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The steam engine that built a harbour

by Clive Dennison

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The Frontier at the old jetty at Port St. Johns - note the stacked sneezewood pilings.
Picture courtesy Clive Dennison.

The Natal, the first locomotive in South Africa, was imported as a private venture. It arrived in Durban on 13 May 1860 aboard the brig Cadiz and was operated on a track of British standard gauge, between the Point and West Street, in Durban. A good account of these events is given in George Russell’s book, History of Old Durban.

The line was officially opened on 25 June 1860 and continued to operate until 1875, when the Natal government bought it. The government promptly dug it up to make the line consistent with the Cape gauge. This rendered the Natal locomotive obsolete and it was laid up in storage. However, it was destined to play an unexpected role in the development of Durban harbour.

Sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum) provides the best timber for marine jetty piles, as it is impervious to attack by the so-called shipworm Teredo navalis (which is actually a mollusc). Sidney Maytom, grandson of Sidney Turner (a pioneer of both Durban and Port St. Johns), has left an account of his grandfather’s involvement in the production of sneezewood piles for jetties in Port St. Johns and Durban.

Maytom relates: “With the very much increased amount of merchandise being sent by sea through Port St. John's, it was obvious that better facilities were required and engineers were sent to erect a bigger and better jetty to meet this need. Logs were harvested from a stand of sneezewood trees, a few miles up the Mzimvubu River and close to the bank. Expert sawyers, from Knysna, cut them by hand, in sawpits, into 12 inch x 12 inch piles.”

At the same time, Durban harbour was being extended in the direction of the Point and sneezewood piles were also required there but the local forests were worked out. The demand exceeded the possible supply from Port St. Johns, if the piles were cut by hand. This led Sidney Turner to come up with an alternative plan. In Durban he had seen an exhibition of the Natal, which was now laid up in storage, and he conceived the idea of moving it to Port St. Johns to cut sneezewood piles.

In Maytom’s words, “It has never been clearly established who owned this engine but with Capt. Turner’s assurance that he could transport it to Port St. John's on his ship, the Somtseu, he was given the contract to do so.

He went back to Port St John's straight away, with the ship’s measurements. One hundred Pondo people were employed and with a spade each they dug a channel into the mud bank near the sawpits to take the ship nose onto the bank for about 20 metres. After a somewhat boisterous trip from Durban, the Somtseu went straight up to Cooper’s farm, on the top of the spring tide, and into her muddy graving dock.

All was excitement during the offloading and assembly of the engine. The smaller parts were easy, but the boiler was a mammoth undertaking. Aided by the ship’s winch and many pounds of axle grease, the boiler was gradually nudged ashore. It was firmly secured onto some pads of concrete, and all was got ready for the first cut to be made.

The logs were dragged from the forest by teams of 16 large oxen and deposited on a travelling rack. On rails, this was drawn towards the circular saws by means of an old sailing ship’s steering wheel that the captain had bought in Durban. This was affixed to the end of a drum, around which was wound a steel hawser. By revolving the drum, the wire pulled the cradle towards the revolving teeth on the saw. The noise was ear-splitting. As boys of about 15 years of age, we used to run up to opposite the sawpits and swim across to help with the winding gear.

The Somtseu transported the piles to Durban for the jetty there. Some were loaded into the hold and longer ones were secured alongside with heavy chains. In rough weather they made a terrific noise banging against the side. The author made some trips to Durban and was scared that the ship would disintegrate with the banging that went on all night.

At long last both jetties were completed and the gallant "first ever locomotive in South Africa” was abandoned to the mercy of wind, rain and rusting.

However, the bank on which it had been mounted subsided and it was soon completely submerged in mud and remained so for a long time until the author’s father, Charles Maytom, told Mr. Sandy Sneddon, the foreman manager of James Brown Ltd. of Durban, of its whereabouts. Sneddon passed the information to Railway Headquarters and in no time a squad of men with some large trucks went to Port St. John’s, where they unearthed the engine and took it to Durban.

Surprisingly, there was little rust and the metal had stood up remarkably well to its long immersion in the mud. After being cleaned and reassembled, it was mounted on display at the Durban Station’s platform.”

Sidney Maytom’s account rings true and some of it can be confirmed. On the website, http://www.fad.co.za/Resources/rail/natal.htm, Allan Jackson writes: “An interesting booklet on the Natal’s engine was written by Theo J. Espitalier and published in 1944. It seems that the Natal was sold in 1879 to Mr. Crowther (Cooper?) who had the idea of using it to power a sawmill on his farm, about four miles up the Umzimvubu River. The engine was dismantled and shipped to the farm on the ketch Sir Evelyn Wood but wasn't used because the farm labourers objected. The pieces of the locomotive were eventually buried near the river, which then deposited silt over the top of everything.

There the Natal sat until Espitalier was sent, with a small team, to recover it. The Natal was returned to Durban on a 10-ton lorry on 26 June 1944, years after it had drawn the first train in South Africa.”

The two accounts agree on the essentials that the Natal’s engine was transferred to Port St. Johns and subsequently recovered from there. Espitalier says it was shipped in the Sir Evelyn Wood in 1879, at which time Sidney Turner was the Captain of this ship. Maytom gives no dates and might have got the name of the ship wrong.

Maytom says he was “about 15 years of age” when he swam the river to help in the sawing operations. Since he was born in 1890, this implies that the sawing operations were (still) on the go in 1905. It appears that Maytom related incidents that occurred before his birth and that the sawing operations may have continued until he was a teenager (he does say “at long last” the job was finished). The fact that he had to swim the river to get to the sawmill, suggests that it was on the east bank of the river, opposite to the road. This seems to agree with the most likely position of a forest “right on the river bank”.

The Natal’s engine fell into mud and was said to be in good condition when recovered. This is not surprising because river mud is chemically reducing. Breakdown of biological matter releases sulfur and any iron gets converted to iron sulfide, which is black and gives the colour to the mud. Any ferrous engine parts would have been covered with a thin layer of iron sulfide and would not have rusted. It was probably quite fortuitous that it did fall into the mud, as otherwise it would have rusted away.

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