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Denniston Incline


Deniston incline Deniston incline Deniston incline Deniston incline

Denniston Incline (1879)

Hell on earth halfway up ‘The Hill’

The boosters called it the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. The poor sods forced to slog away in the mines up ‘The Hill’ sang a different tune:

‘Damn Denniston
Damn the track
Damn the way both there and back
Damn the wind and damn the weather
God damn Denniston altogether.’

They had reason to complain, for Denniston was a miserable hole, a gimcrack clutter of corrugated iron and weatherboard buildings clinging precariously to a bleak plateau. Thick fog could hang around for weeks on end, as could steady drizzle. In between times it bucketed down, yet little grew here apart from rust, emphysema and the politics of dissent. The soil was so thin they had to send bodies down the incline for burial elsewhere.

Denniston (named after R.B. Denniston, the company’s surveyor and colliery manager) was the bleak jewel in the Westport Coal Company’s crown. It was also the country's most productive coalfield. From its offices in Water Street, Dunedin, Westport Coal collaborated with the Union Steam Ship Company to dominate the colony’s fuel and transport industries. Between 1879 and 1967, 13 million tonnes of coal was sent down the incline to Union Steam Ship Company colliers at nearby Westport.

It was a technical triumph. The incline plunged precipitously, 548 m in a distance of just 1670 m, with some grades as steep as 1 in 1.25 (80%). Two water-operated brakes, Upper Brake and Middle Brake, slowed the progress of the counter-balancing wagons (i.e., descending full wagons pulled up empty ones) down the two inclines to the railhead at Conns Creek.

The regenerating bush is reclaiming the upper (number one) incline, but the lower (number two) incline can be admired from a nearby walking track. You can see rusting wagons, wire by the kilometre, stretches of track, and an impressive drive tower at the top of the incline. A few people still inhabit the township, where the Friends of The Hill have restored the old schoolhouse. Tracks lead to other former mines and features. Keep to them and watch out for old shafts.

Further information

This site is item number 55 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

The Friends of The Hill run a museum in the township. Elsewhere, there are plenty of signs, markers and other objects of interest.



  • Len Richardson, Coal, class & community, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995

Text: Gavin McLean, 2013

Main image: Hannah Sutherland (Flickr)

Other contemporary image: David Maciulatis (Flickr)

Historic images:

Alexander Turnbull Library
References: 1/2-035122-F and 1/2-035121-F (taken by Henry Thomas Lock) and WA-06790-F (taken by Whites Aviation)
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of their images.

How to cite this page

Denniston Incline, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated