12 August 2010

Grahamstown: Blaauwkrantz Bridge Disaster (1911)

The Blaauwkrantz Bridge disaster happened in 1911 between Grahamstown and Port Alfred on the Kowie Railway line.

This blog entry is a merely a collation of information (much thanks to the original posters of information!) which mostly are already available elsewhere on the web, with one or two exceptions. Some form of duplication will result - it is left to the reader to extract the information he/she is after.

The Blaauwkrantz Bridge Disaster

Credit: Text - Bev Young, the The Young Lioness who runs Port Alfred Publicity
This article was sourced from www.kowietales.co.za
from Martin Kruger's virtual book about Port Alfred (Kowie).

Once, a train ran from Port Alfred station every day: the 11.10 to Grahamstown, 68km away. In the early 1900s the train used to steam up through the valleys towards Bathurst and Grahamstown taking farmers, farm workers, holidaymakers and commercial travellers, especially on stock-fair days, when the atmosphere was festive and the coaches were full. It is no longer possible to go on the train. One must walk the line or take the road that loops and meets, strays from and returns to it.

The railway runs truer than the road: there are fewer meandering’s and distractions. In the old days, prospective passengers could signal to the train driver if they wanted to board, running up from a farmland or waving from the veranda of a homestead for him to wait. Train drivers were obliging in those days.

Mr. Robinson, driver of the 11.10 on Saturday April 22 1911, was aware of potential passengers as he steamed along. By the time he reached Martindale, he had 52 on board. The line was built in 1883, tracing a wide curve across the farms of lower Albany, ancient in the history of the indigenous people long before the first white colonists settled there in 1820. The names of the small stations and sidings are testament to the provenance of those Settlers: Hayes, Bathurst, Clumber, Trappes Valley, Martindale, Manley Flats, Oak Valley, with the occasional gesture to other origins: Blaauwkrantz. The older, Xhosa names for the rivers that cross those grass and copse-scattered hills are unrecorded in colonial records.

Blaauwkrantz is the destination of this journey, although it is not at the end of the track. It is the place of other ghosts. There is a limpid quality to the air in this quiet corner of the Eastern Cape, shrikes calling, proclaiming territory, the blue-black bush marking out the camps where cattle graze. The hills are low. There are lands cleared for pineapples and chicory. Far off, the sea is glimpsed between bushes trailing orange Tecoma, blue here and there with Plumbago.

The first real station is Bathurst. It was once an important destination thronging with passengers. Now but a ghost of days gone by. From here the line loops out, heading east past the sidings of Purdonton and spring Grove to Clumber. A small white church and school stand on a grassy knoll among old trees and quiet graves.

Trappes Valley station is derelict under a pale sky, and here we are furthest east in the journey. This is frontier country. Out there, further than the horizon, is the Great Fish River and Coombs, where the sacred clay pits of the Xhosa were found.

The tollhouse is derelict now. An aloe has taken root on the walls of the upper gable. Beyond the broken walls you will find a grove of Mtsintsi trees where - legend has it a besieged farmer had his hand pinned by a spear to a sneeze-wood post as he reached to take a loaded gun. His adversary was his long defected herdsman.

There is a well in a grove, perfectly preserved. At Martindale there are people living in the old guard house. A scarecrow made from an overcoat crucified on sticks, his head a rusted paint tin turned upside down, guards a mealie patch. There are neither mealies to guard nor birds to chase away. From Martindale the rail swings northwest again. The country is more broken. Surveying the possible route for the railway line in the early 1880s, the railway engineer George Pauling wrote: "A very bad piece of country had to be crossed and it took some time before it was decided to cross the worst spot on the route called Blaauwkrantz, about 21km from Grahamstown, by a high level bridge."

A very bad piece of country indeed. At the bottom of the gorge there is a large pool. It is one of a number of pools scattered randomly throughout the Eastern Cape where the "People of the River", Abantu Bomlambo, are thought to reside. In Xhosa cosmology, the People of the River are believed to live beneath the water with their crops and cattle.

It is they to whom initiates go when they are called to be diviners and who may sanction their vocation. Those they approve may be lured into the depths of a pool to join their society for a time. Those they reject drown. Libations and gifts for the Abantu Bomlambo are often floated out into the centre of the pool in small baskets containing sorghum, tobacco, pumpkin seeds, white beads, a calabash of beer or brandy. Small wonder then that the Blaauwkrantz River, its pools and gorge registered anxiety in the more sensitive traveller from the earliest times. There is a sense of another existence here. This was a place of pilgrimage, a spirit domain, a place of brooding - long before April 22, long before the railway line was opened on October 1st 1884. It was over the Blaauwkrantz Gorge, situated between two such pools, that Pauling built the bridge. Designed and constructed in England, the material for the bridge was transported from Britain by sea. It was assembled in 1883 and, when completed, was only 6mm out of specification: a beautifully calculated feat of engineering. Built light and strong, suspended web-like above the chasm, it could withstand the winds that often sweep down the tunnel between the cliffs. It no longer exists but, from old photographs, it had an airy, latticed appearance, vaulting the space between the kranses guarding the riverbed, the banks of which were planted at that time with the orange orchards of Leslie Palmer, owner of Brenthoek farm. Palmer's descendants, the Clayton’s, live there still.

The new bridge, built in 1928, sends its shadow out across their lands. The fence of the clay tennis court is supported by girders from the 1911 bridge. A ladder, constructed from the same, leans against the stonewall of an outhouse. Walking down into that gorge there is a feeling - quite apart from the knowledge of the history that was played out there - of the aloofness, the detachment of the landscape. Long before a road or bridge was built, it has been rumoured, early transport riders used to approach the place with some trepidation, while Africans on the journey would insist on waiting a time of placation before descending the slope.

On April 22 1911, the train left on time. Behind the engine was a coal tender followed by five trucks of stone, from Bathurst, for the completion of the Grahamstown cathedral. A fifth truck carried a loose cargo of pineapples, that crop of lower Albany that spikes the lands with pale sage coloured leaves against mulberry earth. Four passenger coaches and a guard's van were coupled behind this, the black passengers crammed together in the last coach, en route to stock-fair day in Grahamstown. Two-thirds of the way across there was a sudden lifting and lightening of the load. The sound of metal, the flump of steel on steel, smoke and dust rising. The fourth truck had uncoupled. One can only guess at Robinson’s the train driver, horror, at the moment of turning his head, and seeing the fourth truck rail-jump, fall on its side, the grind of steel as the passenger carriages and guard's van plummeted into space, the roof of one detaching, the last coach in which theblack passengers were travelling, somersaulting once before it hit the rocks more than 60m below. The roof of a carriage spiraled down, providing a safer landing place for a passenger, a lampholder caught in the girders, a man's coat fluttering on a spar.

The aftershock must have echoed up and down that gorge, stunning Leslie Palmer in his lands with his labourers, one of whom, at the moment of the accident, had called out, "It is falling! It is falling!" The appalled driver, knowing there was nothing he could do to help, hurtled his engine, coal tender and two trucks towards Grahamstown, and whistle shrieking. The stationmaster of Grahamstown was out on the platform. With what dread must he have heard the long-approaching shriek of the whistle, seen the smoke, then the engine and truck without the coaches or the guard's van, the distraught driver stumbling from the cab.

It was not the bridge that had failed. The weight of the stone had not broken it. Some engineering experts said it was the age of the dog spikes and the repair of the rails, rotten sleepers, the vintage rolling stock too heavily laden. The stationmaster of Bathurst believed it was the shifting of the pineapples as the train took a curve, causing a stone truck ahead to jump the rails and overturn, obstructing the path of the following carriages so that they concertina, derailed and fell. Some said it was other forces: the Blaauwkrantz is not a gorge to challenge. Within an hour a relief train had reached the sight with three doctors, nurses and medical equipment. Among the first Grahamstown residents to arrive at the scene were a group of clergymen representing every denomination.

