The first steam railway in South Africa ran in Durban in 1860 but, as this article by Terry Hutson shows, Durban actually had a railway a couple of years before that. Terry is owner of the excellent Ports and Shipping site which has much of interest about all Southern African ports including shipping movements. Allan Jackson.


- the story of South Africa's wooden railway

by Terry R Hutson

No story and record of the Durban railway and it's locomotives would be complete if the Bluff Railway was ignored. Four years before the building of the Durban - Point railway, a line just 100 yards short of one mile had been constructed and was in operation on the Bluff side of Durban harbour. There was little glamour in this compared to the fanfare and ceremony experienced across the bay in 1860, and today nothing remains of this venture, which had such an important effect on the viability of the port.

The picture, above left, shows a view taken from the Bluff and showing the wooden railway running along the fringe of the bush. The map of the railway, above right, was drawn by PC Sutherland in 1860. Click the pictures to view enlargements. Images courtesy Terry Hutson.

To understand the reasons for the building of this little railway, it is necessary to examine some of the background. The commencement of Durban, as a settlement for whites from the Cape and Europe had its beginnings in 1824, when a party of traders under the leadership of Lieut. Francis G Farewell, RN, with about twenty other adventurers, was given permission by the Governor of the Cape Colony to establish a station at Natal "for the advancement of. trade and civilisation". Prior to this the bay at Port Natal, or Durban as it was to become, had experienced few European visitors since Vasco da Gama's reported visit here in 1497 with his Portuguese. The exceptions were those unfortunate souls who were shipwrecked in the vicinity during the next three and a quarter centuries, and forced to remain in the shelter of the bay of Natal and await rescue or build new ships to make good their escape.

Farewell's party arrived in the brig Salisbury in 1824, and after having obtained permission from the Zulu king, Shaka, created a settlement. which was later to grow into the town and then city of Durban. Despite several setbacks, including having the town sacked by the Zulus during the reign of King Dingane in 1838 and being besieged by Voortrekker settlers four years later, the young settlement survived and grew, and by the late .1840s it was beginning to receive shiploads of new settlers and accompanying cargo.

The Bay of Natal, in essence a great lagoon watered by several rivers, is bordered on the south by the Bluff, a prominent headland which formed the only natural [such] feature along the entire Natal coast. To the north of the Bluff [and across the entrance channel to the bay] lies a spur of land which, from early days, was called the Point. The mouth of the bay contains a natural submarine sandbank, the Bar, which at. times had a depth of a mere six feet. (2 metres) of water at high tide, preventing anything other than the smallest sea-going vessels from entering or departing, and then only at great peril to themselves.

As more and more settlers arrived in the late 1840s the necessity of improvements to the harbour entrance became more critical. Between 1849 and 1850 imports doubled and it also became apparent that larger and larger ships were used. The inability of these vessels to enter the bay resulted in them anchoring in the outer anchorage, which was notorious in bad weather; witness the fact that 66 ships were blown ashore from this anchorage and wrecked on Durban's South Beach between the years 1845-185. Thus it became of paramount importance to find a solution to the problem posed by the Bar and, to this end in 1849, a commission was appointed to examine this problem.

Resulting from this, the Government of Natal appointed Mr John Milne, a civil engineer who had recently arrived on one of the Byrne immigrant ships, to attend to the matter. Following his own observations, Milne decided that the tidal velocity into and out of the bay could he increased by reducing the size of the mouth, thereby causing the tides to scour the sandbanks and remove the problem. He proposed building a north pier from the Point and a south pier from the end of the Bluff and he estimated that the effects of this would result in a permanent depth at the harbour entrance of 30ft. (9 metres),

Among his various problems, which included gross underfunding, was a lack of suitable stone within reasonable distance of the harbour. A quarry existed at Cato Manor, on the other side of the Berea ridge, and other stone could be obtained to the north of the Berea at the Umgeni, both of which would have required considerable effort to collect and transport. On the other side of the harbour mouth sandstone existed at the base of the Bluff, and this offered a practicable source. The Bluff sandstone was highly calcareous with fossil shell but Milne, ater discussing the matter with Natal's Surveyor General, Dr William Stanger, decided that once submerged under water the stone would prove durable enough for the building of the north pier.

The stone was initially quarried opposite the Point, at a position roughly where Wests Railway station now stands. Nearly 60ft (18 metres) of soil had to be removed to expose the stone. This was worked until 1854, after which the work of quarrying stone 'was moved to the end of the Bluff, where exposed rock facing the sea fifty foot above sea level could be quarried. Long drills and gunpowder were used to blast loose the rock. 'To convey the rock from this new position to a quiet place in the bay itself from where it could be ferried across the channel, Milne elected to build a railway. It is interesting to note that John Milne always insisted that his new railway, the first in South Africa, was not to be called a tramway. He argued that the industrial tramways of Britain consisted of flanged tracks between which unflanged wheels ran, whereas he had designed and built and built flanged wheels to run on wooden rails.

Construction of the Railway:

William Campbell and Richard Godden tendered for and were awarded the contract for earthworks for the new railway. Milne proposed that Robert Thompson, a professional sawyer, ~should be awarded the job of sawing lengths of timber for the tracks, but was overruled by the harbour committee who insisted on tenders being called. A general handyman, whose other possible claim to fame lay in the fact that he had been one of Dick King's wagon drivers, and assisted by a runaway sailor, was duly awarded the contract and they set about their duties. Milne's amusing description best fits their abilities: "...and having begun work, it soon appeared that the saw, at least, was very peverse, She went out to windward and to leeward, whether they would or not, and that therefore they could not cut the rails straight as they were bound to. Moreover these unfortunate men blamed not only the saw but one another and not agreeing on this latter point, thrashed one another so tightly that the co-partnership was soon broken up".

