Little River Railway Station Complex

State Highway 75, Christchurch To Akaroa Road, Little River

  • Little River Railway Station Complex.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: P. Wilson. Date: 1/12/2005.
  • Little River Railway Station Complex. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Taken By: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Date: 5/07/2014.
  • Little River Railway Station Complex. Goods Shed (1886), loading bank and gangers’ shed. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Julien Diot. Taken By: Julien Diot – juliendiotworldtour. Date: 25/02/2014.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7681 Date Entered 29th September 2006


Extent of List Entry

Registration includes part of the land in Certificate of Title CB37B/86 Canterbury Land District and the Station building (including its platform and verandah), Goods Shed (1886), loading bay, and the Gangers' Shed, their fixtures and fittings thereon. (See Map 3 Extent of Registration in Appendix 3 of the Registration report).

City/District Council

Christchurch City


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 18 Town of Little River (CT CB37B/86), Canterbury Land District.


The Little River Railway Station (1886) is one of the oldest surviving station buildings and is a rare example of the diminishing number of branch line railway termini in New Zealand. The adjacent goods shed of the same date adds to the place's significance. Today, as well as being a valuable community asset and tourist attraction, the historic building and environs is also symbolic of an important era in Banks Peninsula's economic, political and social history.

During the nineteenth century, the arrival of the railway revolutionised the district's timber milling and farming industries. The train was a breakthrough in transport and provided a much-needed alternative to the tedious and often dangerous ride by coach. Little River thrived as it became the gateway to Banks Peninsula.

The simple rectangular-plan building was constructed in 1886 in a prominent location on Little River's main street. In style, it is one of a small group of "Vogel period gable stations" and it is also one of the oldest surviving railway stations in New Zealand. Its construction coincided with the completion of the Lincoln-Little River branch line. It was built to a standard plan designed to meet the current requirements for a basic, practical facility. The former station is now a rare survivor of those built during the early years following Vogel's Public Works Scheme in the1870s, which encouraged the development of the New Zealand rail network.

When the branch line closed in 1962 the station was used as the Wairewa District Council's Service Centre. Today it has a new use as the headquarters and shop of the Little River Craft Co-operative whose members assist in operating the Information Centre, the joint occupant of the building. Passers-by and visitors readily recognise the building as the town's former railway station because of the way it is presented and the sympathetically designed modifications that have been made to allow its new use.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The former Little River Railway Station has historical significance. The completion of this branch line and station in 1886 was a key step in the development of the rail network which made tremendous progress throughout New Zealand at that time because of the financial impetus given by Vogel's Public Works Scheme in 1870.

The building of the branch rail line between Lincoln and Little River had enormous impact on Banks Peninsula's economic, political and social history. Although the line has closed, the station remains as a physical reminder of the important role the railway played in this area. It is also one of the oldest buildings remaining in Little River.

With the downturn in both passenger and changes in freight traffic flows many of the building associated with the New Zealand rail network have been demolished. Stations remaining on their original sites have considerable historical significance. The Little River Station is one of only nine branch terminus stations that have survived and of this group it is the oldest. It is also one of the oldest surviving railway stations in New Zealand.

The Little River Railway Station has architectural values as a rare surviving example of the Vogel era gable stations designed in the early years of rail construction. (Of the four remaining stations built in this category of Vogel era designs only the station at Carterton (1879) is older.) It was important that these stations be built quickly and economically to meet the country-wide needs, so standard plans were prepared which allowed for individual adaptation yet used standard components which could be quickly and economically produced. Skilled and efficient Public Works Department architects designed station buildings which were practical in plan and handsome in appearance, giving status to the New Zealand rail network.

Because of the scale, style and form of the single storeyed station it has a strong presence in the Little River streetscape. Minor changes that have been made to the road façade in recent times have not detracted from the building's appearance and it remains instantly recognisable as a vintage railway station.

The station represents the invigoration of the Little River community brought about in the 1880s by the coming of the railway and the more convenient linkage to Akaroa, Christchurch and Canterbury generally. It was an important meeting and gathering place, as were all stations throughout New Zealand when the rail network was constantly used for passenger and freight transport. It was also a key point for social interaction among local people who regularly visited the post and telegraph office. It became a social focus of the area, rivaling the local hotel.

The railway station has a popular local crafts shop, an information centre and a community room displaying historic local photographs and memorabilia. It represents the team spirit of a small community that has recaptured the vitality of yesteryear by restoring, maintaining and utilising the complex since the last train departed.

