Eastern Province Herald - Thursday October 30 1980

 

On Saturday a special Apple Express will commemorate the first trip from Port Elizabeth to Humansdorp on the narrow gauge railway line in 1905.
The event- itself

was 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, "Light Railways".

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 Avontuur.

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 Railways.

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 amid applause."

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 country.

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 Walmer library.

The Humewood Road station was remodeled in 1962 and a concrete bridge did away with the level crossing.