The Victoria Falls Bridge
Plans for a bridge crossing the Zambezi were quickly drawn up. The Victoria Falls Bridge was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, a key feature in his dream of a Cape to Cairo railway, even though he never visited the Victoria Falls and died two years before the railway reached them - before construction of the Bridge had begun.
Rhodes is often quoted to have said: "Build the bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls.". G A Hobson, engineer and designer of the bridge, in his account published in 1923 as part of Weinthal's great work 'The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887–1922', explains:
"That he ever gave this direction has been doubted, and even denied by some people, including one, at least, of his own relatives; but I have it on the authority of one who, better than any other man living or dead should know the facts of the case, that the record is true." [Hobson, 1923]
The preliminary surveying of the ground for the bridge was made in 1900-01, during the time the Boer War was raging; communications southwards were cut, and the construction of the railway to Victoria Falls was much delayed, but never quite suspended, throughout military operations. The arena of the war did not include Rhodesia, and the work of railway construction never ceased throughout the whole period.
In 1900 Rhodes was asked to write a forward for the book 'From Cape to Cairo' by Grogan and Sharp. Ewart Scott Grogan, together with Harry Sharp undertook the epic overland journey from the Cape to Cairo, although Grogan was the only one to complete the entire journey, and thus become the first man to achieve such an undertaking. They travelled by train, boat and other means where they could, but walked for much of their journey across the African continent. Inspired by reading Frederic Courtney Selous's 'A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa', Grogan set out to prove his worth and gain the hand of his love in marriage. Their journey took three years, Grogan reaching Cairo in 1900.
Rhodes' introduction is an interesting statement of his vision:
"...every one supposes that the railway is being built with the only object that a human being may be able to get in at Cairo and get out at Cape Town.
"This is, of course, ridiculous. The object is to cut Africa through the centre, and the railway will pick up trade all along the route. The junctions to the East and West coasts, which will occur in the future, will be outlets for the traffic obtained along the route of the line as it passes through the centre of Africa. At any rate, up to Bulawayo, where I am now, it has been a payable undertaking, and I still think it will continue to be so as we advance into the far interior. We propose now to go on and cross the Zambesi just below the Victoria Falls. I should like to have the spray of the water over the carriages." [Grogan, 1900]
As Strage describes in his book 'Cape to Cairo', Rhodes' plan was ambitious:
"It was the concept that was bold, to the point of arrogance: to build a modern steel bridge supported by a single slender span here, in the middle of deserted jungle... Only fifty years earlier, David Livingstone had been the first European to describe them... and even now a simple visit to behold their grandeur required a carefully planned expedition. Even counting missionaries and curious officials, it is doubtful that more than a hundred or so white men had ever seen them. And this was not just a bridge, but the highest bridge in the world." [Strange, 1973]
Writing to the Daily Mail in March 1905, a few months before the bridge was officially opened, Sir Gilbert Parker observed:
"It was this gift of imagination which made Cecil Rhodes say, 'Build a bridge... where the trains as they pass will catch the spray from the falling Zambesi'. It was always so with him. He visualized and spiritualized his work, strange as this suggestion may seem to those who looked upon him as a materialist and a great adventurer. He was nearer the soul of things than the world knew."
Choosing the site of the Victoria Falls Bridge
Sir Charles Metcalfe, a close personal friend of Rhodes, followed his wishes and determined to locate the bridge just below the Falls. He carried out the preliminary examinations of the site in June 1901 before returning to Britain to raise funds for the project.
Metcalfe was to later write "no part of the railway was made for sentimental reasons", however the bridge is the one exception to his statement, and he played a large role in its location. As H F Varian, an engineer who joined the team building bridge and who would work with Pauling extending the railway line north observed:
"The choice of its site was more for sentiment than for practical reasons... A simpler crossing could have been achieved six miles further up, [near Kandahar Island] where the longest span need only have been 150 feet." [Varian, 1953]
The bridge designer, Hobson (1923) contended that below the Falls was the best possible site for the bridge.
"I am of the opinion that it is the best possible position for a bridge near to the Falls. The very beauty of the spot has, however, created objections to its selection. The situation is briefly this: The scene is laid within the tropical zone. At a place where the river is river a mile in width, the bright and lovely Zambezi, whose gentle rippling waters flow sparkling in the sun, is precipitated suddenly into a dark chasm which lies square across its path, and through only one constricted outlet down below the whole body of water forces its agitated way into a narrow deep and sinuous gorge beyond. The bridge crosses this gorge. " [Hobson, 1923]
He dismissed the alternative site, which was near the Old Drift settlement, saying:
" It would be a long straggling structure of no great beauty, and it would mar, to a large extent, the attractions of the broad, shining Zambezi, which presents at this spot a river scene of unparalleled beauty, scarcely inferior in its own way to that of the Falls." [Hobson, 1923]
But perhaps the most decisive factor was the cost, which would have been some three or four times that of the site across the gorge and require an extra eight miles of railway line.
Bridge location map (from Varian, 1953, Some African Milestones)
"The choice of the site was finally governed by the natural formation of the walls of the chasm, advantage being taken of the minimum distance to be spanned, combined with the soundest foothold obtainable. The position fixed upon is about 700 yards below the cataract.
"The profile of the chasm at this spot is very striking. The width at the top is approximately 650 feet, whilst the depth from the general level of the ground to the surface of the water below is about 400 feet. The left or north bank of the river is an almost perpendicular cliff, but the opposite bank has a shelf about half way up, and the whole region is composed of erupted rock, mostly basalt. The general level of the surrounding country is 3,000 feet above sea-level.
"The rock being very hard, the bridge was designed to fit the profile of the gorge with as little expenditure on excavation as possible ; and it would have done so, but for a mistake made by the surveyor in concluding that the rock on both sides was solid."
Designing the Victoria Falls Bridge
The main credit for designing the Victoria Falls Bridge must go to George Andrew Hobson of London based consultants Sir Douglas Fox and Partners (later to become Freeman, Fox and Partners), not as is often stated, Sir Ralph Freeman, the engineer who would later design of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 (and also the Birchenough Bridge across the Save River in 1935). At the time of the design of the Victoria Falls Bridge, Freeman was still only an assistant in the firm, although he was involved in calculating the preliminary stresses involved with the steelwork design and was credited by Hobson for his involvement. Hobson was made a Partner in the firm in 1901 and Ralph Freeman was to also become a partner and develop the outstanding reputation of the firm, expanding its horizons worldwide.
Hobson, in his final report on the construction of the bridge, to the British Institute of Civil Engineers in 1907, records that in 1901, while in London, Rhodes was shown a sketch of the bridge as it was then proposed to be built.
"Although he had never visited the locality, he was sufficiently familiar with it from travellers' descriptions and engineers' surveys to indicate in a general way the point of crossing. He determined that passengers in the trains going over the bridge should have a view of the Falls; and as the site on which the bridge now stands is practically the only one which could fulfil this purpose, it may be said to have been chosen by him. The preliminary design of the bridge above referred to was prepared to meet Mr. Rhodes's views, and it received his approval." [Hobson, 1907]
Among considerations that had to be borne in mind was, first, an appearance that would blend with the natural beauty of the site. Then followed the more material problems of rigidity (to permit railway traffic), economy in building to keep within the limits of the contract and, finally, a method of building that dispensed altogether with scaffolding.
The Bulawayo Chronicle Annual of 1901 contained an artist's impression of the bridge, as it was then proposed, and which provoked much disbelief.
"Several kinds [of design] were considered, but the nature of the situation and the purpose of the work made it obvious that a two-hinged spandrel-braced arch was the only one worth considering, as it completely and satisfactorily answered all the requirements of the case... A steel arch of this character was therefore designed to spring from the rock walls of the Zambezi chasm, to be erected cantilever-wise simultaneously from both sides. The best, though not the earliest, example of this type is the bridge which... now carries the Grand Trunk Railway over the Niagara Gorge." [Hobson, 1907]
A final consideration was the effect of the Falls themselves, and the spray from the waterfall on the steel structure:
"Care was exercised in designing the details to ensure simplicity in all sections, and the avoidance of enclosed parts or hidden spaces anywhere in the structure... There are no cavities for holding water, nor any surfaces where moisture can condense, the air being free to circulate everywhere. All the parts, in fact, are designed to be visible to the eye, and easily accessible to the painter's brush." [Hobson, 1923]
The bridge design selected is of the braced spandrel type; the horizontal top chord is linked by verticals to the lower chord or arc. The panels so formed are braced diagonally and thus the top chord, carrying the load, relieves the arc of some of the stress. The alternative, braced-rid design the load is borne wholly by the arc.
Hobson (1907) summarises the technical specifications of the bridge:
"The bridge consists of three spans. The end span on the left bank of the river is 62 feet 6 inches, and that on the other bank 87 feet 6 inches. These spans are composed of braced girders of ordinary type, 12 feet 6 inches deep, with horizontal upper and lower chords, and divided into square panels. The girders are fixed 20 feet apart. Connected with the end posts of the central span, they unite it with each bank of the river in a direct and simple manner. The deck is horizontal, and is laid on the top chords throughout the bridge... The cross girders, spaced 12 feet 6 inches apart, rest on the top chord.