In 1990, Gordon Ogilvie, in his book Banks Peninsula - the Cradle of Canterbury, wrote: Road transport was swifter and more efficient, no doubt; but the train and all the activity at the station terminus had, for nearly 80 years, given the town much of its vitality and business. In a sense, the town died along with its train.

This is less true today because of the current usage of the station with the quality public toilets often serving as the initial attraction to passing traffic. The station and the neighbouring well patronised country style store, gallery and café have contributed to the community's current vigour and sustained social cohesion.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The station represents the important place of the rail transport network in Little River's and Banks Peninsula's history. From 1886, rail ensured transport for both freight and passengers that was faster and cheaper than had been possible by road or sea in the early pioneering days. The coming of the rail link made Little River the hub of Banks Peninsula. It greatly assisted the economic development of both the immediate area and the outer bays of Banks Peninsula. The traditional colour scheme in which the station will shortly be painted and the formation of the proposed cycle trail along the track of the branch line will enhance and consolidate the existing heritage values of the building.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

Little River residents have recognised the value of the town's rail connection from the time it was completed. Since the branch line's closure in 1962 the station has represented to the community this significant feature of their past which continues to be held in high esteem. When the Wairewa County vacated the property in 1987 there was concern that the building may not be retained. The community as a whole supported the initiative of the Little River Craft Co-operative which negotiated with the Banks Peninsula Council to lease the station for a shop. The local people's high regard for the building was demonstrated further when they formed the Little River Railway Station Trust in 1993. The Trust's objective was to restore the building and ensure its long term maintenance and conservation. Residents have daily involvement with the craft shop and information centre and use the building for community meetings.This station represents the team spirit of a small community that has recaptured the vitality of yesteryear by restoring, maintaining and utilising the complex since the last train ran.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

When the co-operative first leased the building they began displaying photos, example of railway artifacts and memorabilia. The collection grew along with the concept of creating a small "museum" where locals and passing visitors might learn about the area's past and the contribution made by the railway. Rather less space is currently available for these displays because of the recent focus given to the information centre. The Trust is working towards developing this as a major feature of the building, realising the station's potential as a place for public education.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Little River Railway Station is a rare example of what the Rail Heritage Trust has designated as a Vogel Period Gable Station, built following the introduction of the Public Works Scheme in 1870. Strong endeavours are being made nationwide to preserve increasingly rare surviving railway station of all sizes and ages. This example has particular values as one of the nine remaining branch line railway terminus stations in New Zealand and there are also only nine stations, of varied styles and sizes, which have an earlier date.

Summary of Significance

The Little River Railway Station merits registration as a Category II (two) historic place. It has historic, social and architectural values and is of special significance to the region of Banks Peninsula and Canterbury. It is one of the increasingly rare older Vogel era stations and its planning and style is representative of the stations built during the 1880s. The provision of a branch line connection between the outer sections of Banks Peninsula to Christchurch and beyond had a great economic impact on Little River township and the surrounding areas, encouraging closer settlement and development. Because of its frequent usage the railway station and the telegraph office were a hub of social interaction. Today the local community fully appreciates the heritage values of the building which they hold in high esteem.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Swanstron, A

Of Christchurch.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The Little River Railway Station (1886) is one of the few remaining branch line railway termini in New Zealand. During the nineteenth century, the arrival of the railway revolutionised the district's timber milling and farming industries. The train was a breakthrough in transport and also provided a much-needed alternative to the tedious and often dangerous ride by coach. The township of Little River, at the head of Lake Forsythe on the western side of the peninsula, thrived as it became the gateway to Banks Peninsula. Today, as well as being a valuable community asset and tourist attraction, the historic building and environs are also symbolic of an important era in Banks Peninsula's economic, political and social history. In pre-European times, Little River was important as a communication and trading centre, with several Maori settlements in and around this area. The site of the future township was also on the track used by early Akaroa settlers travelling to the Canterbury plains and in 1858 a bridle path was opened for horse traffic.

Sawmills were the first European industry established in the district. Transport became an issue immediately. In 1863 settler William White recognised the potential for milling timber in this locality and established a mill. His first task was the provision of timber to build a tramway to improve transport of the mill's output. The tramway began with two short stretches, the first from the mill to Lake Forsyth where timber was punted or rafted to Birdlings Flat, the second to Lake Ellesmere for water transportation to the western side of the lake by various means including White's small steamer. Distribution continued further south by bullock wagon and later by rail once the branch line from Christchurch to Southbridge was constructed. The tramway continued from Birdlings Flat towards Christchurch but because of swampy terrain it ceased some eleven kilometres distant and the timber was transferred to bullock wagon. In early years the high price of timber in Christchurch was largely due to the high cost of transport.

