The discovery of gold lead to demands for a road to be built from Christchurch to Hokitika. Arthur Dobson had surveyed a route in 1864 (which became known as Arthur’s Pass). His father Edward Dobson started building the road in 1865 and opened it a year later on 20 March 1866.
The first regular coach service between Christchurch and Hokitika commenced in 1866. It was an arduous journey, taking 36 hours in good weather with an overnight stay at Bealey, or up to one week in bad weather. Heavy snowfalls in 1895 prevented coaches crossing the pass for three months.
The town of Bealey was established in 1865 on the north bank of the Waimakariri River at Klondyke Corner. After enduring long cold winter months without sunshine the inhabitants of Bealey moved to the all-day sunshine and spectacular views on the south bank of the Waimakariri River, where it is today.
Hotel proprietor James O’Malley pioneers alpine tourism by personally guiding his guests to the head of the Waimakariri River valley to see the numerous glaciers. More than just an overnight stop for travellers on route to the gold fields of the west coast, tourists are now staying at Bealey to enjoy the alpine attractions.
The Dobsons (Edward and Arthur) surveyed and formed a partnership to build the Midland railway line. In 1895 the government took over the project. The railway reached Arthur’s Pass in 1914. Construction of the 8.5km Otira Tunnel (the longest in the Southern Hemisphere at the time) began in 1908 and wasn’t completed until 1918. The first trains ran in 1923.
The awe-inspiring landscapes of the Southern Alps attracted painters, including celebrated Dutch painter Petrus van der Velden who arrived in Christchurch in 1890. During the next eight years van der Velden painted the Otira River gorge in a series of dramatic oil paintings that captured the untamed nature of the area.
Once the west coast railway opened, New Zealand’s last horse-drawn coach service over Arthur’s Pass ended. The ‘Cobb and Co’ service had run for 57 years since commencing in 1866. The horses must have been relieved. The average lifespan of a coach horse was just eighteen months.
The Christchurch Tramping and Mountaineering Club was formed in 1925 (later becoming the Canterbury Mountaineering Club). The mountaineers climbed many peaks in the area, drawing the maps and building the first huts. Skiing was tried in 1927, and became popular after the Christchurch Ski Club was founded in 1929.
The South Island’s first National Park was created in 1929. Within its 118,472 hectares are snowy peaks, bush-clad mountains, scree slopes and braided rivers, and a startling range of fauna and flora, including rare and endangered species. It is unusual for a main highway (SH73) and railway to run through a National Park, but makes Arthur’s Pass easily accessible for visitors.
On 9 March 1929 at 10.50pm an earthquake measuring magnitude 7.1 struck Arthur’s Pass, followed by 140 aftershocks the same night. Fortunately there was no loss of life, though chimneys and water tanks were damaged and the railway was closed due to damage to bridges and the track.
A road bridge was completed in 1937, ending 72 years of road travellers having to ford or be ferried across the Waimakariri River on route to the West Coast. Bridging the Waimakariri River ended years of delays for travellers due to flooding and changing river conditions, improving connections between both coasts on SH73.
The Arthur’s Pass Visitor Information Centre opened in 1959 and is New Zealand’s first national park museum. Static and interactive displays include a horse-drawn coach, originally imported from the USA in 1888, and used to transport people and goods over Arthur’s Pass. The Centre is open every day except Christmas.
Paddy Freaney, the proprietor of the Bealey Hotel, reported sighting a moa in the Craigieburn Range in January 1993. Believed to be extinct since 1550, the Moa sighting was a sensation and attracted visitors to the area.