"The central span is 500 feet from centre to centre of bearings, with a rise of 90 feet. The curvature of the arched rib is parabolic. The panels, twenty in number, are 25 feet in length. The depth of the girder at the crown is 15 feet, and at the abutment 105 feet. Each main girder stands in a plane at an inclination of 1 in 8 from the perpendicular. The width between the centres of the girders is 27 feet 6 inches at the top, and 53 feet 9 inches at the springing level, and the width between the parapets 30 feet. There is a camber of 9 inches in the top chord. " [Hobson, 1907]
A key element of the design are the pin-bearings introduced at the base of the main arch, with the four "feet" hinged to steel bearings mounted on concrete abutments. Under the hot African sun the steelwork of the great arch is designed to expand and lift slightly, turning on these hinged bearings, but at the same time retaining its rigidity without buckling or becoming distorted.
Hobson (1907) expands on the details of the hinged-bearing design:
"The entire bridge, with the exception of the main bearings, weighs approximately 1,500 tons. When the live load. (1,820 tons) is added to this a vertical load of 3,320 tons has to be supported by the foundations, of which only about 280 tons is borne by the outer ends of the shore spans, the greater portion being carried by the four bearings of the principal span. The total pressure due to the horizontal thrust of the arch and stresses due to temperature and wind-pressure is more than double this load. The calculated thrust which passes through each of the four hinged bearings amounts to 1,600 tons. On this account alone these bearings constitute a very important feature in the work ; and when it is considered that their duty is also to afford the steel frame of the bridge freedom to respond to wide variations of temperature without distorting itself or causing excessive strain, their importance can hardly be exaggerated.
"In designing the bearings the first part of the problem was to provide a means whereby the stresses which pass through the main rib, a hollow structure, whose sectional dimensions are about 3 feet square, could be collected and concentrated upon a straight line at right angles, not to the rib itself but to the resultant thrust of the arch, the straight line being the centre-line of the hinge bearing-pin on which each quarter of the bridge rests. In the next place the whole of the stresses have to be redistributed from this centre-line to the rock through a series of parts composed of bearing, pedestal, base-plate, and concrete monolith.
"An essential feature of the design is the uniform distribution of the load over the various parts which compose the bearing. The load must be placed uniformly upon the length of the pin, and in like manner the pin must be supported in its bearing, so as to avoid bending. The load having thus been transmitted to the pin, it must be equally distributed through the pedestal and thence to the baseplate which rests upon the concrete, so that the load on the latter may be uniform per square foot of bearing-surface. In order that the arch may fall and rise and the top chord may expand and contract with perfect freedom through a wide range of temperature, the hinges must be set square to the longitudinal axis of the bridge, not square to the arch-rib itself. The pin and its fellow in the opposite bearing must lie in the same straight line, like the hinges of a boxlid.
"The hinge-pin is 12 inches in diameter by 5 feet 10 inches in length ; it is made from a solid steel forging accurately turned all over, and a bolt-hole is drilled through the axis. Regarded in front elevation, the whole bearings, the pins especially, appear to be of very small dimensions, compared with the superstructure they carry. But they are of solid construction, and made of the strongest and toughest materials practicable." [Hobson, 1907]
Bridge design plan by G A Hobson
The main arch, a graceful parabolic curve, has a span of 500 feet. The truss of which it is composed is 15 feet deep at the centre and 105 feet at the springing. The rise of the arch is 90 feet.
The bridge is known as a trussed arch design. Each section was to be built outwards towards the centre from the sides of the gorge. As work progressed, these half spans were supported as cantilevers by steel wire cables running through galleries cut into the rock on either bank.
"The uninitiated, looking at pictures of the half-completed bridge, with its great arms projecting from the sides of the chasm, apparently supported by nothing at all, wonder how it is done. Owing to the immense depth of the chasm and of the water below, the idea of supporting the work during erection by means of scaffolding was not to be thought of, and happily it was not necessary... The design of the bridge when completed is that of a pure arch, self-supporting on its abutments; but throughout the process of its erecting, commencing from opposite sides, each half is a cantilever, and cantilevers they remain until, their end reaching out to each other, they join in mid-air.
"Now, a cantilever is simply another name for a bracket, and a bracket requires to be well fixed to the wall, or whatever it may be that holds it. The strength of the attachment must be equal to the weight exerted by the projecting portions of the bracket, with a sufficient surplus for safety. In the present case the means of attachment were provided by a series of steel wire ropes. These were secured at the top of each cantilever, and carried to a point some distance to the rear, where they entered holes bored in the solid rock, and their looped ends were buried therein. It was simply a matter of calculation how many ropes were necessary, what their united strength should be.
"The moment the two ends of the cantilevers met each other and were properly joined together… the function of the cantilevers ceased entirely." [Hobson, 1923]
At the time of construction it was the highest structure of its kind and had the widest span of any arch in the world.
Contracting the Work
The design was completed before tenders were invited by contractors. Hobson expands:
"Throughout the preparation of the design the question of erection was considered to be of primary importance, and every detail was devised to simplify the procedure. The arrangement to erect each half of the main girders as a cantilever was not only essential in the circumstances, but was by far the easiest plan, scaffolding being both impossible and unnecessary.
"In designing the details consideration had also to be given to the available means of transport by sea and rail, and particularly to the fact that the parts for one-half of the bridge would have to be conveyed across the great chasm by means of some temporary expedient.
"The contract was divided into two parts, namely, first, the construction of the steelwork in the makers' yard and the delivery of it on board ship in a British port; and secondly, the erection of the steelwork on the site. Tenders were invited from British, American, and German firms-the majority of whom ventured only to quote a price for the first part of the work. Only two firms, which were British, seemed determined to secure both parts of the contract.
"As was to be expected from the completeness of the design and the information laid before the parties tendering, the offers received for the first part of the contract were fairly close ; whilst as regards the two firms referred to there was hardly any difference between them. They, however, differed a good deal in their estimate of the cost of erection on the site, or it would be more correct to say, of their proposed plant for that purpose." [Hobson, 1907]
Several leading firms tendered for the construction of the bridge but most were daunted by the task and in the end, only two firms, Dorman, Long & Co. and the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company of Darlington, were in the running.
Hobson (1923) later expanded on the process:
" To go back to the time when one’s mind was almost wholly occupied in the work of design, and in the preparation of the specification and contract, there is a recollection of a haunting fear that some German or American firm would secure the contract... I may here observe that the fear of British firms shrinking from the task in the present case was well grounded, for one of the best known and highly reputed among them, after having expressed a desire to compete for the work, and having obtained all the needed information, turned craven at the last moment and failed to tender. This in spite of the fact that much thought had been given by the engineers to the idea of eliminating from the situation, as far as it was possible to do so, all the unknown, doubtful or incalculable factors associated with work of this nature. Although the site was in a remote part of the world, and there were many difficulties, the way was made easy for the contractor. For instance, all the preliminary clearing of the ground, and the excavation of the rock for the foundations, was done for him. He was provided with free transport to the spot of all the material for the bridge; houses were built for the workmen; and, in addition to all these efforts to save the contractor trouble and reduce his risk, a new and powerful apparatus was provided for the transport across the hitherto impassable gorge of one half of the material for the construction of the bridge, it being an essential feature of the engineers’ design that the structure be built out simultaneously from each bank. The apparatus referred to is, of course, the now famous cableway [known as ‘The Blondin’].
"Fortunately, all our British firms were not broken reeds; but it is a fact that only two of their number, by submitting a complete and reasonable offer, evinced any keen desire to participate in the undertaking. To the honour of The Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company, of Darlington, personified by Mr Charles F Dixon, their managing director, who succeeded in getting the contract, and Messrs. Dorman Long and Company, of Middlesbrough, who were equally bent upon it and ran their rivals fairly close, that the saving of our British reputation for enterprise was due." [Hobson, 1923]
The railway contractors, Pauling & Co, also tendered for the contract. George Pauling was disappointed to loose the contract, but contented himself with the belief that the winning bid was too low, and that their was little profit to be gains. He wrote in his autobiography 'Chronicles of a Contractor':
"My firm had sent in a tender but it was too high; their tender, on the other hand, was too low, and I hardly think they made a profit on the work. I had had so great a connection with railway work in Rhodesia that I was sorry we had not the honour of building the bridge, but honour of that kind can be purchased at too heavy a price." [Pauling, 1926]
In May 1903 both parts of the contract were awarded to The Cleveland Bridge Company, to construct and erect the Victoria Falls Bridge for a price of £72,000. The company was also destined, thirty years later, to build another bridge across the Zambezi, the Lower Zambezi Bridge at Sena, Mozambique, with a total length of two and three quarter miles.
