Otira Gorge and Arthurs Pass road (State Highway 73)

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


Through the terrible winter of 1865 men began cutting a coach road from Christchurch through the Otira Gorge and over Arthurs Pass to the West Coast goldfields. The road was built by labourers with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and two-horse drays.

The Otira Gorge and Arthurs Pass road extends 13.4 kilometres (km) between the townships of Arthurs Pass and Otira. The Pass summit is 922 m (metres) above sea level, with Arthurs Pass township at 762 m and Otira at 427 m. Tight constraints were placed on the geometric layout as a result of mountainous topography, geological instability, adverse weather conditions and the limitations of the corridors available.

The construction through the Pass in atrocious weather conditions was completed in 10 months and the original coach road was opened in March 1866. Some realisation of the terrible conditions in which those early road builders worked can be gained from recent data on the climate at Arthurs Pass. An average annual rainfall of 4000 to 7000 millimetres per year is recorded and snowfalls during winter are frequent, with minimum temperatures ranging between -1 and -2 degree celsius. Temperatures are measured at 3 p.m., so the morning temperature range would be expected to be much colder.

Many lives were lost during the road construction. Tragically six people were drowned in one week, and other drownings are also recorded due to the frequently flooded rivers.

The coach road was the genesis of what is now a section of State Highway 73, and remains an important communication and transport link between Canterbury and Westland. There are 11 bridges with a total length of 406.6 m. Road gradients range from 1 in 30 to 1 in 8. Five bends through a zig zag section facilitate ascent and descent over the Pass.

Over the years work has been done to improve blind corners and ease bends. However, the nature of the landscape and the weather can still make the Otira Gorge and Arthurs Pass road a challenging driving experience.

Controlling authority: New Zealand Transport Agency
Original authority: The Canterbury Provincial Council
Engineers: Edward Dobson, George Thornton, Walter & Edwin Blake
Contractors: J Smith & E.G. Wright

Heritage recognition
IPENZ “Engineering to 1990” project
This item of New Zealand’s engineering heritage was recognised as part of the IPENZ “Engineering to 1990” project which the Institution organised to help celebrate the country’s sesquicentenary in 1990. A plaque was unveiled to mark the significance of this road across the Southern Alps as part of the development of the nation.


No Attachments


Between the Arthurs Pass and Otira townships in the South Island

Canterbury, West Coast/Buller

Access Info
There are a number of viewing spots on the road (beware of Kaka's though!)

Nature of Engineering
Infrastructure (incl. Road, water, ports)


Otira Gorge Road IPENZ 1990 plaque, 2010. Photograph courtesy of R. Wilkinson

(Click image to enlarge )

Otira Gorge, showing West Coast road, 189?. ID: 1/2-061329-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

(Click image to enlarge )