Skippers Bridge opened

29 March 1901

Skippers Bridge, 2003 (Wikimedia)

At 96 m long and 91 m above the river, the Skippers suspension bridge over the Shotover River near Queenstown in Central Otago is one of the highest and most spectacular in New Zealand.

Suspended on 14 wire cables, the single-lane bridge improved access to the Skippers gold-mining settlement, once the largest on the Shotover River. It was opened after three years of construction during which its cost doubled to about £4000 (equivalent to more than $700,000 in 2016). Liberal Minister of Mines James McGowan did the honours, praising his ‘working man’s’ government for building roads and bridges ‘for the people’. After the speeches dinner was laid on in Mrs Johnston’s Otago Hotel for ‘40 or 50 gentlemen’. A ball in the evening for the locals rounded off the festivities.

In reality the bridge was built several decades too late. By 1901 miners were leaving Skippers and the population had fallen to less than 100. The school closed in 1927 and by the 1940s the settlement was abandoned. The bridge continued to be used by local farmers and since 1985 it has also provided access to the Mt Aurum Recreation Reserve, which includes the ruins of the town.

At the peak of the gold rush the Shotover River was touted as the richest in the world. Thousands flocked to its banks after gold was discovered there in 1862. A precarious pack track was the only access to the Skippers settlement for more than 20 years. Pressure grew for a dray road in the 1880s, when heavy machinery was brought in for quartz mining. A 3-km stretch of road was made by hand-drilling and blasting solid rock to create a platform nearly 200 m above the river. Men dangled from ropes to get the job done.

The Skippers Canyon Suspension Bridge is a Heritage New Zealand Category 1 historic place and was added to the IPENZ Engineering Heritage Register in 2013.

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