Big changes in a little town: Franz Josef Glacier 1951 to 2015


These amazing historic shots show the changing face of Franz Josef Glacier between 1951 and 2015.


glacier hub franz josef NO PERMISSION

Franz Josef Glacier 1951

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Franz Josef Glacier 2015

Inspired by these old shots, we thought we’d take a look at some of the big events that have shaped Franz Josef since the days when this first photo was taken.  It hasn't always been easy on the West Coast, there were many challenges to overcome to establish guiding on Franz Josef Glacier.  Luckily, they breed 'em tough on the West Coast and a few hardy locals were able to transform the tiny settlement of Waiho (Franz Josef) into one of New Zealand's biggest tourism drawcards.


When gold was discovered on the West Coast of New Zealand in 1864, it led to a population explosion that transformed the isolated region into a bustling community with towns and ports. 

By the 1890s, the gold was exhausted and a few hardy pioneers decided that the striking natural landscapes and mighty glaciers were worthy of a tourism industry.

But it wasn’t an easy ambition. The dense rainforest made getting here very challenging and the changing face of the glacier presented many challenges throughout the 100-year history of guiding.

Despite the challenges, the invincible West Coast spirit and a will to share this beautiful landscape with visitors persevered.  There has been a tourist industry at Franz Josef Glacier since the first tourist hotel opened in 1897. 

Getting here... in a time before highways

historic road

When the first brave tourists first made their way to Franz Josef Glacier in the early 1900s it was along the seacoast.  The journey involved hazardous river crossings and scrambling over coastal bluffs.  It was an adventure in itself.  By 1911, things became easier when a new road opened between Hokitika and Franz Josef.  It was a three-day journey by horse or 12 hours by car.  These days, that same journey takes a little under 2 hours.  The Hokitika road was a significant achievement and one that would pave the way for a tourism and guiding industry at Franz Josef.

By 1965, the Haast Pass Highway opened giving tourists coming from the south an easy route between the West Coast and Otago.

Establishing glacier tourism

historic Graham brothers Freda du Faur copy

The first glacier trips onto Franz Josef Glacier begun with William Batson in 1906.  The local tourism pioneer was also the first to establish a tourist hotel in Franz Josef in 1897.

Despite his abilities as a host and storyteller, the legendary Graham brothers soon superseded his mountaineering skills.  The brothers were superior mountaineers and West Coast legends, and would soon become pioneers of mountain guiding in New Zealand.  In 1903, Peter Graham took his first trip onto the glacier. 

Peter and Alec were also responsible for many of the huts and trails that were established in the early 1900s.  Spare a thought for how difficult this would have been in those early days.  There was no aircraft to help out, every board or sheet of iron for a hut would have to be carried up glacier and across snowfields

The changing glacier

Historic ice skating sml

By the mid-1920s, tourists could do a round trip up the glacier, using tracks on either side of the valley, guided by the likable and highly experienced Graham brothers.

A challenging period began in 1934 when the glacier receded almost a kilometre over a 12 year period.  A lake formed at the terminal face and hikers were ferried to the ice by boat.  This was considered a dangerous method of access highlighted by the fact that an iceberg once shot up from the lake, nearly swamping the boat.

During this same period, a giant ice cavern formed at the terminal face of the glacier, creating a spectacular feature for tourists to explore.  Health and Safety standards might have been a bit more relaxed back then.

By 1965, the glacier had begun to advance again, as shown in the first couple of photos in the Glacier Hub article.  A huge face of ice at the terminal was created and access became challenging.

Helicopters were first used to access Franz Josef Glacier in the 1980s.  Following a number of warm winters, the glacier was undergoing a significant retreat and access became very difficult.

In the last 5 years, Franz Josef Glacier Guides have also experienced a challenging period on Franz Josef Glacier as the glacier undergoes another period of retreat.  Currently, all glacier tours are by helicopter due to the changing nature of the glacier’s terminal face.

Want to see the changing face of Franz Josef Glacier?  Check out this article from Glacier Hub showing some amazing photos from Franz Josef Glacier.  The images in this article have been taken from The National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Glacier Photograph Collection, an amazing collection of images also worth checking out.


glacier hub franzjosef 1999 NO PERMISSION

Franz Josef Glacier 1999