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This website is developed from the site originally conceived developed & maintained by Marcus Castell and associates. Opinions are those of the various authors of the articles, and are not those of the NZ National Maritime Museum unless specifically noted. Information in this site has been updated to 2002 and will be progressively updated as resources allow. More information on historic ships (etc) is contained in the MARITIME INDEX website
The Twin Screw Steam Ship Earnslaw of 1911


Type:     Siemens Martin Steel hulled twin screw steamer with Kauri decking.

Naval Architect:     Hugh McRae of the New Zealand Government Railways Department, Dunedin.

Builders:     John McGregor and Company Ltd., Dunedin.

Displacement:     329.55 gross registered tons, 155.43 net.

Registered Length:     165 feet, 7 inches or 50.47 metres.

Length overall:     168 feet   51.2 metres.

Beam:     24 feet or 7.315 metres.

Depth:     9 feet, 6 inches.

Draught:     6.6 feet.

Propulsion:     Twin coal fired triple expansion, jet condensing vertical marine engines producing 500 horsepower at 145 r.p.m.; cylinder diameters, 13 inches (high pressure), 22 inches (intermediate), 34 inches (low pressure); cylinder stroke, 18 inches.

Boilers:     Two locomotive-type boilers with double safety valves; grate area, 48 sq. ft.; heating surfaces, l98 sq. ft. (firebox), 1,420 sq. ft. (tubes); working pressure, 180 lb. per sq. in. (reduced to 160 lb. in 1961); steam steering.

Speed (1912):     13 knots normal, 16 knots under forced draught 19 knots maximum.

Average cruising speed:     12 knots (120 rpm at 160 lb. psi).

Bunker capacity:     initially 12 tons, later expanded to 14 tons.

Coal consumption at cruising speed: one tonne per hour.

Passenger capacity:     maximum, 1,035; cargo capacity, 100 tons (or 1,500 sheep, or 200 bales of wool, or 70 head of cattle).

Ship's company     11.

Port of registry:     Dunedin.

Livery:     The 36 feet high funnel, originally Buff, was repainted Red with a Black top in July 1959, as the former light colour soon became smoke-stained. The colour was changed again in June 1962 to light Stone with a Black cap, to conform with the livery adopted for the new Wellington-Picton ferry Aramoana; monograms were added with the letters NZR in Yellow on a Green background on both sides of the funnel.


The twin-screw steamer Earnslaw, boasting the venerable age of ninety-one years, is the last of a long line of coal burning steamers working on Lake Wakatipu from as early as 1863.


Following the establishment of sheep runs around the lake shores, it was the discovery of gold in the region that gave impetus to the number of vessels, sail and steam, on these Wakatipian waters.  Once the supply of Gold started to decline, greater emphasis was put on the conveyance of goods and passengers to the runs around the lake shores.  It was generally a roadless region, except for a wagon road from Queenstown via the Kawarau Gorge to Cromwell and on to Dunedin.  The most convenient way to get goods in, and take Gold out, was via Kingston at the foot of the lake.


Wagon routes from Dunedin and Invercargill to Kingston were established, from whence the ships carried people and goods up the lake to Queenstown.  This township was the principal one for the district, being located some 21 miles by water from Kingston or midway up the lake, which is 48 miles long with an average width of three miles.  Kingston is 87 miles by rail from Invercargill and 174 from Dunedin.

The most well-known and long-lived steamers on Lake Wakatipu were the PS Antrim, 1869-1921; SS Ben Lomond, 1872-1952; and PS Mountaineer, 1879-1932 (the years given refer to the time in service).  The purity of the Lake Wakatipu waters and atmosphere are the main reason for this longevity.

Rails reached Kingston from Invercargill in 1878, but there was still no road from there to Queenstown or to Glenorchy at the head of the lake so residents there were fully dependent on water transport.  All heavy machinery for gold mining and dredging was brought in via the railway to Kingston.  It was in 1880 that a more direct line between the lake and Dunedin was opened.  This was from the main line at Gore and across the Waimea Plains to Lumsden on the Kingston line.

Tourism began in earnest at the turn of the century and visitors to this majestic lake, located in an alpine setting likened to Switzerland's famous Lake Lucerne, were not at all complimentary about the standard of comfort offered by those then privately owned steamers.  Such were the complaints that in 1901 the Government bought out the company and immediately re-scheduled the steamer runs to coincide with the famous Kingston Flyer train services from Gore to Kingston.  A better and bigger steamer, capable of carrying up to 1,000 passengers along with goods and servicing the lakeside run-holders, had become a pressing necessity.

