Durie Hill was developed for housing in about 1910, but the only access for many years was via a steep outdoor concrete staircase. The stairs are still used today, and a feature stair-running event is held annually. You can also drive to the top of the hill via Portal St and Durie St – which is where elevator passengers disembark.
But for me, the tunnel and elevator provide a unique and memorable Alice-in-Wonderland experience.
Originally proposed by the local newspaper editor of the time, John Ball, and his friend Edward Crow, the elevator-and-tunnel concept seems to have been modelled on the street elevators of Lisbon, Portugal. What makes the Durie Hill elevator unusual, however, is that it runs inside a shaft drilled through the hill itself.
Work on the Durie Hill tunnel began in 1916, during WWII. The original entrance was buried in a landslide soon after work started, but the new tunnel alignment was completed without further incident. The tunnel stretches 205m into the hillside, and the walls have been curved and lined with 2500 tonnes of reinforced concrete to support the weight of the hill above.
After the tunnel was shaped, the elevator shaft was dug first from the tunnel end and then from the top of the hill. The vertical shaft lining was moulded on the ground at the top of the hill before being lowered down the shaft into position. Not an easy task in the days before mechanised equipment, laser levels, and readi-mix concrete!
A 9.7m high flat-topped tower sits over the elevator shaft, houses the operating mechanism, and is the elevator’s hilltop terminus. You can climb the ornate wrought-iron spiral staircase for a stunning 180 degree view of Wanganui city out to the coast on a clear day.
The elevator was originally powered by the tramway electricity supply of 500 volts DC. I am told that the supply was turned on in the morning and off at night in those days, and that once, when the switchman slept in and was late for work, everyone else waiting for the tram or the elevator was late that morning, too!
The elevator’s (and the tramway’s) electricity supply was at first converted by large rotary converters at the Wanganui Power Station, but these were too big to be used economically for the elevator alone once the tramway closed.
From 1951 a mercury arc converter, adjoining the tower, has converted the 230 volt AC current from the national grid
The elevator was officially opened to the public on August 2, 1919. The original fares were 4d up and 2d down for adults, and 3d up and 1d down for children. A 12-trip discount fare was available for one shilling.
Where to find: Through the Maori gateway on Anzac Parade, opposite the city bridge which leads to Victoria Avenue, Wanganui city. The hillside staircase is adjacent.
Open: Everyday except Christmas Day (December 25).
Cost: Tunnel – free; Elevator – small charge. Pay the lift operator on board.
Engineer to project: E Crow.
Borough engineer: NC Staveley.
© Karen Wrigglesworth and Geeky Getaways, 2011.