16 August 2010

Port Alfred: Kowie Railway (1883-1913)

[NOTE: Also read the entry about the Blaauwkrantz Disaster (1911)]

This article will only deal with the early history [1881-1912] of the "Kowie Railway" line as a private operation before the line was taken over by the South African Railways.

The Cape Government passed - early in 1881 - a bill which authorized the construction of the Grahamstown - Port Alfred line using the Cape gauge of 3 ft. 6 in.. The government agreed to subsidize the builders of the line with £500,000. The private enterprise which started off with a capital of £200,000, was named the Kowie Railway Co., Ltd.

The first manager of the Kowie Railway, was Mr Henry Putt, a resident of Grahamstown. Later he became Director of the enterprise, which was eventually liquidated in 1912, and in February 1913 the line was taken over by the Government through the South African Railways.

30 percent of the 43-mile line had 1-in-50 gradients, and about 6 percent of the line had 1-in-40 gradients. The major constructional problem (see further below) was the erection of the bridge at the Blaauwkrantz ravine.

During 1882 the line was partially opened, but the completion of the Blaauwkrantz Bridge delayed full operations for public traffic to Grahamstown until 3rd December, 1884.

The S.S. Rothesay landed at Port Alfred on 22nd May 1882 with two locomotives for the Kowie Railway Co., Ltd. The Kowie Railway Co. had ordered four locomotives from Hunslet Co. of Leeds.

The "Grahamstown" Hunslet works no 294/1882. Photo: South African Railways & Harbours Board.

Two were 4-4-0 tanks for passenger service. Coal deposits had yet to be discovered in Southern Africa, and coal for steam locomotives had to imported all the way across the sea from England. Therefore these engines were designed for wood burning, and were therefore fitted with large American-type balloon stacks incorporating a sparks arrester. This detracted quite a bit from their looks!

The passenger tank engines were named Grahamstown and Bathurst being respectively Hunslet works no's 294 and 295. They had a working order weight of 27 tons 0 cwt, carrying 650 gallons of water and 11/2 tons of coal (or wood equivalent). The 29 ft 0 in long locomotive had a tractive force of 8450 lbs at 160 lbs boiler pressure. The locomotives employed Stephensons valve gear and had a 13in x 20in cylinder design.

The "Port Alfred" Hunslet works no 277/1882. Photo: South African Railways & Harbours Board.

The two goods locomotives, with 0-6-0 wheel configuration, were named "Port Alfred" and "Kowie", being respectively Hunslet works no's 277 and 278. They had a more pleasing appearance, being of conventional design. They had a working order weight of 22 tons 10 cwt, carrying 550 gallons of water and 11/2 tons of coal. The 22 ft 10 in long locomotive had a tractive force of 9120 lbs at 160 lbs boiler pressure. The locomotives employed Stephensons valve gear and had a 12in x 19in cylinder design.

For unknown reasons, the two 0-6-0 goods locomotives were converted to 4-4-0's in 1884. This was done by removing the leading coupled wheels, and substituting with a 4-wheeled bogie after extending the engine's frame by about 17 inches in front of the smokebox. All the required parts were made by Hunslet in Leeds, and were sent by sea to Port Alfred, where the actual conversion was implemented. It is suggested that the original design with its longer driver wheelbase experienced excessive wear on curves.

After 1904 the Kowie Railway Co also acquired three Cape 4th-Class locomotives from the Cape Government Railways (CGR), Cape No's 470, 471 & 477 (respectively Stephenson works no's 2478/1882, 2479/1882 & 2452/1882) which was renumbered Kowie Railway No's 1, 3 and 2 respectively.

This photo taken at Cradock shows a similar CGR Cape Class 4 engine no 265, originally deployed in 1882 as engine M65 for the Cape Midlands system. This locomotive was built by Stephensons in 1882 as their works no. 2462. The three locomotives acquired by the Kowie Railway would have had a similar appearance. Photo: South African Railways & Harbours Board.

