The “Little Train”

Reader Allan Banfield has written in with his memories of the miniature steam train which used to operate on the Beachfront and, in particular, throws some light on what happened to the steam engine and train. He also asks for some information:

Dear Allan
I relocated from Durban to Cape Town in 1975 and then subsequently to the UK in 1988. I have managed a number of return visits to Durban and have followed the changes with great interest.
As an architect, I think the current master plan is excellent – removing the cars and turning the immediate access into a pedestrian promenade on both The Upper and Lower Marine Parades. Once the final gap to the Umgeni Mouth and Blue Lagoon is complete, it will be a most impressive facility.
Could you help with some background information please?
What is the name of the sunken gardens / amphitheater near North Beach?
Whenever we visited with my parents up to the 70s, my Dad never failed to remind us that the gardens were built during the Great Depression years c1927/29. This was a relief work project initiated by the city council / state to provide work and income for the unemployed. He told us that white lawyers were wielding picks and shovels and pushing wheel barrows during the construction in order to put bread on the table for their families.
I have a few other stories about the beach which I will save for another e-mail.
Thanks for your site. You are performing a great nostalgia service for ex-Durbanites now living in many other parts of the world. It really is a super walk down memory lane reminding me of some great times back in the 60s and 70s.
Yours sincerely
Allan Banfield

I have always referred to them as the sunken gardens and amphitheater but would not be surprised to hear they have formal names. I have added Allan’s story to the bottom of the miniature trains page, originally started by Gerald Buttigieg.

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6 Responses

  1. Jan Ebersohn
    | Reply

    As a boy of about 7 or 8. I had a ride in the train. sitting in a white coach at the end, The coach had balconies and domed lights on the ceiling. Do I remember little tables between the seats? The size of the locomotive made it particularly attratctive. Probably the most impressive model train I have ever seen. What has happened to it?

  2. Elizabeth Miles nee Steyn
    | Reply

    Richard Lewis 3 December 2009, Gerald Buttigreg December 2009, asked for information on The Little Train.

    My father, Nick Steyn (1918-2000) was the owner. He was from Brakpan, Springs in the Transvaal, he was a miner’s son, moved to Durban during WWII to find work, worked in Lion Match Factory in Umgeni Road, the building with the magnificent reclining gold lion, during which time he met my mom Helen Grieve, whose stepfather Thornton ran a small train ride and paddle steamer in Northern Rhodesia along an adjoining river that I forget the name of. He and mom rented a flat in Park View Hotel, which was the only blue building in Durban at the time. Through shrewd financial moves including persuading investors to come aboard, he bought and railed to Durban as much as he could of his stepfather-in-law’s equipment, leased land from the council, where the Snake Park was later established, built a workshop and started laying tracks for his new venture which I think he started running in 1948, I was two years old.

    Wade Kidwell Feb 9, 2010, photos are of the later train that was diesel powered. This was established in front of the Beach Hotel. Dad took a long term lease and built up an amusement park that stands today and earned him the title ‘Mr Amusement’. His great dream of building a cable car ride was achieved on this site, amongst controversy from the then Manager of the Edward Hotel. This ride is a great way to see all of Durban’s coastline as you are carried along the line of all the hotels.

    Alan Banfield Jan 22, 2012, asks about the amphitheatre, it was called The Mini Amphitheatre which had wonderful stone structures, a cave, and many ornamental ponds, a popular place for family and wedding photo shoots, now all but gone.

  3. Gerald Buttigieg
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    Hi Elizabeth,
    Thanks for sharing the information regarding your father, Nick Steyn. My first ride on the Little Train was in Jan 1949, I was 5 then and it was based near the Snake Park. I have posted a picture of it on this site. I well remember the amusement centre that Nick started below Marine Parade in front of the Beach Hotel. The oversize glass fibre figures were a big hit with the small children. I know my children loved the battery operated tricycles. There was also a smallish dodgem car arena built into the bank and a track for self propelled “vintage cars” which took you on a route past the paddling ponds. You are quite right about the objections raised when the cable car idea was mooted but it was eventually passed and became a beachfront favourite.
    If you have any photos I am sure Allan Jackson would love to post them on the site. You can contact him via “Contact Us” on the Home Page banner.

    • Allan Jackson

      Hi Gerald
      Bearing in mind the impact that Nick Steyn did have on Durban, I have asked Elizabeth to cooperate in putting together a page on him and his career. She will be in Durban in the next few months and has promised to delve into the family archives to see what there is in the way of pictures and such. Something to look forward to.

  4. Nic van Der Westhuizen
    | Reply

    I will appreciate if anyone have more information or photos of the old Durban mini trains, or any miniature trains in SA. It will help me with my research into mini railways. Please send it to me
    Also see my webpage Maybe you can help by providing additional information.
    Nic van der Westhuizen

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