Queenstown History

With scenery so majestic it was deemed 'fit for Queen Victoria', it's no wonder this special place assumed the name of Queenstown. And the town continues to live up to the name, offering splendour fit for royalty to this day.

In pre-European times, Māori travelled through this area on their quest for pounamu (greenstone), as evident by stake nets, baskets for catching eels, spears and ashes found in the Glenorchy area. The site of Queenstown Gardens was once occupied by Te Kirikiri Pa, a settlement of the Kāti Mamoe tribe, but by the time Europeans arrived in the 1860s it was no longer.

The first European to see Lake Wakatipu, Nathanael Chalmers, was guided by chief Reko of Tuturau, over the Waimea Plains and up the Mataura River in 1853. Explorers William Gilbert Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann were the first Europeans to settle the area. Rees, considered the community's founding father, established a farm in Queenstown's current location in 1860. The discovery of gold in the Arrow River in 1862, however, saw Rees convert his woolshed into the Queen's Arms hotel, now known as Eichardt's. Many Queenstown streets bear names from the gold rush era. Some historic buildings also remain, including William's Cottage, the Lake Lodge of Ophir, the Police Station and St Peter's Anglican Church which sit close together in a designated historic precinct.

Soon after settlement, Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern discovered gold in the Shotover River, close to our holiday park. The many men and women lured to this area were responsible for the second-largest haul of gold in history, and in turn the government's purchase of the town.

Women were scarce in the early days, and those who did mostly worked for the publicans. Many young women were paid to dance with the menfolk, and generally received a commission on the amount the fellows spent on liquor. These women had little chance of holding their jobs unless they encouraged the men to drink like mad. But there were other opportunities for them, namely marriage. Arriving in the goldfields they were met by men dressed to the nines, intent on snaffling a bride. Most women were hitched within the week, with one woman claiming to have received 50 proposals in seven days. No man-drought those days, then!

Ned Oxenbridge's story is one of 'Faith & Perseverance'. In 1906 Oxenbridge sought to drive a tunnel at Arthur's Point to divert part of the river and work the river bed. With other family members he worked continuously for three years before breaking through at Star Beach, the tunnel being 14 x 15 feet in girth, and 750 feet long. They spent three months on the dam to divert the river, which was then washed away the day after completion. Then the pumps used to drain the old river bed failed. In the end, Oxbenbridge managed to mine only £600 worth of gold from an area the size of a breakfast table, having spent £10,000 in the attempt. Poor fellow. He did, however, have more success in later ventures, and today visitors can capitalise on his efforts when then take a rafting trip on the Shotover, passing through his tunnel on a fitting finale.

By 1900, the gold rush was done, and thousands of settlers were farewelled from the town, leaving a population of just 200. Tourism is the new gold, boosting the population to its current rate of around 30,000.

For more of the area's flinty and fascinating history, visit the excellent Lakes District Museum & Gallery in Arrowtown, open daily from 8.30am–5pm.