Historical Significance or Value
Willowbank was a station on the McNab-Waikaka branch line from 1909 till the line’s closure in 1962. Branch lines were essential to the development of isolated areas and often the key to the growth of communities such as Waikaka. As surviving structures from the heyday of rail transport, the Willowbank Windmill and Water Tank are special survivors. As diesel locomotives replaced steam, and as road transport replaced the branch line rail network gradually throughout the twentieth century, remnants such as the structures at Willowbank became increasingly rare reminders of the age of steam locomotives. Windmills were once a common feature of the railway landscape and those remaining are visible links with the age of steam locomotives.
Technological Significance or Value:
Railway windmills such as this at Willowbank were of a simple design copied from the Fairbanks Morse Eclipse Railroad model, illustrating the adaptation of technology to New Zealand circumstances. The parts were copied and the Windmills were constructed at the Addington Railway Workshops (with the cast parts made at a foundry elsewhere). The adoption of a standard plan made for the easy and cost effective production of the associated technologies. The windmill was virtually automatic in operation as the speed and orientation of the sail was controlled mechanically in response to wind direction and force, and to the level of water in the tank. Although railway windmills of this design were once common they are now rare, particularly sitting next to the associated water tank and with the well beneath the Windmill.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
Railways and the development of branch lines in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries were a ubiquitous part of New Zealand’s history, so central and significant as to be easily overlooked, except for the grand expressions such as railway stations. The infrastructure associated with this extensive network, servicing the steam locomotives that originally travelled along these lines has largely disappeared, so surviving structures such as the Willowbank Windmill and Water Tank while once ordinary, provide special insight into this once common experience of train travel.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:
From its identification as a significant historical landmark by the Gore and Districts Historical Society in 1974, through its ongoing repair and maintenance by the NZHPT and its Southland Regional Committee throughout the 1980s and 1990s, to its current restoration supported by the Gore District Council, the Willowbank Windmill has been held in high esteem by the local community.
(f) The potential of the place for public education:
The Willowbank Windmill and Water Tank stand alongside a main road and have an interpretation sign that provides information about the structure and its history. As such it is providing an opportunity for public education.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
The Willowbank Windmill is an example of a New Zealand Railways Department standard plan 16 foot Railway Windmill and pump, which provided water for steam engines via its associated water tank. These Windmills were copied from the American Railway Eclipse Windmill. It represents simple but ingenious technology which developed to service this vital infrastructure. The Windmill’s survival alongside the Water Tank (the reason for the Windmill’s existence) shows how the technology was utilised to provide water at strategic locations for steam engine supply on the branch line.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:
For residents of the Waikaka Valley the Willowbank Windmill commemorates the lives of the early settlers and those who farmed and mined the area. It represents those pioneers who campaigned to open up the country for settlement and secured the branch line to service their communities.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:
The Willowbank Windmill and its associated Water Tank are rare survivors representing the once common sight of windmill water pumps alongside the railways. Of the 116 railway windmills known to have been erected, Willowbank is one of only two surviving examples, making it a special structure. The majority of water tanks have also been demolished or have deteriorated through lack of maintenance. This site is unique in New Zealand because it is the only one featuring a water tank on its original site, in combination with its windmill.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
The Willowbank Windmill and Water Tank are the remnants of the Waikaka Branch Railway which serviced the Waikaka Valley area from 1909 to its closure in 1962. This historic landscape is made up of the railway alignment and other associated structures which follow the route of that branch line.
Summary of Significance or Values:
This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, e, f, g, h, j and k.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.
Willowbank Windmill and Water Tank is the only place in New Zealand where a railway windmill has been retained with its own water tank. Willowbank Windmill and Belgrove Windmill near Nelson are the only railway windmills to still stand where they originally provided water for the passing steam locomotives. As such the windmill is a special survivor, and one held in esteem by the local community. The Water Tank is also a rare remaining relic of the New Zealand Railways’ water supply system. The Windmill’s unique survival alongside its own water tank provides special insight into the water supply system that used to support steam locomotives on the New Zealand Railways. The Willowbank Railway Windmill and its associated Water Tank recall the central role that the railways played in the lives of all New Zealanders, when steam engines carried passengers and freight through the hinterland on branch lines such as that at Waikaka.
