The footsteps of history echo under Dunedin's streets, in
tunnels, sewers and bunkers with hidden tales to tell.
Reporter Chris Morris goes digging.
Walk Dunedin's streets and the telltale signs of history are
Soaring church spires, faded brick warehouses and even the
layout of the streets themselves weave together to tell the
city's story above ground.
But, below the surface, another layer of the Dunedin story
lies hidden - out of sight and out of mind to many. Dig down,
however, and a fascinating history waits to be discovered.
How many people have clambered through the city's brick
sewers, which remain in impressive condition - their brick
arches and tunnels big enough to drive a small car along in
places - despite sections serving the city for up to 150
years?How many people recall stepping down into the
underground toilets in the Octagon, Exchange and elsewhere
around the city - the remains of which are buried under the
city's new street paving stones - more than a century after
their construction?And how many people realise, as they
stroll across Rattray St or Cumberland Sts, that tunnels run
beneath their feet, or that World War 2-era bomb shelters
once scattered across the city are still buried, intact but
forgotten, below the surface?Dunedin City Council worker Mike
McCann has spent much of his career looking after the
engineering marvel that is the city's oldest sewer network,
built brick-by-brick more than a century ago and still hiding
in the darkness beneath Dunedin's streets.
As the bustling cars and busy feet clatter by above, down
below the network of brick sewers carries the city's
stormwater from the hills to spill into Otago Harbour.
For more than 100 years, the old sewers took both sewage and
stormwater to the harbour, until sewage was finally separated
in the 1980s, leaving the oldest sewers for stormwater only.
The network has remained hidden to most, but occasionally a
visitor's headlamp illuminates the darkness.
And, when it does, the light reveals the impressive world of
brick archways and architecture that has been Mr McCann's
office - of sorts - for more than 25 years.
As the Dunedin City Council's drainage reticulation
supervisor, Mr McCann was in charge of a small, five-strong
team that maintained the ageing infrastructure.
That meant donning orange overalls and a hard hat, turning on
the headlamp and gas detector, connecting to a winch, and
descending into the void.
It is a trip Mr McCann has made many times while checking the
sewers for signs of wear and tear.
More recently, advances in technology meant many of the
city's large pipes could be inspected by camera or sonar,
avoiding the need to send workers into a potentially
However, the architecture of the old sewers made the cameras
less effective, meaning workers like Mr McCann still needed
to venture inside.
Health and safety rules meant his team were the only people
to venture inside in recent years, although two Otago
Daily Times journalists joined city council staff and
councillors on an unsettling stroll through the sewers in
They found tunnels devoid of the expected dank smell,
replaced instead by the aroma of alcohol, coming from the
nearby Speight's Brewery.
Mr McCann said the sewers, buried 2.5m underground, usually
contained ''just a musty sort of smell'', but were close
enough to the surface that cars could be heard rattling over
manhole covers, as could trains rumbling along above sewers
near the Railway Station.
So, too, could the sound of water when it began to rain
heavily upstream, or a water hydrant was turned on, Mr McCann
''It sounds like there's a river coming ...that's about the
time to get out,'' he said.
Asked if he felt Dunedin people appreciated what was under
their feet, he said: ''Not at all.''
''The architecture in there would have been as good, if not
better, than what's above the ground.''
The sewers were among the engineering marvels of their day,
but, such was the quality of their construction, some of them
were likely to still be in use another century from now,
council water and waste services manager Laura McElhone said.
''They look like they're about 10 years old. It's bizarre.
They are in really good nick.''
Another massive tunnel and key part of the city's network of
sewers, the main intercepting sewer, also still ran nearby.
Built in the early 1900s, it stretched the length of
Cumberland St, from the Botanic Garden south, and acted as a
state highway for the city's effluent, collecting the
contents of smaller pipes and transporting the results to the
Tahuna wastewater treatment plant.
However, the old sewers were far from the only hidden
treasures under Dunedin's streets, Dunedin art historian and
writer Peter Entwisle said.
Also scattered around the city were the remains of tunnels
built for convenience, bomb shelters and bunkers to protect
against World War 2 aggression, and possibly even the remains
of ornate below-ground toilets, sealed over and forgotten
One tunnel ran under Rattray St, stretching 75m from the
Speight's Brewery to what was once the malthouse and cellar
on the opposite side of the road, now home to the Harvey
Norman department store.
The ODT visited and found the far end of the tunnel,
at the Harvey Norman end, firmly bricked up.