The cost of the work was identified approximately as (£) :-
Spare rope, conveyor and tires; 750
Excavations, exclusive of railway cutting, about; 6,550
"It was then anticipated that the construction of the railway up to the Falls would be completed by the end of that year or the beginning of the next, but unexpected difficulties were met with on the route, which caused a delay of 4 months. The rail-head actually reached the site at the end of May, 1904. Until then the transportation of the bridge-material was impossible." [Hobson, 1907]
The bridge was made, and assembled in sections to ensure accuracy, at the steel works in Darlington, England, and shipped in knocked down pieces to Beira on the S.S. Cromwell and then put on the Beira and Mashonaland Railway to Bulawayo, and on to the Victoria Falls on the new rail-line. With the view to hastening the arrival of the steelwork and its erection, the Railway company itself arranged for the transport of the materials. Mr Macrae was the forwarding contractor for the despatch of materials from Bulawayo.
"With few exceptions the bridge is constructed of rolled steel manufactured in England by the Siemens open-hearth acid process. All the plates and the principal angles were made by the Consett Iron Company, Durham. Material and workmanship were subjected to rigid inspection and proved to be of uniformly high character. The breaking stress of the tested pieces averaged 29.6 8 inches, and the limit of elasticity 60 per cent., all within a 2 per cent. margin of variation. The exceptions referred to consisted of steel forgings. No cast iron or cast steel was employed in the work. " [Hobson, 1907]
The location of the bridge, where it is frequently saturated by spray, demanded the inclusion of some rather interesting design features. To ensure that rust would never become established there is no portion of the bridge that cannot be examined by the human eye and no place that is not accessible to the painter's brush. There are no 'cups' or hollows that might hold water and all the important members of the structure can be entered by a man who can crawl through them.
"After a thorough cleansing and treatment with red-lead and linseed-oil (ascertained to be pure in quality), both before shipment and after erection, the steelwork was covered with three coats of Torbay paint of a specially selected silver-grey colour. This particular shade was chosen because a patch of rust in it will appear conspicuous by contrast. It has the further advantage of absorbing little of the heat of the sun. " [Hobson, 1907]
Hobson (1907) describes further:
"In order to check the accuracy and completeness of the work done in the bridge-yard, the erection on the contractor's premises of the whole of the work in sections was determined upon, and it may be here stated that this was so effectively performed that... when the steelwork was erected at the Victoria Falls, all the members met accurately together in their respective positions." [Hobson, 1907]
The Bridge Builders
Georges C Imbault, a young gifted French engineer working with The Cleveland Bridge Company, was appointed as their Chief Construction Engineer on site. He travelled out by steamliner to Cape Town and by rail to Bulawayo where he was joined by Sir Charles Metcalfe and Mr Stephen F Townsend, Resident Engineer for Rhodesia Railways, and together they travelled on to the Falls. At this time the construction of the railway was still more than one hundred miles short from its destination of the Falls, and they had a rough trek overland to complete their journey. On 2 September, 1903, Imbault viewed the site for the first time, assessing the scale of his task. It is recorded that Sir George Farrar, who was also there at the time, shot a fine buck within a few yards of the bridge site.
Colonel Frank Rhodes, Cecil's brother, apparently expressed strong displeasure when he heard that a Frenchman was to in charge of erecting the bridge, saying "Cecil would never have allowed anyone but a British engineer"! Imbault had been selected because of his experience with cables and overhead electric conveyors, an essential element in the construction of the bridge, and his selection was amply justified.
Mr S F Townsend was originally on the staff of the Cape Government Railways, and had been responsible for the construction of the Orange River Bridge, then the longest bridge in Africa. He was appointed to the Rhodesia Railways by Cecil Rhodes, on the start of the great scheme from Vryburg, and continued with the company as Chief Resident Engineer, based in Bulawayo, until after the main line reached the Congo Border in 1909.
Mr William Tower was chief assistant engineer to Townsend, and had been in charge of most of the surveying north from Vryburg. He was head of construction between Bulawayo and Salisbury, and for part of the line from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, where he was Resident Engineer for the construction of the bridge. His assistants at the start of the works were Mr C Everard and Mr Beresford Fox.
A construction yard was established on the south bank, where all bridge materials were stored. A temporary camp for the bridge construction engineers was set in early 1904 about a kilometre from the construction yard, on the south side of the old track leading to Clark's Ferry, and named Tower's Camp. Beresford Fox oversaw construction of the camp and put up fifteen to twenty huts for the benefit of the railway and bridge construction workers. Another camp was later established on the left bank, known varyingly as Imbault's or Salmon's (one of the railway surveyors) camp.
The Railway company also oversaw the excavation of the rock in preparation for the bridge foundations, and which was contracted to a Bulawayo based company. A small group of five Europeans, assisted by a team of Africans, cleared the rubble from the slopes of the gorge and exposed the hard rock foundations in preparation for the mass of steel it was to carry.
Connecting the Gorge
At that time the nearest possible point of transit was cross the river above the Falls at Giese's Drift, just above the Devil's Cataract on the south side of the river. From this point a canoe was needed to cross to Maramba Drift on the northern bank, and then back down to the bridge site, a distance of three miles or more, taking several hours, and not without its dangers - wild animals roamed the area, as they still do today.
One of the first tasks was to establish a cable system across the gorge. This was achieved in October 1903 by firing a rocket across the gorge carrying with it a string. When this was secured on the other side, a stronger cord was taken across and finally a telephone wire, next a marked wire was passed across and a string put on it by means of a spring balance to compute the side or sag of the wire. Before the rocket was fired, attempts had been made to fly a string across by means of a kite, but this ingenious effort was foiled by the eddies and currents of air from the tumultuous waters which tossed the kite in every direction but the right one. Another problem was mist from the Falls which hampered the accurate surveying required.
At the third trial the rocket dropped in a position which enabled the line to be secured. By means of the line a rope was drawn across, and by means of the rope, followed finally by a 3/8th inch stranded rope of steel. This was passed over a 12-inch pulley fixed in a stout log which in turn was firmly bedded in the rock on the very edge of the cliff. The tactics were then reversed, and when the free end of the pulley rope was dragged back to the south bank, it was pulled tight and taken twice round the barrel of a windlass and securely spliced to its other end. The position of this was downstream, a few yards from the bridge site, and this small cable system successfully transported small loads, tools and even people throughout the building of the bridge. A telephone line was also established across the gorge for effective communication.
After overseeing these initial preparations, Imbault returned to England in October 1903.
The Bosun's Chair
Passengers were taken over one at a time on a bosun's chair suspended from small pulleys running on the cable which was worked by a hand winch. For safety there was attached a canvas bag which could be strapped round the legs and across the chest. H F Varian, one of Pauling's engineers who worked on the bridge, wrote:
"A wooden box, five feet cubed, was slung on two steel sheaves from the steel rope, and drawn by a light steel wire... It was a primitive mode of transport. The supporting wire sagged ominously in the middle of the gorge, and if one disliked heights, there was plenty of time to brood in transit as the flimsy box jerked its way across. " [Varian, 1953]
Mr Beresford Fox was responsible for setting up the cable system, and got the short-straw to make the first passage across the chasm. In a letter to his father Sir Francis Fox in 1903 he wrote:
"We could not obtain a trolley in Bulawayo and so, temporarily, we have to do the best we can: the present arrangement is safe, but not good mechanically. As they tied me into the bosun's chair I must admit to feeling a bit strange in relying absolutely on my own calculations for my safety. The chair is a piece of wood suspended by four ropes, with a canvas back and a sack and board as a foot-rest. Of course one is so tied in that were you to lose consciousness you could not fall out; this precaution, for some people is advisable." [Hyder Consulting, 2007]
By means of this simple system, engineers and workmen were to cross the chasm daily, and foodstuffs and material were transported to the northern side.
Charles Beresford Fox crossing the gorge for the first time in the 'Bosun's chair', November 1903.
In March 1904 Imbault travelled back to the site with the first contingent of British workmen, mainly English engineers. Among the group was A T Prince, assistant engineer, who would later publish one of the first accounts of the work. Writing in the American publication The World's Work in 1906 he records:
"We travelled from Cape Town to Bulawayo in the train de luxe, which is wonderfully comfortable and rather upsets the ideas of those who come to Africa expecting to have to rough it. There are many trains in Europe which would suffer badly in comparison.
"From the rail-head, however, we had to finish our journey part of the way sitting in the trucks of a construction train and part by post cart. The post cart trip of about thirty-five miles [56km] occupied two days instead of ten hours, as we had expected and provided for. On the second night, from a distance of five miles, as we approached, we had a superb view of the spray from the fall lighted up by a full moon. This spray column, we afterwards found by measurement, rises more than two thousand feet into the air on a calm day with the river in flood.
"On the following morning we saw the falls themselves, and those who have not been fortunate enough to see them can form small idea of their grandeur. " [Prince, 1906]
With the railhead approaching the Victoria Falls, heavy construction materials could at last be transported to the site. Imbault's next task was the installation of a more powerful cable system to transport the large volume of building materials needed to the north bank.
"In July, 1903, tenders had been invited for a cableway to span a distance of 870 feet [265.18 metres] and carry a load of 10 tons net. The conveyor was specified to be capable of lifting and lowering as well as travelling with this load, and to be operated by means of electricity."
"In effect the principle of the apparatus is that of an overhead travelling crane in a workshop, but instead of running on a solid rail it runs on a wire rope; the driver sits in the travelling carriage, and from there he controls the lifting, lowering, and travelling movements."