The Willowbank Windmill was built to supply water for the steam locomotives on the McNab to Waikaka line. Agitation for a railway line to Waikaka began as early as 1877, when it was suggested as the route to connect Gore and Kelso. With the cutting up of the big estates, and the consequent growth in population and farms in the area, local voices clamoured for a local line. Settlers bought land on the strength of maps which showed the proposed line. Once the land was sold the push for a railway faltered for a time however farmers in the North Chatton, Waikaka and Greenvale districts continued to apply pressure for another thirty years. Railways on a national and local scale were the ‘first of the complex, large-scale technological systems that would dominate the industrial-capitalist age, helping to kickstart more than 170 years of ceaseless ever-accelerating change’, and a key state tool for economic development.
Locals petitioned Parliament, and the Mayor of Gore put his weight behind the campaign. In 1904 eight miles of railway was authorised from McNab towards Waikaka. The Member of the House of Representatives for Wakatipu suggested that settlers float a company and raise money to construct the line, and lend it to the Government on the security of Government debentures, and this scheme was adopted. In 1905 the line from Waikaka Siding (now known as McNab) to the township of Waikaka was authorised. The first sod was turned in April 1907 by the Hon. W. Hall-Jones, Minister of Public Works.
The Waikaka line, all twelve miles and fifty seven chains of it, opened in March 1909. The total cost of the line was £70,000 (with £50,000 subscribed by debentures).. The line had seven stations - McNab, Howe, Willowbank, Maitland, Fleming, Pullar and Waikaka. The branch line was the community’s link with the outside world before the widespread use of cars and telephones. Residents had a strong sense of ownership, and those who worked the line were important members of their community.
By 1909 the railway infrastructure was established at Willowbank. Willowbank Station had a waiting room (including a ladies waiting room in the shelter shed) platform, good shed and loading bank, cattle yard and urinals.
The Waikaka Branch line had problems with water supply for locomotives from the beginning. The permanent water supply (a windmill pump and tank) at Waikaka was insufficient as the well ran dry regularly. There was a temporary hand pump at Willowbank.
The water supply issues were still unresolved in 1910 so the District Engineer wrote to the Public Works Department in August enquiring if it was still intended to erect a windmill and vat at Willowbank, indicating that providing a suitable water supply for locomotives was a requirement of the original line construction contract. Initially a discouraging response was received. After investigating siting a well at Maitland and erecting another temporary supply there it was decided that the best location for a permanent water supply was at Willowbank where the engines were likely to need more water with heavier trains.. On 27 October 1911 it was reported that a permanent water service had been erected at Willowbank, with a 6000 gallon vat (£112-12-5) and a 16 foot (4.8 metre) windmill (£141-12-9).
As railway routes were extended in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, windmills and tanks were strategically placed along New Zealand's railway lines to supply steam engines with water, and were therefore a vital part of the rail network. Water tanks or ‘vats’ were a significant structure associated with the steam era. Originally steam locomotives were small with little capacity to carry water with them. Vats were therefore required at regular intervals along the lines. As larger locomotives were brought into use, smaller vats were phased out in favour of larger vats at key locations. Connected to pumps often powered by windmills, the vats supplied the considerable amounts of water required to power steam locomotives. As steam engines were phased out the water vats that had supplied them were largely redundant. Many vats have since been demolished, or have simply deteriorated through lack of maintenance. A few remained on their original locations because they still serviced the local community water supply, for example Edendale which was finally demolished in 2010. Some were acquired by farmers or industry for water storage.
Some like those at Paekakariki (Category I Record No. 4705), near Wellington (though relocated from their original sites on the main trunk line in the Central North Island - Waiouru and Ohakune), and the tank at Willowbank on its original site, are rare survivors. The tanks are rare relics of a once common system of water supply on New Zealand railways. Both vats are typical examples of the water vats used in the early twentieth century and they provide a visible link with the steam locomotive era. The Willowbank Railway Windmill and Tank form part of the wider historical railway complex that was the Waikaka Branch line and have potential to increase public awareness about the networks that enabled steam locomotives to operate throughout the country.
Windmills were built at the Railway Department workshop at Addington.The 14 foot mills were supplied out of the Hillside Workshops in Dunedin, and the 16 foot mills out of Addington Workshops in Christchurch.
Gravity water supply systems were preferred but hydraulic systems and windmill pumps were used where necessary. Hand pumping was also a backup at most windmill sites. New Zealand Railways built windmills to pump water to fill the water tanks (or vats) which supplied the considerable amount of water needed for the steam engines. Windmill pumps were also used for railway housing water supply and fire fighting. Where the only water available was below ground, windmills were built to pump the water up and into the holding tanks.
