Queenstown Steamer ‘Earnslaw’ at 100

First-hand report on vintage steamship’s 100th anniversary

"Earnslaw" celebrants on Queenstown lakefront.

Cannons fired, vintage steam engines hooted and a huge crowd cheered and waved flags along Queenstown, New Zealand’s picturesque waterfront to welcome the “TSS Earnslaw” as she sailed into the bay to mark her 100th birthday, according to a first-hand report from local tourism spokesfolks. The Lady of the Lake, as this vintage steamship  is  known, marked her official centenary today with a re-enactment of her maiden passenger voyage on Lake Wakatipu from Kingston to Queenstown on October 18, 1912.

The report continued, “Three hundred and fifty guests, dressed in period costume, were on board to make the journey and witness the historic moment when the ‘TSS Earnslaw’ met the vintage ‘Kingston Flyer’ steam train on the wharf at Kingston,  just as the “Flyer” did a century ago when it carried passengers from farther south on the South Island. The ‘TSS Earnslaw’ then headed back into Queenstown Bay with flags flying and whistle blasting, making a victory lap flanked by a flotilla of iconic Queenstown boats which turned out in force to form a guard of honour.”

Not surprisingly, she holds the record as the longest passenger carrying boat built in New Zealand. Following the cutting of the centenary cake a plaque was presented to the “TSS Earnslaw” by the Royal Institute of Naval Architects “to commemorate 100 years of service and recognise the historical significance of the largest steamship built in New Zealand and one of the few remaining coal fired passenger steamers in the world.”

Many on board had strong links with the steamer, and there were plenty of nostalgic memories and fascinating stories swapped and for during the cruise. Olive Lady Hutchins, who with her late husband Sir Les Hutchins founded Real Journeys and took over the “TSS Earnslaw” from New Zealand Railways in 1969, said it was an auspicious day for her. She said, “I have 34 of my family, made up of four generations on board, and I am just so proud of what has been achieved with the Earnslaw. When you consider she is the only passenger carrying coal-fired boat in the Southern Hemisphere it is a great record.”

Shipbuilders John McGregor and Co. Ltd. of Dunedin built the “TSS Earnslaw”  in 1911, then dismantled her and took her by train to Kingston, where she was reconstructed on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and launched on February 24, 1912.Ross Williams of Melbourne, whose grandfather Hugh McRae was the naval architect who designed the “TSS Earnslaw” said, “The steamer has had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s good to see her in such excellent condition. My grandfather would have been very happy to know that she still remains in service 100 years to date.”

When my son and I joined an Eastern Ski Writers Association trip to the four resorts around Queenstown several years ago, one of our non-ski activities was Real Journeys’ popular “TSS Earnslaw and Walter Peak High Country Farm” excursion. Of course, I enjoyed a farm named after a mountain with which I share a name, it was the beautiful old steamship that sticks in my mind. I wish her a happy hundredth and many, many more.