In 1909 the Government announced that a new steamer was to be built with first preference being given to New Zealand shipbuilders.  A naval architect, Mr H.  McRae of Dunedin, submitted drawings for a paddle wheeler but the powers that be insisted on a twin-screw vessel.  He came up with an acceptable design which was based along the lines of the Otago (Dunedin) Harbour ferries, Waireka and Waikana.  Tenders were let to the builder of those ferries, Messrs John McGregor & Co Ltd, of Dunedin.  Plans and patterns for the ferries' engines, boilers etc were used for the new steamer with a resulting reduction in costs.  The tender of 20,850 was accepted on the 22nd of September 1910 and McGregors set to work on a vessel with the following specifications: Length BP 160ft, breadth to amidships 24ft, depth moulded 9ft, forecastle about 33ft long.  A forward hold was to carry 40 tons of cargo and the draught was not to exceed 6ft 6ins.  The interior of the first class saloon was to be neatly framed in Kauri and figured Red Pine, the ceiling to be panelled in Lincrusta Walton or embossed steel picked out in gold (the ceiling ended up without this decoration).  Uncut Moquette or Utrecht velvet was to cover the seats and back thereof, with the deck covered in Linoleum with a carpet runner up the centre.  A second class saloon with a bar was located in the forecastle and a dining saloon was situated aft of the engine room space and below the main deck, with access down a companionway from the first class saloon.  The crew's quarters were located below the second class saloon.

Passenger capacity was 1,035, cargo 100 tons (or 1,500 sheep, 200 bales of wool or 70 head of cattle).  Crew comprised eleven.  Vessels owned by the Crown were not registered in the same way as those under private ownership, hence there was no listing in Lloyd's Register.

Earnslaw's engines (above) and boilers (below) in McGregor's Dunedin workshops

Two locomotive-type marine boilers working at a pressure of 180 pounds per square inch (reduced to 160 in 1961) provided power for the two triple expansion, jet condensing vertical marine engines which produced 500 horsepower at 145 rpm.  Cylinder diameters are 13, 22 and 34 inches respectively, with an 18-inch stroke.  The speed of the steamer was to be 13 knots normal and 16+ knots on forced draught.  The galley was located on the main deck under the bridge and hot food was carried in containers along the deck, to be lowered by means of a dumb waiter down to the dining saloon pantry.

September 1911

At McGregors, the keel was laid on the 4th of July, 1911 and the frame and hull plates were fitted up to see if all parts fitted together by the 18th October (A commemorative plaque marks the site of the Earnslaw slipway).  After this, all parts were railed to Kingston where the Earnslaw was erected on the lake shore (below).

Kingston: December, 1911

Above: Just over three months later, on 24th February, 1912 the steamer was launched without any ceremony in the presence of a large crowd of people who had travelled down from Queenstown by special steamer for the occasion.  Trials were commenced on 3rd August, 1912.

Above: the biggest day in the annals of Lake Wakatipu shipping was Friday, 18th October, 1912.  It was the TSS Earnslaw's official birthday, for she was commissioned on that day and also made her maiden voyage from Kingston to Queenstown.  Among the passengers were numerous people of importance who had travelled by special trains from many parts of Otago and Southland.  Two hundred people took advantage of this occasion.  Several launches met the steamer at the beacon marking the reef at the Gardens end of Queenstown Bay and the nearby lake shores were crowded with people seeking their first glimpse of the giant of the fleet.  A musical welcome was accorded the newcomer.  A holiday was declared the next day in Queenstown, so that as many people as possible could travel the 17 miles up to the head of the Lake (Glenorchy and Kinloch).  On this run Earnslaw came within view for the first time of the 9,250 foot high Mount Earnslaw, which was also named after the inevitable Dunedin politician.


Over the years, in her almost uneventful life, there were minor alterations, especially to passenger comfort, and in 1936 the promenade deck was covered in and canvas curtains fitted around the sides as protection from the elements.  (Lake Wakatipu actually crosses the 45th meridian - halfway between the Equator and the South Pole.) The provision of hot meals ceased and the electric generator in the engine room was transferred to the galley space once the coal range and galley fittings had been removed.  Refreshments such as tea, cakes and sandwiches were still provided in the dining saloon.  At this time Earnslaw became a one-class ship which was much more satisfactory to all concerned.

A big blow to the Lake Wakatipu steamer service occurred in 1936 when the road, built by unemployed labour, was opened around the foot of the Remarkables from Kingston and Frankton and on to Queenstown.  A year later rail passenger services, such as the Kingston Flyer from Gore via Lumsden to Kingston, were withdrawn.  Buses replaced these trains and their introduction as a through service to Queenstown severely restricted the steamer service.  Passenger trains were run during the holiday seasons and~ the steamers had their times of glory on such occasions.