NZR windmills were built to standard sizes of 14 feet (4.2 metres) or 16 feet (4.8 metres), which was the measurement of the diameter of the main fan, although records show smaller sizes were used at some locations. They were built with wooden fans and vane, unlike other New Zealand windmill pumps tended to be constructed of metal. The design was effectively a copy of two American models produced by Fairbanks Morse & Co. The 14 foot was known by them as an Eclipse Form Mill and the 16 foot as an Eclipse Railroad Mill.
The Willowbank Windmill is a 16 foot mill, built to the standard plan. The NZHPT citation for the Belgrove Windmill indicates that its design was based on a standard plan designed in 1892 by the Railways Department Acting Resident Engineer Daniel McIntosh (1860-1926), and draughtsman George Alexander Troup (1863-1941). The Belgrove Windmill structure consists of a 4.8 metre (16 foot) wooden fan that was set on a 12.2 metre (40 foot) wooden tower.
The mill's operation was automated and controlled by a valve fitted to the delivery pipes that were connected to the holding tanks. Hollow metal balls, which rose with the water level, blocked the supply off when the tank was full, preventing more water from entering. Some of the overflow water was piped back to the windmill where it filled a wooden bucket connected to the mill head. When the bucket was full its weight pulled the tail into line with the fan, forcing the fan out of the face of the wind, effectively stopping the mill. The bucket emptied after an hour through a drip cock so it would empty, it would rise up the tower, moving the fan back into the wind. If the tanks remained full, the bucket would refill quickly and stop the mill again. The system required little maintenance and was protected from damage by a side vane that turned the sail out of high winds. The well was located immediately below the windmill structure, and was connecting to the pumping mechanism.
The Railroad Eclipse was produced in turn by three companies: the Eclipse Wind Mill Company, the Eclipse Wind Engine Company, and Fairbanks, Morse, and Company. Their name recalls their use as early as 1870 in supplying water for steam locomotives. Produced in styles for either pumping or power purposed, they were manufactured in sizes ranging from 16 inches up to 35 inches in diameter, and were marketed throughout America. They were still in production until the First World War. Pumping-pattern Railroad Eclipse mills were used primarily where water was available only at considerable depth or where large amounts of water was needed, such as for steam locomotive, for municipal water works, or for watering large numbers of livestock.
In New Zealand, at least 116 railway windmills were built. Molinologist Ian Jonson, who has compiled a record of New Zealand railway windmills, shows that windmills were installed at on locations as early as 1875 (at Waitaki Bridge South End) and as late as 1919 (Morrinsville, Papatoetoe and Otamarakau Bluff Siding). The transition from steam to electric and diesel locomotives eventually rendered the railway windmills obsolete. Some were demolished, others dismantled and others abandoned when no longer servicable. Only two remain - the Willowbank Windmill and one at Belgrove, both managed by the Department of Conservation. In their history of New Zealand’s ‘ghost railways’ David Leitch and Brian Scott write that the survival of the depot structures at Willowbank illustrate ‘just how essential the railway was in Victorian and Edwardian times for its rural role alone.’
The Belgrove Windmill, on State Highway 6, south of Nelson (Category 1 historic place, Register no. 244) serviced the Nelson line and was built in 1898. It was used to pump water to supply engines beginning the steep climb to Spooners tunnel. When the line closed, amid much protest in 1955, the windmill was left in place because it was also being used to supply domestic water for the houses there.
In the early 1930s the Waikaka Line was threatened with closure for economic reasons. Evidence was presented to the Royal Commission investigating the on-going economy of branch lines, defending the service. Locals argued that the financial loss on the line was practically the lowest of any branch in the country (bar a couple of exceptions). Local farmers were keen to protect their interests, but it was agreed that the district recognised the difficulties of the Railway Department and agreed that a ‘reasonable curtailment’ of the services on the Waikaka line was required, but would oppose the suggestion that the line be closed or that the price of freight be increased but offered to strike a levy to defray expenses.
In August 1933 the 6000 gallon (22,712 litre) vat was removed to Balclutha and replaced with a 2000 gallon (15,142 litre) tank. The early 1950s saw a problem with the water supply at Willowbank as the water was muddy and the Waikaka supply was out of order. The well was cleaned and reported as being 4 ft 8 inches by 3 ft (1.4 by .9m) and 11ft 6 inches (3.45m) deep from ground level. It was timber lined from top to bottom.