"The design at the time was comparatively new, and no apparatus of the kind had hitherto been made on such a large scale. It was therefore regarded-in some quarters-with ill-concealed suspicion." [Hobson, 1907]
Situated on the upstream side of the bridge, the apparatus was installed and in working order by the 28th July 1904. Before the transporter could be used for the first time it was necessary to clear the cable of various pulleys that had been used in positioning it and which had all gravitated to the lowest position, over the centre of the gorge. The Chief Engineer, Imbault, had to undertake the dangerous work himself, as one of the engineers recalled:
"Despite the offer of a bonus, not one of the workers would undertake the job and finally the chief engineer had to do it himself... it was an eerie sensation watching this man standing on a narrow plank in front of the gently swaying machine, 450 feet [137 metres] in the air, using both hands to undo the steel lashings, and passing the pulleys one by one to the driver at the back. A moment of vertigo, a false balance, and certain death. Truly he was nerveless." [Powell, 1930]
The electronic transporter system became known as ‘the Blondin’ after the daredevil tightrope walker Charles Blondin who had famously crossed the Niagara Falls by rope in 1859. Electricity came from a portable steam-driven engine and dynamo which was located near the construction yard on the south bank. In addition to transporting half of the steelwork for the bridge across the gorge, over 40 miles of track materials were also transported using the Blondin. This allowed the railway construction gangs to continue the development of the line north before the bridge itself was completed.
The 'Jack Tar'
It was desirable that an light shunting engine be based on the north side of the Zambezi whilst the bridge was being completed, and so the 19 ton 'Jack Tar' locomotive was dismantled and transported over the gorge piece by piece by means of the Blondin cableway. The boiler and lighter parts sent over first. What was left, the body frame and cylinders, weighed twelve tons and had to be transported in one piece. Varian describes how the cable sagged under this load and dangled over the gorge with a fourteen metre drop in the cable. There it hung for three hours as the Blondin's engine struggled to cope with its weight, until boosting of the power in the electrical plant and by other means the carrier slowly managed to pull itself to the other side. The driver sitting in his little seat with a drop of 350 feet below him is said to have coolly smoked throughout his ordeal.
The Jack Tar
Built in 1889 by Manning Wardle & Co of Leeds, Yorkshire, the Jack Tar engine was purchased by Pauling & Co, the railway construction contractors, in 1896. It was shipped to Beira and assembled at Umtali, where it was used on the widening of the Beira railway, before being transferred to Victoria Falls in 1904-1905.
The Jack Tar pulled the first train in Northern Rhodesia, over a short two mile track built in a day by the railway construction workers.
The Jack Tar made further history by being the first locomotive engine to cross the completed bridge, although the official first train service was only on the official opening several months later.
When working trucks over one night soon after the opening of the temporary rail-line over the bridge, its side rods killed a leopard crouching on the walkway beside the track. Perhaps injured or ill, or without space to run, the animal refused to flee from the advancing train and its skull was crushed.
After the bridge was finished the Jack Tar returned to Beira for light shunting duties. In 1927 it was transferred to Bulawayo. In 1935 re-boilering was necessary and other changes made in appearance, including the provision of a brass dome and cap to the chimney, while a new fully enclosed cab was fitted in place of the original open shelter. The black livery was replaced with dark green, lined with yellow. One loss was the little anchor fitted to the front of the chimney.
By 1942 the locomotive was moved to Umtali, before finally being withdrawn from service. Exhibited at the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition at Bulawayo in 1953, it was later loaned to the Umtali Museum. The engine is now fully restored and part of the Bulawayo Railway Museum collection.
Building the Victoria Falls Bridge
The first work after the completion of the railway up to the site was, of course, the building of the concrete foundations, the excavations for which had been previously prepared by the permanent staff of the railway-company.
"In setting out the bridge the span had been measured in the first place by triangulation, and finally by direct measurement with wire. A wire was set up along a measured length of 500 feet on level ground on the bank, secured at one end and subjected to a known tension at the other; it was then marked to correspond with the measured length of 500 feet.
The wire was then used to measure the span direct, being subjected to the same tension. So long as this tension remained constant the straight length between the marks was 500 feet and was independent of the deflection, whether such deflection was due to the weight of the wire or to wind-pressure upon it. To ensure accuracy the measurement was repeated with different wires. " [Hobson, 1907]
The start of the project had been significantly delayed because the south side provided no solid foundation rock until a depth of about 15 metres was reached. A error had been made by the surveyors in the assessment of the foundations, on account of which the bridge had to be lowered from the position intended.
Hobson (1907) records:
"The mistake was perhaps excusable, and was not discovered until the vegetation which thrives in the hot sun and the spray from the falls had been removed, and the work of clearing the ground and the excavation of the rock had proceeded for some time. It was then found that the shelf on the right bank on which it was intended to rest one end of the principal span was covered to a considerable depth with debris. By the time the error had been discovered, the preparation of the steelwork was too far advanced to permit of any alteration being made in the structure. The difficulty had therefore to be overcome partly by increasing the depth of the concrete foundations, and partly by lowering the level of the entire bridge to the extent of 21 feet; but both time and money would have been saved had the true facts of the case been recognized at the beginning, the span designed 25 feet longer, and the truss increased in depth at the ends by 20 feet." [Hobson, 1907]
Owing to the lowering of the bridge, the line had to run in a cutting on each side of the gorge, and not, as had been planned, at the same level of the Falls.
" The size of the excavation on the left bank was small, the rock there being sound, but its position on the face of an almost perpendicular cliff rendered work slow and dangerous. On the right bank it was more easily accessible, but was considerably larger owing to the burden of debris which had to be removed.
"The lower part of the concrete was reinforced with old rails, and the upper part with 2-inch steel rods with their ends bent for greater security. The top, for the reception of the base-plate, was strengthened with steel joists 6 inches by 45 inches by 20 lbs., laid transversely to the joists in the base-plate. Four bolts 3 inches in diameter were inserted in each concrete block for holding down the base-plate. In order to allow for a slight adjustment after the concrete had set, the bolts were fitted into tubes 43 inches in diameter, the intervening space, after final adjustment had taken place, being filled with cement grout under pressure. Six weeks were allowed to lapse after completion, before any great weight was placed upon it in order to ensure the setting and hardening of the concrete. " [Hobson, 1907]
The greatest possible care was taken to make the pedestal and base-plate true, as it was recognized that one setting here would give the direction and correct distance for the bearing-pin, and therefore of the whole structure. It was carefully adjusted by means of wedges, and when absolute accuracy of position and elevation had been attained, cement grout was forced, under pressure, through a series of pipes specially located for the purpose, over the whole bearing area.
One of the four main bearings, or 'feet', of the bridge
The specification for this concrete work was rigidly enforced. For convenience, all concrete was mixed on the foundation site on the south bank, and transported to the north bank in batches. Any batch not placed in position within 20 minutes after mixing was discarded into the gorge.
Varian describes the work:
"All materials for the foundations had to be lowered from the Blondin at both ends. A steel bucket, four feet in diameter and four feet deep, carried all materials such as sand, cement and water. Visiting that part of the work was another unpleasant little trip. By the time the bucket was lowered to the requisite depth, on some 150 feet of single rope, it had an unsettling trick of revolving violently one way, then stopping, and revolving with equal violence in the opposite direction." [Varian, 1953]
Work having started in May, the concrete foundations for the bridge were finally ready in October 1904. At the same time the anchorages for sustaining the main span during its cantilever stage were prepared, with the erection of the end posts, which commenced on 21 October. The two side spans of the bridge, supported on the abutments and anchored to the rock behind by steel cables, were completed in late December 1904.
Erection of the side spans proved to be one of the biggest challenges in construction. Hobson records:
"The really difficult and risky part of the work of erection lay in the end spans, which now look so small as compared with the arch itself that they are scarcely noticed. But once the tall end posts of the main arch were erected, and the short spans were connected with them and the shore, thus affording a stable platform to start from, the rest was easy and rapid work. This stage was actually reached during the last days of 1904." [Hobson, 1923]
Hobson (1907) continues:
"The work of erecting the steelwork actually began in August, 1904, and the most difficult and slowest part of it proved to be the operations of fixing the shore spans and connecting them with the end posts of the main girders. The ends of the shore spans were let into recesses cut out of the rock and anchored by their upper corners. They were built out a certain distance as cantilevers, and at a further stage supported by scaffolding fixed on the slope of the cliff. As soon as the end post of the main span was up, the shore span connected with it and the anchorage coupled, a stable platform was obtained and the rest was easy and expeditious work. " [Hobson, 1907]
Early construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge
"The shore ends of the short spans rest upon roller-bearings which allow to the whole structure perfect freedom of movement in a longitudinal direction under variations of temperature.
"At the intersection of the end post with the top boom, and the first diagonal tie, a large steel pin is inserted through all the plates which compose these members. The pin is 7 inches in diameter and 7 feet long, its outer ends being held by means of short links attached to the top booms. To this pin were attached the anchorage-cables during the erection of the bridge." [Hobson, 1907]
Once underway the building of the main arch progressed rapidly. The arch was erected simultaneously from either side as two cantilevers, with the two arms anchored on either side by twelve high tension steel wire hawsers running through galleries cut into the rock.
