The Natal Train

Because of the town’s topography, the imposition of a mechanized form of transport upon its fabric was probably the next logical step in its physical development. Not only was travel east and west out of the centre difficult, being barred by two quagmires at either end of Smith Street, but the eastern marsh stood firmly between the town and its growing harbour facilities at the Point. The inability of ships to sail directly into the bay and cross at will the sand bar which blocked its entrance, made the off-loading of goods and passengers a hazardous and unpredictable affair which acted as a deterrent to regular trade. This was highlighted between 1849 and 1852 when parties of English immigrants began to arrive in Durban on a regular basis, and after the importation of indentured labour was first proposed in 1851, it must have been realized that the upgrading of the harbour had become a matter of primary importance. Conversely, the growth of the sugar industry as the colony’s prime source of revenue meant that heavily laden wagons had to negotiate a path over Cato’s Creek and its smaller subsidiary, Wheeler’s Creek, which discharged waters from the Eastern Vlei into the bay, before they could reach the Point where their loads could be placed on board ship.

Matters at the other end of Smith Street, where the Western Vlei barred the path to Congella and Pietermaritzburg, were just as serious, although its discharge into the bay does not appear to have carried the same volume of water. Nonetheless this too was a quagmire that had to be negotiated by both travellers and heavy transport wagons before reaching the town’s centre.

At some stage an attempt was made to bridge over these obstacles, but these were impermanent timber structures, built using mangrove poles and packed sods, which could not withstand the constant battering dealt out by heavy transport wagons drawn by teams of up to eight pairs of oxen. In about 1847 the military built a low span causeway or raised road, commonly known as Durnford Bridge, across a section of the eastern marsh on the road connecting the Ordinance reserve to the Point. This was washed away in a flood on 13 April 1847, but was probably rebuilt soon thereafter. In about 1849 George Cato built a similar causeway further downstream over Cato’s Creek, on the road linking Smith Street to the Point. On 12 April 1856 a torrential downpour began which, over the next four days, dumped some 685 mm of rain over the town. As a result, the Umgeni burst its banks and flooded most of Durban, washing away both bridges. Quite clearly, in future, construction of a sturdier and more permanent nature was going to be needed.

Matters in this regard were not assisted by the Borough Council, whose list of priorities did not include the improvement of road links into the town. In November 1856 a motion calling for the construction of a road over the Western Vlei was only narrowly carried ahead of an amendment which would have prioritised the installation of drains within the town. On 27 September 1858 the Council voted £290 towards the hardening of the road from the Western Vlei to Smith Street and £150 from Cato’s Bridge to Smith Street, but barely two days later it expressed the opinion that “a good road through the Berea was of the first importance to the development of commerce and agriculture” (Henderson, 1904: 31) and placed £200 towards this objective, even though it took another five years before it could be realized.

Work on the construction of two piers at the Point was begun in 1851, with almost immediate beneficial results, while work on draining the eastern marsh and the channelling of Cato’s Creek began in August 1857. Both projects were the outcome of proposals pout forward by Harbour Engineer, John Milne, who must have understood that the success of the one would have relied upon the realization of the other. This is underlined by the fact that his proposal for draining the Eastern Vlei was put forward at least a year before the flood of April 1856. Realistically, to be of long-term relevance both projects could only be realized through the use of stone or other, more permanent materials.

Stone for the pier was initially quarried at the Bluff, from where a wooden tramline was laid to transport the broken rock round the point of the Bluff to a timber jetty inside the harbour, probably located near present-day Island View or the coaling berth. From there the material was ferried across to the Point, usually by means of small boats where some of it was then carted to Cato’s Creek for work on the Eastern Vlei. (Pers Comm, Sharratt, December 2010). Not only was this process laborious and expensive, but the quality of the Bluff sandstone was not of the desired strength, being easy to work but too friable to withstand the long-term battering of tidal waters.