However, enter the Speight's shop, duck down a narrow flight
of stairs and, behind another door, the Speight's side of the
tunnel is still there, stretching 25m under the road.
Built in 1898, originally of brick, the tunnel was used by
workers to roll casks of beer from the brewery along rails to
the cellar, while pipes running through it carried well water
and malt back the other way.
The narrow passage was later given a cement floor and its
bricks plastered over, although rails running along its floor
The tunnel fell largely into disuse from the 1940s, Speight's
historian Donald Gordon said, and the ODT found it
full of brewery clutter, which meant it was kept off the
brewery's official tour.
Only a small plaque marked its existence, but the Speight's
tunnel was not the only hidden passage still running under
Across town, Dunedin Hospital boasted two - both built in the
1960s - one of which was now sealed up, while the other
carried steam pipes and was closed to the public.
Mr Entwisle said one of the tunnels ran under Cumberland St,
between the hospital's clinical services block and the
nurses' home, and was built in the 1960s for nurses to cross
It proved unpopular, and eventually the pedestrian overbridge
that spanned Cumberland St was built instead, crossing the
road in the same area, he said.
''What they found was the nurses didn't particularly care to
use it [the tunnel]. I don't know if they were spooked by it,
or they just thought it was too inconvenient ... but instead
they kept on dashing across the road.''
A third tunnel, built in 1957, could still be found at Wakari
Hospital, running 115m from the main hospital block to the
Photos published in the Evening Star when it opened showed
nurses strolling four abreast along its length, and Southern
District Health Board spokesman Steve Addison said it was
The fear of bombardment during World War 2 had also prompted
the construction of bomb shelters around the central city,
Exchange and even at the University of Otago, many of which
were still intact.
Peter McGrouther, the university's northeast sector
facilities manager, took the ODT on a tour of WW2-era
bomb shelters built under the Geology and Archway West
buildings during the 1940s.
One was a long, thin corridor running down the back of the
Geology building's southern end, while a second was found in
the building's old basement, which had been converted from
use as a morgue and strengthened.
A third shelter was down two flights of stairs in the
basement of the international office, below ground level.
However, more mysterious were old engineering drawings from
1942 depicting plans to build an underground bunker with
space for up to 80 people under the neatly trimmed lawn next
to Marama Hall.
A similar structure was proposed for somewhere between the
university and professors' houses, but it was not known if
either was built.
''That's the thing - this sort of history is lost,'' Mr
''We are not sure if they were built or not.''
Other bunkers could still be found scattered through central
Dunedin, in cellars and more unlikely places.
Mr Entwisle said ''quite a few'' shelters had been built
around the Octagon, the Exchange and surrounding streets, to
protect the city's busiest places during World War 2.
One shelter built in 1941, under a Bond St building built in
1901, was used last year for the launch of a Dunedin fashion
label. It still had some of its original features, including
a water reticulation system and shelving for rations.
Mr Entwisle said the remains of another could be found
directly below the entrance to the Dunedin Public Art
''You know when you walk in the front door of the art
gallery? It's under your feet.
''They lowered its ceiling ... but it's essentially still
More impressive could be the remains of Dunedin's underground
conveniences - public toilets that used to dot the central
city, with staircases leading down below ground.
Perhaps the most well known was the toilet in the Octagon,
near the Regent Theatre, which opened in 1910 and was finally
closed with the redevelopment of the Octagon in 1989.
It was destroyed in the process, council heritage policy
planner Dr Glen Hazelton said, but Mr Entwisle said other
impressive examples might remain, buried underground.
That included another of the conveniences built in the
Exchange, directly under the Cargills Monument, which opened
in 1910 and was closed in 1961.
Council records showed it, too, was demolished and filled in,
but Mr Entwisle said that might not be correct.
''They just piled stones down it when they covered it over.
''If you opened it up and pulled all the rocks out, it would
still be dressed as it was.''
Mr Entwisle said the toilets had become ''pretty awful, very
dirty, very grubby'' places by the time they were being
closed, and also associated, rightly or wrongly, with
However, the decorative interior of the toilet under the
Cargills Monument would be reminiscent of the Dunedin Railway
Station, he said.
''Not as grand as that, but definitely of that sort ...They
weren't thinking this is just some sort of utilitarian thing,
''If they saw the ones that we provide, these sort of plastic
Portaloo thingies, they'd think we'd really lost the plot.''