Queenstown History Facts and Timeline

(Queenstown, Otago, South Island, New Zealand)

View from the Skyline GondolaEnveloped by the aptly named Remarkables mountain range on Lake Wakatipu's shores, Queenstown has grown into one of New Zealand's most popular adventure tourism getaways.

Gold was once the main attraction during the history of this Otago resort town. Located in the middle of the southern part of New Zealand's South Island, the town supposedly received its name from a gold digger who proclaimed the town to be 'fit for Queen Victoria' over 100 years ago.

Maori Pounamu Discovery

Centuries before the first humans arrived in present-day Queenstown, a glacier formed one of its most breathtaking natural landmarks some 15,000 years ago, the Z-shaped Lake Wakatipu.

The region's first Maori settlers were attracted to New Zealand's now extinct giant bird species, the 'moa', as well as the green nephrite jade they called 'pounamu'. The Maori continued to gather pounamu (greenstone) and hunt seasonally around Queenstown well after the first Europeans reached the region in 1860.

European Settlement

Nicholas Von Tunzelman and William Rees originally intended Queenstown to be a farming community when they first arrived at the beginning of the 1860s. At the time, they could not have known that a dramatic turn in the history of the area was just around the corner - namely the discovery of gold. After burning much of the area's natural shrubs and beech forests, they planted numerous deciduous and fir trees to replace them, including larches and willows. Many of these forests remain today and serve as a reminder of those early days.

Gold Rush

Just two years after Queenstown was first established, the world's second-biggest alluvial gold haul was discovered in nearby Shotover River and Arrow River. Rees cancelled his pastoral lease and converted his wool shed into the Queen's Arms Hotel, and Queenstown briefly became a government-owned gold rush boom town.

It was a short-lived, albeit lucrative, gold rush that left behind a perfectly preserved museum town from the era. Arrowtown is now a side trip for curious visitors wishing to relive this part of Queenstown history.

The area's population shrunk by two-thirds once those who came to seek their fortune migrated to the South Island's west coast during the 1865 Westland gold rush. During the 1870s, quartz crushing became the most popular method to mine gold from Macetown's quartz reefs, the Shotover River and also Mount Aurum.

Adventure Capital of the World

Today, most Queenstown visitors come seeking thrills, not riches. Although the town's permanent population is only slightly more than 10,000 people, its annual tourism traffic is well over the one million mark. Queenstown's gorgeous scenery can also be admired in the background of the Lord of the Rings movies and numerous other films.

From winter skiing on the Remarkables to summer extreme sports such as bungee jumping and white water rafting, visitors can expect to find adventure in Queenstown, no matter when they visit. Those seeking a more sedate holiday, however, can also enjoy sampling wine from some of the world's southernmost vineyards or relaxing on a cruise of Lake Wakatipu.

Cruises can be enjoyed onboard the beautifully preserved TSS Earnslaw, a steamer that was once a ferry service and now departs twice a day on a cruise that mimics part of Queenstown's glorious history.