The Canterbury Provincial Government made the provision of a rail transport system an early goal. They recognised the need for a link from Christchurch and the Canterbury Plains to the port at Lyttelton. By 1863 there was a rail link between Christchurch and the Ferrymead Wharf (the first public railway in New Zealand); by 1867 a tunnel was constructed through the Port Hills. Work then began on development of the rail link extending to the Waitaki River, Canterbury's southern boundary, with the formal turning of the first sod at Christchurch on 24 May 1865. By 1878 the link from Christchurch to Dunedin was complete, and further rail expansion had been encouraged and supported by Vogel's 1870 Public Works Scheme.

From Hornby, on the outskirts of Christchurch, a branch line to Lincoln and then to Southbridge was completed in 1875. In 1874 a Mr Greenwood had suggested to Mr W. Montgomery, the local Member of Parliament, that Banks Peninsula 'was badly in want of a railway'. An era of relentless political debate followed about a route and destination. Although there was talk of a possible tunnel to take a line beyond Little River, the central issue was how far the branch line from Lincoln should extend and whether the people of Akaroa would ever enjoy the luxury of having their own station. Unfortunately, they never did get the train to their door and so began an historic rivalry between Little River and Akaroa that, in a sense, still exists today.

There was also argument about the best position for the railway station. The people from Akaroa and the various bays wanted the station at the base of the Coach Road in nearby Cooptown, to shorten the other half of their long journey by coach, whereas Little River residents wanted the station in the middle of their town. The second option was more compatible with the government's budget and the Little River residents got their way. The station, goods shed and station master's residence were designed by the Public Works Department circa 1884. A tender for the formation of the permanent way and station buildings was accepted in May 1885 from A. Swanston of Christchurch at a cost of £13,488.

The route between Lincoln and Little River skirted flood prone Lakes Ellesmere and Forsyth, and travelled over swampy ground. By 1882 work had been completed as far as Birdlings Flat and the line reached Little River in 1886, opening on 16 March. The total cost for construction over this difficult route was £85,929. By December 1885 when the station buildings were almost complete, a correspondent for the Akaroa Mail reported that:

I was quite overwhelmed with the grandeur of the appearance of the new station buildings. They struck me as more suitable for Oamaru or Timaru than for an ordinary way-side station. They are said to be the best out of Christchurch itself, and certainly if one can judge them, in there present unfinished condition, they are altogether 'too big for their boots'. The amount of filling and levelling is also enormous, and all residents from this (Akaroa) side can say when they look on them is 'what a pity the greater part of it was not spent on bringing the line nearer to Akaroa'. In saying this, I do not in the least begrudge Little River its beautiful station, telegraph office, station master's house and engine shed, but I think that Little River might have been more benefited had they had less pretentious buildings and a part of the present long journey saved to Akaroa.

The Little River Station is a standard 'Vogel Period Gable Station' characterised by the gable roof form, the use of similar joinery components to ensure economic production and little architectural detailing. These stations were planned to provide the facilities required in the 1880s and were prepared by the Public Works Department. The Little River example included a public office as well as a large post and telegraph and railway office, the ticketing lobby and waiting room and a separate ladies' waiting room. There was internal access between the various rooms and each one opened directly onto the platform. The building was officially completed and together with the railway line, was passed by the Government Engineer on 11 March 1886. On 16 March the Akaroa Mail reported that:

The extension to Little River opens today. There is to be no celebration of the event whatever and, as our readers know, the first public intimation given to the country appears in today's issue - very short shrift indeed. We presume from this that the railway authorities in general and the present traffic manager in particular look upon the opening of this additional piece of line as a gloomy and untoward event, to be passed over in funereal silence. Such, in our opinion is not the way in which an extension of one of the best paying branch lines in the colony should have been declared open for public traffic.

Regardless of the 'Railway Wars' the opening of the branch line was undeniably a notable milestone for the entire region, especially for the township of Little River. In its first year of operation 935,450 super-feet of timber and 2,445 tons of firewood were railed to Christchurch. There was also a substantial quantity of other freight including wool, livestock and general merchandise and 4,906 passenger tickets were issued at Little River. Coaches carried passengers and mail between Akaroa and Little River and the station was a busy transfer point. As Christchurch was being built largely from the peninsula's timber supplies the easier access to the Christchurch market resulted in a new era of prosperity for both Little River and the city. Little River also became a popular destination for picnic excursion trains which brought large crowds of passengers through the station.

