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Living memories of railway’s birth

By Laurie Michie

In November 1908 the last spike was driven-in to mark the completion of the Wellington to Auckland railway line.

Rev Douglas Burt has written something of the story of the Methodist mission to those working on its construction in the period 1895-1908. This is contained in the latest publication of the Wesley Historical Society – Journal 2007.

Historian Douglas Burt met with Lena Marie Ray to discuss her father’s work on the Maintrunk line 100 years ago.

Recently Douglas met Lena Marie Ray of Te Mana Rest Home, Birkenhead where she has lived for several years. Lena’s father was an engineer on that project, and later on the completion of the Taranaki line.

106 year old-Lena kept Douglas and her other visitors in rapt attention for over an hour as she shared her memories.

Douglas’ article is entitled ‘Saddlebags and Navvies’. The title indicates both the way those early home missionaries travelled and the language of those days of Empire. In his piece Douglas points out that ‘navvies’ is an abbreviation of the term ‘navigators’ used for rail construction workers in 19th century Britain.

Those who worked on the Maintrunk line through the central North Island often endured extremes of climate and living conditions. As the editor of the Journal suggests, those Methodist riders to the settlements along the Maintrunk line were acting upon John Wesley’s dictum to ‘Go to those who need you most’.

The climatic conditions in the central North Island meant that Lena seldom saw her engineer father upon his infrequent visits home. Lena’s mother was a very determined person, however.

During the later completion of the Taranaki line Lena’s mother insisted that they all live together as a family in a tent with Father. In fact Mrs Ray’s mother was so determined that she had a piano delivered to their tent.

To reach its destination it travelled across country, uphill and down dale, on the back of a horse-drawn sledge in the care of a group of men who had the awesome task of making sure it arrived safely.

Soon settler homesteads were purchasing pianos and providing a steady flow of pupils for Lena’s mother.

Lena herself taught music in her home until she was in her mid-80s.

Construction of the Maintrunk began in 1885. It was an extremely challenging project that involved the building of massive viaducts as well as tunnels.

The Raurimu Spiral is considered a world-masterpiece of construction. Between Raurimu and National Park the altitude jumps 215metres in just 5.5kilometres. The spiral is a complete circle with three horeshoe bends and two short tunnels stretching the rail distance to 11.5 kilometres to give an acceptable 1-in-52 gradient.