Hobson (1907) expands:
"The contractors' engineer... devised a system in which comparatively small wire-ropes, easily carried and handled, played the most prominent part. A high quality of steel was used, and each rope was 1 13/32 inch in diameter, spirally laid, 91 ply, and had a breaking stress of 130 tons. Each end of every rope was fitted with an ordinary screw-adjustment, proportionate to its size and strength. The total load to be borne being known, it was only a question of how many ropes would be required and how much of the solid rock in the adjoining ground behind the bridge it was necessary to lay hold of." [Hobson, 1907]
Varian describes the cable system in more detail:
"The system of suspension of the steelwork as it extended from each side until the lower boom was joined, was achieved by means of twelve 1 ¼-inch steel hawsers. These were made fast to a steel pin six inches in diameter at the top of each side of the impost, and adjusted with union screws. From the pins they were led back level until clear of the bridge, then down a vertical shaft through the live rock, tunnelled across, and led up another shaft on the other side to form a similar connection on the other side of the impost. The thrust of the arch on the lower end of the imposts was taken up on a twelve-inch steel hinged bearing, which in turn was set in a block of strongly reinforced concrete. This type of construction was also used by Sir Ralph Freeman, only in a far more elaborate manner, in the design of the Sydney Bridge." [Varian, 1953]
Travelling along the cross girders were two of Imbault's specially designed and very successful electric cranes, with two arms, each commanding a radius of 30 feet and able to revolve in an arc of nearly 180', and which handled the lifting and lowering of the steel sections into position. Capable of carrying 10 tons, these were arranged to stand on the cross girders and moved forward as each panel or 'bay' of twenty-five feet was completed. This stage was reached on the right bank early in December, 1904, and on the left bank during the last days of the same month.
"The first panels, being the largest and containing the most material, naturally occupied the longest time, 2 to 3 weeks ; but this was gradually reduced until at the centre, eight posts and their fellow members were placed in position in 26 days, the work, of course, being done simultaneously from both sides of the river, so that each panel occupied 6 days in erection ; and this rapidity was attained in spite of delay caused by the delivery of the material failing to keep pace with the progress of the erection, which constitutes fair testimony not only to the efficiency of the design, but also to the precision achieved in the workmanship" [Hobson, 1907]
Hobson (1907) describes the attention to detail required in completing each panel section of the bridge.
"The butt-joints of the main arch-rib were planed to the exact angle calculated for each joint. This angle differs in every instance in the half span, owing to the curve being parabolic and not segmental. Every effort was made to attain accuracy and soundness of construction, and to this end the lengths of the members between the joints of the 25-foot panels were specified to vary not more than 1/32 in. from the calculated length. With few exceptions, all rivets were accessible for mechanical closing, the absence of box-sections making this easy to accomplish." [Hobson, 1907]
Hobson (1907) also highlights an innovative technique used during the erection of the bridge:
"To facilitate erection and secure accuracy in alignment, a turned steel pin was inserted at the point of intersection of each vertical and diagonal member with the top chord and arched rib... The point was temporarily fitted with a cone to facilitate its being threaded through the holes in the plates. This system proved advantageous in every respect. Time in erection was saved and, once the pin was in its place, confidence in the accuracy of the work so far done was at once established. Reinforcement of the pin by rivets or service bolts was a matter that could be attended to when all the members constituting one panel were in place, and it was not necessary to wait for the insertion of all the rivets in one particular panel before proceeding with the work of erecting the next." [Hobson, 1907]
Hobson credits the Cleveland Bridge Company, and specifically their engineer, Imbault, for rising to the challenge of erecting the structure:
"The Cleveland Company... deserve credit for their skill in devising a simple, economical apparatus for the erection of the bridge. This is due to the ingenuity of their engineer, Mr G C Imbault, whose special knowledge, amongst his other qualifications, of the use and manipulation of wire ropes stood him in good stead in the present instance, and at the same time raised the reputation of this firm to the front rank." [Hobson, 1923]
Constructing the Victoria Falls Bridge, image showing the safety net
As the work was proceeding from the two sides of the gorge, daily observations were taken to see that the centre line of the bridge was maintained.
A team of about 30 skilled European engineers erected the steelwork, assisted by hundreds of local African labourers, being paid from 10 shillings to £3 per month. As many as 400 had been employed at one period, although the average number during construction was about 200.
"Although it had been the aim of the engineers to do it in the dry months of the year 1904, and thus avoid the climatic period fraught with risk to the health of fresh-blooded Europeans, it is interesting to note that, owing to various delays, the work was done in the following rainy season and that no serious harm ensued. The rains begin in October and end in May. The worst rainy months are March and April. In addition to rain the bridge is wetted by the spray from the falls, which is, of course, influenced by the height of the columns of spray, which in the rainy season rise to 3,000 feet, and also by the direction of the wind. The spray is heaviest in the months of March, April, and May." [Hobson, 1907]
A net provided for the safety of the men had been slung on wire ropes stretched tight across the gorge and as close up to the arch as possible, about three hundred feet above the water. It is reported that the first viewing of this heady sight sent the African workforce on strike as they thought they would be expected to leap into the net.
In an engineering report, Hobson describes how the net had been moved pari passu, and so the distance from the underside of the arch had increased until the centre was reached. Photographs from the construction of the bridge however only show the safety net in one, central, position.
Fortunately the net was never been called into use other than to catch tools, of which there was a small collection when finished (as can be seen in some of the photographs), and the workmen even complained that it actually made them more feel nervous.
The nearly finished bridge
Completing the Victoria Falls Bridge
The building of the bridge progressed smoothly and on 1 April 1905 the main arch was linked. In the previous twenty-four working days an average of twenty-one engineers erected some 500 tons of steelwork. At that time of year the spray of the Falls nearby is almost at its greatest intensity, and caused great discomfort to everyone employed on the works, particularly those on the south approach.
"The two centre panels of the arch were fixed about sunset on the 31st March, 4 months after the end posts had been erected, and it was found that the panels overlapped to the extent of about 1¼ inch. The steel truss had been exposed the whole of the day to the heat of the tropical sun and had elongated. When work was begun at sunrise next morning, it was found that it had contracted in the night to the extent of 1¼ inch." [Hobson, 1907]
During the night, the wind had changed and blown the spray of the Falls on to the bridge, cooling and contracting the metal.
The closing was a triumphant event and took place without a hitch. So precise were the calculations that Imbault had allowed for the fact of spray on the girders which would have slowed heat absorption and, therefore, expansion of the metal.
There was great consternation just a few minutes after dawn that day when it was seen that, unpredictably, the wind had shifted and the bridge had remained dry. Fortunately, concern was unwarranted for the two great steel semi-arches were perfectly joined; the rivet holes of the cover plates and those of the boom coincided and were instantly bolted.
Finishing the lower arch of the bridge
Varian again describes the processes involved in more detail:
"Hand winches were rigged with steel ropes made fast around the two groups of twelve 1 1/4-inch steel cables which were holding up the whole... structure. In the event of any minor defect in the alignment in closing, a slight pressure from these on either side would swing and adjust the centre 250 feet away. During the erection, allowance had been made for adjusting the supporting steel cables in order to lower the structure into its final position.
"All were assembled at dawn. Connecting plates were in position, and on each side of the lower booms men stood by with drifts and service bolts ready to catch the rivet holes as they coincided and came into position. For some unaccountable reason on that morning and at that hour, the wind changed. The usual spray failed to fall on the bridge, with the consequence that the steelwork was dry and ready to absorb the heat, which might spoil the chance of a junction being effected that day. The sun rose, and started to warm one side of the steelwork, which immediately began to expand, while the gap closed perceptibly from the expansion, the warm side faster than the cooler one. There was an anxious few minutes as we wondered whether the action of the winches on the steel cables would be in time to sway the whole body of the steelwork into the direct alignment before the fast-closing gap could forestall it. Then, slowly, with the action of expansion closing, and the winches swinging the joint laterally, they coincided to make a perfect butt joint. As soon as the rivet holes of the cover plate, some four feet square, and those of the boom coincided, drifts were immediately driven and service bolts made the joint fast, very much to the relief of all concerned." [Varian, 1953]
The engineering company, Sir Douglas Fox and Partners, announced to the world that the great bridge over the gorge at the Victoria Falls, was linked up at 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, in the presence of Sir Charles Metcalfe, consulting engineer in Rhodesia, who had become known as "Uncle Charlie" to the engineers.
An engineering report from the time explained that there were anxious minutes as the sun rose and everyone watched to see whether the effects of its heat on the steel, and the tension of the structure at that critical moment when the hinged bearings took the strain had been accurately calculated.
The Daily Telegraph report was written up in the News of Barotseland:
"The British South Africa Company has received a cable from Sir Charles Metcalfe, their consulting engineer, now on the Zambesi, announcing that the bottom booms of the Victoria Falls Bridge were bolted at seven o’clock [British time] on Saturday morning, 1st April;... the two ends of the famous bridge over the Zambesi (each of which, from the necessities of the case, has had to be projected across the gorge) have now been safely joined. The slightest deviation from a just level would have caused great difficulties, and the satisfaction is the greater that this delicate feat of engineering has been accomplished."