By the turn of the century the timber supplies on the peninsula were exhausted. Cocksfoot was grown extensively on the cleared land and a substantial seed cleaning plant was sited at Little River during the heyday of this important Banks Peninsula industry. Dairy, sheep and cattle farming soon became the mainstays of commercial activity. As the roads improved coaches were gradually phased out and were replaced by cars and trucks. A public lobby for the Post Office was added in 1914 and this remains today, though the post and telegraph operations moved to a purpose built Post Office opposite the store in 1928. As road transport became increasingly popular however, the use of the railway inevitably declined. To overcome this decline a unique service was introduced here in 1927 with the provision of an Edison battery-electric railcar which travelled to and from Christchurch twice daily. Cleaner, faster and more comfortable than the combined freight/passenger steam trains it could make the journey to Christchurch in 69 minutes. The rail car was destroyed by fire in 1934 and was not replaced.

For a time, after World War II, it seemed that the Little River rail line would keep up its momentum, but falling patronage and shortage of locomotive coal led to the passenger service ending on 12 April 1951. New Zealand Railway Road Services had also been running daily services between Christchurch and Akaroa and they now took over, carrying passengers mail and parcels. The Little River Station was their depot for the link to Akaroa and other parts of the peninsula.

The line continued to be used for transporting livestock and other freight until its total closure in 1962. Like many other branch lines around New Zealand, the Little River line has not endured to the present day and lasted only 76 years. This was a short period considering the amount of debate and resources that went into its planning and construction. A special excursion train on 30 April 1962 marked the final use for passenger traffic. Packed aboard were 228 Banks Peninsula school children and 272 adults. The trip was treated as an educational excursion for eight peninsula schools, which were closed for the occasion. The last freight train followed on 30 June 1962 and marked the formal closure of the branch line to commercial traffic. The railway tracks were uplifted in 1964.

The Wairewa Council acquired the railway complex in 1965 and used the railway building as a local service centre until September 1987. In December 1988 a group of Little River residents formed the local craft co-operative, renting part of the building from the council for a craft shop. Once again, life at the railway station began to flourish. The building was in a state of disrepair and in danger of being demolished by the council, so a concerned member of the craft co-operative, Jen Farge, decided to take action. The Little River Railway Station Trust was formed on 4 March 1993 with the objective of restoring, maintaining and protecting the old railway complex. Public funding grants were obtained to the tune of around $120,000. With the help of several dedicated local volunteers the railway building restoration project began that year and has continued, with some general maintenance funded by the Council. An authentic heritage rail colour scheme has been prepared for the building's re-painting in 2006.

Also scheduled for completion in mid 2006 is the formation of a cycle trail along part of the branch line's original route from Motukarara to Little River. Most of the former rail land is now managed by the Department of Conservation, but a final section close to the station is in private ownership and, though there are uncertainties as to precisely where in Little River the trail will end, its use will bring greater attention to the well presented station complex.

Physical Description

Little River township is located on the western side of Banks Peninsula. It is in the valley where the Okana and Okuti Rivers flow into Lake Forsyth near Kaitorete Spit, the seaward boundary of Lake Ellesmere. Today the settlement stretches out sparsely over some three kilometres along the main road to Akaroa in the valley running up into the hills. The valley's sides, which form the background to the station, were once densely covered in native bush. They are now pastureland with remnants of bush, re-growth or pine plantations in some of the gullies.

The station complex is near the centre of the small township with the general store and garage on either side nearby, and the Post Office almost directly across the road. The majority of well spaced buildings are on the flat land in the valley centre, with a few residences on the lower slopes. The station itself has a spacious setting with public car parking along the road frontage and on either side. A number of introduced trees in the immediate vicinity enhance the rural nature of the environs.

The station is a single storey, single gable building. It is rectangular in shape and is constructed of timber with weather board cladding and a corrugated iron roof. The long main frontage of the station features the entrance way under a central section of verandah supported on plain timber posts. The original symmetry of this façade was slightly altered by the addition of the Post Office lobby at the eastern end in 1914 and recently further changes have been made to the openings. Now two double doors open in to the building's central area and the toilet entrance replaces the sash window which once lit the foyer of the ladies' toilets near the western end. The eastern gabled end has had two double paned sash windows reinstated as replacement for a single, larger window inserted c.1960. These exactly match the other original windows around the building. A circular ventilator in the eastern gable provides a minor decorative detail. At the western end a new door sheltered by a small porch has been inserted to provide external access to the men's toilets.