Builders and Year: Robert Stephenson & Co. 1882
last CGR Numbering: 470, 471, 477
Wheel Arrangement: 4-6-0
Driving Wheel Diameter: 3 ft. 6 in.
Cylinders: 2 x 15 in. x 20 in.
Valve Gear: Joy's
Boiler Pressure: 140 lbs per square in.
Grate Size: 11.7 square ft.
Tractive Force: 11,250 lbs @ 75%
Length: 43 ft. 3¾ in.
Weight: 32 tons 1,400 lbs
Axle Load: 8 tons 1,400 lbs
Tank Water Capacity: 600 gallons
Tender Weight: 23 tons 200 lbs
Tender Coal Capacity: 6 tons
Tender Water Capacity: 1675 gallons

Through about 30 years of existence, the Kowie Railway did not really run at profit. The main factor was that the government abandoned the harbour at Port Alfred due to silt problems in the mouth of the Kowie river. Financial difficulties caused the Kowie Railway Company to skip on maintenance of the rolling stock and the line itself also deteriorated leading to a number of smaller accidents, but the final setback came on 22 April 1911 in the form of the Blaauwkrantz Bridge disaster in which in 35 passengers killed and 23 seriously injured. After the disaster the many claims for compensation resulted in the company being forced to sell all of its assets to the Government, which resulted in the SAR taking over the line in February 1913.

This undated photo was taken at the Kowie Railway station in Port Alfred. Presumably this was taken on the occasion of a "St Paul's Sunday School" outing - there is a banner behind the crowd on the platform. One of the Kowie Railway Co.'s passenger locomotives with a balloon stack (either the Grahamstown or the Bathurst) appears in the photo - the engine is decorated with flowers. This photo was sourced here.

This undated photo shows the off platform side of the Kowie Railway station in Port Alfred.

Port Alfred just before 1907 - the Kowie Railway station in foreground - this photo can be seen on page 177 of Cape Colony To-Day by Burton published in 1907. Pdf document here.

This photo of the Kowie Railway passenger locomotive "Grahamstown" with a train in tow dates from about 1885. In the back one of the converted (front-end lengthened) goods locomotives (either the Port Alfred or the Kowie) can be seen.

This photo at first would appear to be a crop of the precious one - however some of the people have moved or have different postures. Of particular interest is that each of the first 3 trucks of the train in the front have a load of sleepers. That would indicate that line construction work of some sort was still in progress at the time when this picture was taken. In the background to the left more stacks of iron sleepers are visible. This photo was sourced here.

This is a crop of the previous photo to show more detail - also note the railway sleepers in the trucks.

This photo appeared in the April 1898 3rd edition of Grocott & Sherry's Album of Grahamstown. The album is available here on the Internet Archive.

Henry Putt. This photo can be seen on page 177 of the book "The Cape To-day" By A. R. E. Burton, F.R.G.S. Published under authority of the Cape Government Railway Department. Cape Town, 1907. Pdf document here. The relevant text in the book reads: "The greatest cordiality is displayed by the railway officials from the General Manager downwards. This is all more noteworthy because the latter gentleman, Mr. Henry Putt, Mayor of Port Alfred, is at the head and front of most of the local public and private undertakings and institutions. He is also the station master, and his agreeable influence and that of his excellent staff are universally felt and appreciated."

Thos Begbie’s history begins with its entrepreneurial founder and master engineer, Thomas Begbie, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 19 March 1845. In 1884 he was appointed as locomotive superintendent to the Grahamstown and Port Alfred Railway Company. After completion of the railway and start-up of traffic, in 1887, he left for the Witwatersrand Goldfields.


The following extract comes from a booklet Produced and Published in 1972 by the Port Alfred Publicity Association and reproduced here on Martin Kruger's www.kowietales.co.za
by GEORGE PAULING published 1926.



Railway access from Grahamstown to the sea was then through Port Elizabeth, a distance of about a hundred miles. The natural outlet was, however, Port Alfred, at the mouth of the Kowie River, only about 40 miles away. The Government had in previous years spent something like £200,000 in making the river accessible to ships of small draught and big vessels were unloaded in the roadstead into lighters which were brought into the river by steam tugs. One of the Members of Parliament for Grahamstown was Mr. Cron-Wright, with whom I was on terms of intimate friendship, and I suggested to him that, if the Government could be induced to grant a subsidy of approximately £2,000 per mile for building the railway from Kowie River to Grahamstown, I might be able to raise the rest of the money in England. I had in mind to get Mr. Ralph Firbank to join me in the venture, and had previously written to him on the subject. Mr. Cron-Wright and other members of Parliament for Grahamstown and Albany thought well of the proposal and during that session the Cape Parliament passed a Bill giving a subsidy of £1,500 a mile for its construction. Leaving the management of the hotel and my other affairs in the hands of my wife, I lost no time sailing for England. As she was not able to look after all my local interests, I obtained six months leave for my brother Harry, who was then an engineer in the Western Province, and he went to Grahamstown to help Mrs. Pauling.