The Bulawayo Chronicle reported:
"The junction this week of the two arms of the great steel arched bridge which spans the Zambesi gorge, over 400ft above water-level, is, says Engineering, evidence not only of British colonising enterprise, but of the skill and pluck of the British engineers, alike in design and construction. We have thus seen what was a generation ago an unexplored region subjected to the commercial and civilising influences of the railway engineer; and as the gorge spanned by the bridge was one – perhaps the greatest – obstacle to that great scheme of Cecil Rhodes for opening up Africa by a railway from the Cape to Cairo, the close of the steel-work is an event of far reaching importance."
On completion of the top boom, two hydraulic rams were inserted in the centre, exerting between them a permanent pressure of 500 tons. The joint was then riveted and the jacks removed. The upper boom was successfully connected in June, and a temporary track was immediately laid over the open steel work.
Hobson (1907) expands:
"Each half of the arch was designed to meet the other with a butt-joint in the arch-rib, and when in the course of erection the two half-arches met at this joint, their temporary character of cantilevers ceased, and the structure was transformed for the moment into a three-hinged arch, the top chord having a clearance or gap of several inches left in it. In this condition it is evident that the top chord and the spandrel-bracing only perform the duty of stiffening the arch, whilst they are themselves supported by it, and there is obviously no stress whatever in the central member of the top chord. In order, therefore, to secure the proper distribution of stress in all members due to the complete structure, it was necessary to impart the correct stress to this member artificially. With this object, hydraulic jacks were inserted in recesses prepared in the top chord adjacent to the gap, and the ends of the top chord were forced asunder until the required stress was imparted, regard being had to the temperature at the moment. Packings were afterwards specially made to fill the gap exactly. Joint-covers were then added, the rivet-holes at one end of each chord being drilled on the spot. A Table was prepared of the hydraulic pressures to be exerted in order to obtain the correct compression in the chord. " [Hobson, 1907]
Image showing the temporary rail-line and deck
By July all the steel work construction was complete, with only the riveting to be finished. The whole framework was originally connected with service bolts or pins, which were removed as the riveting proceeded. The riveting proved troublesome, taking a far longer period than was anticipated, owning to the difficulty in procuring men for this special class of work.
The temporary track was strengthened for light traffic, and alongside was laid a footway eight feet in width, made of loose timbers laid on the open steelwork, leaving the rest open to the gorge below.
Light traffic was then introduced, and was operated at night, starting in the evening as soon as the bridge-hands had knocked off for the day. The first train to cross, limited at that stage to two wagons and one light shunting locomotive, was the Jack Tar, which was then able to shunt materials between the southern construction yard and Pauling's Maramba Rail Depot on the northern side so that the rail line to Kalomo could progress whilst the bridge was completed. In fact some 50 miles had already been constructed with materials taken over the gorge by the Blondin.
Hobson (1907) describes problems with the deck of the bridge:
"With the exception of the railway-tracks... the deck was formed of carefully selected pine timber, 3 inches thick, laid in 9-inch planks with air-spaces ½ inch wide. To preserve it from the rain and spray the timber had been thoroughly creosoted; while to shield it from the heat of the sun and from the danger of fire liable to be caused by burning cinders from passing engines, it had been covered with a thick coat of Stockholm tar and strewn with sand and fine gravel.
The result had been disappointing. The fierce heat of the sun and the extreme dryness of the atmosphere in the winter months had distilled the creosote and the tar and thereby released the sandy covering, which had been gradually wafted away. Rigid injunctions against raking out ashes on or near the bridge were now therefore issued to engine-drivers and a watchman was stationed to inspect the deck after the passing of each train." [Hobson, 1907]
Eventually a final coat of cement was applied as a solution after re-treating the wood.
Opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge
The official opening ceremony for the Victoria Falls Bridge took place on 12 September, 1905. The residents of the Old Drift all boated over the Geise's Drift and walked up to the end of the railway line where the last sleeper was to be laid.
One of the newest 7th Class engines in the country at the time, decorated with two flags (that of the BSAC and the Union Jack), palm leaves, flowers and other vegetation, pulled the six coaches and halted on the bridge for the passengers to alight. Mr Alan Martin Bowes was the driver of the train. The party was met by Robert Coryndon, the Administrator of North Western Rhodesia. Sir Charles Metcalfe made a welcoming speech and invited the astronomer Professor George H Darwin, son of Charles Darwin and President of the British Association (now the Royal Society), to declare the Victoria Falls Bridge officially open.
The following day the Bulawayo Chronicle recorded the details of Professor Darwin's speech:
"He said it was a most fortunate coincidence that this great enterprise had been brought to a stage at which it was proper to declare the bridge open, during the visit of the members of the British Association to South Africa. Thanks to the generosity and care of the Government Railways, they had just performed an astonishing journey of 1700 miles in luxury and comfort. (Cheers.) One could not but feel that it was almost an impertinence that they should have be able to come, in electrically lighted sleeping cars, with restaurant saloons, to a place which the heroic explorers had spent many months in fruitless endeavours to reach. This was a thing which impressed itself on the imagination. Another thing which impressed them as Englishmen was that they were still under the Union Jack. (Loud cheers.) But two days ago they stood by the tomb of Cecil John Rhodes in the Matopas, and, amid that scene of wild beauty, all felt that the grave of the man who had thought in continents was fitly chosen. The great enterprise of the Cape to Cairo Railway, of which this bridge is a part, was due to his inception. It seemed nothing short of a fairy tale to stand on this bridge over the Zambesi. It was due to the influence of steam that this great enterprise had become possible, and he couldn’t refrain from quoting the remarkable forecast, written by his great grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, in 1785:
"Soon shall thy arm unconquered steam, afar
Urge the slow barge and draw the flying car. "
"How little could the writer of these lines have foreseen that his great grandson should have the honour of declaring a railway bridge open in the heart of equatorial Africa. (Cheers.)
"Professor Darwin concluded by declaring the bridge open, touching a button which fused a cord stretched across."
The first train, which had halted in the middle of the bridge for passengers to alight for the ceremony, slowly drew forward amid cheers. Guests were then ferried, by many canoes, to Livingstone Island, to view the Falls from the same spot that Livingstone had first witnessed them only fifty years earlier.
Official opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge
For the conveyance of the British Association party and other guests for the opening, Railways ran six passenger trains at half hour intervals from Bulawayo and back. In those days there were only six intermediate staffed stations over the whole 278 miles of forest and sparsely inhabited country with very unreliable telegraphic communication. The journey took over 19 hours.
The earlier trains arrived in time to enable guests to visit the Falls for sunrise. Then, after breakfast at the Victoria Falls Hotel, the visitors proceeded by train to the new bridge.
Many well known scientists, professors and engineers were present including Sir Benjamin Baker, Sir William Crookes and Lord Ross. Apparently there was much speculation amongst those present as to the height of the bridge above the water, and an informal experiment was proposed. An un-named professor held a stone ready to drop over the edge in one hand and his pocket watch in the other, with the idea to time the descent of the stone. He was left red-faced, holding the stone in one hand as he dropped his watch down into the waters of the Zambezi.
In the evening a dinner was held in Livingstone. The Bulawayo Chronicle recorded:
"At a dinner held yestereve, Mr F J Newton, representing the British South Africa Company, proposed the health of Professor Darwin and welcomed the members of the British Association to the Victoria Falls on the anniversary of the first occupation of Mashonaland by the pioneers fifteen years ago, and fifty years after Dr Livingstone first saw the Falls. Professor Darwin replied, and toasted Sir Charles Metcalfe as representing the great enterprise which to-day had marked so important a step in advance. Sir Charles Metcalfe, in the course of his speech, expressed the conviction that they saw here the germs of a great nation, and concluded by presenting Professor Darwin with a model of a railway staff, made of Mashonaland wood and mounted in gold. Music was supplied during the evening by the Barotse police band, dressed in Khaki uniforms with red turbans, not one of whom knows a note of music, and are taught by having the tunes whistled to them."
Sir Charles also read a telegram from the President and Directors of the Chartered Company, congratulating him on the opening of the bridge. It read:
"Very fitting that foremost representatives of science should be associated with inauguration of modern engineering. Regret the founder of country is not alive to witness realization of part of his great ideal."
The opening of the bridge was celebrated with typical imperial triumphalism and fan-fairing. The Financier declared the bridge "one of the greatest engineering marvels of modern times and a most important link in the Cape to Cairo Railway", and one of South Africa's journalists could see "the mosques of Cairo... already rising on the mental horizon".
The Globe's reporter celebrated this "interesting event in the heart of Central Africa", important because the bridge could "claim the distinction of being the highest in the world, has been erected in the heart of the Dark Continent and furthermore, represents the forging of another link... in the great scheme proposed and started by Cecil John Rhodes".
