Friday, November 1, 2013

Christchurch Rail Station and Moohan's Rocket

Christchurch railway station opened on Moorhouse Avenue, today in history, 1st.November 1960.
The move to replace an 1887 station had begun in 1914, with architect's drawings published in the Dept of Railways' 1938 annual report. WWII delayed construction until 1953...
At the time it was the largest building to be erected in Christchurch for some years, apart from the Princess Margaret Hospital: "The new Christchurch station is a magnificent symbol of the steady modernisation of NZ's railway system, planned to meet the needs of a dynamic and vigorous community." However, by opening day, the railways were in serious decline nationally, and the station was never fully utilised.
Locals remember the old building as a rail station, and later as a movie theatre complex and the home of 'Science Alive!'. Earthquake damage forced demolition in 2012.
Looking through my photos of that event, I came across this: a station entrance surrounded by rubble - the plaque on the side reads:
"This building was opened
by the
Hon.Michael Moohan
Minister of Railways
on the 1st day of November 1960."
So who was this ribbon-cutter?
Michael Moohan (1899-1967) was the Minister of Railways in the 2nd.NZ Labour Govt, hence the rail connection.
Born in Ballyshannon on the border of County Fermanagh, Ireland in 1899, he served in the British Army's Royal Engineers in WWI, and emigrated to NZ after demobbing in 1919. In 1923 he married Cecilia Hayman - they had one son and four daughters.
Employed by the Post and Telegraph Dept., he became involved in union and Labour Party affairs. He was Deputy Mayor of Ohakune 1932-1935, then National Secretary of the Labour Party. Later he was Labour MP for Petone 1946-1967, Under-Secretary to the Prime
Delegates at Labour Party conference,
Wellington Town Hall, 6 May 1958
From left: A E Elgar, C Hair,
Miss Mabel Howard, M Moohan.
The Dominion Post Collection,
Alexander Turnbull Library

Minister 1947-1949, Minister of Railways and Post-Master General 1957-1960.
In those declining days of rail (on 16 Feb.1960 to be precise), a special ministerial train dubbed The Moohan Rocket made a trip from Wellington-Auckland up the North Island Main Trunk Line. The trip (to highlight the superiority of diesel-electric power) took 11hrs 45min, or 2½ hours less than the steam-hauled Night Limited - an impressive saving. However the total weight of a brake van, three first-class cars and a Ministerial car at the rear was only 147 tons, and it was hauled by two Dg diesel-electric engines, so the time was somewhat disappointing.
The return trip two days later behind a single Da diesel-electric was slightly quicker at 11hrs 34min. But the superior Da could not fit through the tunnels north of Wellington, and so two Dgs had to take over at Palmerston North.
The train reflected Moohan's idea of a fast comfortable intercity service, later seen in the Silver Star and Silver Fern. Perhaps Moohan was a bit of a visionary? Who knows? I can find little written about the man at all...
Labour Members of Parliament at the opening of a new session of Parliament - 26 May 1966.
Front: Miss M B Howard, J Mathison, Norman Kirk (boxed), W A Fox,
Sir Eruera Tirikatene, M Moohan (circled), W Freer.
Centre: Mrs E E McMillan, R J Tizard, R MacDonald, H L J May, N V Douglas. Rear: A H Nordmeyer, M Rata.
The Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Of the building however, there's a lot more. In 2006 came a recommendation that it be developed in the long term as a transit hub. This was supported by Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, and much of the wider public. With the post-EQ rise-in-favour of the Addington area, the station's location had even greater potential, with suggestions of mixed usage involving transport, retail, accommodation and entertainment.
But the word came down from CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority): it had to go.
In 2012, both Chch Civic Trust and Historic Places Canterbury desperately pleaded for its salvation, noting its rating as an Historic Places Trust Cat.2 building with a unique place in the history of NZ metropolitan railway stations. They said it was the last station to be built on a grand scale, and the 20+ years from design to opening spanned the momentous period from the end of the Great Depression to NZ's post-WWII recovery years.
Its tenant 'Science Alive!' however felt the building was uneconomic to repair, quoting a sum of $30m.
Under the post-earthquake rules, CERA could simply demolish a protected building without becoming embroiled in lengthy public notification, and this was exactly what happened.
Now the station has disappeared, as has Moohan's plaque, and virtually all record of the man himself...


Sandy said...

Fantastic coverage of an iconic building and great to know a bit about Mr Moohan! Great sleuthing! I do wonder what has become of that plaque.

As an aside Mabel Howard who is mentioned in your article has certainly been tossed around a bit during the quakes. Her grave has been terribly damaged, but luckily I had also taken photos pre quake. Here's how it looks now
and in the comments section on that page is how it looked in 2005


Writer Of The Purple Sage said...

Great that you've 'saved' Mabel's gravestone - albeit in photographic form. That's a good review of her, isn't it!
As for Moohan's plaque, I didn't see it at the 'Quake exhibition and I suspect it's landfill somewhere...
As a point of interest, two of the large clock faces from the railway station tower do feature on the wall at Quake City!

Sandy said...

:o\ yes i can imagine the poor wee plaque may have got bypassed as being 'important'. Sad that.

Indeed it's a great review...and I just remembered...i took a snap of what used to be her cottage in Pages Road near Cowles Stadium - around 7.45am the day after the February 2011 can see the liquefaction

Patchin &Gregory said...

This is fascinating. I'm Michael Moohan granddaughter. I spent hours in contact with CERA regarding the plaque. I was assured it was in safe keeping but could never get sufficient information as to exactly who is in possession of it. If it could be found the family would love to have it.