The history of Stephens Island Lighthouse
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. At a total cost of £9,349, the lighthouse cost twice that of many other lights in New Zealand.
Operation of the Stephens Island light
The light was first lit in 1894. Oil was initially used to power the illumination. In 1938 the light was converted to electric power, supplied by diesel generators.
The Stephens Island station was one of the last to be automated. The last keepers were withdrawn in 1989.
In 2000 the original light was removed and replaced with a new rotating beacon, located within the original tower.
The new light is fitted with a 50 watt tungsten halogen bulb powered by battery banks charged by solar panels.
The light is monitored remotely from Maritime New Zealand’s Wellington office.
Life at Stephens Island light station
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.
The introduction of helicopters, used to service the lighthouse, greatly improved access to the Stephens Island light station.
On Stephens Island the keepers were also honorary wildlife rangers. They kept a watchful eye on the tuataras and the dove petrels which also inhabited the island. Keepers were often paid an honorarium by the Wildlife Service to keep a check on visitors, maintain fences and provide reports on wildlife matters.
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. It was this seclusion however that was often the attraction to those living on light stations like Stephens Island.
In 1980 one of the last keepers at Stephens Island told the Weekend Star newspaper that life on the station:
“...makes you realise much about yourself and your own capabilities. Out here you end up being true to yourself. You have no outside pressures coming in. We live life to the full here, the way we want to live.”
Two of the original keeper’s houses have been retained and are used by the Department of Conservation.