Originally named Kowai Pass, Springfield first began to be established in approximately 1860. Records show that the first land was taken up by Mr Gillanders and Mr Say, the first hotel was built by Mr Willis and the first store was built by Mr Henry Williamson. The town was renamed in 1880 by postal authorities when the railway was extended from Sheffield. This was done to avoid confusion with the Kowai district in Amberley.
The discovery of gold on the West Coast helped to give momentum to the growth of Springfield. Due to its location on the main road from Christchurch to the West Coast, Springfield became one of the major staging posts along this route. West Coast coach business Cassidy and Co was established in the town in 1865. The journey from Christchurch to Hokitika took much longer than it does today. The present road was opened 8 March 1866, with the first coaches designed to take 8 passengers, 6 inside and 2 out, running twice a week. The itinerary at this time was something like the following:
- Leave Chch at 8am
- Reach Springfield by rail at 11.15am
- Stay at Springfield for luncheon
- Leave by coach at 12.30pm
- Arrive at the Bealey at 7.30pm
- The Bealey is left early next morning
- Otira gorge is reached before or about noon
- The journey ends in the afternoon.
It wasn’t until the discovery of coal and clay suitable for pottery that Springfield became a town in its own right. The Springfield Collery Company was one of the biggest coal mining enterprises in Canterbury. At full production the mine employed 130 people and produced 100 tons per day. A large proportion of this went directly to the pottery works where it was used to fire the kilns. The last coal was taken in 1940, however main production ceased in the 1890s when the mines were hit by a disastrous flood. Around this time it also became uneconomical to produce bricks so far from Christchurch, and the population of Springfield quickly shrank.
The arrival of the railway in 1880 was another cause of growth in the town. Daily passenger and goods trains were well patronized, giving local families the ability to go on day trips to Christchurch, and allowing farmers to freight their produce and livestock to markets outside the area. While it soon became obvious that the Midland Line would need to continue on to the West Coast, it was not until 1907 that the Otira tunnel, the final link between the two coasts, was finally started. It was finally opened in 1923. The railway continued to boost the population of Springfield for much of the 21st century.
Electricity did not reach Springfield until 1926 via Lake Coleridge and much later to many of the surrounding farms.
The size of Springfield school gives some indication of how big the township became. It was first established in 1860. It consisted of one room and was build opposite the present domain. The doors first opened in 1871 with a roll of only 18 students. This had increased to 56 a year later, with over 100 students and 3 teachers by 1880. By 1900 this had fallen back to 56. The school moved to its present site in 1931.
Today, Springfield is a much smaller town in a predominantly farming community. Many people still stop here as part of their journey between Christchurch and the West Coast, and the town still boasts a petrol station, general store, hotel, café and railway station. The school is still open with a role of between 30 and 40, with students traveling from as far away as Castle Hill and Bealey every day.