Since 1936 competition from road transport for freight alongside a railway had been limited to 30 miles (48 kilometres) so railways were obliged to service the small rural communities and farming areas. These lines had small stations handling freight where consignments could be handled from a small shelter shed. A photograph from 1962 shows Willowbank with its windmill and tank and in the background a railway shed with a loading bank where goods could be transferred to and from railway wagons. The windmill was on one side of the main line and the vat on the other.
Until the 1960s New Zealand’s railway network was relatively stable. It reached a maximum length in 1953 (5689 kilometres), but declined thereafter as branch lines were progressively closed. At that time, rail was still oriented to meeting local and rural needs as much as long haulage. As rail gave way to road for the transport of freight over shorter distances, the Waikaka Line was no longer able to pay its way, and closed in September 1962. The Willowbank Windmill is, in the words of Euan McQueen ‘a vestigial remnant’ recalling ‘a different pace of life, different transport technologies, an intimacy between rural areas and their railway, which was still the only truly national transport organisation and operator until probably the 1980s.’
With the closure of the line the Gore and District Historical Society were concerned about the fate of the Willowbank Windmill and were keen that it remain on its original site, as a memorial to the branch line. The Southland Regional Committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust became involved in the project in 1974. The Mataura Ensign reported that the preservation of the windmill and tank was now in the hands of the Committee who had handed over the work of preserving the Windmill and Tank to the Historical Society as a memorial to the line and to the pioneers of the district. The newspaper was clearly ‘jumping the gun’, as the plan was for the Commissioner of Works to recommend transferring the site to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as the final stage of disposal of Railway assets, was yet to happen.
Locals set to work looking after the two structures. In 1975 the Maitland Young Farmers Club repainted the Windmill and Tank. The Women’s Division of Federated Farmers supported the erection of a sign ‘Willowbank.’ NZHPT agreed to meet the costs of maintenance and repair, still anticipating the formal vesting of the site. Vesting was delayed because of pending decisions about improving road alignment, and title issues. The Commissioner of Crown Lands reported that the land had been sold to a private individual on freehold title and could not therefore be reserved. Subsequent investigations found the windmill and tank to be on road reserve. Meanwhile NZHPT worked with the Ministry of Works on repairs and maintenance which included replacement and repair of deteriorating timbers in the tank stand and the superstructure of the Windmill, as well as to the bearings, shafts, and vanes, with the Southland County Council donating materials.
The Willowbank Windmill underwent a more major overhaul in 1984, the work carried out by the Ministry of Works with the support of the Gore District Council. High winds had caused the Windmill fan to fly apart (the speed making the noise of a jet engine) and pieces of the wheel were found up to 120 metres (394 feet) away, showing the force of the movement and wind. It was recommended that the fan be dismantled to prevent further damage, as the central mechanism that turned the fan out of the wind was no longer working and had contributed to the damage.
In 1988 the Windmill suffered further storm damage and the much of the top workings were removed to prevent further damage, and allow repair of the fan. The repairs were delayed and locals wrote expressing concern that the fan was lying in a Ministry of Works yard in Invercargill awaiting attention, and offered their own services, being keen to have the landmark restored.
The reserve was finally gazetted for conservation purposes in 1989. The gazettal as a historic reserve was never completed. NZHPT continued to manage the Windmill, with input from the Gore Council and local groups, and restoration work was carried out in 1989 enabling the Mill to switch in and out of the wind. This mimicked the automatic operation that enabled the fan to turn parallel with the wind direction and protect the fan), including work to the tank stand, though it was thought too costly to restore it to the condition that it could hold water again.
In 1992 the Windmill was again damaged in high winds and needed repairs - the main shaft had sheared and the side vane was broken. Southland District Council objected with vigour to a suggestion that the Windmill be relocated to Middlemarch. The fan was reinstated by the beginning of 1995 but the Windmill was damaged yet again in a storm in June 1997. Responsibility for repairs was taken by Gore District Council (which replaced the Southland County Council.
Railway historian Euan McQueen writes that there is ‘something of a mythology about the rural branch line. One is inclined to forget that there were many small stations, served by local trains, on main lines as well. But the folklore is well established, and there were certainly local characteristics on branches that were hard to replicate on a main line.’ The physical and visual traces of these lines are examples of historical geography. The rural atmosphere was a significant setting - the underlying pattern of traffic for livestock, fertiliser, lime and farm supplies, which has all changed with modern transport patterns, equipment and freight handling methods. This all supports the plea of local residents who consider the Windmill a landmark and symbol of the bygone era of rail travel.
