The district was originally known as The Elbow. This was named because the Oreti River, after flowing in an easterly direction from Mossburn, suddenly turns and flows south to Foveaux Strait.
The nearby small settlement of Castle Rock was also known as The Elbow and this caused confusion with the new railway settlement which rapidly grew on the other side of the Oreti River and which was also provisionally called The Elbow. The residents of Castle Rock referred the dual name problem to the Mayor of Invercargill and to a regional representative at that time, a Mr George Lumsden. Mr Lumsden sent a telegram to the Railways Department advising them of the difficulty with two places called The Elbow, but he did not suggest an alternative. A local official suggested that Lumsden could be a suitable name and that was adopted.
It was the arrival of the railway in 1876 that made the town. Until then it consisted of little more than a hotel and a few shepherd huts. With the imminent arrival of the railway, the town was surveyed and buildings sprang up around the new railway station.
From the late 1870s Lumsden became an important rail centre. It soon became an important junction for railway lines in four different directions. First was the railway connecting Lumsden with Southland’s largest city, Invercargill. This 79 km line opened in February 1876, a year before the Selwood family arrived in Southland.
The railway was then pushed north to Kingston at the south end of Lake Wakatipu in south Otago. This 61 km line was opened in July 1878.
The third direction was to the east to connect Lumsden to Gore, which was on the South Island main trunk line connecting Dunedin to Invercargill. This 59 km privately-owned Waimea Plains Railway was opened in July 1880, but was taken over by the government in 1886 as part of the national network.
The fourth direction from Lumsden junction was to Mossburn in the west. This 16 km line opened in January 1887. The original vision was to push this line through to the Lake Te Anau district but the 1880-1895 depression years changed this, and rail traffic never reached original expectations. It was a low-traffic line with mostly lime and fertiliser brought in and wool and livestock taken out. Like most of the lines hubbing from Lumsden, the Mossburn line was operated on an alternate day basis.
Southland rail development in the 1870s was part of the far thinking vision of politician Julius Vogel. Through borrowing he launched, in 1870, his plan that focused on roads, rail and immigration. The Selwoods were a beneficiary of this scheme. By 1879 the rail network connected Christchurch to Invercargill. The branch line to Kingston, through Lumsden, was completed at a time that the Lakes District, Otago, and Southland were still enjoying their post gold-rush prosperity, but the decade that followed saw the New Zealand-wide depression years.
The original engines used for the first few years on the Southland branch lines were mainly the ‘F’ class Fairlies of 0-6-0 configuration. By 1900 the rather dashing American Rogers built ‘K’ class locomotives, of 2-4-2 configuration, were switched to and became the work-horse known as the Kingston Flyer. The 2-6-2 configeration “V’ class also worked this line. One of the ‘K’ class Rogers locomotives was dumped into the Oreti River in 1926 for erosion and flood control purposes at the end of its New Zealand Railways life. This engine, called “Washington”, pulled the first train to connect Christchurch to Dunedin in 1878. We fortunately have people and societies who are prepared to put the painstaking time, energy and money into rebuilding and restoring these relics of our steam rail past, and the Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum at Tinwald, Canterbury, has “Washington” K88 in full working order and open to the public.
Another railway preservation group is the Lumsden Heritage Trust. They have been very active in recent years bringing to life the early rail history of Northern Southland. In 2020 they have recovered two “V” class locomotives and their tenders dumped in the Oreti River in 1928 for bank flood protection. These engines along with some historic railway carriages are now being carefully restored at Lumsden on the old railway land between the Lumsden Railway Station and the nearby Royal Mail Hotel. Great work Lumsden Heritage Trust!
The town of Lumsden never became an inland boom town as initially predicted, and, with the demise of the various railway lines, the town has not progressed much more than a sleepy, but delightful, rural town. The Waimea Plains Railway partially closed in 1971, and fully closed in 1978 at the same time as the Lumsden to Kingston line was closed. The lines south to Invercargill and to Mossburn closed in 1982.
Today Lumsden town has a population of about 500. Like Mossburn to the west, it caters primarily for the passing tourist. The old Lumsden railway station, along with some engines and carriages, has been retained and serves as an information centre for the town and district.
James and Helena Selwood are buried at the Lumsden Cemetery. James Selwood died in 1899 at Parawa, and Helena Selwood died in Upper Hutt and is buried alongside her husband. Eldest son Henry has his ashes scattered at the base of the monument.
The late Neville Selwood tells a somewhat amusing story of the ashes of his father, Henry. Henry died on 15 May 1962 in Invercargill and was privately cremated. The funeral directors were MacDonald and Weston. The supplied ashes were scattered at the gravesite of Henry’s parents, Helena and James Selwood, in a private family gathering. Forty-six years later Neville attended the funeral of his sister in Invercargill at the same funeral directors’ chapel. One of the directors pulled Neville aside and said something to the effect, “we were tidying things up out the back and we came across an ashes container with the name Henry Selwood on it. Are they your Selwood family and what should we do with them?”. It was a complete shock to Neville that the ashes he had scattered at the Lumsden gravesite in 1962 were not those of his father! It took 46 years but Henry’s long-stored ashes were finally spread on his parents’ Lumsden gravesite.
In January 2001, those who attended the Selwood Reunion visited the Selwood plot at the Lumsden Cemetery. The reunion commemorated the 125th anniversary of the arrival of James and Helena in New Zealand. Grandson Neville Selwood, the archdeacon emeritus of the Anglican Church, Dunedin Diocese, gave a remembrance blessing at the graveside on behalf of those attending. A poignant occasion.
NZ Archives video about XX Glendinning and his engine-driving of the Kingston Flyer
Te Ara video about how steam shaped Lumsden and linked the town to Kingston and Queenstown via the Earnslaw steam ship on Lake Wakatipu