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The History of Queenstown

Date: 23 February 2021

Ever wondered how Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world became the lively and booming adventure sports town that it now is? This blog will cover a brief overview of Queenstown’s rich history- from how Māori used the land, through to European settlers, the goldrush era and how Queenstown earned its name.

Māori Presence in Queenstown Before Settlers

Dating back to over 700 years ago, Māori chose not to settle in this area, but instead visit in the summer months. Using the transport of a vessel made from flax stems, Māori would visit the region to hunt for Moa and find pounamu (commonly known as greenstone). According to local kaumātua Darren Rewi, Queenstown was originally known as Tāhuna, coming from the prefix of Whaka, which means to do something, and Tipu, meaning to grow. It is said that this name comes from the original purpose of this land- they would forage in the area and also plant cabbage trees along the routes they ventured, planning to return to harvest in the following summer.

First European Settlers in Queenstown

In 1853, Scottish-born settler, Nathan Chalmers became the first Pākehā to see Lake Wakatipu. Guided by Reko, a Māori chief from Tuturau, in exchange for a three-legged pot. Stories from this journey recall events such as canoeing rivers and speeding through the Cromwell Gorge on a raft made of flax stems. Chalmers became weak throughout the trip, with Reko and another on the trip having to make a flax raft for the rivers to return him home safely and never visited again. However, his stories left a path of interest for many settlers.

Three years after, John Chubbin, John Morrison and Malcolm Macfarlane were guided by Reko to Lake Wakatipu and were the first settlers to stand on the shore. However, Morrison lit his pipe as he gazed at the lake and set alight the area now known as Kingston from throwing his match. All survived by standing in the lake with their horses until the flame stopped.

A few years later after Chalmer’s rafting adventure, around 1860, the first Europeans settled in the area beside Lake Wakatipu, now known as Queenstown. The settlers, William Rees (born in the UK) and Nicholas von Tunzelmann (a Russian man), settled on Lake Wakatipu shores- Rees settled where we know Queenstown’s township to be, and Tunzelmann across the lake at Fern Hill.

Lake Wakatipu from above

Goldrush Era of Queenstown

After two years of settlers farming around Lake Wakatipu, the goldrush era began around 1862. Rees’ farmhands originally found gold in the area, starting the gold rush in the region. This brought in many people into the area, which enticed Rees to demolish his woolshed and replace it with the Queen’s Arms Hotel (bought in 1869 by ex-Prussian Guard who renamed it Hotel Eichardt after himself). This hotel was stayed in by thousands of miners, traders, and wagons who visited Queenstown for its gold. This hotel was rebuilt in 1871 and stands as a hotel to this day on the shores of the main township.

The West Coast Gold Rush started around 1864, so many miners left Queenstown to follow the gold and by 1869 Chinese miners were invited to fill the vacancy of miners in the area which we now call Arrowtown - The Chinese Settlement still stands in its location and is now a popular historical site in the area.

Queenstown from Gold Rush Era to Present

Around this time, between 1866-1867, merchant Bendix Hallenstein gifted the Queenstown Penisula to the town. Since then, public gardens and sports facilities have been added in this area to create the shore of Queenstown which we know and love today. The name Queenstown was chosen in 1863 at a public meeting. Although not certain, it is assumed that the name was chosen due to the miners being of Irish origin, as Queen Victoria had bestowed the name Queenstown to a small settlement in County Cork named The Cove.

Roads began to appear around Queenstown in the 1930’s - before these were constructed, the main transport route from Queenstown was by rivers. New Zealand’s first commercial ski area was then developed in Queenstown in 1947, at what we still know to this day as Coronet Peak. Queenstown also began to offer the world’s first jet-powered navigation boat in 1958 near Kawarau Falls and a commercial Bungy jump operation from the Kawarau Bridge in November 1988. These extreme sports pathed the way for how we all know Queenstown today as the Adventure Capital of the World.

There are plenty of areas around Queenstown rich in history to explore. With so many great things to explore around Queenstown, it’ll be easy for you to fill in your next holiday with history and adventure. Don’t forget to tag us in your Instagram posts with #RealJourneys for a chance to be featured!


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