I took with me to England full particulars of the trade of Grahamstown and of Port Alfred and the district through which the railway would pass. I had figured to show that in the preceding years the trade of the Port had increased by several hundred per cent. I also took with me a photograph showing the thirteen sailing vessels lying in the river at the wharves which had been constructed by the Government. These sailing vessels were, of course, of comparatively small tonnage, most of them being boats which had brought sugar from Mauritius, and were being loaded with maize and other produce from the Grahamstown district. I had the photo enlarged to about six feet in length and it made a beautiful picture, showing the noble river with much shipping, indicating a centre of commercial progress, and I have no doubt the photo assisted us greatly in our efforts to raise the necessary capital for the railway. I also brought home with me several photos of the magnificent scenery along the Kowie River which nowadays attracts many visitors to that part of the country. I knew that whatever I might be able to arrange at home would have to be completed with the utmost dispatch. Having the utmost confidence in the ability and wisdom of Mr. Ralph Firbank, I at once referred to him. He took to my scheme with enthusiasm and in less than two months we had formed a company with which, on my estimates, he had made a contract in the name of Firbank & Pauling, to build the railway, and I returned almost post-haste to the Cape. There I saw Mr. Cron-Wright and we had no trouble in fixing up an arrangement with the Cape Government.

The survey of the railway presented many difficulties. 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 thirteen miles from Grahamstown, by a high level bridge.
This bridge was subsequently built on the cantilever principle, with a central span over 300' above the bottom of the gorge.

Image from the South African Magazine kindly provided by Ron & Ellen Stanton.

In point of design it has been described as the most graceful in the Colony. It was designed by Mr. Max Am Ende of Westminster, and to my mind it was at the time the strongest and lightest bridge of its kind in the world and so long as it is properly maintained it will continue to fulfill its purpose.

For a time the work progressed satisfactorily, but ere long I experienced much delay and trouble in obtaining money from home. When about two-thirds of the work was finished an arrangement proposed by Mr. Ralph Firbank for finding further capital fell through, and I had great difficulty in raising sufficient to carry on. I had reckoned on the probability of getting the Government to advance money against the subsidy of £1,500 per mile. But the department concerned resolutely refused to part with a fraction till the railway was completed, and I had no alternative but to acquaint my partner, Mr. Ralph Firbank, of my miscalculation in this connection. He wrote me that this fact had upset his arrangements, but that he was making others, which, he had no doubt, would be carried through, and by which sufficient funds would be forthcoming. About a fortnight after this letter was written he died suddenly from heart failure. He left an executor, his brother Christopher, who tried to complete the arrangement which Ralph had initiated. Unfortunately it fell through and I was put to all kinds of devices to manage to carry on. This would have been impossible had I not in the meantime obtained other contracts, of which I propose to write in succeeding chapters. We saw it through to the end but it proved a sore drain on our resources. We had financed it to completion and had taken part payment in paper, which was never of any value to us.

The Kowie Railway Company got the Government subsidy, part of which ultimately came back to us. The railway was opened in 1884, and was purchased from the Company by the Union Government in 1913. The first sod was turned by Mr. John X Merriman on October 21, 1881.
The route taken by the Kowie Railway Co line between Port Alfred and Grahamstown is marked on this map.

This article originally appeared in the Scientific American Supplement No. 484 published in New York on April 11, 1885. This article is part of a free eBook made available under the Project Gutenberg on November 3, 2004.

This viaduct is built over a rocky ravine on the railway from Port Alfred to Grahamstown, at a height of about 200 ft. from the bottom. Its length is 480 ft. 6 in., and the width of the platform is 15 ft., the gauge of the railway being 3 ft. 6 in. The central span of the viaduct is an arch of 220 ft. span between abutments, and about 90 ft. height; the remainder of the space on each side is divided into two spans by an iron pier at a distance of 68 ft. from the retaining wall. These piers are 36 ft. 2 in. high, and carry girders 144 ft. long, balanced each on a pivot in the center. One end of these girders is secured to the retaining walls by means of horizontal and vertical anchorages, while the other end rests in a sliding bearing on the top flange of the arch.

(Note: Under the South African Railways, this bridge was replaced in 1928 with a new bridge)

In designing the structure the following points had to be considered:
  1. That, on account of the great height above the ground, and on account of the high price of timber at the site, the structure could be easily erected without the use of scaffolding supporting it as a whole.
  2. That, on account of the high freights to Port Alfred, the quantity of iron in the structure should be as small as possible.
  3. That the single parts of the principal span should be easy to lift, and that there should be as few of them as possible. For this latter reason most of them were made in lengths of 20 ft. and more.
The question of economy of material presented itself as a comparison between a few standard types, viz., the girder bridge of small independent spans; the cantilever bridge, or the continuous girder bridge in three large spans; the single girder bridge with one large span and several small spans; and the arch with small girder spans on each side.

The suspension bridge was left out of question as inadmissible.

A girder bridge with small independent spans on rocker piers would probably have been the most economical, even taking into account the great height of the piers near the middle of the ravine, but there would have been some difficulty in holding those piers in position until they could be secured to the girders at the top; and, moreover, such a structure would have been strikingly out of harmony with the character of the site.

On the other hand, a cantilever or continuous girder bridge in three spans—although such structures have been erected in similar localities—could not enter into comparison of simple economy of material, because such a design would entirely disregard the anomaly that the greater part of the structure, viz., the side spans, being necessarily constructed to carry across a large space, would be too near the ground to justify the omission of further supports.

The question was, therefore, narrowed to a comparison between the present arch and a central independent girder of the same span, including the piers on which it rests. The small side spans could obviously be left out in each case. The comparison was made with a view not only to arrive at a decision in this particular case, but also of answering the question of the economy of the arch more generally.

This photo appeared in the April 1898 3rd edition of Grocott & Sherry's Album of Grahamstown. The album is available here on the Internet Archive.

The following table contains the weights of geometrically similar structures of three different spans, of which the second is the one here described. The so-called theoretical weight is that which the structure would have if no part required stiffening, leaving out also all connections and all wind bracing. The moving load is taken at one ton per foot lineal, and the strain on the iron at an average of four tons per square inch. The proportion of the girder is taken at 1 in 8.

Span in Feet. Theoretical Weight. Total Weight.
Arch. Girder. Arch. Girder.
100 0.0724 0.1663 0.1866 0.2443
220 0.1659 0.4109 0.4476 0.7462
300 0.2414 0.6445 0.6464 1.2588

It can be seen from these results that the economical advantage of the arch increases with the span. In small arches this advantage would not be large enough to counterbalance the greater cost of manufacture; but in the arch of 220 ft. span the advantage is already very marked. If the table were continued, it would show that the girder, even if the platform were artificially widened, would become impossible at a point where the arch can still be made without difficulty. The calculations leading to the above results would occupy too much space to make it desirable on this occasion to produce them. —The Engineer.
  1. TJ Espitalier & WAY Day - The Locomotive in South Africa - South African Railways & Harbours Magazine Nov 1943
  2. Jose Burman - Early Railways at the Cape - Chapter 7 - The Midland line - published by Human & Rousseau 1984
  3. DF Holland -Steam Locomotives of the South African Railways Vol 1 1859-1910 - published by Purnell& Sons (SA) 1971.
  4. Scientific American Supplement No. 484
  5. Grocott & Sherry's Album of Grahamstown 1898 available here on the Internet Archive
  6. Martin Kruger's www.kowietales.co.za


  1. Has there been any form of colour reference given iro the various locomotives utilized by Kowie rail?

    1. Hi Owen, I am afraid I don't have the answer. I guess best bet would be to check out the engine builder's (Hunslet) archives?

  2. I miss the old days on the train over bloukranz pass 43 cents a weekend return from Grahamstown to port Alfred and back was very nice