Some experiments were run at the Point in the manufacture of building blocks using a cement/sand matrix mixed with stone rubble from the Bluff, and The Mercury was able to claim on 1 December 1859 that the product had all the appearance of a tooled block and, “we are assured, equal in hardness and durability to any stone in the neighbourhood”, but this form of technology does not appear to have gained in popularity. A more detailed analysis would probably have shown that the blocks were too heavy to handle, difficult to work, and requiring strict quality controls during manufacture. Consequently, in about 1856, the harbour contractors began to look further afield for sources of more durable materials.

This was found at Umgeni, inland from the drift where the north-bound coastal road crossed the Umgeni River. By 1856 a small settlement of workers had developed near the quarries, necessitating the setting out of a formal village by the Council. Black workers were probably housed further north, closer to the quarry and to the railway station, and while the footprint of the original village survives in the modern plan of Durban, the black quarters have vanished without a trace.

By this stage work had also begun in earnest on the drainage of the eastern marsh, as well as the hardening of some roads in Durban Central, and the portage of stone from quarries on the Bluff by current means would clearly have been impossible to sustain. On the other hand the Umgeni quarries were only 5km out of town and 8km from the Point, and heavy transport wagons would still have to negotiate a path either through the Eastern Vlei or through the town. The argument for a mechanised form of transport linking the Point to Umgeni was therefore becoming unassailable.

In 1857 Milne left the harbour project and transferred his attention to the drainage of the eastern marsh, and although work on the north pier had come to a halt by then, the channelling of Cato’s Creek was still taking up all available material, and the need for stone from the Umgeni quarries remained unabated.

The initial idea for the construction of a railway line at Port Natal was probably put forward by Albert Robinson, a British civil engineer, who announced on 20 January 1859 that he had completed the plans for a proposed line from the Custom House at the Point to the Market Square in Durban. On the same day the citizens of Durban were informed by The Mercury that:

“”¦ a project is on foot under the auspices of an eminent practical engineer ”¦ for the constructing a railway, with locomotive steam power, between the Point and the town, through the bush and along the principal street thoroughfares.” (Russell 1899: 393).

Two weeks later on 3 February the Natal Railway Company, as yet to be formally constituted, issued a prospectus for private circulation wherein it claimed that nearly half the necessary capital had already been subscribed in Durban, with a projected return of 30%, and that the project had been “warmly supported by the Government”. It further stated that the proposed railway line would pass entirely through Government-owned ground which, it expected, would be made available for nothing. The Company’s objectives included the running of a railway from the Point to a terminus in Durban for the transport of passengers and goods, but made no mention of other capital projects which would also be needed, such as the construction of a wharf in the inner bay, and the permanent bridging over of Cato’s Creek. The project was to be directed by Robinson, who had only just arrived in Port Natal in 1858, and who had immediately sprung to prominence when he had been used as a consultant by the Lt-Governor in the purchase of a steam-powered tug for the harbour. (Russell 1899: 392). The Provisional Directors of the Company were Messrs Robert Acutt, George Cato, Adolph Coqui, James Proudfoot and George H Wissing, under the chair of Capt William Smerdon. As four of the six were also Town Councillors, one must assume that the Board had the political acquiescence of the Council, while another three, Coqui, Wirsing and Smerdon, were active in the sugar industry. The town’s two major interest groups, commerce and sugar, were therefore well represented.

On 28 February a meeting of shareholders adopted the Deed of Trust for the Natal Railway Company, and elected a Board of ten directors, including three from Pietermaritzburg, under the continued chair of Capt Smerdon. George Cato was the only member of the old Board not to be returned. On 22 March, acting on behalf of the Company, Smerdon applied to the Council for the lease of suitable land on or near Market Square for the purpose of building a railway terminus. Four alternative sites were suggested on the square, in Smith, West and Pine Streets respectively.

True to Durban form this issue could not be resolved without first undergoing much civic debate and the holding of several public meetings. Early in April a gathering of Durban residents decided unanimously

“”¦ that the Market Square ought not to be appropriated ”¦ and that the most eligible site for a terminus (was) in front of Pine Terrace, north-west of St Paul’s Church.” (Russell, 1899: 395)

Supported by this mandate a Council meeting held on 28 April turned down the Railway’s application but offered them an alternative site in front of St Paul’s Church. George Cato also offered to make land available “at the entrance of the east end of the town”, which was coincidentally owned by the Cato family, and was adjunct to his business interests. In the uproar that followed he was described as being “very selfish and unfair,” at which point the Mayor brought all discussion to an end.

