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.
Once home to over 1,500 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.
The Coalbrookedale walk which passes the country's best remaining example of a mine fanhouse is a highlight.
Excellent interpretation panels are a wonderful feature at the Denniston Coalmining Historic Area, where you can read stories and research about the area. It's also available as an ebook – see A journey through Denniston.
Videos about Denniston:
- Denniston incline cable railway in action - filmed in 1967, just before it closed.
- Coal mining towns of Westland - a classic wartime newsreel.
For more information about the Denniston incline, visit Engineering New Zealand.