TSS Earnslaw and Historic Slipway

Earnslaw Slipway 2

The Earnslaw is a 1912 Edwardian twin screw steamer based at Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand. It was named after Mount Earnslaw, a 2889-metre peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu and is the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steam ship in Southern Hemisphere. 

This ship is the last of a long line of coal burning steamers working on Lake Wakatipu since 1863 that were used to move goods around the lake shores. In its early days, the Earnslaw worked with the paddle steamers Antrim and Mountaineer and the screw steamer Ben Lomond, transporting sheep, cattle and passengers to the surrounding high-country stations. 

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Image of slipway
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The ship was commissioned after the Government announced in 1909 there was a growing demand for a new steamer that was bigger and more capable. The Earnslaw was designed by naval architect Hugh McRae and was based on a Siemens-Martin design. The Government gave preference to New Zealand ship builders and so it was built by John McGregor and company in Dunedin after winning the contract from New Zealand Railways (NZR).

When the construction was completed, the ship was dismantled and all the steel hull plates were numbered for reconstruction. The parts were then loaded on to a goods train and transported from Dunedin to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. 

Key Dates:

  • On Friday 18 August 1912, the Earnslaw set out for her maiden voyage to Queenstown 
  • 1968, the Earnslaw was nearly scrapped but was rescued and leased by Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) in 1969 and later purchased by the same company in 1982. She was taken out of service for a major refit in 1984. Her 12 metre high funnel was painted bright red, with the hull a snow-white, and her kauri timber decks glassed in. 
  • 1982, Earnslaw was sold to her lessees, Fiordland Travel Ltd. 
  • 1990, the TSS Earnslaw was recognised as a significant part of New Zealand’s engineering heritage by the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand 
  • July 2013, the Southern Heritage Trust unveiled a plaque on the Dunedin Railway Station overbridge commemorating the location of the McGregor & Co factory where TSS Earnslaw was built. 
  • December 2017, the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage recognized the TSS Earnslaw as one of twelve significant sites in Otago to be included in its Landmarks Whenua Tohunga programme. 
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Image of slipway
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There is a historic slipway at Kelvin Heights which is used to winch out the Earnslaw when major surveys are required. The slipway is equipped with a steam engine driven winch. The boiler and steam engine used to power the winch were originally in service on Lake Wakatipu in the paddle steamer Antrim, originally launched in 1869. The Antrim was dismantled from 1920, but the boiler and engine were recovered for use on the slipway.  

Regular operation continues onboard the Earnslaw carrying tourist passengers across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown.