recorded in the Herald of the day only by a change in the advertised
railway timetable - the line had been open to within 24 kilometres
of Humansdorp for seven months by then. Nobody seems to have
remembered, however, that the world's highest narrow gauge railway
bridge, across the Van Stadens gorge near Port Elizabeth, turned 75
on April 18.
The origin of the line
goes back to 1896. In his book on South African narrow gauge
railways, ''Twenty-four Inches Apart", a former Port Elizabeth man,
Sydney Moir, says the idea of Ľa railway line between Port Elizabeth
and the Langkloof was first suggested by J C Mackay in a study,
He said a line through the fertile farm land
between Port Elizabeth and Uniondale would help develop the area. He
based his calculations on the traffic using the Gamtoos River ferry.
As a result the Cape railways department did a
survey of the route and concluded a standard gauge line would be too
expensive to build.
In 1898 a Norwegian born Cape Railways district
engineer, Christian Bodker, published "Little Railways of the Cape
Colony". He backed Mackay's theory but suggested Avontuur should be
the western terminal.
The Cape parliament was convinced and passed an
Act in 1899 providing R890 000 to build the 287kilometre line to
The survey got underway in March and included
the possibility of a branch line to Hankey.
By 1900 funds were increased to RI 140 000 and
work began on the Port Elizabeth terminus. Work ceased in April
because of the lack of labour as a result of the Boer War.
With peace in 1902, work began again. By the
end of the year the first 23 kilometres had been laid. Imported
Australian hardwood sleepers were used. A small engine and trucks
arrived and construction began in earnest.By early 1904 the line was
open as far as the Van Stadens gorge, where the world's highest
narrow gauge bridge was being built. The spidery steel bridge swept
124 metres across the gorge, 77 metres above the river. During the
14 months of construction a workman fell and spent 40 minutes,
hanging by an armpit before he was rescued.
At the end of 1904 the resident engineer,
Christian Bodker, was killed near the bridge site. His motor trolley
was rammed by the construction locomotive. It had become stuck on a
hill. He is buried at the South End cemetery.
A report in the Herald records that the
bridge was opened on April 18, 1905, when the last red hot rivet was
"assisted in its setting by a smart tap gracefully delivered by Mrs
Rees (wife of the acting resident engineer), who performed the
honour with a silver hammer".
As a small locomotive moved safely across the bridge a cannon was
fired to proclaim it open. The hammer was given to Mrs Rees. Among
the speeches it was mentioned the line would, eventually continue as
far as Robertson.
Meanwhile in Rhodesia the world's highest bridge at the Victoria
Falls had also been completed, but it was only opened in September.
It retained its lofty title for many years.
A 147 metre wooden trestle bridge across the
Gamtoos River had also been
completed and on May 1, 1905 the line was opened as far as the
Kabeljous River near Humansdorp.
But the Gamtoos bridge proved to be ill-fated.
Twenty-seven metres of the partially completed bridge were washed
away during the annual flood of 1904.
Uitenhage historian Mrs P N A Coates notes that
the following September a flood higher than the tops of
telegraph poles swept away the bridge and nearby station.
The valley became a lake three kilometres wide. A nine span
section of the bridge buoyantly rode the flood waters down river
until it was smashed against the piles of the iron road bridge. It
was some time before the repairs were completed.
The line was opened as far as Humansdorp on
November 1 without much ceremony. The first superintendent was J R
Moore who later became the general manager of the South African
The bridge across the Baakens River to connect
the narrow gauge line with the main station was also finished in
1905. By the next year the little trains were steaming in and out of
Port Elizabeth station.
A decision to build a branch to Walmer was
taken in 1905. The first sod of the construction was turned in
September by the proprietor of the Herald, Edgar Walton.
A reporter records: "Mr Walton then stepped
towards the spade which had evidently been made very firm, and after
a little effort which created some amusement, he turned over the sod
The branch was officially opened on December
15, 1906. It branched off at Valley Junction, ran down Second Avenue
and along Villiers Road to Fifth
Avenue. From there it headed down Water Road to
a terminus at 14th Avenue.
The main line was opened as far as Avontuur on
December 10, 1906. The official speed limit was a stately 19
kilometres an hour.
By 1910 people living along the line took the
engine driver's watch as standard time and set their clocks by it.
The timber bridge across the Gamtoos was
replaced in 1911 with the completion of the Sauer bridge which was
unique in; its day. Its 70-metre spin was the longest and heaviest
unsupported span in Africa and the first Parker truss type in the
It was opened by the Minister of Railways, J W
Sauer, on October 24. Like the timber tressle bridge, its piles were
driven 27 metres into the mud to reach the underlying shale.
Meanwhile the Hankey branch was being built and
was completed in 1914 with an extension to Patensie.
Until then farmers upstream of the Gamtoos
bridge had to be happy with the Railway Mail, a motor launch which
.met all trains and took goods 15 kilometres upriver.
The launch also featured in special weekend
excursion advertisements. For an extra 25 cents a trip to the river
mouth was included in the train journey.
The first toilets were installed in the coaches
during 1916 at the Uitenhage workshops. Until then passengers had to
make sure calls of nature coincided with the relevant station as not
all had facilities.
At its peak the Walmer branch carried 22 trains a day. But a rival
bus service and the popularisation of the motorcar during the 1920s
saw it close down on November 26, 1928. Within two months the line
had been ripped up and nothing remained except the pockmarked
ballast. Today there is no trace at all except for a display in the
The Humewood Road station was remodeled in 1962
and a concrete bridge did away with the level crossing.