In 2011 restoration work has once more begun on the Windmill with the Gore District Council working with community groups, including Rural Women NZ and the Community Trust of Southland as well as personal donations, to fund the project. The fan had been in storage for many years awaiting money and experienced restorers. The restoration work is being undertaken by the Croydon Aircraft Company, renowned for its work on vintage aircraft. The project is expected to take a couple of years as work is also needed on the pump and the windmill’s control mechanism and tower as well as on the water tank and stand. The whole project is expected to cost $60,000 over five stages. The restoration work has involved going back to the original Railroad Eclipse Windmill plans, and specifications rebuilding individual components and making intricate jigs to build replacement parts.
Railway windmills were built to a standard plan by Railways Department Acting Resident Engineer Daniel McIntosh (1860-1926) and draughtsman George Troup (1863-1941). The windmill was based on the Railroad Eclipse Windmill, an American design.
The Windmill and Water Tank are located on gently sloping land about forty metres from the road to Waikaka. Access to the site is easy. The surrounding land is farm land, with a background of rolling hills. The railway ran from McNab to Waikaka forming its own ‘micro landscape’ as Euan McQueen terms it; the branch line as an ‘unobtrusive and routine part of New Zealand’s rural landscape’, and a particularly important element in the South Island (and especially Canterbury and Southland) where there were many short branch lines. The alignment ran between the tank and the windmill (with a shed, now gone) also associated with the structures. The Willowbank depot, according to David Leitch and Brian Scott, is one of only a few remaining built structures associated with the Waikaka Branch Line that survive. The others include possible railway houses at Waikaka and yards and ramps.
The Water Tank stand is a timber structure built on concrete foundations. The bearers are hardwood, with cross bracing. The rectangular tank is timber. According to file information it is not currently capable of holding water, though there has been discussion about restoration to a condition where the windmill would operate to fill the tank. The tank is square in plan.
The Windmill is located above the well that was used to supply water to the trains. The tower has timber bearers with metal componentry. The bearers have horizontal and cross bracing to support the structure. The pump gear runs down the centre of tower structure.
The mechanical parts are the fan, main tail vane, secondary vane and control mechanism. The fan was made in eight sections, containing fourteen blades per section. These sections were bolted to eight wooden arms that radiated from a central hub. The fourteen blades in each fan section were nailed on to two girts in such a manner that permits the wind to slip off the face of the blades, thus turning the wheel. Apart from the hub and the brackets, all components of the wheel were wood. This made a full complement of 112 blades.
The Windmill tower is square in plan and tapers towards its apex. Four main timber legs are bolted to the hardwood base plates with cast iron knee braces, and form the corners of the tower to its apex. Three tiers of scissor braces to each side stabilise the tower. A slender pump rod runs down the centre of the tower from the crankshaft and wind wheel mechanism at the apex to the well head at ground level. A short ladder and maintenance platform are attached to the tower just below the clearance point of the 16 foot (4.8m) diameter sail.
The fan has been removed for restoration and is currently at the Croydon Aircraft Company’s workshop at Mandeville. The restoration project has involved considerable research on the materials and technologies relating to the original construction in order to reconstruct the broken parts of the Windmill. The original manuals and parts list from Fairbank and Morse, the manufacturers of the Railway Eclipse Windmill have been sourced from the United States.
Other comparable registrations include the Belgrove Railway Windmill (Record No. 244, Category I) and the Paekakariki Railway Yard Water Vats (Record No. 4705, Category I) both of which recognised the significance of the surviving built heritage of the steam engine era.
Original railway construction
Tank replaced with 2000 gallon tank
Waikaka Branch Line closed
Ministry of Works restoration project
Storm damage and fan removed for repair
Timber, cast iron
15th February 2012
Report Written By
Archives New Zealand (Dun)
Archives New Zealand (Dunedin)
DAAB/D453/20091/Box 147/f/6269 Water Services Willowbank, Archives New Zealand, Dunedin Regional Office
DABB/D453/20097/Box 27, Gore-Waikaka Railway, Archives New Zealand, Dunedin Regional Office.
E. McQueen, Rails in the Hinterland, New Zealand's Vanishing Railway Landscape. Grantham House, 2005
Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982
D Leitch and B. Scott, Exploring New Zealand's Ghost Railways Grantham House, 1998
J. N. W. Newport, ‘The Railway Windmill’ in Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 4, September 1978
A fully referenced report is available from the Southern Region office of NZHPT.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.