For Thomas Cook and Sons the opening was "an event second only in importance to the completion of the [Cape to Cairo] line itself", and their magazine described "the memorable scene" of the five special trains carrying Professor Darwin "through trackless, uninhabited tropical bush to the renowned falls". Thomas Cook later chose the Falls as their emblem for tourism for the southern African region: an advertising poster showed the waterfall superimposed with images of 'new style' transport in the form of a train counterposed to the old-fashioned discomforts of the wagon.
The bridge bore only a single track railway although later it carried two as originally designed. It was envisaged that the tracks would be used alternatively for six month periods. There was no roadway - road vehicles had to pay the railway to be transported over the river, or use the Old Drift ferry upstream from the Falls.
In all it had taken only nine weeks for the actual erection of the steelwork, with the whole construction extending over fourteen months. 1,868 tons of steel were used to make the bridge parts in Darlington, England, from where they were shipped 8,500 miles and fitted together on site. The bridge is 250 metres (820 feet) across, with a main arch spanning bridges graceful main arch is about 156.50 metres in length, at a height of 128 metres above the low water mark of the river in the gorge below. At the time it was built the bridge was the highest above water level in the world.
The railway line quickly changed the international perception of this last, 'uncivilised' part of Africa. Suddenly, it all seemed tame. Gone were the Matabele raiding parties, game was shot and began to disappear, farms and roads were established and the administrators moved in. Even so, there was still excitement and adventure around. For example, Ted Spencer had yet to fly his aircraft into the pages of local history by being the first to pass along the gorge under the bridge!
Steamtrain on the bridge, soon after completion, showing the two tracks originally installed
The local Leya chief Mukuni reportedly came with his headmen daily to a rock vantage point and watched the building of the bridge. Roughly translated, Varian records his comments as something like this: "Of course the white men are very clever, and can do most things, but as soon as all this zimbe [iron] gets further from the bank it will of course fall down the gorge". With wonder he watched the progress until the two sides were finally linked up, but still refused to relinquish his theory:
"Now with great luck, they have got this thing across, the trouble will be when they try to put a train on it, which they evidently mean to do. What they should do to save it all would be to put a stick up from the bottom to hold it up, certainly it would have to be a long stick, but as they have got the bridge across, they should be able to do that as well, but it is not for me to tell them; I am an old man, and I know these things. "
He is also recorded as saying: "I am sorry for these white men, for they work for no profit". However, the chief's forebodings did not materialise and he stood alone on his rock vantage point as the first train rumbled across the bridge. His response was that it must only be the finger of the white man's God that kept the bridge up.
Contrary to many beliefs, especially among the local people, that many lost their lives during the construction of the bridge, contemporary records from Rhodesia Railways show that there were only two deaths, one African and one European, who apparently both died in the same incident.
Late in 1904, when the third bay section on the northern side was being erected, a nine-ton girder was lowered into position by the crane, only to find that the rivet holes on the girder and the piece already in position did not all coincide. A fitter had his rivet tool jammed, failed to inform the foreman, who gave the signal for the craneman to lift. With the lifted piece still being fastened to the completed structure by the rivet, the wrought iron brake wheel collapsed under the strain and rendered the driver unconscious. The girder fell sideways onto a cross bracing girder, on which two men were working. Both were pinned down, the African was killed instantaneously, the unfortunate European lived for some three hours afterwards with most of his ribs broken and conscious almost to the last.
Rev Coisson, who had established the first mission station at the Old Drift, records in one of his letters the reaction of the local Africans to the railway. The rains were apparently very late that year, and they accused the trains, with all their smoke and noise, of driving away the rain clouds and forbidding the rain to fall.
In addition, the construction of the Bridge, so close to the sacred site of the waterfall, and also the boiling pot, which was used in rain-making ceremonies, marked the beginning of their exclusion from their traditional cultural sites, which continued with the establishment of the conservation and tourist areas immediately around the Falls.
Ticket to Walk
The Falls and the bridge were soon favourite tourist attractions and to augment revenue the railways imposed a toll on all who wished to walk on the bridge. For this a bridge guard was appointed in a small toll house close to the southern approach, from which tickets at 1 shilling each were issued. Jack Soper was the guard and he had made a 'tube' ticket dispensing system to hold the cards supplied for the toll by the accountants office. All went well until Soper went on leave and Station Master W T Breach enlisted a local resident (who sadly remains anonymous), to cover the duty. Soon a trainload of tourists arrived and their wish to walk over the bridge was to result in a small administrative disaster behind the scenes. In the evening, Breach asked his employee how the day had gone. All went well as the reply but the guard complained he thought the 'tube' idea 'stupid' since he could only get the cards out by using a pin. To Breach's horror he found that all the tickets had been issued out of sequence, having been lifted out of the top instead of drawing them out of the slit in the bottom. The whole affair need much explaining to the accountant.
Soper, together with another resident, is recorded as among the first to descend into the bottom of the Falls chasm down the front face of the Falls, at Livingstone Island. Soper described the first part of the descent, made with the aid of ropes, as precipitous, but the lower part as moderately easy climbing, but it was not altogether a pleasure trip, and they had no desire to repeat the attempt.
Reconstruction of the top deck
In 1929 urgently required alterations were carried out to the bridge. It had originally been designed to take two tracks of rails. One of the two rail tracks was removed and the bridge was widened to include a roadway and sidewalks. This modification involved the complete removal and replacement of the top deck, which was widened by 13 ft to carry the road and two sidewalks. The bridge floor was raised 4ft 6in in height.
The bridge had not originally been designed to take a permanent road, nor was it seen as desirable, from the railway-company's point of view, to provide a roadway, which would have added considerably to the construction cost.
The contract for the works was drawn up in December 1928, the work again being awarded to the Cleveland Bridge Company. The work commenced on 3 July and the last section was placed into position on 4 December, with only minor stoppages of the heavy railway traffic passing over the bridge.
At least three men who were engaged in the original construction of the bridge in 1904/5, were again employed in the work. The foreman, Rutherford, the painting contractor, McEvoy, and a third man, Powell.
Reconstruction of the top deck of the Victoria Falls.
The specification of the works to carried out included detailing the reconstruction of the deck of the bridge so as to provide one railway track near the centre of the bridge, a roadway on the upstream side of the bridge and a footway on the downstream side of the bridge. The whole of the original deck of the bridge down to the underside of the cross girders was to be removed. Other works included strengthening of the two bottom chord members of the bridge at both ends of each arch by the addition of side plates to the existing members, strengthening of the bottom cross bracing of the bridge by addition of transverse lateral struts, replacement of bolts on some of the existing connections of the principle members of the main span (to be removed one at a time and replaced with rivets) and the cleaning and adjustment of bearings at ends of approach spans.
The contract also detailed that all steelwork was to be painted with pure red lead and pure boiled linseed oil paint on both meeting surfaces of any steel plates or sections before they were to be installed and riveted. After the erection all steel was to be cleaned and scraped and painted with one coat of red lead and linseed oil and two further coats, the first of Dampney's graphite and he second of Dampney's Miraculum of light grey colour or other approved paints of similar character.
The roadway was to be surfaced with natural rock asphalt and broken stone placed in two layers. The lower layer, 1 1/2 inches in thickness is to consist of asphalt and stone broken to 1 inch gauge, and the top layer of asphalt and stone broken to 1/4 in gauge. It was noted that special care must also be taken to finish the surface so that it is not slippery when wet.
Excavating the road approaches to the bridge took some time, as blasting was not allowed so close to the bridge and all the work had to be carried out by hand.
The total cost of the contract was just over £32,870.
Rhodesia Railways steam locomotive crossing Victoria Falls Bridge and showing the newly reconstructed deck, complete with tar road.
The first motorcar to cross on the new road was driven by Charles K Thompson, one of the railway engineers associated with the work. The first member of the public to cross the reconstructed bridge by motorcar is perhaps a Mrs Marina King, who according to her autobiography 'Sunset to Evening Star', crossed the bridge an hour or so after it opened. However neither were actually the first motorcars to cross the bridge, a feat which had been achieved in 1908 by Paul Graetz.
The Victoria Falls Bridge was strategically important during the First World War. German South West Africa (now Namibia) was only 80km away and the bridge was a vital transport link for British South African and Rhodesian forces. Suspecting an act of sabotage the bridge was defended with a military guard and a rail mounted searchlight. A blockhouse commanded a view of the bridge and the mobile search light was shunted along the bridge, until finally it was parked on the south side from where it could light up almost the entire bridge. S A Tomlin, foreman at the Livingstone rail depot, gave assistance with its installation.
The main threat to the bridge and British interests came from a small German unit under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who, stationed in German East Africa, ignored orders from Berlin and the colony's governor, Heinrich Schnee, and attacked British forces and railways in East Africa, gaining ammunitions and supplies. He determined to tie down as many British troops as he could, intending to keep them away them from the main theatre of war in Europe. He avoided direct engagements with British forces, instead directing his men to engage in raids into British East Africa (modern Kenya), Uganda and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), targeting forts, railways and communications, and gaining promotion to General. It as only on the 14 November, three days after the official surrender of German forces, that von Vorbeck was informed of the armistice and agreed to a cease-fire at the spot now marked by the Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial in present-day Zambia. Essentially undefeated in the field, General von Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to successfully invade British soil during the First World War.
In 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, the bridge was again placed under military guard, and again it escaped being targeted.
