PO Box 95
Today marks the 59th anniversary of the opening of the Lyttelton Road Tunnel in 1964, a significant occasion which signalled huge changes for the port township and the wider region. With increasing private vehicle ownership and the opening of the tunnel, Ōhinehou Lyttelton began the transition from a relatively secluded port township connected only by rail to Christchurch, to a community more directly in touch with the metropolis through the hill. Our online collection holds many fascinating photographs of both the construction of this vital transport link and the opening events which celebrated it.
A road tunnel between Lyttelton and Christchurch had been considered from as early as 1851, however one of many concerns at the time was that horses would catch cold in moving from the heat of the plains into the cold underground! Alternative overland routes were constructed via Evans, Dyers and Gebbies passes and the construction of a rail tunnel, completed in 1867, was a significant engineering feat by global standards at the time.
By the early twentieth century, calls for improved transport links were increasing as the rail link began to prove unsatisfactory for burgeoning port freight movements. From the 1920s through to the 1950s several different interest groups proposed solutions; a port and canal at the estuary of the Heathcote and Avon rivers was quite seriously considered. The push for a road tunnel to run above the existing rail tunnel was led by the Tunnel Road Promotion Committee, who lobbied for government funding. World War II hindered progress and it was not until 1956 that the Christchurch–Lyttelton Road Tunnel Bill was passed through parliament, sponsored by Sidney Holland, MP for Fendalton and then Prime Minister. The passing of the bill enabled the establishment of the Road Tunnel Authority who were tasked with raising the £3.4 million budget and constructing the tunnel.
Despite some local opposition, especially regarding the proposed impact on the Heathcote Valley, Ministry of Works planning was completed by 1960 and work began in 1962 under a partnership between Fletcher Construction Ltd and American firm Henry J. Kaiser Construction. Excavation teams worked from both sides of the hill in three shifts, six days a week, carving a 1970 m long tunnel; the longest road tunnel in New Zealand until 2017 when it was surpassed by the 2400 m Waterview Tunnel in Auckland.
Spoil from the tunnel was used in the construction of the 5 km motorway leading to the Heathcote portal from Ferry Road, also necessitating the construction of several large bridges. Preparation for an increase in traffic in Lyttelton was undertaken on Norwich Quay; widening the road, attending to curbing and drainage and constructing a concrete overbridge above the railway yards. Lining the tunnel walls with 1,2500,000 glazed white ceramic tiles made in the NZ Insulators factory in Temuka, with another 250,000 yellow roof tiles being imported from England, took longer than the groundworks to create the tunnel itself!
On 23 February 1964 the tunnel, which had come in under budget at £2.7 million, was opened for pedestrians to experience walking its gleaming length. The official opening ceremonies on 27 February began with the arrival of the Governor General Brigadier Sir Bernard Ferguson announced by a fanfare of trumpets. The elaborate welcome was followed by addresses by Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and other dignitaries. Afternoon tea was then held at the Upham Memorial Garden, with the Lyttelton Marine Band playing the march “Lyttelton”, composed especially for the occasion.
10,000 vehicles christened the tunnel free of toll charges on that day, with the queue to enter the tunnel from the city side stretching all the way to Moorhouse Avenue. Tunnel staff wore smart uniforms complete with peaked hats. The Heathcote portal was graced with an award-winning modernist administration building designed by Peter Beaven, envisaged by him to be a fifth sister ship to the first four Canterbury Association vessels to enter Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour in 1851. Granted Category I Historic Place status in 2008, it required deconstruction in 2013 as a result of the damage from the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.