Avalanche kills two workers at the Homer tunnel

4 May 1937

Homer tunnel, 1935 (Southland Museum and Art Gallery)

Engineer-in-charge D.F. Hulse and overseer T.W. Smith were killed in the second avalanche to hit the Homer tunnel project in less than 12 months. Three other men were seriously injured. An avalanche in July 1936 had killed one worker and injured seven others.

The tunnel would enable road access to Milford Sound, which was seen as essential for the development of tourism in the region. It had first been suggested following William Homer and George Barber’s discovery of the Homer Saddle between the Wick and Darran Mountains in January 1889. But construction did not begin until 1935, when relief workers were assigned to the project during the Depression. Initially five men armed with picks and wheelbarrows worked on the 1240-m long tunnel.

The eastern portal was 945 m above sea level and saw virtually no sun for six months of the year. With an average annual rainfall in excess of 6000 mm and frequent heavy snowfall, living and working conditions were harsh. Progress was hampered by the constant threat of avalanches and by water from melting snow that entered the tunnel through fractures in the rock. Most workers were paid on the basis of progress, and earnings were often extremely low.

The mountain was pierced in 1940 but the Second World War then curtailed work. Another avalanche in 1945 destroyed the eastern portal of the tunnel, which was not opened until 1954. Tramping the Milford Track no longer involved a return hike to Lake Te Anau.

While the completion of the tunnel enabled tourists to reach Milford Sound overland, the road and tunnel continue to be at the mercy of heavy snowfalls each winter. In 2009 an avalanche closed the road for more than a week, with trees and snow up to 5 m deep blocking several sections of State Highway 94 between Hollyford and the tunnel.

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