Among them was the Rev William Brereton, (his daughter was one of the passengers). For him, the descent into the gorge must have been the most appalling journey of his life. And the longest. Hopie Brereton did not survive. Her father carried her body from the gorge. Grace Pike of Clumber did. But in the fall, the 22 pins with which she had arranged her hair so meticulously had pierced her head and had to be extracted one by one.

There is the well-known story of the miraculous escape of little Hazel Smith, who, with her sister Dorothy and three-year-old brother Willie, had been catapulted from the train window as it fell. Hazel was caught in the girders. Her sister Dorothy clung to the side of the bridge for some time. Then, unable to hold on, she fell. Baby Willie, whom Hazel had by the hand as he dangled precariously above the chasm, struggled violently. He too fell to the gorge below. Dorothy survived. Willie lived only a day.

The newspaper reports from the time are full of the language of drama, stories of bravery and courage. Absent from all of them is any description of the black passengers killed in the accident, except for mention of a woman whom rescue workers tried to free for many hours, only to die as she was taken up the gorge. The absence from the press reports of the story of that carriage full of passengers is reflected in a scrawled aside taken from an unpublished letter: An African woman being taken from Kowie Mental to Fort England was later found to be sane! A strange little silence hovers around these victims. Altogether, 29 passengers died. Twenty-three were injured. At the time, the Blaauwkrantz Bridge disaster was the worst accident South Africa ever witnessed.

*Since then, in 2001, Grahamstown Historical Society, assisted the Medical Superintendent of Settlers Hospital to collate and sift through the hospital records; which tells the story of the injured and their injuries.* M. Jones

Image kindly provided by Ron and Ellen Stanton

From: "Ellen Stanton"
Subject: Blaauwkrantz Bridge disaster Article #1
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2004 21:59:47 -0600 

Transcribed from South Africa Magazine (published in London), April 29, 1911
Found here on ROOTSWEB.



We regret to say that a serious railway disaster occurred on Saturday afternoon, on a section of the Grahamstown-Kowie Railway. The passenger portion of a train due at Grahamstown at 10:20 a.m. fell into a ravine while crossing the well-known Blaauwkrantz Bridge, 13 miles from Grahamstown. Thirty persons were killed, and so far as can be ascertained 25 injured, the condition of several of the latter being critical.

The disaster occurred on a line which is owned by a company and does not form part of the South African Government Railways. The train was proceeding at an average speed towards Grahamstown, when one of the trucks, loaded with stone, jumped the metals unknown to the engine driver, about 50 yds. from the bridge, but continued running on the check rail until the structure was reached. The check rail then splintered away from the pine wood sleepers, while the front coupling snapped, and the truck, four passenger coaches, and a van toppled over and plunged into the abyss. The chasm is 250 ft. deep, and the coaches crashed to the bottom.

The engine leapt forward as it lost its main load, giving the driver the first indication of something seriously wrong. On grasping the situation he put on full steam and dashed to Grahamstown for help, fainting as soon as he had conveyed the terrible news. A neighbouring farmer saw the train hurled into the gorge, and rushed to the scene with his natives to render aid, but he was powerless to do anything until the relief trains arrived from Grahamstown.

A Reuter's message states that the rescue party had a difficult and distressing task. The wreckage of the train was littered down the jagged sides of the gorge, and in the streams below, mingled with wreckage, were the dead and dying. These were only clearly distinguishable to the rescuers as they painfully descended the precipitous gorge into which the train had been flung.

They extricated the mangled forms from among the shattered coaches and twisted metal work to the agonizing accompaniment of the groans and cries of those who were still living and had been in the throes of torture over two hours. There were about 50 passengers in the train. Some of the killed and injured and a mass of wreckage were caught on a ledge about 120 ft. down. The removal of the debris from this point and from the crags was most difficult, but in six hours the doctors and nurses extricated the dead and injured, who were hoisted up in sacking to the edge of the gorge.


A correspondent of the Daily Mail states that many of the rescuers fainted on approaching the wreckage. Rescue work was much impeded owing to thousands of pineapples from one of the smashed trucks rendering the rocks and crags slippery and dangerous. Exclusive of the engine driver and his fireman, there are only two uninjured survivors. A child, Janet Crockett, was miraculously saved. She was hurled through a window of the train and in the fall lodged on a girder at a height of 200 ft. Her rescuer, a farmer, who climbed at great peril, found her crying for her mother, but unhurt. Her parents and sister are badly injured. The guard, named Maxwell, leaped from his van as the front wheels left the rails, and escaped without injury.

The following is the list of victims as given by cable:--

KILLED: Mr. Dold, his wife, and three children, Mr. Wright, Mr. Forsyth, the Misses Brereton and Pike, Mrs. Bishop and child, Mrs. Moolman, Mrs. Cooper, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Smith and child, Miss Moolman, Miss Sherwood, Mr. Paulmarr, Mr. Daniel, Mr. Hully, Mr. Grant, Mr. Charlton, Mr. Richardson, Miss Arnold, Mr. and Mrs. Dell, a native.

SERIOUSLY INJURED: Mrs. Bradfield, Mr. A. Pike, Mr. Arnold.

SLIGHTLY INJURED: Mr. Elliott, Mr. Kreber. INJURED (degree unstated): Mr. Lerockett, Mr. Walters, Mr. Mears, Mr. McIntosh, Mr. Cooper, Mr. N. Dell, Mr. Crear, Mrs. Crockett and baby, Mrs. Archibald Bradfield, Miss Smith. Nearly all the killed were well-known Eastern Province people. Mrs. Moolman was a sister of Mr. Justice Hopley.


The dead and injured were conveyed to Grahamstown. A huge crowd of Whites and natives awaited the arrival of the train, and the most affecting scenes were witnessed at the station. The populace were awe-stricken at the disaster, and a pall of sorrow has descended upon the town. Several funerals took place on Sunday and Monday, the services being held at different churches in the presence of large and sorrowing congregations. There was a wealth of floral tributes; the Dead March was played in all the churches, and flags were flying at half-mast.

A Reuter's cable, dated Wednesday, states that a three-year-old boy, named Smith, has died of injuries received.

The scene of the disaster is in the heart of one of the fairest spots in the Eastern Province of the Cape. The railway passes through a varying panorama of rugged cliffs, rolling veld, extensive fruit gardens, and rich lands, frequently backed with a view of the ocean beyond, between the hills.

Near the Blaauwkrantz Bridge the scenery becomes bold and rugged, deep kloofs mingling with wooded ravines. The bridge, which is one of the highest in South Africa, crosses a deep rocky gorge in one span, and is in point of design the most graceful in the Cape Province.

The railway was opened in 1884, the total length of the line being 43 miles. It is under the charge of a Manager, who resides at Grahamstown, and certain financial assistance is given by the Government. The line was constructed by Messrs. Pauling and Co., Limited, Mr. George Pauling, who had charge of the operations, living at Grahamstown during the progress of the work.

Traffic over the bridge was resumed on Monday after the structure had undergone a severe test.

Messages of condolence have been received from Lord Gladstone and Sir Starr Jameson.


The inquest on the victims of the disaster opened on Tuesday. Evidence was given by the Grahamstown Stationmaster who stated he had examined the scene of the accident. A wheel flange, he said, had marked the sleepers 28 rail lengths from the bridge, and the marks continued to the fifth rail of the structure. He advanced the theory that the wheel traveled between the check rail and the running rail, forcing out the latter. The sleepers were old and in bad order, and were not sufficiently strong to hold the dogspikes. The timbers on the bridge, he declared, were unserviceable, and the line was unsafe for traffic.

