...the men often had no dry clothes for weeks on end, and the camps were often plagued with flies and poor sanitation
Building the railway began at Stratford in March 1901 and took almost 32 years to complete. Unlike the parallel Forgotten World Highway, which traverses four rugged mountain ranges and remains a challenge for motorists, the railway line mainly followed valley routes.
At a cost of £2M ($9.4B today) it was a substantial investment and considerably hard work for the teams of men involved who used pick axes and shovels to carve out the 24 tunnels by hand a total of 10.4km.
Huge cuttings were also hand-dug and bridges built to cross the lowest spans used a unique method still admired by engineers today. It was no small task; the men first built a timber trestle across the divide then dumped filling along its length until the frame was completely buried. The largest, about 120 metres long, contained 1000,000 cubic metres of soil and took three years to complete.
The workers and people
Workers lived in camps along the line and earned less than $1 a day for their nine-hour shift. Little evidence remains of Tangarakau, the main camp; in its 1925 hey day 1200 people lived in the bustling township.
Nearby, in the spectacular Tangarakau Gorge, is the grave of pioneer surveyor Joshua Morgan who died in 1893. This extraordinary man fell ill while surveying the road linking Stratford and Taumarunui and despite a desperate dash by his colleagues to seek medical help, Morgan did not survive to see the historic railway line or road to completion. His grave acts as a memorial to all the men who helped establish the Forgotten World Railway.
The use of the railway line
The people who settled in this area were hardy pioneers, isolated in their remote communities. The line was an essential link to the outside world and sawmills, coal mining and farming were only viable because of the rail connection. Evidence of the 15 stations along the line is still visible but the bustle of transporting stock and supplies is long gone.
Passenger trains continued to use the line until 1983 but improved roads and transportation options, as well as the SOL being notoriously difficult and expensive to maintain, meant its days were numbered. A partial derailment in 2009 that damaged a significant section of the track initiated a decision to mothball the line.
Imagining the future
The railways decline created a new opportunity and 2011 heralded the next stage of its history. Forgotten World Adventures secured a 30-year lease over the line giving visitors access to this iconic piece of New Zealand railway history.