A brief history of the Victoria Falls Bridge
1905 BSAC stamp, red issue
Towards the end of 1904 Sir Charles Metcalfe approached Percy Clark with a contract to photograph the building of the bridge during its various stages of construction, and thus leaving us with a rich pictoral record of the bridge construction.
To commemorate the opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge, the British South Africa Company issued a set of stamps on 13 July 1905 showing the Falls, but oddly not including the bridge. The image was based on one of Percy Clark's original photographs featuring the 'Main Falls'. There have since been many stamps issued showing the bridge.
The bridge construction contract stipulated that all traces of the construction camps be removed. The site of Tower's camp was cleared and the huts burnt by Imbault after the construction was completed. Percy Clark tried, but failed, to take up residence at the site, and the whole area was quickly reclaimed by nature.
For many years the bridge was referred to as the 'Zambesi' or 'Zambezi Bridge', or even the 'Great Zambezi Bridge', but with other bridges being built across the river it later became known as the Victoria Falls Bridge.
On 21st September 1908 the first motor vehicle crossed the bridge with a receipt for the 20 shilling toll noted on the bottom "First motor car to cross Zambezi Bridge". It was driven by Lieutenant Paul Graetz on his expedition from Dar es Salam to Swakopmond, becoming the first motor vehicle to visit Livingstone and then to cross the bridge. His expedition was the first motorised transit of the continent from east to west coast.
From 1910 a local passenger train ran from Livingstone to Victoria Falls on Saturdays and Sundays, becoming known as 'The Weekender'. The train normally comprised a Nasmith Wilson locomotive, later a 7th Class, hauling one composite 1st/2nd class coach and a van. The train was replaced was by the first Rhodesia Railways railcar in 1916.
As the river is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the bridge links the two countries and has border posts on the approaches to both ends. The bridge is still to this day the only rail link between Zambia and Zimbabwe and one of only three road links between the two countries.
For more than 50 years the Victoria Falls Bridge was crossed regularly by passenger trains as part of the principal route between the then Northern Rhodesia, southern Africa and beyond. Freight trains carried many millions of tons of goods, mainly copper ore (later, copper ingots), timber and coal. Virtually all of Zambia's material requirements, every lump of Rhodesian coal destined for Zambia's copper mines and practically every ton of Zambian export copper, were carried across the bridge.
Rhodesia Railways Garrett locomotive crossing Victoria Falls Bridge
The bridge celebrated its Diamond Jubilee on 12 September 1965. In the years preceding the bridge was stripped 'naked' of its paint, which in some parts were covered with up to thirteen coats of paint, and repainted. The old paint was chipped off and the steel exposed by using high-speed rotary brushes driven by compressed air. Repainting required 3,800 gallons of paint, applied in three coats, the first of red lead oxide, followed by a coat of micaceous iron oxide, and finally a layer of non-bitumastic aluminium with an anti-fouling compound, giving a gleaming silver finish. The work took over three years, and it was predicted that a similar task would have to be performed in another sixty years, although the bridge was to be given a new coat of aluminium paint every six years.
During the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) crisis following the announcement of independence from British rule in late 1965, the bridge was frequently closed to goods and passenger services. In 1969 the through passenger service over the bridge was discontinued and Rhodesian Railways trains terminated at Victoria Falls. The few rail passenger from Rhodesia to Zambia travelled by bus.
Despite the official closure of the border and bridge, freight was still transported over the bridge. A Rhodesian steam engine would push a string of freight cars out to the middle of the bridge, and a Zambian Rail diesel would back onto its end of the bridge and pull them into Zambia. The reverse would also happen - several times a day.
The border area remained tense as more and more landmine and shooting incidents were reported. The most significant of these encounters occurred in the vicinity of the Victoria Falls on 15 May 1973, when two Canadian tourists were shot and killed by rifle fire from Zambian side of the Zambezi River whilst exploring the gorges below the Falls.
The flag of Southern Rhodesia flies from the flagpole of the Victoria Falls Hotel whilst peace talks are held on the bridge
In 1975, the bridge was the site of unsuccessful peace talks when the parties met in a train carriage poised above the gorge for nine and a half hours. On August 25, 1975 the talks (supervised by South African Prime Minister Vorster and between Smith, the Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and the African National Council, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa) took place aboard a South African Railways coach, from the royal 'White Train', in the middle of the Bridge. The Rhodesian delegation sat in home territory while the ANC sat on the Zambian side. Smith was in a pugnacious mood. "I think it is unfortunate," he said, as the talks were about to begin, "that at the moment the ANC seems to be divided, in that the body is resident in Rhodesia and the head in Zambia. A decapitated chicken is usually directionless". The staff were apparently rather too liberal with the bar service and two members became intoxicated and disruptive, helping the talks to continue throughout the day. The talks fell through because of the intransigence of all the participants. The ANC split (again) shortly afterwards and the war continued for another three years.
The civil war escalated and tourism collapsed. In an effort to disrupt the rail service, lines were mined, and in December 1976 a passenger train struck a mine south of Victoria Falls, an event which caused a cessation of the service until after the war.
In the latter stages of the war, during late 1978, the bridge was set with explosive charges by Rhodesian forces in readiness to blow up the Southern Rhodesian end of the bridge, should it be necessary. The road surface of the bridge had already been removed to stop light traffic crossing the bridge, but the fear was that Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU forces, based in Zambia, may invade across the bridge with their Russian made tanks.
Victoria Falls Bridge with road removed, lates 1970s
Using plans of the bridge held by the railway company, engineers identified the best locations for the explosives to be set. A shield of 10mm steel plate was erected to protect the Rhodesian army engineers from the Zambian Army snipers who frequently fired across from their side, and the decking plates removed to give access to the structure below. PE-4 plastic explosives were prepared in special aluminium cases, and, at some risk to the individuals concerned, placed at strategic points ready to destroy the southern side span.
A command bunker was built on the south bank with the firing mechanism for the explosives and the observation post manned 24hrs a day. The approaches on the southern side were also mined and booby trapped. Fortunately, it was never necessary to blow the charges, which were removed after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980.
Towards the end of 1979 the first sign of improvement in the general situation showed in the re-opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge in November. At last shunting trains on and off the bridge could stop. In 1980 freight and road services resumed and have continued without interruption except for maintenance, speed and weight restrictions.
At the time there were concerns over the potential increase in road and rail traffic over the bridge, and some organisations proposed the building of a new bridge, downstream of the present one, to take road and rail links away from the town and Falls environs. It was suggested that the old bridge be retained for pedestrian traffic and as a sightseeing footbridge for tourists.
In 2005 a major 100 year survey of the bridge was undertaken. Previous reports by officials from the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) had raised the danger posed by the bridge by heavy loads and it was closed to heavy traffic for over a year days to allow for emergency work. A report, published in January 2005 by NRZ highlighted "excessive vibrations being felt whenever a heavy truck transverses the bridge".
During the restrictions trains crossed at less than walking pace and trucks were limited to a load of 30 tons, necessitating heavier trucks to make a long diversion via the Kazungula Ferry or Chirundu Bridge. The choice for engineers was either to reconstruct or reinforce the bridge, but they settled for reinforcement. Following the repairs costing US$1.7 million the bridge re-opened to heavy traffic on 15 June 2006, and can now sustain loads of up to 56 tons for the next five years. During this period, more repairs will be done to enable the bridge to survive another century. Replacement of the bridge with a similar modern structure has been estimated to cost over US$32 million.
In November 2010 it was announced that a toll on the Victoria Falls Bridge was being considered in a bid to raise the necessary funds for maintenance. Recommendations made by international consultants have said it could last another 100 years if properly maintained. It has been estimated that more than US$1.9 million is needed to inject into the maintenance of the bridge - US$800,000 will be for the upgrade of the railway deck; US$300,000 for the upgrade of the footway deck and US$800,000 for the upgrade of the roadway deck.
Owned originally by Rhodesia Railways, Victoria Falls Bridge is now jointly owned by the national railways of Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is managed by the Emerged Railways Properties (Private) Limited (ERP), an interstate company jointly owned by the Governments of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
White-water rafters under the bridge
There are no regular rail passenger services over the bridge today. However, steam hauled excursions in a historic dining saloon are offered daily between Victoria Falls station (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia). In addition, several luxury cruise trains make the journey from South Africa as far as Livingstone, crossing the bridge as part of their journey.
Today the Victoria Falls Bridge is the location for the 111 metre Shearwater bungee jump, which started operations in 1993.
The local Chief Mukuni appeared on the bridge in full ceremonial regalia, accompanied by most of the village, to take his turn to jump. After a few false starts he toppled into the void, to the accompaniment of wild cheers from the onlookers. It has been claimed that this feet should afford him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first African Chief to have bungeed in the history of the sport.
Over 50,000 people have committed themselves to the thrill of jumping off the bridge without incident. The operation has now expanded to include a bungee swing and zip line. In 2010 a refurbished viewing platform, restaurant and bar, together with an interpretive museum, was opened on the Zambian side. The latest tourism activity on the bridge are interactive historical bridge tours, where groups are guided under the bridge using safety harnesses and ropes.