Stephens Is Lighthouse

Stephens Island, Sept 1958
Stephens Island, Sept 1958. Whites Aviation Ltd, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Stephens Island Lighthouse was built at the highest elevation above sea level of all New Zealand’s lighthouses. The original light was also the most powerful. In 1938 the light was converted from oil to electric power supplied by diesel generators. In 2000 the original light was removed and replaced with a new rotating beacon, located within the original tower. The light is now remotely controlled from Wellington.

Callsign: ZMS
Location: latitude 40°40′ south, longitude 174°00′ east
Elevation: 183 metres above sea level
Construction: cast iron tower
Tower height: 15 metres
Light configuration: modern rotating beacon
Light flash character: white light flashing once every 5 seconds
Power source: batteries charged by solar panels
Range: 18 nautical miles (33 kilometres)
Date light first lit: 1894
Automated: 1989
Demanned: 1990

Stephens Island lighthouse in 1965
Stephens Island lighthouse in 1965. Photo: Randle, Graham: Photographs of New Zealand Lighthouses, Alexander Turnbull Library

Timaru Herald, 7 February 1894, p3


The erection of this lighthouse has now been completed. The lowest site that could be found for the light was 570ft, and adding the height of the tower, the centre of the light will be about 600ft above sea level, which will give a range of about 32 nautical miles.

The apparatus is novel in design, and forms a four-sided cage of glass, fitted in gunmetal framing about 8 1/2 ft in height, and 6ft in diameter. Each of the four faces is in two central lenses or discs, surrounded by light prismatic rings, with four reflecting prisms below, and a crown of 13 holophotal prisms above.

In the focus of the apparatus is a lamp having a burner with five concentric wicks, the flame being 4 1/2 inches in diameter, and having a power equal to 515 standard candles.

The machinery, which may in popular language be called a huge clock, is driven by a large iron weight of 2 1/2 cwt., which requires winding up every three quarters of an hour. The machine has a maintaining power which keeps the apparatus going at the required speed even while the weight is being wound up, and provision is also made for working the machine by hand if any accident happens to the winding gear.

The apparatus is so arranged that as each face comes in view mariners see two flashes of intensely white light following each other in rapid succession every half-minute. The lantern was made by Messrs Dove and Co., of Edinburgh; the revolving machine by Messrs Milne and son, of the same place; and the optical apparatus by Messrs Barbier, of Paris.

The work of preparing the roads, sites for the lighthouse, keepers’ house, &c., was commenced by a working party under Mr D Scott, on the 6th April, 1892. From the landing to the lighthouse there is an iron tramway, 7/8ths of a mile long. The first portion, for 1600ft, is very steep, and is worked by horse-power, with two steel-wire ropes and whims. From the second whim to tho tower is level.

The tower is of cast iron, and was made by Beany and Sons, of Auckland, The first and second keepers’ homes have each six rooms, and the third keeper’s four rooms. Brick tanks, each holding 2000 gallons of water, are built into the ground at each house, to be filled by the water from the roofs. The foundation of the tower is concrete, of which 47 tons of materials were used.

During the construction of the works the Hinemoa made 24 trips to the island with men, stores, and material, and landed 750 tons. The annual consumption of oil at the lighthouse will be about 1300 gallons.

[Paragraph spacing added to improve readability]

RDF mast arrives at Baring Head lighthouse in 1937
“Though it will be some weeks before certain equipment arrives from England, a commencement has been made with the erection of masts for the radio direction guidance of shipping in Cook Strait. In addition to the Baring Head station (above), equipment will be installed at Cape Campbell and Stephen [sic] Island.” Evening Post, 19 May 1937

Evening Post, 4 July 1938, p11


(Special to the “Evening Post.”)
NELSON, This Day.

The Government steamer Matai spent the weekend in Nelson after landing material on Stephens Island for a new radio beacon which will shortly be erected. The steamer left this morning to complete the inspection of lighthouses in Cook Strait before returning to Wellington.

The landing site at Stephens Island, showing the railway to the top, as seen from a lighthouse tender in the 1950s or 60
The landing site at Stephens Island, showing the railway to the top, as seen from a lighthouse tender in the 1950s or 60s. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Access to Stephens was by boat from Picton, a 5-hour trip in the Marine Department vessel Enterprise. Landing was done via the block crane in a similar manner to that at Brothers Island. There was, however, an added issue that the keepers were typically married and therefore a safety innovation, a tea chest, was introduced. The wives and/or children would sit in the tea chest which was in turn put into the cargo net. This was deemed to be safer!

It may well have been – if the transfer was uneventful, but I would prefer to take my chances in the sea without having to extricate myself from a floating tea chest. Local practice was to make use of the tea chest optional!

After landing, a lengthy walk was needed to circle around to reach the relatively high parts of the Island where the light, radio equipment and the three light keepers’ houses were situated. A trip was typically for 2-3 days to allow for any unforeseen work required on the radio equipment, and to suit boat availability. This often allowed a night excursion to locate the roaming tuatara which lived on the island sanctuary.

The radio installation was a marine MF/HF set (callsign ZMS) for communicating with ZLW, and a maritime beacon. The beacon was on its unique frequency, the earlier shared frequency and timed transmission having been dispensed with. The beacon was made by, I recall, IMC and was relatively unreliable until all the selenium rectifiers were replaced with silicon diodes.

– Ian Hutchings, 2016

Unloading at Stephens Island
Lightouse tender ‘Enterprise’ calling at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood
The skipper of the lighthouse tender had a challenging job keeping his vessel in position
The skipper of the lighthouse tender had a challenging job keeping his vessel safe and in position for transferring cargo. Courtesy: Chris Underwood
Wash from the propeller of Enterprise as cargo is transferred at Stephens Island Lighthouse
Wash from the propeller of Enterprise as cargo is transferred at Stephens Island Lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood
Two crates, one of them labelled "Made in England" being unloaded at Stephens Island
Three crates, one of them labelled “Made in England” being unloaded at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Conditions can change rapidly at these sites with a change of wind or tide. Look how far up the rocks the waves are and consider the skill of the skipper in placing the launch at the right spot at the right time in a swell like that. No wonder the guys in the last shot look as though they’re wondering if they’re going to get their feet wet or have an early bath night!
– Chris Underwood

Transferring cargo at Stephens Island. Courtesy
Transferring cargo at Stephens Island. Courtesy: Chris Underwood
Humans arrived and departed Stephens Island the same way as the cargo - on the end of a rope!
Humans arrived and departed Stephens Island the same way as the cargo – on the end of a rope! A note accompanying these photos has the names of radio technicians Bob Bundle and Ray Sutherland. Ian Hutchings has confirmed that Ray, who was in charge of NZPO radio maintenance, is the man on the right in this photo. If you are able to confirm the name of the other person, please contact us. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Stephens Island station was a lonely and difficult post. Right up until its automation in 1989, the only communication with the mainland was by means of a radio telephone. This was only supposed to be used for lighthouse duties.
Access to Stephens Island was extremely difficult. Keepers first had to journey from Wellington over the turbulent seas of Cook Strait. Then upon reaching Stephens Island, the way ashore was via a basket swung on the end of the station’s crane. Passengers and goods were winched from the deck of the servicing ship onto the shore. Keepers and their families then had a long walk up the 180 metre-high hill to their homes.
Maritime New Zealand

Stephens Island lighthouse in its current configuration
Stephens Island lighthouse in its current configuration. Photo: Maritime New Zealand

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