Queenstown's Marygold Miller was not about to stay home and bake scones when the Earnslaw was going to be sunk. Sue Fea reports.
When Marygold Miller heard the Earnslaw was going to be sunk she rounded up all the schoolchildren in the Wakatipu and marched them on to the historic steamer. They sailed around Queenstown Bay singing the protest song We Shall Not Be Moved at the top of their voices.
Saving the Earnslaw was just one of many causes championed by the determined mother of five after she arrived in Queenstown from Auckland with her husband, Hugh, in 1963. Marygold Miller was not about to stay home and bake scones.
At 90, she can be credited with helping to save some of Queenstown's greatly guarded treasures - the Earnslaw and, with a couple of other "old ladies in tennis shoes", the historic stone library and Park Street Reserve.
She was not about to sit back and let the then male-dominated bureaucracy run amok in the "sleepy hollow" she was sure would become New Zealand's most precious tourism jewel.
"When we moved to Queenstown all our gear arrived on the Earnslaw; it left Auckland on the rail and was brought to Kingston, where it met the Earnslaw." The Millers thought it was "just the most beautiful place" and could be developed for tourism, keeping its beauty.
The Earnslaw was the only boat with that style of steam in the southern hemisphere. To Marygold's horror, the Government decided in about 1968 to sink the old New Zealand Railways steamer because it had become a financial burden.
The memory hasn't faded, even after more than 40 years - Marygold still repeatedly refers to the late Peter Gordon, who was Minister of Rails and Transport at the time, as "the Great Train Robber". "The Minister of the day, whom I called the Great Train Robber, wanted to take the Earnslaw off the lake as part of its plans to modernise the railways system," she says from her Blenheim retirement home. "We tried to protest. However, the Great Train Robber said, `Rubbish, it's going'.
"I kicked up a fuss because they said they were planning to sink it on the end of the Queenstown park, but instead of sinking it he agreed to compromise and set it up at the end of the (Queenstown) gardens as a museum. But a lot of people backed me up and we tried to block it."
Peter Gordon soon learned that Marygold Miller was not a woman to back down from a cause. He eventually agreed to call tenders to run the steamer privately but not before a huge public meeting drew in locals, runholders and people from as far afield as Dunedin, Garston and Invercargill.
Marygold was unaware she had help in high places. Peter Gordon's son, Greg, recalls his mother, Dorothy, quietly siding to save the Earnslaw. He describes it as one of his mother's "more memorable coincidences" while his father was in politics, something there were not many of. Dorothy was back to back with some Americans while waiting for a flight at Wellington's Rongotai Airport. They were talking about the pity of such a "lovely old steamer going to be consigned to the scrap metal heap" and how they would love to save her.
"Mother plucked up the courage to turn and talk to them and said if they were serious to give Peter a call. She said afterwards that she was extremely proud that she'd had a hand in saving the Earnslaw," says Greg.
So the tenders were called, the steamer sold for what was believed to be about $19,000, and four young Auckland businessmen headed south to "give it a go"; their only income from passengers and picking up stock and supplies from Wakatipu high country stations. "It was a shaky do - they were wonderful, they kept it going as long as they could...they weren't making a lot of money," Marygold recalled.
Former two-times Queenstown Mayor and Cabinet Minister Warren Cooper recalls sitting on a special commission of inquiry over the future of the Earnslaw, held in the Queenstown courthouse. Lake County Council chairman Tommy Thomson, Invercargill businessman Alf Walmsley and Otago Hospital Board chairman Peter Gibson joined him.
"At the conclusion we were split. Alf and Peter were in favour of getting the steamer off the lake to save the Crown money and Tommy and I went outside under the Wellingtonia trees (to talk)...We thought it should go to private enterprise and we had to make a recommendation to the Minister (Peter Gordon). "We thought it had a future in it - our idea was to get someone to run it."
At the time the old steamer had been losing the Government an estimated 70,000 pounds a year and was running at a big loss. "We felt the State was running it in an unsatisfactory fashion and it became the grand old Lady of the Lake," Cooper says.
It was then that Te Anau-based tourism entrepreneur Les Hutchins, of Fiordland Travel, now Real Journeys, stepped in and bought the old steamer.
