Ross Higgins’ concept of a private Steam Museum was born out of a life long respect and love for steam, after working at his grandfather’s mill in the Ronga Valley, Marlborough.
The building of a sawmill was first mooted in 1970 using diesel power. A possible government grant of $250,000 was an inspiration, but that was not to be. Approaches to the Waimea County Council, Nelson Public Relations Office and local businessmen drew a negative response.
In 1973 Ross Higgins and John Christian, a retired sawmiller, decided to build a replica of a 1920’s sawmill on Ross’ property in the Pigeon Valley. The mill was powered by an IHC WD40 diesel bulldozer until 1974. Sadly, by 1980 John’s eyesight was failing and handed the entire operation over to Ross, being unable to assist from that time.
The diesel engine failed in 1981 and became irreparable. Various other means of power were tried, the most successful being Jack Chamber’s Fowler Traction engine which regrettably failed in 1986. In 1984, Ross Higgins purchased for $10,000 a 1906 10hp Marshall portable steam mill engine and proceeded to convert the mill to steam power using a plan provided from Brownlee’s 1876 Havelock Mill.
The N.Z. Forest Service Director, Mr Kirkland, and Nelson’s Chief Engineer, Kelvin Cochrane were very supportive. The countershaft, design by Mr Cochrane and supported by beams donated by Mr Duncan Rutherford from the Waiau bridge, together with materials stripped and retrieved from the old Waitakai Picton freezing works, came together and represented many months of hard voluntary work by a few people.
Unfortunately, the Marshall appeared to lack power and friends in the timber industry suggested that was the reason steam had been replaced by electricity 50 years ago. Ross, however, persevered. The Marshall was refurbished and with the aid of pulley belts from Brownlee’s Rau Rau mill, saved the display of a sawmill powered by a steam engine which linked to the early development in New Zealand’s history.
The sawmill is currently driven by a Dorman diesel engine.
Demonstrations of how the saw mill works are held on most Steam Up days, and on other weekend shows