IV. Some history of the Milford Road

History (unfinished)

 

In 1890, Robert West Holmes (1856 - 1936) carried out exploratory work in connection with the road later to be constructed to Milford Sound, through the Homer Saddle.

 

His wife accompanied him on this arduous tour, and the Gertrude Saddle was named after her. There is also a Gertrude Valley that joins the Milford Route from the north half a kilometre before the eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel.

The Gertrude Saddle, named after the wife of Robert Holmes, the first surveyor of the Milford Road. Mrs Gertrude Holmes accompanied her husband on the trip and has a Saddle (at 1410m) and Valley named
The Gertrude Saddle, named after the wife of Robert Holmes, the first surveyor of the Milford Road. Mrs Gertrude Holmes accompanied her husband on the trip and has a Saddle (at 1410m) and Valley named after her. Note location of Homer Tunnel (NZ Topomap).

The Homer Tunnel

In 1935 five men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows began the creation of a 1,240 metre long tunnel through the Darran Mountain Range towards the Cleddau Valley. 

 

The conditions were harsh for Depression-era relief workers.

 

Starting at the eastern end a small tunnel was driven into the granite-like rock at a falling 1:10 gradient. Fractures in the rock allowed the ingress of thousands of gallons of snow meltwater and compressors and a powerhouse in the nearby river were eventually built to pump out 40,000 litres of water per hour.

The eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel. It is 512m (1,679ft) to the arete above the tunnel and a permanent snowfield sits to the left at 1800m under  Mts Moir and Belle (1,695m).
The eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel. It is 512m (1,679ft) to the arete above the tunnel and a permanent snowfield sits to the left at 1800m under Mts Moir and Belle (1,695m).

Avalanches were a constant danger in the winter. In July 1936 26 year old tunneller, Percy Leigh Overton, was killed and several men injured when an avalanche engulfed the tunnel’s entrance. 

 

A reinforced concrete shelter was put up over the tunnel mouth to provide protection but in 1937 two more fatalities were caused by an avalanche. This time it got the Public Works Department Engineer-in-Charge, Donald Hulse and the tunnel works overseer, Thomas W. Smith.

Avalanche fatality and damage on the Milford Road (From New Zealand Engineering February 1, 1986 p.20).
Avalanche fatality and damage on the Milford Road (From New Zealand Engineering February 1, 1986 p.20).

 

The force of the dry, soundless avalanches dropping from the snow fields 800m up was enormous and in 1945 the reinforced concrete approach was destroyed by yet another avalanche.

 

It was not until February 1940 that the so-called ‘hole-through’ was accomplished. The tunnel still required widening to 5.5m by 7m, a task that was not completed until 1953.

Workers outside the Homer Tunnel sometime after 1940 when 'hole-through' was achieved. Photo by Thelma Kent Turnbull, Collection, Wellington.
Workers outside the Homer Tunnel sometime after 1940 when 'hole-through' was achieved. Photo by Thelma Kent Turnbull, Collection, Wellington.

The tunnel is named after William Henry Homer (1838-1894). He and George Barber 'discovered' the Homer Saddle in 1889, and suggested the nearby road tunnel.

 

The tunnel and the Milford Road were gravel-surfaced until the 1980s (sources: IPENZ and Wikipedia).

The McPherson Falls to the right of the eastern entrance of the Hoer Tunnel on the Milford Road.
The McPherson Falls to the right of the eastern entrance of the Hoer Tunnel on the Milford Road.

In 2013 a complicated engineering project drilled and blasted out a 2,000 tonne rock pinnacle that stood over a thousand feet above the tunnel's western portal at the Moir's Mate Diamond Face.

 

The blast design ensured that the rock was blown into small fragments so that no massive boulders rained down over the temporary rockfall protection that had been built out from the tunnel portal (ACENZ 2014).

Blast to remove a 2,000 tonne rock pinnacle dangerously lossened by frost action above the western portal of the Homer Tunnel in 2013 (click for source).
Blast to remove a 2,000 tonne rock pinnacle dangerously loosened by frost action above the western portal of the Homer Tunnel in 2013 (click for source).

In April 2010 a massive weather front hit Southland causing extensive flooding. A massive – though not record-breaking – 300mm (12 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours near the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road.

The eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel at 920m.  Three tunnel workers were killed here in 1937 and 1937 by silent dry avalanches falling from the snowfields 800m above.
The eastern entrance to the Homer Tunnel at 920m. Three tunnel workers were killed here in 1937 and 1937 by silent dry avalanches falling from the snowfields above.

The Great Nude Tunnel Run is now an annual event through the Homer Tunnel. There are surprisingly few pictures of the event. As Roscos Kayaks of Milford say,

 

'To travel through [the tunnel]  fully clothed and in the comfort of a vehicle evokes enough horror – but running through it in the dark? Naked?'

 

But since 1988 100 or so hardy souls make the east-west traverse with only shoes and a torch. Roscos Kayaks have a fleeting photo.

 

Inside of the 1270m Homer Tunnel with a 1:10 gradient and lots of darkness and dripping water.
Inside of the 1270m Homer Tunnel with a 1:10 gradient and lots of darkness and dripping water. There is an annual Great Nude Run through the tunnel.
The western portal of the Homer Tunnel into the Cleddau valley with the temporary rockfall shelter visible.
The western portal of the Homer Tunnel into the Cleddau valley with the temporary rockfall shelter visible.
The western entrance to the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road and the sheer rock wall behind it.
The western entrance to the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road and the sheer rock wall behind it.
The view down the Cleddau Valley from the western exit of the Homer Tunnel with the road winding away below.
The view down the Cleddau Valley from the western exit of the Homer Tunnel with the road winding away below.
Kea at the western entrance to the Homer Tunnel, Milford Road.
Kea at the western entrance to the Homer Tunnel, Milford Road.
Waiting for the lights to change at the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road.
Waiting for the lights to change at the Homer Tunnel on the Milford Road.