The Mornington/High Street cable car began running in 1883, as the second such service in Dunedin (the first being the Roslyn line, in 1881). Dunedin was second only to the original cable car city, San Francisco. The uphill Mornington terminus was alongside Eglinton Road; the cars themselves were stored on the other side of the road, in the building now occupied by a coffee grinding shop and other small businesses. The original building from the 1880s was destroyed in a fire in 1903, and only one car, Trailer No. 4, survived the blaze (this car presently at MOTAT, see Gallery). The new cars built for reinstatement of the service were constructed locally, by a small number of Dunedin firms. Car 95 (see Gallery) is a beautiful example of the “new” style, with enclosed cabins at each end, and open seating in the middle, on either side of the gripman’s position.
Extensions from the Mornington terminus were built to Elgin Road (this being a short-lasting route), and to Maryhill (which lasted into the 1950s, and had a remarkable 1:3 gradient at its descent).
The High Street line was certainly profitable, being in the black throughout 1922-1945. The peak loading was achieved in 1945, the remarkable figure of 3.5 million passengers in that year. But with poor maintenance of the track and cars, and anticipating the arrival of trolley buses, in the latter 1940s and 1950s the service declined. The last cable replacement was in 1955, and the last car ran on 2 March 1957. The plan for closure was met with considerable resistance (3,200 Mornington residents signed a petition), attesting to the fondness of Dunediners for these ‘little matchbox cars’; but in the end, the Council prevailed, the vote for retention (18 March 1957) being lost 9:3.
The current move for reinstatement is not the first; Don Myers headed a group in the 1990s. The initial impetus for the present project came after the launch of Don McAra’s book Hold Very Tight Please! in 2007; Don has been instrumental in the restoration and return of the cars now in Dunedin. A website from 2008 documents progress at that time, and also provides a gallery of Don's paintings:
In 2013, the cause was taken up by Phil Cole, who brought engineering expertise to the table; tragically, he died, at the peak of his career, in 2014.
The reins were then picked up by Neville Jemmett, who has been the driving force behind the building of the Interim Cable Car Building, and the bringing to Dunedin of the cable cars previously stored (and lovingly restored) at Ferrymead.
Historical authenticity is a watchword in the reinstatement project. The grip cars and trailers will be original vehicles from the early 1900s (possibly even the 1880s), and the track will follow exactly the same route that it used to. Only the new cable car building will bow to the 21st century (but the original building remains on Eglinton Road, and historically-minded visitors can enjoy its new role as a coffee shop, whose entrance is precisely where the cars used to enter for overnight stabling). High Street now looks almost the same as it did when the cable cars ceased, lined by a number of handsome houses from the 19th and early 20th century. Apart from being of rather crisper quality, a movie taken in the 2020s may be otherwise almost indistinguishable from those shown below from the 1950s (although clothing styles then and now would be a giveaway).
A detailed history is to be found in the excellent book by Bill Campbell and Ray Hargreaves "Straphangers and Grippers. The Ups and Downs of the Mornington Cable-car System", Otago Heritage Books, PO Box 6318, Dunedin, 1994, ISBN 0-908774-07-9.
There are copies in the Dunedin Public Library.
|Another excellent source is Gerald Ditchfield's history, accessible at this American website:
Otago Daily Times report 13 Apr 1883 (Hocken collection)
|The Cable Car Guy (U.S.A.) on the history of the Mornington service:
Old movies from the 1940s and 1950s of the Mornington cars can be seen on these links:
|The Mornington gripmen and conductors, as the service came to a halt. Photo kindly provided by Noeline Harris, whose late husband Bill (himself the son of a gripman) is in the front row, kneeling, hands on knees.|
|The Mornington Cable Car staff, March 1957. Photo kindly provided by Noeline Harris|
Harold Flaws was a conductor on the High Street line in the 1950s (that's him in the 1957 photo above, middle of the back row, open shirt). He paid a nostalgic visit to the Cable Car House on 1 March 2019.
Herbert Harris was a conductor on the High Street route in 1942-43. He returned to duty on 23 July 2019, donning once again cap and ticket bag, demonstrating his old skill of moving along the outside platform to collect fares.