The story of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway began in 1864, with the discovery of coal in Kawakawa. A tramway was built four years later, using horses to get the coal to the Kawakawa River at Taumerere, nearly 4km away.
The old tram tracks – 4’8 ½” gauge –were soon replaced by the present rail line, and was the first railway line to be opened in the North Island, on 28th January, 1871. The link through to Opua was completed in 1884, and led to the development of Opua as a deep-sea port.
In 1899 a fire devastated Kawakawa, leaving few buildings remaining. At that stage around 1000 people lived there, mainly on the hillside around the town. After the fire, rebuilding took place alongside the tracks, and the layout of the present town was set. Few towns in the world have a main street with the railway line running down its centre, and this is certainly the only one in NZ. The present station was completed in 1911, and is a heritage listed building.
The Kawakawa Coal mine became one of the best producers of excellent coal in the country. But due to the mines flooding they were closed as a commercial venture in the early 1900’s. Local people used the mine until about 1920s when they were closed and sealed.
In 1919, the Hikurangi Dairy Company began processing cream collected from farmers living on the islands in the Bay of Islands. Launches took this cream to the railhead at Opua. This was the forerunner of the now world famous “Cream Trip”, which is still operated from Paihia today by Fullers.
The Bay of Islands Harbour Board was formed in 1920, and by 1921 the Auckland Farmers Freezing Works (AFFCO) came into production. The Opua wharf was extended to accommodate refrigerated cargo first sent to UK in 1924 from this port, and the road between Kawakawa and Opua was built during the 1940’s.
During the 1950’s Opua remained a busy port. Meat, butter, tallow, milk powder and by-products were exported through Opua. The ‘Farmers Port‘ at one stage held the New Zealand record for the fastest loading. However 1965 saw an amalgamation of Whangarei and Opua Harbor Boards, shipping declined and gradually ceased, leading to withdrawal of the New Zealand Railways Corporation services beyond Otiria, and thus the closure of the line from Kawakawa to Opua in 1985.
The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway was established in the late 1980’s to operate a scenic tourist railway between Kawakawa and Opua. At 11.5 km, it is one of the longest heritage railway lines in New Zealand, and contains 14 bridges and an 80-metre tunnel.
The railway initially performed well, but factionalism between several groups contributed to it becoming the first heritage railway to be shut down by the LTSA in 2000. Thankfully there are many supporters of the railway, who have been working very hard to get the Railway back on track. This was achieved in 2006.