Thursday, 16 July 2020


A proud legacy to one man’s passion and another man’s craftsmanship

At the annual model train show at the Whitianga Baptist Church last week, residents and visitors had the opportunity to see a unique collection of kauri steam trains. There isn’t another collection quite like it anywhere in the world and it’s only the second time that the collection has ever been on public display.

Mercury Bay local, Colin Stewart, has had a lifelong fascination with steam, which began with his childhood growing up in the tiny King Country timber town of Ongarue. There the mighty main trunk locomotives roared through town on their way to cities and ports around New Zealand and the little bush loco’s worked day and night feeding the timber mill which provided employment and electricity to the town.

After moving to Papakura, marrying and having a family, Colin and his good friend, well-known Whitianga local, Alan Watson (known to his friends as Wattie), spent time searching out old locos and finding these long abandoned icons of New Zealand’s rail history in out-of-the-way places like Pukemiro in the Waikato and Shantytown in Greymouth.

Some years ago, Colin had the good fortune to meet another Whitianga local, Les Randall. Les was a retired sheet metal worker, but was also well known for his exceptional craftsmanship with wood.

After some discussion, Les agreed to create an AB Class locomotive for Colin. Plans were sourced from which Les could scale the individual pieces of the engine. The AB is well known throughout the country as the workhorse pulling the Kingston Flyer.

Some old, air dried kauri slabs, cut from logs found in the Whitianga estuary many years before, were located in a house behind the (then) Shell service station. These provided the perfect raw material from which the AB could come to life.

The engine was meticulously assembled from individually fashioned pieces of kauri and took 200 hours of painstaking work to complete.

Each driving wheel consists of 11 pieces of timber. The detail of the engine is amazing to see and inspired a much bigger project that would only end when Les could no longer continue to fashion the tiny individual pieces of timber because of failing health.

The money Colin paid Les for the AB allowed Les to purchase better tools, not only for making the trains, but also to make some beautiful kauri furniture. “Les was a master when it came to making furniture,” says Colin. “His attention to detail was incredible. If he made a set of drawers, you could run a feeler gauge around them and there would be no variation between the drawer and the frame.”

All in all, Les created a collection of nine locomotives for Colin, each carved from the same kauri slab and to the same scale, and each taking 150 to 200 hours of work. The engines were all modelled from New Zealand-assembled work horses, ranging from the tiny Climax bush loco to the mighty Bayer-Garret freight engine. There is also a Rogers K Class engine, used in New Zealand in the 19th century, which looks like it came straight out of a western movie.

Colin and his wife Rosie are thinking about the future of the collection and are currently considering approaching the Whitianga Museum to have it displayed under permanent loan.

Whatever the future holds for the collection, one thing is sure, it will always mark a proud legacy to one man’s passion and another man’s craftsmanship.

Pictured: Whitianga local, Colin Stewart, with his collection of nine kauri locomotives at last week’s model train show at the Whitianga Baptist Church.


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