Lady Of The Lake TSS Earnslaw

Exploring Queenstown by Steamship

A visit to Queenstown isn’t all about the adrenalin activities like bungy jumping and ski fields.

Beneath the surface of Queenstown’s modern adventure activities, there is a rich history of pioneering mentality. The foundations of the town are based on the hardy gold miners who sought riches on icy rivers, of Maori mythology, and hardy settlers who broke through harsh landscapes to establish a brave new town, in a jaw dropping location.

For visitors today, there are plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in the stories and sights that shaped Queenstown into what it is today. Whether it’s a 4WD tour through gold-bearing rivers or a visit to the historic township of Arrowtown, tourism has made Queenstown’s past easily accessible.

And none more so than on the iconic vintage steamship, the TSS Earnslaw. Seen cruising the lake every day, the so-called ‘Lady of The Lake’ is much loved by locals and visitors alike.

The TSS Earnslaw is a constant fixture of the Queenstown landscape and often the star of every visitor’s photo album. She is recognised instantly by the puff of black smoke from her coal-fired steam engine as she cruises across the lake with a majestic mountain backdrop behind her.

The History of The TSS Earnslaw 

TSS Earnslaw on dry dock for maintenance

Shipping on Lake Wakatipu began in the late 1860s when gold miners needed a way to freight their gold out and supplies into the remote Wakatipu district. For forty years, operators carted gold miners and their freight. But the services did not translate well for tourism and the reputation for poor service kept many visitors away.

After a few false starts, the government of the day finally announced it would commission a new steamer to be built for the purpose of transporting passengers to Queenstown. Work began on the TSS Earnslaw in Dunedin in 1911 by John McGregor and Co. After construction was complete, the steamer was meticulously dismantled, each plate numbered, packed up and transported to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. After arriving, the ship was carefully put back together in readiness for launch.

The First Journey 

Orignal TSS Earnslaw
The first official journey of the TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu was on 18 October 1912. The significant journey was given the full appreciation it deserved.Special trains brought onlookers from as far as Gore and Invercargill. Over 200 passengers were aboard the TSS Earnslaw as she left Kingston headed for Queenstown with a pipe band playing and flags and bunting flying. As the steamer arrived in Queenstown, she was met by a flotilla of smaller craft and hundreds of people along the shore. Locals had never seen such an impressive craft on the lake. The next day was declared a public holiday for Queenstown.

Over the next 40 years, the coal-fired steamship worked tirelessly carrying passengers on journeys between Queenstown and Glenorchy and Queenstown and Kingston. The construction of new roads soon brought difficult times for the Earnslaw. The road opened between Queenstown and Kingston in 1936 and Queenstown and Glenorchy in 1962 and the Earnslaw’s profitability began to suffer.

A New Lease on Life

Just as it was looking like the steamer may headto the scrap heap, she was purchased by Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys). The company lovingly restored the TSS Earnslaw to her exact original condition and began running scenic cruises between Queenstown and Walter Peak. The new route was much less work for the old girl

TSS Earnslaw today

Today, the TSS Earnslaw provides a wonderfully unique experience for visitors, and continues to hold a place in the hearts of locals. The TSS Earnslaw is the only coal-fired steamship in operation in the SouthernHemisphere and has a Category One Heritage Listing. Each year around June, the Earnslaw is pulled out of the water for her annual survey.

The TSS Earnslaw is a delightful reminder of a bygone era and an impressive link to Queenstown’s pioneering heritage.

Real Journeys operate scenic cruises, lunch cruises and farm tour cruises on the TSS Earnslaw every day.Any tour gives you plenty of time to appreciate the workings of the old steamer. There is an open viewing platform to the engine room below, and you will often catch the on-board pianist for a good old fashioned sing-a-long.

For more information or to book the TSS Earnslaw, read more here.