The Sign of the Packhorse

Built 1919 and designed by Samuel Hurst Seager, the Sign of the Packhorse is one of the rest houses constructed as part of Harry Ell’s Summit Road vision.

Packhorse Hut
Packhorse Hut. Creator (cre): kvsharp, Contributor (ctb): kvsharp.

The Sign of the Packhorse is one of four rest houses planned by Henry (Harry) George Ell, a Member of Parliament for South Christchurch and conservationist. In 1900, Ells envisioned a track which would begin at Dyers Pass, follow the hills of Banks Peninsula and culminate at Akaroa. Along this route he intended to construct rest houses which would provide shelter and refreshments for groups of walkers.

In 1908 construction began on what would become the Summit Road and in 1909 the Summit Road Scenic Reserves Board was founded.

In keeping with Ell’s vision, a rest house was planned for the Kaituna Saddle, on land which was gifted by the Gray family. Material for the building’s construction was initially delivered to the Parkinson farm in the Kaituna Valley before being transported to the saddle by bullock teams. By 1917 stone masons had erected the exterior walls of the rest house. However, it wasn’t completed until mid-1919.

Designed by Samuel Hurst Seager and built from stone, the rest house building is rectangular in shape with an open porch on the western façade. Entrance to the building is via the porch which leads into what was originally a living room. A photograph, taken in 1920, shows the living room furnished with tables and chairs, ready to receive visitors. From the living room, doors opened into two separate bunk rooms on the southern side of the building. A double sided fireplace serviced both the living room and south eastern bunk room.

Initially, the rest house was known as the Kaituna Saddle Rest House. It remained unoccupied and walking parties wishing to shelter there were able to borrow the key. By 1918 there were claims that the building was already suffering damage with the windows broken due to the weather.

In 1921 H.L. Dent was appointed the caretaker of the rest house. Dent did not stay in the position very long, nor did the caretakers who followed him. In the years following the board had difficulty in securing a caretaker, possibly due to its isolated location. The rest house was burgled in June 1927, with many of the furnishings either stolen or vandalised.

In 1922 the rest house was renamed, in keeping with the other rest houses planned by Ell, to the Sign of the Packhorse. In 1927 the reserve in which the rest house stood was placed under the control of the Summit Road Scenic Reserve Board.

By 1932 a caretaker was in residence at the rest house but by 1938 the trust was once again having difficulties acquiring a permanent caretaker. The building came under the management of the Department of Lands and Survey in 1939. Left to deteriorate, in 1941 it was recorded as being in a dilapidated condition and frequently used by sheep as a shelter.

The Summit Road eventually reached Gebbies Pass Road but did not proceed as far as the Sign of the Packhorse.

Although the Christchurch City Council took control of the remaining Summit Road reserves in 1947 and was granted financial assistance by the Government to restore the rest houses, the Sign of the Packhorse remained under the control of the Department of Lands and Survey. The building was leased by the Youth Hostel Association in 1948. By 1969 its maintenance was cared for by the Outward Bound Old Boys’ Association until 1972 when it passed to the Department of Lands and Survey. Its management passed to the Department of Conservation in 1987.

Since then the department has undertaken conservation work on the building. The windows were replaced in 1992 and 1994 with frames that were designed to replicate the window frames found at the Sign of the Kiwi. The floorboards and bunks, which had become rotten, were replaced in 2002. Although it suffered from some minor damage during the June 2011 earthquake, the building remains open for public use.