The cable car that runs from Wellington’s main shopping street of Lambton Quay to Kelburn, the hill above, is a beloved icon of the city. It is also an engineering feat of some magnitude, a Wellington treasure, and the source of stories and memories for the many residents and visitors who have travelled on it over the years.
It owes its existence to two men more than any others. One is Martin Kennedy, a prominent businessman with strong political connections. By the 1890s Wellington was expanding beyond its initial seashore and harbour locations and into the hills above. Road access to the west was difficult, and although there were various proposals made about how best to get into the hills, Mr Kennedy was the first to suggest a cable tramway and was the driving force behind the Kelburn cable car plan. He was a director of the land company selling sections in Kelburne (as it was then known). He helped get special enabling legislation through Parliament and obtain consents from the Wellington City Council.
Access by cable car was a key selling point for the new sections in Kelburne. The sections were also large and had wonderful views of the city and harbour. The second man was James Edward Fulton, the surveyor and civil engineer on the project who came from Outram in Otago. In 1874 he had followed his elder brother Arthur into the Public Works Department in Wellington as a cadet. He became an assistant engineer in 1878 and also obtained his certification as a surveyor. He then worked on surveys in Hawke’s Bay and Northland.
As the Resident Engineer, he worked on the building of a privately owned and constructed railway in 1882. His biographer, Peter Lowe, records that “the line, although only 83 miles long, was in some respects a showpiece for railway travel in New Zealand at the time”.
In private practice in Wellington in 1897, James Fulton designed and built the Kelburn cable tramway, as well as the first Kelburn viaduct, developments that opened up access to the western suburbs of Wellington. The Kelburn Cable Car is an enduring memorial to his work. The track is 618 metres long and rises 119 metres, giving an average gradient of 1:5.1. There are three tunnels and three viaducts, and despite its name the system is actually a combined cable tramway and funicular system.
It was an immediate success. Opened on 22 February 1902, the line carried 425,000 passengers in its first year of operation, and in 1904 three trailers and a third car were added to meet the high demand. Over 1,000,000 passengers used the service in 1912, and 2,000,000 in 1926. Even in the 1970s the “red rattlers” were carrying 1,000,000 passengers a year. In 1933 electricity replaced steam as the force driving the winding gear, and the smoke stack in the winding house, which was used as a local indicator of wind direction, ceased operation.
In 1946, the Wellington City Council bought the Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company, and in 1978 it replaced the original cars and trailers and upgraded the line with a Swiss system to meet modern safety standards. This was following the line’s first serious accident in 1974 when a workman in Shell Gully stepped in front of a trailer.
The Ministry of Works reviewed the system and ordered the trailers to be removed from service, halving capacity on the line. Strong public support for the service forced the upgrade, and even now the line is still carrying over 1,000,000 passengers a year. The cable cars are a regular feature on postcards of the city, and a regular stop for tourists on day trips around Wellington.
The original winding house built in 1902 to accommodate the steam engine and winding gear is still standing. It now houses the Cable Car Museum and has been classified by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as having “historical and cultural heritage significance”. The original winding machinery is still there – and in full working order. Volunteers have painstakingly restored two of the three original cars, one to its 1905 condition, the other as it was in the 1970s when it retired. Memories of the old cable car carriages are strong. The original 32-seater carriages have six open seats on each side. Long time Wellingtonian Don Stevens recalls that aged about 12, “the whole purpose of riding on the outside when you were a youth was to scrape your shoes along the sides of the tunnel.
This was the reason for external seats. If they had them today OSH [Occupational Safety and Health] would require padded tunnels to prevent damage to both the shoes and feet of passengers. I remember running for the outside seats; you did not want to ride in the cabins.” Another local, Susan McLeary, says “at five-foot-six I could just stretch my toes to scrape along the tunnel walls, thus honouring the tradition of generations of Victoria University students before me. It was a badge of honour to spurn the boring inside seats and fight to get on the prized outside seats, cleverly staggered to keep everyone level. At peak times the cable car was crowded with people hanging off the sides – a far cry from these safety-conscious days but so much more fun.” Strong memories also remain with Sarah McMurray, who recalls: “I was three when my Mum was doing her post-grad at Victoria and we travelled on the outside, and I felt as if either I or one of her folders might lurch out of her grasp at any time – terrifying but fabulous.”
The Wellington Cable Car Systemwas added to the IPENZ Engineering Heritage Register on 16 October 2012. The system’s winding house hasbeen registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as Category 2 Historic Place.
One of James Fulton’s lasting legacies is the IPENZ Fulton-Downer Gold Medal (initially established by Fulton’s bequest in 1929), which is is IPENZ’s premier award to its Members and presented annually.
WRITER John Bishop
IPENZ Heritage Assessment on which this article is based was written by Simon Daisley.