15 July 2010

Nababeep - "The little railway in Namaqualand" written by Richard Thomas Hall

NOTE: Information about the Namaqualand Railway is spread over these entries:
  1. "CLARA" built by Kitson & Co in 1891
  2. The Namaqualand Copper Mine Railway - a brief history
  3. Locomotives of the Namaqualand Copper Railway
  4. "The little railway in Namaqualand" written by Richard Thomas Hall
  5. Richard Thomas Hall - 1st builder of the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand
  6. Traveling on the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand - some personal accounts
"The Little Railway in Namaqualand"

This article was written in 1871 by Richard Thomas Hall for the Cape Monthly Magazine - it was published in April 1871. Richard Thomas Hall, a former superintendent engineer of the Redruth & Chasewater Railway, was charged with improving railway links in Namaqualand. Hall's 93-mile Port Nolloth Tramway, built between 1869 and 1876, was considered one of Africa's engineering marvels, and set the 2ft 6in narrow-gauge for sub-Saharan Africa:

At the present time, when the attention of most persons in the Colony is more or less drawn to the necessity of providing some cheap, but effective, means of opening up the resources of the country, any information of a practical nature is desirable, and a description of the railway I have lately constructed here, may be of benefit to some, and interesting to others. Before proceeding to describe the line and its working, I must give a short account of its history and of what called it into existence.

The Cape Copper Mining Company, since their mines began to be developed, has experienced great difficulty in obtaining transport for their ores. At the commencement of their operations cattle were plentiful in Namaqualand, and the farmers had been induced to become riders, and thereby neglected their farms. Drought ensued, followed by lung-sickness, which swept off hundreds of trek oxen. As the drought continued the means of transport diminished, until at length it became a serious question with the Company as to the future. In 1865 I was sent here by the directors of the Cape Copper Mining Company to inquire into the means of transport, and to see how the difficulty could be overcome.

The difficulties were the frightful state of the road over the mountain towards the coast, and the long and tiresome drag over sand from the mountain to the sea. Hondeklip Bay was the the Company's port for shipping and the landing of all their cargo. On my arrival, the question of improving the road from Springbok to Hondeklip Bay was before Parliament, in connection with a Tramway Bill from Hondeklip to Riethuis, sixteen miles towards the mountain. [Act No. 4 of 1865, Act to Authorize The Cape Copper Mining Company (Limited) to construct a Tramway or Railway between Hondeklip Bay and Riethuis]

On examining the country I found such greater such greater facilities were afforded for making a railway or tramway towards the mines from Port Nolloth, and the superior advantages of that port over Hondeklip Bay were so manifest, that I recommended the directors to abandon the Hondeklip route and bay, remove their establishment, and carry a railway 2 feet 6 inches gauge from Port Nolloth to Muishond, some forty miles inland. The question was duly considered by the directors, and approved of, but in the meantime, they had been committed to the Government road between Sringbok and Hondeklip, and were, therefore, compelled to abandon the idea. Matters, however, did not improve. Ox-wagons gave way in a great measure to mules, and notwithstanding all efforts, the ore accumulated at O'okiep, until a pile of the value near £160,000 lay waiting for removal. The directors then reconsidered my suggestion, and resolved to abandon their valuable property at Hondeklip, and transfer their business to Port Nolloth. In the latter part of 1868 I was sent there to make necessary surveys for carrying the railway into effect.

The railway starts from the jetty at Port Nolloth, and going eastwards, passes over a loose sandy plain, with ridges of blowing sand, for about nine miles. The country then becomes more settled, and at fifteen miles arrives at Oograbies Poort, having attained an altitude of 500 feet above the sea level. Oograbies Poort is a pass in the first range of mountains which runs parallel with the coast. The poort is about a mile wide, and opens a communication from the coast to a very fine valley running into the heart of the mountains en extending to near Kookfontein Mission Station, or within twenty miles of the plateau of Bushmanland. This valley varies in width from two to eight miles, along the middle of which the railway runs to its further limit. The soil throughout, excepting about four miles of alluvial matter, is sand, generally loose, but becomes firmer as you advance towards the head of the valley.

The present terminus of the railway is near Muishondfontein, forty-six miles from the port and 1,600 feet above the sea. The question of its further extension of ten or twelve miles to near Kookfontein or Steinkopf Mission Station is now being considered by the directors. The difficulty is the mountain ridge; but a ruling gradient of one in twenty for about two miles will carry the line over the worst part, and from this point to the mines, no serious obstacle exists. Kookfontein Mission Station is about 2,850 feet and O'okiep Mine is about 3,000 feet above sea level.

Rivers are said to have existed, and places are pointed out, as Kama River and Oograbies River, but no appearances, except at the two points mentioned, where the soil is firm, indicate that water has flowed along them for very many years. The upper and lower portions of the line are of a different character. The lower portions, as far as twenty-two miles, are very curved, there being but five miles in the aggregate of straight in the length, and the surface is in many parts undulating, arising from the character of the ground and the frequent occurrence of sand-hills. From the twenty-second mile to its terminus, the direction is more decided, having runs of perfectly straight line from two miles to six miles in length.

The preparation of the line is such, as is necessary for other railways, the whole course being laid out at regular gradients adapted as nearly as possible to the nature of the country, great care to avoid cuttings and bankings, as the sand, especially in the lower portion of the road, being loose, and in many parts shifting, the slightest disturbance might therefore create a drift not readily stopped. Banks vary from three feet to eight feet in height, and being formed of loose sand, are planted with bush, to protect the sides from running or being blown away. Cuttings are few, the heaviest are near to port, and vary from three to four feet, but in one case a six-feet cutting occurs. Ont the upper portion of the line the works are very light. The curves are, as stated, in the lower portion, frequent and continuous; in many places five or six alternate curves occur in succession, varying from five hundred to one thousand feet radius; nearly all are of parabolic form. On the mainline the sharpest curves is five hundred feet radius, but as at the port there is a curve of one hundred and forty feet radius, over which the traffic passes.

The gradients in the lower portion are mostly short and varied, seldom more than two hundred yards in length. This portion being constructed for animal power was formed of a more undulating character than if intended for steam, but can at little expense be made suitable for steam power. The gradients vary from on in fifty to one in two hundred, but are chiefly from one in sixty to one in one hundred. On the upper portion they are of better character and of greater length, varying from one in two hundred at the lower end to one in one hundred and seventy near the terminus.

The works other than 'formation', are trifling. Rivers and streams require but little expense. The dry bed of the River Kama, about three hundred feet wide, is crossed on the level, and however objectionable this may be from an engineering point of view, it is cheaper to restore a small portion of the railway in the event of being washed away than to build a bridge. Three other rivers are crossed, but as they have banks somewhat prominent, and are narrow, a simple wood girder bridge has been thrown across, with masonry piers. The culverts, for the same reasons, are very few, and do not number more than six in all.

The railway is constructed in a gauge of 2 feet 6 inches, rails 18 lb per yard - of what is are termed 'bridge' pattern, such as were used by Brunel in his broad-gauge railways in England. They are securely bolted to longitudinal sleepers 7 inches x 3 inches, of European pine creosoted, and fixed laterally by iron tie rods, which, with attention, becomes solidated.

The railway has been rapidly constructed. Its first rail was laid September 4, 1869, and its last on December 23, 1870. Considerable delay occurred, and the platelaying ceased for want of material for many weeks. The time actually occupied in constructing the forty-six miles was about twelve months. [NOTE: This was enabled by Act No. 4 of 1869, Act to Authorize The Cape Copper Mining Company (Limited) to construct a Tramway or Railway between Port Nolloth and Nonams, and to build a Jetty at Port Nolloth.]

Considering the light character of the material used and the nature of the country, it was intended at first to use animal power only in hauling the traffic; but as the work progressed, and finding it stood the carriage of material so well, I strongly recommended to the directors to send a light locomotive, to be tried as an experiment.

The engine - named 'John King' - after the head of the late firm of Phillips & King, now King & Son, Cape Town, (who originated the working of the present productive mines, and but for whose energy and skill Namaqualand would probably have lapsed into destitution and barbarism) arrived here in January [1871] last, and on 1st February commenced its work, and has steadily continued to the present time, and has successfully proved that even with light material and sand ballast steam power may by used economically in South Africa.

The engine is necessarily light; weighing, with water and coal, about 6 ½ tons; the cylinders are 6 inches in diameter, 12 inches stroke, wheels six-coupled 1 foot 10 inches in diameter, working pressure generally 100 lb, but can work to 120 lb per inch.

The great drawback to railways in the country is the scarcity of water, especially in Namaqualand. Our supply along the line is very limited, and necessitates a tender being attached to the engine to carry water sufficient for a twenty mile run. This entails a dead weight of about three tons, which in a more favoured country might be dispensed with.

The little engine performs its work very satisfactorily. At present its daily performance is to leave the bay at seven a.m. with a train of ten wagons loaded with about seven tons of goods to thirty-five miles; the gross weight of the 'up' train with tender being about 20 tons, and to return with ten wagons, carrying twenty-two tons of ore, or a gross load inwards of about thirty-five tons, arriving at the bay about 2.30 pm. As the requirements increase, it will take twelve wagons from the bay, weighing gross about twenty-two tons and return with a train weighing gross forty-two tons. This, I think is the limit of its power.

On first working the railway, great inconvenience was experienced from the very rapid wear of wheels under the wagons. The wheels were about 16 inches in diameter, of rough cast-iron; but the continuous attrition, caused by the rails being covered with loose sand driven by the wind or thrown up by action of the mule's feet, became a serious difficulty to keep the work going. A set of new wheels would last only three weeks - being by that time worked into a regular groove, so perfect that in sending a wheel to Cape town as pattern for a supply, the manufacturer was in doubt whether the groove was intentional or not. This, however, was soon remedied, by sending wheels of cast Bessemer steel. No inconvenience is now felt, and wheels are now running that have been in use six months, with very little perceptible wear on their faces. The rails, too, do not yet exhibit damage from attrition, many persons having supposed that the wear would thus transferred from wheel to rail; but consideration would show this is not to be expected to any great extent.

A question of great importance in constructing such a line as above is the cost. In this case I am not in a position to say what the Port Nolloth Railway has cost per mile, as our accounts are not yet closed. I will, however, assume £50,000, a matter of little over £1,000 per mile - not more than is necessary for constructing a good wagon road. Although the road* as at present constructed may be sufficient for its requirements, I would not, in the event of any similar undertaking of a more public character being desired, recommend material so light as I have here laid. [*road = a reference to the railway line of course - "railroad"]

That our road is equal to its requirements, I may only say that the work the engine is at present doing daily from the port to thirty-five miles is as much as twelve months ago would have required five hundred mules to perform, and to put it in another form, the engine is now carrying to thirty-five miles, as much as four hundred and twenty mules are bringing forty-two miles.

I must next say something about the port, as until of late, it was comparatively unknown except to a few in Cape Town. Port Nolloth is the only place in the Colony north of Saldanha Bay worthy of the name harbour, but it must not be compared to Saldanha Bay in any respect. It is a mere lagoon or indentation in the coast, with a reef of rocks protecting it from the was of the Atlantic. Its length, from north to south points, is about two miles, and its breadth from shore to reef varies from 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The reef runs nearly NW by SE, but about the middle and for space of near 1,500 feet, there is a break, which is termed the bar or entrance to the harbour. The depth of the water here is about twenty-eight feet at low tide; the reef on either side is nearly bare at low-water spring tides. On the south side of the bar or entrance is 'Robbe Island', a small islet, nearly covered at a very high spring tide, but a great protection to the shore against the run of the sea from westward. Opposite this island stand the Company's wharf, stores, and place of general business. The proposed jetty abuts on the wharf here, and runs out towards the island about 100 feet below low-watermark, where vessels drawing nine feet of water may lie in all states of the tide. At the north end of the harbour is a fine pool, with a depth of twenty to twenty-seven feet at low water. To the south of the jetty is also another fine pool, but shallower, with a depth of water of only about ten or eleven feet.

That the narrow-gauge railway here is a success, no one who has seen it can doubt. That it can be constructed for about one tenth the cost and in one fifth of the time required for ordinary railways, has been proved by the Cape Copper Mining Company; and its adaptation generally for this Colony, can be readily ascertained. Prejudices may oppose, but necessity should compel it being fairly and fully considered.

The originator of the idea of this very narrow gauge railway, was the late Mr. Spooner, C.E., of Port Madoc, North Wales, who, in constructing the Festiniog Railway, adapted this gauge to meet the requirements and ramifications of some slate quarries in that country, thus enabling the same wagons to pass through the galleries in the quarries, the workshops, and on the mainline to the shipping at the port. To his son - the present engineer of that railway - is due credit of introducing steam-power on a railway only two feet in width, and who, by his energy and ability, has enabled it to carry a traffic of near 140,000 tons per year by steam-power. If this can be done in England, why can it not be done in the Cape Colony?

  • "The Little Railway in Namaqualand" - published in the Cape Monthly Magazine of April 1871 - Account written by Thomas Hall - also recently (2008) republished in "Life & Travels in the Northwest 1850-1899 - Namaqualand, Bushmanland & West Coast" - By Arne Schaefer, Tony Grogan -published by Life&Travels in the Northwes, 2008.

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