TOUGH TIMES IN THE TUNNELS
A Camp By the River: Preparing the Evening Meal,
Otago Witness, 1 April 1903, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago
Life working on the tunnel building was gruelling work and the men had to live in tent camps near the tunnel sites. The builders were Polish, German and Italian stonemasons, who had emigrated to the gold fields. After the gold rushes, many returned to their old trade and were employed on the railway construction.
The Middlemarch/Hyde line was built under a cooperative system of work gangs who appointed their own foreman, who received instructions from the Railways Engineer. The workers were paid as a gang, with the foreman receiving the money earned before divvying it out to the workers. The men should have earned a little more than any contractor would have offered them, but they were very dependent on the engineer's judgement, who assessed their work and paid them accordingly.
Otago Central Railway: Face of one of the gorge tunnels.
Otago Witness, 1 April 1903.
Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.
Under the cooperative system, each man was issued with a tent, which he was expected to repair and replace. Expensive equipment was supplied, but men were expected to use their own shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. They hired drays and horses from the local farmers and provided their own explosives.
The camps were reported as being well supplied with liquor, with no less than five sly grog shops at the Poolburn Gorge, even though police did raid the sites. Many of the workers spent their hard earned money on liquor or gambled it away.
“If any reader wishes to see vileness and degradation let him make a sojourn in the Poolburn Gorge for a week or two and he can satisfy any craving he may have for such, and know that the sly grog shop is at the root of it all. All the reader needs to do on arriving at the rail terminus is “to follow the line of empty bottles and he can be sure he is on the right track”. Mt Ida Chronicle, 31 Jan 1902
You can still see the remnants of structures and chimneys on the hillside here.
Otago Central Railway: A Camp Alongside the River,
Otago Witness, 1 April 1903. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago, S20-129e