As a result of the Otago gold rushes of the 1860s Dunedin developed from a small community of rather impoverished settlers into the most progressive town in New Zealand.

Companies built impressive buildings in the town and successful businessmen built grand mansions. With gold money flooding the town and being spent on goods and services, more residents had money to spend and demanded entertainment. In those days, picnics were a popular way to socialize and the Otago Peninsula became a destination of choice for these grand picnic outings. Since roads on the peninsula were non- existent, boats were used to cross the harbour. These vessels quickly became an essential part of the town’s transport network and ran between Dunedin and Portobello, Broad Bay and Macandrew Bay, as well as Port Chalmers.


The first ferry arrived from Melbourne in 1859. Called Pride of the Yarra, the 25 ton little ship was renamed New Era, a more fitting name for a boat based in Dunedin. Unfortunately, the ferry had a series of accidents, the worst being a collision with another boat, Favourite, resulting in it sinking with the loss of 14 lives on July 6th 1863. In fact this collision remains the deadliest mishap to have taken place on Otago Harbour.  It must have been a tremendous blow to Dunedin when the population of Otago was just 12,000. Today, this tragedy is forgotten and for some strange reason, I couldn’t find it listed in the history of NZ disasters. I grew up in Dunedin and didn’t know about this incident until I started doing extensive research for this blog site.

The New Era was replaced by an even smaller vessel. The Victoria struggled to run at a profit because it didn’t have space for cargo and was a failure as a harbour ferry. As Dunedin’s population rapidly increased due to the various gold discoveries in Central Otago, demand for harbour crossings grew and in 1863, the paddle steamer Golden Age was introduced to the harbour and became a popular vessel on the run between Dunedin and Port Chalmers. The next ferry to appear was an instant success. At 130 feet long, the iron paddle steamer Bruce was way bigger than any previous ferry. This ship could also achieve 14 knots so with her size and speed, Bruce soon became a local favourite.

On November 12 1867, the largest iron steamer to be assembled in New Zealand was launched into Otago Harbour. The Wallace was soon joined by The Reynolds which was specially commissioned by the Otago Harbour Board as a pilot boat but was soon pressed into service as a harbour ferry. At about this time a stern wheeler, Iona, was introduced to the ferry service between Dunedin and Portobello which by this time had become the most popular destination on the Otago Peninsula. However, Iona proved too difficult to handle and too expensive to operate and was soon scrapped.


The most popular ferry to ever carry passengers around Otago Harbour was The Onslow. This reliable and much loved ship became a household name in Dunedin and was responsible with helping in the development of Portobello and Broad Bay. It was a sad day for the residents of Otago Peninsula when the ship sailed away to a new life in Mercury Bay.

In 1901, the first oil fired vessel was introduced to the harbour. The Moerangi had the ferry service to itself until The Maheno arrived in competition. Over the next few years, these two vessels plied the harbour in fierce competition and it was a popular pastime for residents of Portobello to watch as both vessels steamed at speed to be the first to dock alongside the jetty. Over time, The Mourangi proved the faster of the two and became the favourite with day trippers around the harbour.


With a ferry service well established on Otago Harbour, the Peninsula Ferry Company was formed to build a large, fast, comfortable ferry to connect the various growing harbourside settlements to the wharves at Dunedin. The first ship they built, The Matariki only did a few trips before fire broke out and the vessel was destroyed at her mooring at Portobello. Immediately, the company commissioned the construction of The Waikana. This ship introduced a new level of comfort and speed to the citizens of Dunedin. The ship quickly proved so popular that a sister ship, The Waireka, was built to cope with the demand the first vessel had created. Over the next decade, these two fine ferries maintained a profitable ferry service around the harbour. They also became part of the lives of those living on the Otago Peninsula enabling children to attend schools in Dunedin and farmers on the peninsula to shift produce to the markets in town. However, when a road was built along the peninsula, patronage on the ferries dropped and by the late 1920s the romance of the invigorating harbour crossings had come to an end.

Launch of Waikana (Otago Daily Times)


New Zealand’s oldest passenger ferry Elsie Evans was the last vessel to operate as a ferry on Otago Harbour. Until 1954, this little boat connected passengers across the harbour between Portobello and Port Chalmers. An 11 year project costing around $460,000 has seen the refurbished vessel again floating on Otago Harbour. Unfortunately, the 114-year-old vessel with its polished brass fittings and gleaming coachwork languishes in a sheltered alcove in the inner harbour. My research didn’t indicate what the future holds for the rebuilt former Timaru pilot boat turned Otago Harbour ferry. The plan was for it to operate between Glenfalloch, Broad Bay, Portobello and Port Chalmers but it appears the people of Dunedin have gone cold on the idea of it returning to ferry duties on the harbour.  That to me seems a great opportunity lost especially with tourism being the country’s number one industry generating billions of dollars to the economy, including Dunedin’s economy.

Elsie Evans (stuff.co.nz)


Local boat enthusiast Rachel McGregor recently launched her custom built MV Sootychaser specially designed for wildlife cruises and harbour crossings. Technically a tourist boat and not a ferry (because it is not offering a timetabled service between the harbourside settlements), this modern vessel has been designed for tourist comfort so I do hope it has more success than the Elsie Evans. There are plans to carry 24 passengers across the harbour connecting Portobello and Port Chalmers between wildlife tours so perhaps this can become a link for those wanting to cycle around the harbour. It is a matter of clarifying in the minds of locals whether it is a scenic cruise boat or a ferry. Trying to be both could lead to confusion and to the same fate that killed the dreams of those who spent so much time rebuilding the Elsie Evans.

MV Sootychaser (eventfinder)

If you found this blog interesting, please leave a comment.

Ceidrik Heward


  1. Noelene Newman says

    Thank you for the wonderful article.My great grandfather was Archibald Weir who along with his father Captain Archibald Weir commissioned and ran the ferry Moerangi. Initially a she had a schooner rig and for her time a very powerful oil driven engine. She was employed mostly to tow Captain Weir and business partner A. Hull’s fishing fleet out to the rich fishing grounds off Moeraki. The Weirs announced in October 1902 that the Moerangi would run as a ferry on the Dunedin to Portobello run.
    The Weirs then had the Matariki built but for financial reasons had to take on extra shareholders. When the Matariki burnt to the waterline insurance did not cover the costs associated with building a new ferry and the Weirs lost control of the Peninsula Ferry Company. The plates for the replacement ferry went down when the Maori was wrecked off Capetown, South Africa, in August 1909, thus delaying the building of a replacement ferry and causing further financial difficulties.
    Archibald Weir and his father continued an interest in the ferries until July 1913 when the Weir home in Broad Bay burnt down. Archibald junior sold his shop, which was saved from burning down, and the land on which his home had stood. He and his family migrated to Perth Western Australia later in 1913. Captain Weir, who had also been living with his son moved to Timaru where he died in 1915. Archibald Weir died tragically on the railway line near his new home in Mosman Park Western Australia in June 1917.

Speak Your Mind