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The Locomotive Builders


Home | Price | Davidson | Dispatch | Gibbons | Johnston | McGregor | Owners | Oddities | Links


A & G Price Ltd., Thames

Alfred and George Price set up business as engineers at Onehunga, Auckland in 1868. Their first efforts were directed toward flax stripping machinery and soon built up a good business. The Thames goldfields provided a demand for boilers, crushers and steam engines so the Price brothers decided to set up an ironworks at Thames. By 1871 the foundry was established, while the Onehunga works continued for another three years.

Prices first railway contract was to build rolling stock for the Public Works Department and the Onehunga plant turned out 10 carriages and 12 wagons before closing at the end of the contract. The new works at Thames produced boilers for the Thames and Waihi goldfields and soon a range of products for the Coromandel timber industry - steam haulers, winches, timber jacks, saw-benches and eventually logging locomotives.

1885 saw the works build their first small steam locomotive, a four-wheel type with horizontal cylinders driving the axles through a gear train. This was constructed for a gold mining company at Mt. Te Aroha and after the mining venture collapsed, the lokey went off to a timber operation at Kennedy Bay, Coromandel. This was the first locomotive in what was to be a long history of locomotive manufacture for railways. Between 1904 and 1929 a total of 123 steam locomotives were constructed for the New Zealand Railways and a further 22 for the timber industry. The last steam locomotive, however, was the Type V built in 1943 for Ogilvies at Gladstone on the West Coast.

From 1924 to 1972 Price's also constructed miscellaneous petrol, diesel and battery-electric locomotives totalling 37 of which 8 initially went to timber tramways. Then followed the second generation diesels from 1956 to 1969, 54 in all, most of which went to the NZR as shunting locomotives while only four went into the timber scene. The last new locomotive left the Thames works in 1969.

The total of 236 railway locomotives was a very commendable effort for a New Zealand company. In addition they overhauled both steam and diesel locomotives and also built five rail vehicles for bush tramways, often called 'jiggers' and primarily designed to convey workmen to and from the bush.

For their bush tramway locomotives, Price's were no doubt influenced by American practice where the Climax 'A' provided the inspiration for Price's Class 'C' series and the Climax 'B' formed the basis for the Price 'E'. Finally the Price 'V' may have been prompted by the vee-cylinder Heisler.

Of the 22 steam locomotives built for the logging scene, seven still survive in various states of decay or preservation and an additional two - Cb 113 at Ferrymead and V 149 at Canterbury Steam Preservation Society - are still operating with a full head of steam.

In 1949 Prices merged with William Cable & Co. of Wellington, but retained their identity and in 1954 Cable-Price merged with the civil engineering company of Downer & Co. forming the Cable, Price, Downer Group.

Prices are still in Thames, although no longer having a rail connection to the works. Recently they refurbished the old stainless steel carriages ex-NZR Silver Star express, these being exported to Malaysia where they became the luxurious Eastern Oriental Express.



G & D Davidson & Co., Hokitika

In 1865 George Davidson started the Hokitika foundry at Revell Street undertaking all type of engineering repairs. A year later the business was shifted to Bealey Street. Later, sawmill plants, including patented geared log haulers were built. On the death of the founder in 1897, his two sons, George and Duncan took over the firm.

The firm undertook all types of foundry and engineering work but specialised in the needs of the mining and sawmilling industries. About 1907 Davidsons entered the locomotive field and constructed a sprocket-and-chain geared engine for Stuart and Chapman's sawmill at Seddon Terrace, near Hokitika. The success of this locomotive encouraged the firm to construct others.

Unfortunately, definite records were not kept; nor were builder's nembers allocated. Therefore it has been difficult to accurately list all of Davidsons locomotives.

Davidsons' foundry was some distance from the Hokitika railway station and was not connected by a siding. To take a locomotive to the railway for delivery, it was the practice to put in steam, place a few sections of track on the road, drive the loco to the end of the rails, lift those behind it and transfer them to the front, and so on. It was slow and laborious but it got the loco to the railway.

Most boilers for Davidsons locomotives were purchased second-hand from New Zealand Railways, having been taken from 'D' and 'F' class locomotives when they were re-boilered. A few new boilers were built by Dispatch Foundry at Greymouth. The steel rail wheels and the helical gear wheels were purchased elsewhere but the majority of work was carried out by Davidsons.

