Exploring Arthur's Pass
The passes through the Southern Alps were used by Māori to trade pounamu/greenstone from Westland to Canterbury. Māori told explorers of the location of Arthur’s Pass.
Arthur Dudley Dobson surveyed the pass in February 1864. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, the rush to link Christchurch with the West Coast gold fields saw the road built in less than a year, a remarkable feat of pioneer road building. But it was never an easy crossing through rugged terrain and unpredictable weather; even today the road is often closed because of rock fall, slips or snow.
The Otira rail tunnel took a little longer, and was completed in 1923. The viaduct, built in the Otira Gorge over 1998–99 to minimise the hazards of road travel, is a major engineering feat.
Did you know?
The road across Arthur’s Pass was built in less than a year (1865), during a bitterly cold winter. A thousand men with axes, picks, shovels, crowbars and wheelbarrows, rock drills and explosives worked in the rugged terrain. They would often spent a whole day clearing snow, only to find the next morning they had to do it over again.
Over 100 years later, the Otira viaduct was built to replace this section of road, and workers again suffered through wind, rain and snow to get the job done. Started in January 1998 it was completed two years later in November 1999; one worker died during the project.
Historic Cobb & Co Coach
See New Zealand’s only stagecoach preserved beside the mountain road it once travelled upon. This stagecoach was a state-of-the-art vehicle.
Stagecoaches ran a regular service across the Southern Alps from 1886 to 1923 on New Zealand’s first and most dramatic alpine road. The Arthur’s Pass coaches were New Zealand’s last horse-drawn coach service.
In 1923 the rail tunnel broke through the mountains, spelling the end of the line for the Wild West days of backcountry travel. Cobb & Co was NZ’s most famous coaching brand. This ‘Concord’ coach, cousin of the classic American stagecoach, was imported from the US in 1888. It was a state-of-the-art road vehicle of its time.
Travelling in the past
This historic stagecoach offers today’s travellers to Arthur’s Pass an evocative glimpse into the gruelling days of nineteenth century transport. Even today it’s a rugged and breathtaking drive across the Pass. You can imagine the hazardous journey for passengers on coaches pulled by teams of straining horses on roads threatened by steep gorges, flooded rivers, frequent snowstorms and often inadequate brakes.
The coach is preserved in the Arthur’s Pass Visitors Centre and is floodlit and visible from the road. Near Arthur's Pass Village you can visit Jack’s Hut, a restored roadman’s cottage from the coaching era.
After the demise of the coach service local historian Edgar Lovell-Smith recognised its value and purchased the old coach, later donating it to the Canterbury Museum. Today the coach is in much the same condition as on its final journey and offers a tangible link to those adventurous stagecoaching days.
Arthur’s Pass village is in the centre of Arthur’s Pass National Park, on State Highway 73, 150km west of Christchurch.
See other coaches
There is another coach in the Canterbury Museum (painted red). There is also a cobb and co coach in the Otago Settlers Museum. The coach in Arthur's Pass is the only one beside the road where it once travelled.
More about the history of coaches.
Historic Jacks Hut
Restored in 2004, Jacks Hut is located on state highway 73, about five kilometres from the township of Arthur's Pass.
Jacks Hut is a rare surviving example of a roadman’s cottage. Built in 1879, the hut is located on New Zealand’s highest altitude main highway.
All early highways were maintained by roadmen who lived with their families in cottages placed along the section they were responsible for. As the motor age and mechanisation arrived, the roadman role disappeared.
March 1866: The Coach Road officially opened over Arthur's Pass, linking Canterbury and the West Coast.
1879: Jacks Hut was built near Rough Creek, Arthur's Pass, as a roadman's hut.
1909-1910: The hut was shifted to its present site below the summit of Arthur's Pass.
1923: The rail tunnel opened and the coaching era was over. Jacks Hut is bought by Grace and Guy Butler.
1928: The hut was done up "as a family crib".
1951: A garage was built, which was later converted to a store room/extra bedroom.
2004: Jacks Hut restored.
Jacks Hut was restored in 2004, thanks to a strong community spirit, and a government budget announced in May 2003 to protect New Zealand's significant historic assets. Jacks Hut had fallen into disrepair over the years, and its location beside S H 73 made it a vulnerable target to vandals. The grant made it possible to breathe new life into the old hut.
Interpretation panels were developed with the assistance of the descendants of Grace and Guy Butler, whose family enjoyed visiting the hut for over 70 years. The panels are on easels and can be viewed through the front windows. The fully restored hut was officially opened as part of the Arthur's Pass National Park 75th anniversary celebrations in September 2004.
Jacks Hut is located on the east side of state highway 73, about five kilometres towards the West Coast from the township of Arthur's Pass.
There is a car park on the opposite side of the highway, at the entrance to the Bealey Valley Walk.
The Arthur's Pass Walking Track follows alongside the highway, starting at the end of Arthur's Pass village, and coming back onto the highway beside Jacks Hut.