In its time Denniston was one of the most isolated and difficult mining towns to live in the country. The current road was not built until 1902, with the first access being either up a steep pack track or in a coal wagon up the Incline.
The fact that former inhabitants remember it fondly, and that people still choose to live there, speaks volumes for its past social values and enduring mystique.
Premium coal mined from a lonely landscape in the clouds
For many decades Denniston was New Zealand's largest producing coal mine, yielding a premium quality coal from underground mines. The coal was loaded into railway wagons and lowered by cable down an extremely steep incline railway: a remarkable feat of engineering.
The miners and their families endured a life 'living on the edge', exposed to the elements on a barren windswept plateau. The isolation and difficult living conditions forged a close-knit community.
As the demand for coal declined the operation at Denniston was gradually reduced. In 1967 the railway closed and production declined. In 1995 Coalcorp (now Solid Energy) ceased mining at Denniston. Private coal mining continues on the plateau.
Today Denniston's significance is reflected by its status as a Category 1 Historic Place.
Conservation work at Denniston
DOC recognises the importance of Denniston, highlighting it as one of the important historic places it looks after on the West Coast. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust also recognises the significance of the place having registered a Denniston Historic Area, the Incline and Banbury arch as places of national significance.
These relics are under constant threat from natural decay, the reclamation of the site by vegetation and the impact of negligent visitors. DOC and local interest group, Friends of the Hill work closely together to lessen the impacts of these threats ensure the history of Denniston is preserved for all to appreciate.
Friends of the Hill run an excellent museum with photos, static displays and other information in the old School manual training building at Denniston. Read more about Friends of the Hill.
Denniston interpretation panels
Excellent interpretation panels are a wonderful feature at the Denniston Coalmining Historic Area, where you can read stories and research about the area. This information is also available as an ebook – see A journey through Denniston.
Denniston Heritage Charitable Trust
The Denniston Heritage Charitable Trust was set up to support the conservation and enhancement of Denniston. Its members represent DOC, Friends of the Hill, Solid Energy, Buller District Council and Development West Coast.
The Trust is developing an underground mine experience. When complete visitors will be offered an insight into the daily life of miners as they take a train ride through the original 1880s mine.
Once home to over 1500 people, today Denniston is a ghost town.
The rocky plateau offers magnificent views of coastal plains and ocean. Even when shrouded in mist the dramatic landscape is still breathtaking.
A visit allows you to appreciate the tough working and living conditions endured by miners and their familes in this desolate 19th century industrial environment.
There are a number of relics and great heritage sites to explore, particularly the railway incline and the township.
You can walk up the same tracks that residents used rather than risking their lives riding on the incline wagons. The Coalbrookedale walk which passes the country's best remaining example of a mine fanhouse is a highlight.
Videos about Denniston
Cable railway in action
This short clip on the Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ website shows the Denniston incline cable railway in action. It was filmed in 1967, just before it closed.
Coal from Westland
This classic wartime newsreel profiles the coal mining towns of Westland.
There are a range of publications that provide a wealth of extra information about Denniston:
- Munro, WA. (1951) The Denniston Affair (published by the author).
- Prebble, Bill. (2008) Denniston's Incline: coal from the clouds (New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society).
- Richardson, Len. (1995) Coal, Class & Community: the united mineworkers union of New Zealand,1880-1960 (Auckland University Press).
- Wright, L. (1998) Denniston, Then and Now (Friends of the Hill).
There are several fictional accounts of Denniston which are very evocative of 'life on the hill':
- Pattrick, Jenny. (2003) The Denniston Rose (Black Swan).
- Price, Felicity. (2001) Dancing in the Wilderness (Hazard Press).
For more information about the Denniston incline, visit Engineering New Zealand.
Museums in the area
Coaltown Museum in Westport, also has some good displays including a replica section of incline complete with a coal wagon.
Friends of the Hill run an excellent museum with photos, static displays and other information in the old School building at Denniston.