By this stage the line of the railway had been staked out and building operations were proceeding apace under the direction of Albert Robinson, although the Council only confirmed the lease up on the land necessary for laying down the line through the eastern part of town in February 1860. This was done at a cost to the Railway Company of £5 per annum for a period not to exceed 21 years, although the Council also retained the right to build culverts and drains under the railway. The working plant had been supplied at a price considerably below estimates, with rails being laid on iron sleepers which, given Durban’s climate and waterlogged ground conditions, were considered to be superior to the timber sleepers originally proposed. By August 1859 much of the equipment needed would have been on the high seas from England.

By early June the matter had reached the Legislature in Pietermaritzburg where, following a petition from shareholders of the Company, the Railway Bill before the House was amended in Committee to locate the terminus in Market Square. When news of this reached Durban the ire of its citizens was stoked to fever-pitch and, at a public meeting held in the Masonic Rooms on 11 June the gathering, chaired by Robert Acutt, was almost unanimous in describing the alteration to the Bill as “illegal, unjust and impolitic.” Thereafter more than 250 people signed a petition reinforcing these feelings. Not unnaturally the Legislature rejected the petition on the grounds of its disrespectful language.

By early August the line had been levelled over its entire length, and the wharf near the Customs House was reaching completion, while The Mercury was hoping, on its part, that “the question of the terminus ”¦ (could) be easily adjusted by local common sense and mutual concession”.

Unfortunately neither “local common sense” nor “mutual concession” was forthcoming in any measure of abundance. On 15 August the Council debated the issue and eventually resolved to offer the Railway four erven near Stanger Street, on the eastern outskirts of the town. Early in October the Railway’s Board of Directors met and resolved that the railway line must terminate on Market Square proper. The furious public response that followed induced them to apply to the Council on 30 November for four blocks equal in size to Market Square on land west of St Paul’s, which was still effectively on Market Square. The Council agreed to this and set the annual rental at £200, with a lease of 50 years. This proved unacceptable high to the Railway, which now finally settled for a site on Ordinance land, where the citizens of Durban had wanted the station to be located all along.

By this time a large portion of the plant, some 130 tons of it, was due in the Colony aboard the Lady Mona, with additional material following hard on its heels aboard the Clansman, the Selina, and the Oak. On 12 April 1860 The Mercury reported that half the line had already been laid with the assistance of “six or eight trucks and two travelling cranes.” The locomotive was still due to be delivered and was aboard the Cadiz. On 16 May the Company appointed John Beard as Manager and Station Agent at the Point while George Russell was appointed Station Agent at the Market Street terminus. Almost immediately Beard fell out with the Board and was replaced by Henry William James.

The train was somewhat rudimentary, even by colonial standards, consisting of four-wheeled ballast trucks with fold-down sides and wooden buffers. The two cranes were ordinary rotating wooden jibs with a cast-iron counter poise fitted on small four-wheeled trolleys. The coach was more substantial, having been made especially for the Colony, and consisted of three compartments, with a First Class section seating 8-10 persons in the centre, sided by a Second Class compartment on either end. All windows were fitted with glass, with scarlet silk blinds. No Third Class section was provided, as it was not expected that “natives” would be able to afford the fare. The track was laid in a wide 4ft 8ins gauge. When the locomotive was landed in pieces from the Cadiz on 13 May, its parts were transported to Market Street on rail trucks pushed by Black labourers, where they were assembled in a shed built in tarred timbers joined into a series of A-frame trusses, and located about 73m from the station. The engine was painted predominantly green, with copper-coloured wheels and its name, “Natal” placed on its side on a burnished brass plate. The funnel was in the new “American” pattern, with a wide mouth. The engine carried its water in a tank underneath, while its coal was carried in an open locker on the footplate.