The harbour committee felt these two should be given another chance, but adjusted the work rates, following which the two ne'er-do-wells spent. much of their time sharpening their saw and carrying away ruined logs. When the cost of sawing had escalated to five times that quoted by Mr. Thompson, the committee finally agreed that Milne could appoint whoever he chose, and Thompson and later , Messrs. Charles Gregory and William Hart completed the work and the track was duly laid.

The track was laid at an average height of six feet above high tide, and measured just under one mile in length (:1,6) km), At the end of the Bluff a rather prominent corner had to blasted away to allow for the track's curvature. The track hugged the side of the Bluff until it reached the point. where the loading jetty was to be built. It was built. Dead level with a worst curve of some 100ft. The gauge used was 4ft., and the sawn timber rails, cut lengthways along the timber, were taken from local Milkwood trees, which grew in profusion on the Bluff. The timer rails were wedged into cuts made onto the rounded top of half log sleepers, which were laid with their flat sides down.

Eight wagons were designed and built. to John Milne's specifications .Each four-wheeled wagon, with wooden wheels and flanges, had a capacity of three tons. They measured eight feel long, five feet wide and three feet high. A train consisted of four of the wagons hauled by a team of eight oxen. Once a week a fresh span of ten oxen was swum across the bay to relieve the other. It was said that they made such a noise, accompanied by their Zulu drivers who added to the din with shouting and cracking of whips, that they could be heard long before they came into view around the Bluff. The stone was cut into squares weighing about about50lb each and were cut into shapes which allowed them to be locked into each other. The costs of quarrying the stone was estimated at1s.9d per ton and the hire of the lighter to ferry it across the harbour mouth at1s.4d per ton, The railway itself was commenced in February 1856 and completed that year.

Not too much stone from the new quarry could have been carried on the railway, as the work on the pier, which had reached 150 yards (137 metres) by the end of that same year, was halted in 1857 on instructions from the new Lieut. Governor, John Scott, who believed that the work was taking too long and was proving too costly. This latter was in spite of the fact that Milne had spent only 14% of the original amount voted for his project, and his spending had included the building of a road into town, building of a jail, and the building of embankment in addition to some 500ft. of pier. At the loading point, the stone had been manually loaded onto a specially constructed flat-bottomed lighter, named Came. Milne had proposed building a jetty to facilitate this, the Lieut. Governor refused to sanction it, Scott. also believed that no further work on the north pier should proceed until the opinion of higher engineering authority in England had been obtained.

John Milne took exception to this and to instructions to proceed with using methods which he clearly did not agree with, and he was suspended from his duties. As a result, he either resigned or was asked to resign as Harbour Engineer in 1858. From subsequent reading of the background to this affair, it appears that Milne was harshly and unfairly treated. The committee appointed to investigate and report on the matter included George Cato, a leading personality in Durban, who had long been critical of Milne's proposals and, it is suggested, may have had reasons to feel aggrieved that Milne would never agree to buying stone from Cato's own quarry at Cato Manor. In his reply to the committee on this very point, Milne said that he " never had any great objection to the use of stone from Cato's Manor except that of the great expense of bringing it to the worked." He went on that the calculations of bringing a railroad to Congella and to Cato's Manor (over the ridge behind the Berea) would have proved far too costly. This point. provides interesting speculation on railway development in Durban had these proposals indeed been carried out!

Of all the costly later attempts in overcoming the problem of the sandbar at. the entrance to Durban harbour, it was later to be proved that Milne's ideas were very close to being vindicated, certainly in respect of where he commenced building the north pier. His railway, albeit of 'wooden construction and drawn by oxen, proved highly successful, and introduced to the young colony a new method of transport, which it shortly was to develop and pioneer even further.

The Bluff Railway, although fallen into disuse following Milne's resignation, remained in situ until at least the early 1870s. Natal Government Railways constructed a railway in 1896 from a junction on the South Coast line at Clairwood to a terminus at. Wests Station.. In the early part of the 20th century an extension to this .line was made around the corner of the Bluff to service a number of whaling stations, by then established on the seaward side of the promontory. This line was laid over the original wooden railway trackbed and extended several kilometers further on. Although, since the mid-seventies it is no longer in use and is 1argely covered by a gravel road and undergrowth, this track still exists.

The sources this article include:

  • Birth and Development of the Natal Railways, The: F.D. Campbell: Shuter and Shuter: 1951
  • Cradle Days of Natal 1497-191845: Graham Mackeurtan: Shuter and Shuter: 1948.
  • Enterprise and Exploration in a Victorian Colony: Editors Guest & Sellers, Author Louise Heydenrych: University of Natal Press: 1985.
  • History of Old Durbam: George Russell: P Davis & Sons: 1899.
  • Father of City - the life and work of George Christopher Cato First Mayor of Durban; Eric Goetzshe: Shuter and Shuter:
  • Shipwreck & Survival: AR Wilcox: Drakensberg Press: 1984
  • Who saved Natal? - the story of the Victorian Harbour Engineers of Colonial Port Natal: Colin Bender: Self Published: 1988.


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