The two outside cylinders drove a crankshaft sited about half way between the bogies. Helical reduction gears engaged a main countershaft from which the drive to the bogies was by means of a patented roller chain. Slack was present in the length of the chain to permit full movement of the bogies when negotiating sharp curves. So that misalignment could be accepted, the chain sprocket wheels were double flanged with the chain running between the flanges and teeth protruding from the bottom of the groove meshed with every second link of the chain.

Of the first three locomotives, one was delivered in 1908 to the Marlborough Timber Co. at Opouri in the Marlborough Sounds, the other two going to Stratford Blair & Co. for their Paroa and Snowy River operations. These locomotives were not fitted with tenders and had to carry all supplies on board. Water was carried in wooden casks of various sizes stored on the cab floor. The Marlborough engine had a proper water tank fitted under the boiler barrel. All locomotives were wood fired.

A total of twenty-seven geared steam locomotives are thought to have been made by Davidson's and only one now exists. It is on display at Mawhera Reserve near Ngahere, Westland.



Dispatch Foundry Co. Greymouth

Founded 1873 by William Rae and John Sewell serving the sawmilling industry.

The foundry got its name from a small but powerful paddle wheel tug Dispatch that arrived in Greymouth to the order of a local company in 1869. The engineer who brought the newly built tug out from England was John Sewell, a native of Scotland, and an engineer of considerable ability. Sewell decided he liked the town and accepted the position as permanent engineer to the tug. His job on the Dispatch, however, did not always involve long hours and it was not long before Sewell was working at his trade in a shed in the backyard of his home in Mount Street.

Mr. A.B. Hughes, a pattermaker and friend of Sewell, arrived in Greymouth the following year and with the assistance of William Rae, who held the leasehold of the land chosen as the site for the foundry, the venture began.

Quartz mining booms in the Reefton area gave the little foundry great impetus and by 1875, Rae and Sewell found the necessary expansion was beyond their means. The result was the founding of the Dispatch Foundry Company Ltd., with a capital of 10,000 pounds. In 1875, one of the founders of the company, William Rae, and his partner John Sewell realised that their own capital was insufficient to carry out necessary expansion to cope with an ever-increasing demand. The company was duly formed with all the capital being called up within 12 months. The final call of 5shillings a share was made on June 1, 1876.

The company operated the major West Coast engineering workshops and built a solid reputation. They had a dominant presence in meeting the engineering requirements of the West Coast sawmilling industry, building log haulers, bush tram equipment, and sawmill machinery. In particular, their steam haulers were well-designed robust machines with a sound reputation. As recently as the 1980s the company remained the foremost manufacturer of log haulers.

From the turn of the century a large market for geared bush lokeys developed on the West Coast. Dispatch failed to meet this challenge. The geared bogie designs they sold to the market were mechanical disasters, with short service lives. Competitors from Hokitika, Invercargill, Thames and overseas, were able to eat into this market. Not only did competitors beat Dispatch to new sales, but they also sold lokeys to replace unsatisfactory Dispatch products. This experience must have been a great embarrassment to the company and damaged its reputation. Subsequently Dispatch recovered from this debacle and developed a rail tractor design of such excellence that other manufacturers were unable to compete on the West Coast.

Just which was the first lokey Dispatch were involved in is the subject of some debate; it was more likely a process of evolution. One claimant is the Ngahere Sawmilling Company, as reported in the Grey River Argus in March 1907.

"An important innovation has been introduced which gives promise of effecting a great revolution in sawmilling operations on the West Coast, the innovation referred to is due to the realisation of certain ideas conceived by Mr. Chas Uddstrom of the company mentioned and consists of the conversion of a Dispatch Foundry Company's log hauler into a locomotive capable of running on wooden rails."

The new lokey made a demonstration run on a wet Saturday but hauled a disappointing load of only 4000 super feet of timber in the slippery conditions. Uddstrom tried to rescue the situation by telling the press he estimated it would haul 10,000 super feet on dry rails. We have no further report, but the lokey did work for at least another four years. Dispatch seems to have adopted and developed the Uddstrom concept in subsequent lokeys they built.

