The TSS Earnslaw is one of the world’s oldest and largest remaining coal-fired steamships and has graced Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown since 1912. She is the last of a long line of coal-burning steamers used on the lake to ferry people and goods to inaccessible areas on the shores of Lake Wakatipu from as early as 1863.
She was built by J.McGregor and Co. in Dunedin at a cost of £20,850 and when construction was finally completed, she was dismantled, with all the quarter-inch steel hull plates numbered for reconstruction. The pieces were transported to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu by train where the ship was reassembled, much like a jig-saw puzzle. The ship was named after Mount Earnslaw, a 2889-metre peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown experienced a population influx after gold was discovered in the Arrow River in 1862. The lack of roading in the region made it far more convenient to use sail and steam ships to transport the gold across the lake from Queenstown to Kingston to be transported further south by road to Dunedin or Invercargill. This transport route became even more convenient when eventually a railway was established between Kingston and Gore in the 1890s. The train service was used to bring in machinery to be used for gold mining and as there was still no road from Queenstown to Kingston or Glenorchy, ship transport across the lake was vital. The train service came to be known at the Kingston Flyer.
Launched in the same year as the Titanic, the TSS Earnslaw’s maiden voyage was on 18 October 1912. At 51.2 metres long, she was the biggest boat on the lake and the largest steamship built in New Zealand. For many years she transported sheep, cargo and passengers to surrounding high country stations. She was a valuable vessel and came to be known as the "Lady of the Lake".
The TSS Earnslaw at Walter Peak circa 1950
In 1969, after 57 years of service, the TSS Earnslaw was retired and nearly scrapped. Fortunately, she was purchased by Fiordland Travel (now RealNZ), and since then she has been used primarily for pleasure cruising. She takes visitors to the popular Walter Peak High Country Farm for guests to get a taster of farm life, or embark on walks, horse riding or biking adventures onto the surrounding hills and towering mountains.
On board the steamship, visitors can view the engine room with its giant steam engines, while a collection of historical photos in the ship’s museum tell the story of her colourful history. Even though she has operated on the lake for over 100 years, the TSS Earnslaw is in pristine condition thanks to ongoing work to maintain and restore the steamship .
Walter Peak High Country Farm also holds significance in the story of Queenstown's development. Queenstown's first European settlers William Rees and Nicholas Von Tunzelman first arrived on the shore of Lake Wakatipu in February 1860 in search of good land to farm. Legend has it the two friends flipped a coin for which side of the lake they would settle on, Rees got the side which Queenstown now sits on and Von Tunzelman got Walter Peak. The Queenstown side brought gold and prospered within just a few years whereas the Walter Peak side was plagued with bad weather and snow storms leading to lost farm stock. Von Tunzelman eventually left the land.
The Mackenzie family bought Walter Peak in the 1880s and set about making improvements to the farm. In 1908 the Colonel's Homestead was built in 1908 as a wedding present for Hugh Mackenzie's son, Colonel Peter Mackenzie. It was carefully reconstructed after a fire in 1977 with the interior more suited for hosting guests. The original garden built by the Mackenzie family still remains, and visitors can now experience lunch or dinner at the reconstructed homestead as part of the TSS Earnslaw and Walter Peak Farm experience. The experience has become one of the most popular in the region, and is certainly a 'must-do' during your time in Queenstown.
In 2014, RealNZ purchased the land around the Colonel's Homestead that makes up Walter Peak Farm and embarked on a major conservation project, the Walter Peak Land Restoration Project. In 2020, the garden was named as a ‘Garden of Significance’ after being awarded with a 4-star rating by the New Zealand Gardens Trust. Different species flourish in the garden depending on the season, and there are many endangered plant species growing in the garden that aren't usually found this far south.
Today, the TSS Earnslaw is the only hand fired passenger carrying steamship in operation in the Southern Hemisphere, making her one of the most unique experiences in the world. The ship has carried royalty and movie stars over the years. In 1990, she carried Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and since then the Queen of Belgium and the Prince of Thailand. She has even featured in movies such as ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ in 2008, where she stood in as an Amazon River boat.
The TSS Earnslaw has been recognised as Tohu Whenua: landmarks that tell our stories, one of only eleven locations to be recognised in Otago. Tohu Whenua are the places that have shaped Aotearoa New Zealand. Located in stunning landscapes and rich with stories, they offer some of our best heritage experiences.
The TSS Earnslaw circa 1950