The angle of both verandahs continues the slope of the pitched roof, with the platform canopy extending to provide a wider coverage of 4.3 metres. It is supported on iron posts topped with decorative brackets which are the most significant ornamental element of this building's design. Along the platform frontage the façade retains most of its original form with seven single double-paned sash windows interspersed by five four-paneled doors. At the platform's eastern end is the roughcast clad metal security safe accessed from the building's interior. It dates from the occupation of the Wairewa Council.

Outside the railway building on the roadside frontage, a newly paved area has been created. Two large whaling pots from the old Peraki Whaling Station are now placed there along with seating and two flower beds to enhance the entrance to the building. Railway tracks were relaid beside the platform to accommodate an old guard's van and other wagons which along with some further items of railway memorabilia add to the historic atmosphere of the complex.

Across the line from the station the original goods shed and loading bank remain. Like the station it was completed in 1886 from a standard plan prepared by the Public Works Department . It is an example of numerous railway sheds that were built around the country with its rectangular form, corrugated iron covered pitched roof and weather board cladding. Sited on poorly drained ground it now has rotting foundations and is in need of maintenance. Long gone are the original station master's house, stockyards and engine shed.

Two pair of doors open to the station's interior which now has an open plan appearance through the removal, or partial removal, of some of the earlier partitions. There is a larger central space where the lobby and ticket office and waiting room were located. The Information Centre's desk is located centrally against the front wall and the remainder of the space is used to display information brochures and craft items. At the western side the wall which separated the ladies' waiting room from the general one remains, while just part of the eastern partition with the small railway ticket window has been retained. A representative fireplace has been installed as replacement for the one where passengers were able to warm themselves in the general waiting room. A local firm donated a stained glass window panel which is installed over a wide central opening in the partition at the east end. There is internal access to what was the lobby for the Post Office and some of the Little River Railway Station Trust's collection of historic items and photos are displayed here.

The area which was once the ladies' waiting room was reduced to accommodate the public toilet facilities. A small kitchen has been installed here.

Comparison: The Rail Heritage Trust of New Zealand has assessed and categorised the surviving station buildings throughout the country. The Little River Station has been put into a group of larger sized stations named 'Vogel Period Gable Stations'. They were simple, timber structures with little ornamentation. Included in this group are the examples at Greymouth , Carterton and Middlemarch. In the opinion of the Rail Heritage Trust the Little River station is 'a fine chronicle of the typical changes that a New Zealand Station can undergo'..[it] remains an important and rare example of a Vogel gable station.

No similar assessment has been made of surviving goods sheds. Once found in great numbers at both large and small stations they too are becoming rare. It is of particular note however that both the station and the goods shed have remained here together on their original site.

Notable Features

Railway Station (1885); Railway Goods Shed (1886); Gangers' Shed (relocated from further down the branch line has been relocated beside the Goods Shed); Some rail structures and rolling stock have been placed on the site. Two short sections of rail track have been re-instated, one alongside the platform and the other giving access into the goods shed. On the rails adjacent to the platform sits a guard's van, coal wagon and two flat deck wagons. Many other smaller items of railway memorabilia, like a hand luggage trolley, have been collected and displayed to enhance the historic character of the building.

Construction Dates

1885 -

Original Construction
1885 - 1886
Opened 16 March 1886; Goods shed also completed this year.

1914 -
Post Office public lobby and boxes added to north end. Verandah extended.

1964 -
Line closed and rail tracks uplifted.

1965 - 1978
Two sash windows replaced; walk-in safe installed on east end.

1993 -
repair work carried out. External entrance door to the toilets added; kitchen facilities added to ladies waiting room; toilet block extended and upgraded.

Construction Details

Corrugated iron roof, weatherboard cladding and timber framing for both the station and shed, timber floors and joinery in the station.

Completion Date

11th April 2006

Report Written By

Pam Wilson

Information Sources

Churchman, 1990

Geoffrey B. Churchman and Tony Hurst, 'The Railways of New Zealand, a journey through history', Auckland, 1990

Willis, 2003

H. Willis and M. Mules, The Little River Railway Station, Project report for University of Canterbury Department of Civil Engineering, June, 2003

Mahoney, 1987

J. D. Mahoney, Down at the Station: A Study of the New Zealand Railway Station, Palmerston North, 1987

McQueen, 2005

E. McQueen, Rails in the Hinterland, New Zealand's Vanishing Railway Landscape. Grantham House, 2005

Ogilvie, 1990

G. Ogilvie, Banks Peninsula; the Cradle of Canterbury, GP Books, 1990

Ogilvie, 1992

G. Ogilvie, Picturing the Peninsula, Hazard Press Ltd, 1992

Other Information

A fully referenced version of the registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.

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.