Construction of the hydro dam at Clyde and the subsequent creation of Lake Dunstan involved the destruction of an integral piece of Central Otago history – the original main street of Cromwell. Early in 1985 a group of local residents decided to save some of these original buildings and preserve this heritage for future generations. After the incorporation of the Society in 1986, the project was officially launched in March 1987 by Mr J Sutton, MP, who handed over a cheque for $30,000, the first instalment of a $132,000 grant from the Community and Public Sector Grants Scheme.
Other major grants were received from the Clyde Dam Amenity Fund, Tourism and Publicity Department, Cromwell Borough Council, Cromwell Community Board and more recently Lotteries Heritage & Environment Fund, Community Trust of Otago and Central Lakes Trust, coupled with a number of smaller grants, gifts and subscriptions. These financial contributions have complemented many hours of voluntary work by the Friends of Old Cromwell and employment scheme labour to transform the site from wasteland into an attractive visitor destination. Local service clubs and organisations have also contributed a significant amount of labour, expertise and equipment to assist the development. Initially, eight buildings from the old commercial area being demolished by the Ministry of Works & Development were chosen for reconstruction further up Melmore Terrace on a site above the new lake level – and so began ‘Old Cromwell Town’.
The concept of Old Cromwell Town today is based on terms of ‘believable’ town planning. That is, the Board has reconstructed a commercial, residential and rural zone where land is divided into distinct sections. This has been done to retain the authenticity of ‘street life’, industries and activities taking place side by side, as opposed to an open plan ‘theme’ type layout. The heritage precinct is a combination of “museum-style” buildings which are open on a daily basis to the public to walk through and enjoy, while other buildings are tenanted by artisan style businesses. This type of operation will ensure the precinct is financially viable into the future and gives the Board funds for maintenance and further development. People can now enjoy this delightful asset, a visual reminder of ‘how it used to be’ during the gold era of 1860-1900.