The Percy Burn Viaduct was hailed as the tallest tramway bridge in the Dominion (NZ) when it was opened in 1923. Today, it’s claimed to be the largest timber trestle bridge in the world.


The South Coast Walking Track is one of the few public tracks in the South Island that is open during winter. Because it has no alpine section, it’s not subject to closure by snow so is favoured by an increasing number of trampers from all over the world. However, its year round availability is not the main reason for its popularity. Apart from the splendour of the Waitutu Forest, the track features a unique attraction, – the Percy Burn Viaduct.

Trampers emerging from the forest stop in amazement when confronted by this unique bridge’s massive proportions. It stands an impressive 118ft (36m) above the gully floor and spans a breathtaking 410ft (125m) from end to end.

At an eye-popping cost at the time of 5000 pounds, the Percy Burn was the highest of four viaducts built by the Marlborough Timber Company in an awesome project to mill native timber from the huge Waitutu Forest. (The Ormondville Viaduct in Hawkes Bay was even longer and taller, but it was demolished 20 years before the erection of Percy Burn). The almost unbelievable feat of endurance and engineering came to an abrupt end when Port Craig, the town built to house the workers, was evacuated on a cold October day in 1928 after the 20 or so workers were given just 4 days to pack up and leave. Arguably the most isolated town ever occupied in New Zealand, Port Craig only existed a scant seven years. In the 1940s, the steel equipment  that had been used for the milling operation was dismantled and sold for scrap.


John Craig’s dream of supplying timber to the world from the vast reserves in the dramatic south west area of New Zealand certainly contributed to a period when his think big scheme looked assured of success. His company imported the latest technology from the United States in the form of an unwieldy log hauler called the Lidgerwood. It efficiently cleared (raped!) the forest in a circular action. Two locomotives were used to transfer the timber to the next location where the process was repeated. The Lidgerwood’s bogies rotated ninety degrees so it could be pushed sideways to free up the main railway lines. The machine’s operation also involved abewildering network of wires to load the timber on the trains for transport to the largest sawmill in New Zealand.


The latest technology was also employed at the wharf. An aerial loading system carried the mill’s product to the company’s own ships which anchored with a certain amount of difficulty it has to be said, in a designated position offshore. A concrete block on the sea floor stabilised guy wires attached to the ship’s mast. From here, the main transport wire was suspended from a 68ft (21m) tower on the wharf. Logs were then swung across the cold pounding waves below. The concept proved successful. A constant procession of ships loaded Port Craig timber for hungry markets in Dunedin, Christchurch and especially the rapidly growing towns of Auckland and Sydney.

A cantilevered landing stage was erected onshore near the mill at Bluecliffs. This impressive structure allowed passengers, mail and goods to be handled on a wild part of the coast where conventional wharf building would have been almost impossible with the equipment available. The breakwater created near the mill itself to form a small harbour was a failure. The currents caused the harbour basin to quickly silt up making birthing of any sizeable vessel impossible. The company had more success on land where they cut 14 miles (24km) of railway through the dense native bush. This involved forming cuttings and building viaducts.

The Port Craig logging enterprise was a financial failure and by the end of the 1930s, the mill had closed and the settlement of Port Craig passed into history. During the brief time of operations, this Southland sawmill was the largest in New Zealand and remains to this day, the most ambitious logging enterprise in New Zealand’s history and is now the country’s most important sawmilling heritage site.


Trampers walking along the Hump Ridge Track through the Waitutu Forest marvel at the effort undertaken last century to strip the trees from it for profit. The former rail tracks have now become part of the southern walking tracks which also include the other three viaducts built at the same time as Percy Burn.


The Waitutu Forest covers 45,000 hectres (450 square kms) of southern Fiordland and is now internationally significant. It’s been saved three times from the saw but with an increasing awareness in protecting native flora and fauna, it’s future as a magnificent example of pre-human New Zealand nature, is assured. Nature however, proved the victor, and the relics to man’s greed only add to the attractions this forest now holds for generations still unborn. I still remember the thrill I felt when, a number of years ago, I walked in awe and trepidation across the Percy Burn Viaduct and marvelled at the engineering that went into its construction rising impressively over the forest in its breathtaking surroundings.  


By the start of this century, the timbers on the Percy Burn Viaduct started to decay as it fell into a state of collapse. Australian hardwood was originally used because it was stronger than the local material which rotted in the extremely damp conditions of a dense native forest. A group of forward-thinking locals in nearby Tuatapere could see the future tourist potential in the unique bridge and formed the Port Craig Viaducts Charitable Trust and pushed for restoration. The Trust, worked long and hard to get money, expertise and goodwill from the Department of Conservation (DoC), the Southland Regional Council, Lotteries Board and the Meridian Energy Community Fund. They were finally successful in obtaining $480.000 from DoC and the Southland Regional Council allowing restoration work to begin.


In April 2018 strengthening repairs on the viaduct were completed with the final cost reaching $710.000. The Percy Burn structure, now with its Category 1 historic ranking, is once again opened for the enjoyment of trampers.  

The Percy Burn Viaduct stands as a reminder of a time when native timber was exploited without guilt. It took the world depression of the 1930s to terminate this rape. This unique structure is now a tourist attraction, available to the people of Southland and those who come from further afield to enjoy the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track and South Coast Track and the special magic found in this magnificent New Zealand forest.

Ceidrik Heward

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