At the resumed inquest, on Wednesday, a policeman was interrogated in connection with the burning of the debris, which was found on Sunday morning to be blazing so furiously as to envelope the bridge in a blue haze. He said it was burnt by order of the Manager of the railway company. Railway officials testified to finding fifty bad sleepers between the places of the first and final derailments. The dogspikes were loose in the rotten sleepers, and the road was in very poor order. Two bad timbers were found on the bridge, one at the spot where the train went over. It was further stated that the line curved twice between the place of the first derailment and the bridge. The inquest has since been suspended, pending the arrival of expert assessors.

As shown in our "Union Parliament" pages a Commission of Inquiry will be appointed to investigate the circumstances of the disasters.

Image kindly provided by Ron and Ellen Stanton

From: "Ellen Stanton"
Subject: Blaauwkrantz Bridge Disaster Article #2
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2004 22:49:09 -0600
Transcribed from South Africa Magazine (published in London) April 29, 1911
Found here on ROOTSWEB.


In view of certain statements which have been made at the inquest in connection with the Cape railway disaster, which we record on another page, and of the fact that a Government inquiry is to be held, it would be out of place for us to suggest the actual cause of the accident. We can only say that the assertions as to the condition of the line as it approached the Blaauwkrantz Bridge are so serious that the most thorough investigation will be necessary before responsibility can be fixed for a mishap which has caused the death of some thirty people. This fact has to be borne in mind, that the accident did not occur upon any part of the South African Government Railways, but upon one of those privately owned lines which are so rare in South Africa.
Moreover, the disaster was accentuated by the fact that it took place in one of the worst spots imaginable for an accident. It is bad enough for a train to leave the rails at all when traveling at a fair speed, but that it should do so when approaching a bridge across a deep ravine must intensify the risk and render more lamentable the results.

Whatever the cause of the accident, there will be no lack of sympathy for the many injured passengers and for the relatives of the still larger number who were killed. As is always the case on such sad occasions, the disaster revealed qualities of great bravery and determination on the part of those engaged in the work of rescue, which in this case was specially difficult owing to the height from which the train fell, the fearful extent of the smash, and the perils attaching to both the approach and the removal of the dead and injured.

It is, of course, nothing more than a coincidence that this disaster should have happened so soon after the less severe Gaika Loop accident in the same part of South Africa. As we have said, a rigorous inquiry will be held; for these accidents ought not to occur if, humanly speaking, they can be avoided. It is well, however, to remember that South Africa, in proportion to its population, is exceedingly well supplied with railways, and the history of railway communication in all parts of the world shows that, whatever the precautions, a certain number of accidents seem fated to occur at intervals of average regularity.

IN DECEMBER 2012 Ron Stanton contacted me: I’m the husband of Ellen Stanton. You have several articles which she transcribed, from the South African Magazine, on your Blog about the Blaauwkrantz Bridge Disaster. Attached are the 11 pages from 5 different issues of the “South Africa” journal. You’ll need to hunt on some of the pages for the article about the disaster. I know you’ll enjoy seeing the original pictures also. It turns out I had family members on the train that day; 4 of them died in the accident. 

The following "SOUTH AFRICA" Magazine images were kindly provided by Ron and Ellen Stanton



I acknowledge the National Library of New Zealand as the source of the following information which was found here.

Report in the The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. 1848-1954) 21 July 1911

If you want to visit the Blaauwkrantz Bridge today with a very knowledgeble guide (Ben Bezuidenhout), have a look at the BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage.

Map sourced from BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage.

photo sourced from BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage. These photo's show the 2nd railway bridge at Blaauwkrantz - this was built in 1928 by the SAR, which in 1913 had taken over the privately run Kowie line.

photo sourced from BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage.

photo sourced from BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage.

photo sourced from BLAAUWKRANTZ TOURS webpage.

Ben Bezuidenhout has also written a 53-page publication about the disaster - you can get more information about this here.


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