It is likely Dispatch were involved in building earlier bush lokeys for Stratford & Blair at Kaimata in 1904 and Patara in 1905. The Patara lokey was a very unusual looking beast fitted with a Dispatch boiler and a winch, which it wound itself along a very steep tram with a cable laid between the tracks. The cable was gripped with a few turns around the winch drum and was then laid down again. The annual operating costs of this lokey peaked as a result of two expensive misfortunes. In 1912 the driver allowed the water level in the boiler to sink too low, damaging the firebox, which had to be replaced. Then just a year later in 1913 it fell through a tram bridge and landed upside down in the Arnold River in a well-publicised accident that provided good photo opportunities. Such a major mid-life crisis failed to curtail the successful career of this oddity, which saw 20 years of service.

The first Dispatch rail tractor, powered by a Ford engine, was a four-wheel motor jigger to transport workers to the bush, around 1915. In 1925, a Trails tractor was sold to Watson at Kumara and demonstrated to local sawmillers. It was such a success that five more were immediately ordered, much to the alarm of Dispatch. As a counter, Dispatch produced its first rail tractor to a design that was a derivative of their unpopular geared steam lokeys. It was conceived by their draftsman Gordon Webb and referred to by the company as "G.Webb's Fordson loco".

The Webb design had significant transmission weaknesses and Dispatch soon developed an improved rail tractor to a design of their own. Production of these rail tractors ran right through into the 1950s, the total output, including the Webb type, may have been as high as 60. Some of these tractors remained in service into the 1960s with the very last Dispatch tractor shunting NZR wagons in a sawmill yard at Ruatapu until 1980. Unfortunately, Dispatch Engineering kept no makers records for their locomotives.

Dispatch Foundry still operates at Greymouth as Dispatch & Garlick Ltd., still at the original site in Lord Street.


Gibbons & Harris, Auckland

R.P. Gibbons, a Northland contractor and sawmiller, was a brother to the Auckland partner whom he encouraged to build a locomotive that would service a white pine operation at Hikurangi. Gibbons & Harris built five of these small four-wheel geared lokeys between 1905 and 1912 and these eventually had an average service life of 25 years. All five operated on bush tramways.

Gibbons & Harris did not construct their own boilers but used those of other engineering companies. The twin-cylinder engine units used were similar to those that the company built and serviced for ship's winches and steering engines. The engine was mounted horizontally beneath the boiler and drove to the front axle by a gear train.

One of these locos survives today and is being restored for operation on a bush tramway at Te Aroha.


J. Johnston & Sons Ltd., Invercargill

In 1873 Joseph Johnston established an engineering workshop and foundry at 72 Leet Street in Invercargill. His sons Bill, Jack and Joe eventually joined him. The company serviced the timber industry and were major suppliers of steam log haulers, boilers, steam engines and other machinery to Southland sawmills.

Between 1896 and 1930, Johnstons built at least 26 bush locomotives and of these, only two are known to still exist.

Their main two locomotive designs were the Johnston 'A', a geared 4-wheeler and the Johnston 'D' having four bogies and sixteen driving wheels. They also built two 8-wheeler locomotives calling them Type B using an offset boiler with the twin cylinders alongside the boiler and driving a central lineshaft.

The company was undoubtedly one of the most innovative in the bush tramway locomotive field, particularly with their '16-wheeler' geared locomotives. It must be some measure of their effectiveness as, later, A & G Price built similar engines. There doen't appear to be locomotives of similar design anywhere in the world. The design was admirably suited to the sharp curves and uneven track with severe grades and had the ability to provide adhesion on all wheels together with a light axle loading.


J. McGregor & Co. Ltd. Dunedin

Originating as the Otago Foundry in 1859 alongside the Dunedin railway station, the business went through several changes of ownership prior to becoming John McGregor & Co. in 1894. The foundry was a major engineering company building gold dredges, but their most well known legacy is the lake steamer TSS Earnslaw. This was built at Dunedin, then dismantled and re-erected at Lake Wakatipu in 1912. Based at Queenstown it carries out daily tourist services around the lake to this day.

The first McGregor loocomotive was built in 1917, similar in design to a Climax A or a Price C. It saw service on various South Island bush tramways, eventually being converted to a rail tractor driven by a Fordson engine.

In 1927 a locomotive was built using an 0-4-0 wheel arrangment, with a two-cylinder vee engine mounted centrally under the boiler similar to a Heisler. A 2-speed gear arrangement drove onto the two axles and from there, via universal couplings, to adjacent log buggies fore and aft. This had the effect of driving on 12 wheels.

This engine (#2) was in service up until 1950 while a second locomotive to the same design was built in 1929 (#3) and worked until about 1941 when it was converted to a rail tractor.


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