locals made the trip to Conns Creek then walked up the incline to marvel at the engineering feat achieved by young Henry and Robert. The upper incline was 664 metres long with a vertical fall of 253 metres. The lower incline had a fall of 263 metres over a distance of 1000 metres. The fully loaded wagons weighed 12 tons so there was plenty of danger for those working on the Denniston Incline Railway. However, the danger attracted the foolhardy and ‘riding the wagons’ became a problem for the coal company. Records don’t reveal how many died while taking these dangerous rides, but it can be assumed there were a few deaths, especially when the wet conditions often experienced in the region, would have added to the danger on the incline.

Riding in the wagons was the only way workers could access the top of the incline. Women were also transported in the wagons on some occasions. An interview with a worker on the incline published in the Westport newspaper at the time said:  “There were two women in our wagon and when we started they were seated near the front end. We had gone just over Conns Creek Bridge and were going over the viaduct when the ladies began to slide backwards towards the back of the wagon. Their screams could be heard a mile away. However, on reaching the level ground at the top, the women and others in the wagon, lurched forward to the front accompanied by further screams.”

Huge brake drums carrying 2.6 tons of 32mm diameter rope had a breaking load of 60 tons. The whole operation worked on a counterbalance principle where the weight of the empty wagons going up worked to stabilize the loaded ones travelling down. A hydraulic braking system was used to control the safe speed of all the wagons.

Rope Wheel Guide at top of Incline

To add to the dangers, the settlements of Burnett’s Face and Coalbrookdale were built beside the incline so women and children had to walk alongside the rails to reach their homes. There were frequent derailments and un-couplings causing the wagons to free fall and smash into each other or plummet into the surrounding bush. At other times, there were brake failures, causing more damage to the wagons and danger to those working on the incline.


By 1883 the output of coal from the plateau had reached 24,198 tons. There was talk of running the incline wagons throughout the night but this idea was shelved due to the risks involved. By 1900, engineers reported the track on the incline needed repairing and a maintenance crew was employed full time to keep the Denniston Incline operating. The Murchison earthquake on the 17th June 1929 caused damage to the incline with the upper part blocked by a slip while the main haulage plant was completely buried. In 1967, the Denniston Incline closed. The following year, a further earthquake on the 24th May 1968 completely destroyed the upper half of the incline. During its years of operation, the Denniston Incline carried 12.6 million tons of coal from the mist on the plateau to the waiting ships at Westport.


Over the past few years, efforts have been made to turn the Denniston Incline into a tourist attraction. Work has been done to create walking tracks around the incline with a ride inside the mine on the plateau as the star attraction of the enterprise. With the marvels of Victorian industrial engineering now being appreciated, not only in New Zealand, but also in Britain, it would seem the Denniston Incline will take its place as a Victorian achievement worth remembering. Maybe one day, the rails will be re-installed on the incline and tourists will have the chance to experience the ride of their lives.

The “Denniston Experience” Today

Ceidrik Heward


  1. Nice article!

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