Marygold was thrilled. "He had to spend a lot of money on it, but he did brilliantly and kept it going." A battler for many causes in her time, the Earnslaw, now carrying about 130,000 passengers and operating about 1700 trips a year, is her greatest joy. To Marygold, "it's not just a boat - it's got spirit".
She delights as she recalls the New Year's Eve not long after the Earnslaw had been moved to new moorings nearer Marine Parade. The Lady of the Lake would have none of it, somehow becoming adrift and floating around the bay unaided.
"People had been celebrating like mad in Man Street...everybody was rushing round to find the crew as we were all watching in amazement. A few of the crew were found to man it, but they'd all had too much to drink and it just kept turning round in circles. "It went hither and yon and up and down with a huge crowd laughing and being entertained." Eventually the old steamer made its way back to its original Steamer (Railways) Wharf, where it is still moored today.
Marygold Miller is not afraid to speak her mind and her outspoken stance on the town's old stone library also saw that historic building saved and preserved.
"When I arrived, the old stone library was the only library in New Zealand issuing books still from the first date of books being issued in New Zealand. It had the most wonderful collection of old books.
"Unfortunately the council of the day did not value that rubbishy old building and old books that they took to the dump," she claims.
Queenstown was nothing like the international resort it is today. The feeling of the day was that the glossy, flashy look would attract the tourists. Marygold says the council had plans drawn up by an architect to knock down the old library and adjacent Horne Creek bridge, still standing today, and build "chromium and glass to attract the Americans".
She was appalled. After all, why would "the Americans" come right across the world to see what they've got at home. "So I got stuck in with a large number of people - even the press in Auckland got behind me, the Maoris came and did a haka and we said the old stone library was to be preserved."
She was aware of her unpopularity but remained undeterred: "Marygold arrives in town, one, she's from the North Island and two, she's a Pom and starts telling them what to do. "I wrote to the Government and all that, but the council would not be moved."
Eventually it was decreed at Government level that the building must be preserved because of its conservation and heritage value.
The only woman councillor of the day issued a challenge to Marygold - if she knew so much, why didn't she stand for council herself? So she did and ended up being the only woman on the completely new Queenstown Borough Council.
"They gave me the job of keeping the public toilets clean, and as time went on I became reserves chairman...in those days everybody pinched the toilet paper so my biggest job was to monitor the toilets and keep the toilet paper in place. I didn't mind."
Mayor of the day Warren Cooper says he and Marygold did not always see eye to eye over environmental matters and he recalls jokingly referring to her and later Queenstown Borough councillor and Deputy Mayor Nancy Williams, as "Cr Flora and Cr Fauna".
But today he has nothing but praise for her efforts. "Marygold was a very good councillor, as was Nancy. In those days councillors did it for love, not for any remuneration." He refers to her as one of a band of "three old ladies in tennis shoes" who also put a halt to the then Mount Cook Company's plans to build a flashy tourist hotel encroaching on to Crown land adjoining the treasured Queenstown Gardens. An eight-storey hotel was originally planned on the historic Eichardts Hotel site, something deemed by the council to be "unacceptable". They were instead encouraged to build on the lakefront site and adjoining Crown Land, bordering the Queenstown Gardens.
After Mount Cook failed in its bid, the Government's Tourist Hotel Corporation also tried and failed to secure the Crown land, now Park Street Reserve. The THC ended up building a smaller lakefront hotel, now the Novotel Queenstown Lakeside.
Marygold, still indignant 40 years later, says the Crown land had been decreed by Queen Victoria, and Queenstown's first businessman, Bendix Hallenstein, planted the trees. The trio of "little old ladies" was not backing down.
"There was me, Mrs (Ailsa) Smeaton and Mrs (Margaret) Templeton, and we went in and we beat Mount Cook, the Government, we beat the lot," Marygold says proudly.
Park Street Reserve still stands untouched and is testament to this feisty trio of battlers.
All good battles, but for Marygold it is the saving of the Earnslaw that she treasures the most. "The Earnslaw to me is my success. I just feel it's a great part of Queenstown, and I'm deeply grateful to the people of Queenstown who kept it going."
Needless to say, whenever Marygold gets a chance to return to her beloved Queenstown, she gets to "drive the Earnslaw", captain's cap on head, just one more time.
Original Article by: Sue Fea, Southland Times