During the years on the lake, Earnslaw's most serious mishaps were two groundings on the water-smoothed shingle of the lake shores.  She served all the lakeside run holders and their families by carrying goods, shepherds and their dogs, horses, farmers, tourists, shearers, wool and livestock, motor cars, and even buses to convey tourists from Kinloch to the magnificent Routeburn valley and from Glenorchy to Paradise.  She has carried royalty on at least two occasions and many other famous people.


In 1952 Earnslaw became the only steamer on Lake Wakatipu when the 80-year-old Ben Lomond, the last of the early steamers, was scrapped.  Her hull now sits in 600ft of water.  Until 1968 Earnslaw carried on serving the people around the lake on a more or less thrice-weekly service to the head of the lake, with the occasional trip to Kingston for coaling and cargo purposes.  In 1963 a road was opened from Queenstown to Glenorchy, thereby almost bringing about the demise of the runs to the head of the lake.

Hull plates being replaced for the first time in 1960.

Such was the situation in 1968 that the Government Railways, her owners over the years, ceased operating Earnslaw and leased her to a private group from the 1st of January l969, with a view to purchase.  However, this did not come to pass and Fiordland Travel took over the steamer on the 12th of December 1969 and ran her for short cruises around the lake.

Queenstown Wharf; 10 November 1962..



The sound of a well maintained steam engine working is music to the ears of most ship enthusiasts.  When the composer-musician Ron Goodwin took a trip on the steamer in 1978 he was so impressed by the rhythm of her twin triple expansion engines that he composed a piece of music that echoes their motion.  Entitled the "SS Earnslaw' Steam Theme", it was first performed at Invercargill by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

In 1982 Earnslaw was sold to her lessees, Fiordland Travel Ltd.  The new owners proceeded to establish a bar in the former second class saloon up forward, glassed in the sides around the promenade deck where passengers and special cruise parties were catered for, ceased serving teas in the original dining saloon and hired it out as a souvenir stall.  A feature of the promenade deck is the removal of the engine room skylights and their replacement with a balustrade so that passengers can see the working of those famous triple expansion engines and associated activities such as the stokers at work.  However, a net had to be installed to catch articles mischievously dropped.

The open bridge had a wheelhouse fitted at long last, to protect the crew from the elements and Earnslaw was registered for the first time.  Apart from the replacement of three hull plates that showed corrosion because of soapy water from the dining saloon sink, she is basically the same as built.  Some while ago TSS Earnslaw was declared to be an 'Historic Place' under the New Zealand Historic Places Act, and as such her future is ensured even when she no longer works.


During the New Zealand winter of 1986 TSS Earnslaw was slipped for her survey and overhaul at Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu.  Whilst there, the hull below the water line was stripped of its paint and new coatings applied.  Work also commenced on the overhaul of her twin boilers and on her triple expansion engines.  Sixty-five tubes were replaced in her original boiler and work commenced to reduce the coal smoke emission from her funnel.

Many coats of paint have been removed from her interior and exterior woodwork to reveal the delightful original timber panelling of the saloon.  Plush velvet was installed along with vintage style lighting, to aid the return of the old world charm of this steamer.  New toilets were installed and they discharge into another 4,800 litre tank fitted in the original cargo hold.  From this the contents are pumped into Queenstown's sewerage system at the Town Wharf.



Her design was not without its faults and the vessel is said to handle poorly at low speed; "like steering a brick across an ice rink."

Still in service she now makes several ninety-minute cruises on Lake Wakatipu each day, with a further two on Summer evenings.

1940 Philatelic label

Other Lake Wakatipu Steamers

Above: moored at Queenstown are the Railways Department's Lake steamers Antrim of 1868 and on the right, the 108 ton Mountaineer of 1879. Although neither has survived, Antrim 's steam engine and boiler are still in use at the Kinloch slipway and are used to haul Earnslaw out for her bi-annual survey.

The Paddle Steamer Antrim of 1868

The Twin Screw Steamer Ben Lomond of 1872

The Paddle Steamer Mountaineer of 1879


Mackay, Malcolm
Lady of the Lake     The TSS Earnslaw story
Queenstown: M. Mackay, 1999. Pictorial card covers, 48 pp. Illustrated: colour and B&W plates, line drawings.

Meyer, R. J.
All Aboard     The ships and trains that served Lake Wakatipu
Wellington: NZ Railway and Locomotive Society, 1980. 196 pp. Colour frontis. Illustrated: B&W plates and line drawings. Index.

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