Through the tunnel on a jigger
September 03, 2023 | Stories

By Rosemary Baird

Our Outreach Advisor Rosemary Baird shares her experience of collecting oral history memories at the Ōtira Tunnel Centenary celebrations.

Rosemary Baird and Robyn Burgess, rugged up against the winter cold (courtesy of Robyn Burgess)

On Friday 4 August my colleague, Robyn Burgess, and I left Christchurch early to take part in the events celebrating 100 years since the opening of the Ōtira Tunnel. Our frantic checking of weather forecasts proved to be unnecessary as the sun shone down on the snowy landscape. 

Our role was gathering oral histories from the attendees, which we did in partnership with Selwyn Libraries. I recorded the oral histories in Selwyn Libraries’ solar-powered Edge Connector van. Robyn helped prospective interviewees fill out consent forms and schedule times in the marquee. Next to her, the Selwyn library staff were kept busy scanning historic photos and documents.

I had been slightly concerned as to whether we’d have many people interested in sharing their memories, but my worries were unfounded. I interviewed steadily for over four hours and completed 12 interviews ranging from five to 30 minutes.

I love oral history and it was an absolute adrenaline rush to do so many interviews in a row, with not much warning of what the interviewees would speak about. There were some great family history recollections of grandparents who had worked on the Ōtira Tunnel. One particularly fun tall tale involved tunnellers secretly breaking through from both sides and exchanging a packet of cigarettes, before covering up the hole before the official ‘hole through’ by the VIPs. 

Some of my favourite stories were from people who grew up in Ōtira and Arthur’s Pass in the 1950s and '60s. The central role of the train in commerce, transport and social connections was clear.  

Rosemary helping interviewees with lapel mics (courtesy of Robyn Burgess)

Many of the interviewees remembered as children catching a ride through the Ōtira Tunnel in a jigger (a small railcar than runs on rail tracks) or exploring the tunnel with siblings after a train had gone through. There were also memories of swapping a family cat for chocolate with a soldier on a troop train, swimming in the heated Ōtira swimming pool, helping shovel coal for the trains, and catching early morning trains for a day out in Christchurch or Greymouth. 

All the interviews have been passed on to the Hokitika Museum, Selwyn District Libraries and Centenary committee, where they can be accessed and used in years to come. 

Robyn and I felt grateful that we were able to support all the incredible work of the Ōtira Tunnel Centenary organising committee with a practical contribution. Oral histories only become more valuable with time, as memories fade, and people with lived experience pass on. Maybe these oral histories will inform the 150th Ōtira Tunnel celebrations! 

Ōtira Tunnel
Baird, Rosemary (author)

Rosemary Baird | Outreach Advisor
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