In 1875 the Colonial Government decided to move over to a 3ft 6ins gauge, which immediately made the Natal and all its rolling stock obsolescent. In 1879 the locomotive was sold to a Mr Crowther, a farmer on the Umzimvubu River, near Port St Johns, where he proposed to use its boiler to power a sawmill. The engine was dismantled and shipped to Port St Johns on the ketch Sir Evelyn Wood, where it was reassembled. However it was never put into service, and the pieces were eventually buried at a site near the river. It was recovered in 1943, and its pieces were returned to Durban on 26 June 1844, where it was restored in the SAR&H workshops. (Jackson, 2007: 81-2)

Although the official opening of the line was set for 26 June, the line was used for the first time on 23 June, when the system was tested by making a run to the Point “at moderate speed” and returning half-an-hour later with a full load of 40tons of sugar mill machinery. The Natal had initially been set on the rails with its head facing the Point, and there being no turntable at either end, had to return pushing the trucks before it. The inauguration took place on 26 June as planned, being spoilt only by a raging gale-force wind.

Initially the terminus at Market Street consisted only of a wooden platform some 18m long and raised 1.2m off the ground, but this was soon roofed over with corrugated iron sheeting. The station at the Point, which had been completed in time, was more substantial, being a timber-framed building clad in corrugated iron and raised on timber piles to avoid being flooded at high tide. Following its inauguration the train had to be taken out of service for the next three days to clean it of all the sand and debris it had thrown up, and it only began hauling goods again on 2 June. The presence of sand in the working parts continued to be a problem, and the locomotive was often taken out of action for servicing and cleaning, As a result, a second locomotive, the Durban, was landed in August 1865 and brought into service soon thereafter.

The original railway line from Point to Durban Central extended for 3.2 km and more or less followed the inner shoreline of the bay northward until it curved east at Bay Terrace before swinging sharply westward into town, along the northern boundary of Pine Terrace. This brought it into line with the southern boundary of the Ordinance Land upon which its terminus and, later, its workshops were to be located. This stretch of line was eventually uplifted in 1937 when harbour developments elsewhere in the bay made its continued presence irrelevant. Light goods and passengers were transferred to transport wagons at the terminus, but larger equipment was often left out in the open until its owners saw fit to collect it.

In April 1865 negotiations were begun by the Government for a rail link between the Point and the Umgeni stone quarries in order to assist developments in the harbour. The Council was asked to grant the necessary land on lease, but as it knew that the right of operating the line was to be granted to the Natal Railway Co, understandably it was not disposed to alienate some 23 acres of town lands for the benefit of a private company.

After the Government had attempted a number of cohercive measures, including the introduction of the “Townlands Resumption by Government Act”, the town sold Government the land it needed for £400. It seems quite probable, also, that by this time the Council had realized that most of this land was either on or bordering the Eastern Vlei, and was thus useful for little else. On 4 April 1867 the line linking Durban Station to Umgeni Village was opened, running in close parallel to Umgeni Road. Stations were located along the way at Greyville, to service the racecourse, and Stamford Hill, near the brickyards. This line was re-laid in 1876 to provide a direct link between Umgeni and the Point, and was opened to rail traffic on 1 January 1877.

Although the provision of a rail transport system in Durban, and indeed in Cape Town and Johannesburg as well, had been driven by the needs of private enterprise, public companies did not have the resources or the political influence to grow into regional bodies, and it was a foregone conclusion that all such services would eventually become the province of central government. In Natal the right of the Government “to lay down rails and propel wagons over the same by steam engines and other motive power” was entrenched in the Natal Railway Company Act of 1859 (SASO 1970). By 1875 the Natal Government Railways Act No 4 of 1875 had empowered Government “to make, maintain, equip and work certain railways in the colony of Natal”. As, at that time there was but one railway line in the colony, there could be no doubt that the days of the Natal Railway Company were numbered, and on 1 January 1877 all of its assets, properties and operations were transferred to the Colonial Government.

The new administration lost little time in making its influence felt. In May 1878 a new line linking Durban Station to Pinetown, via Congella, was inaugurated as a first step towards opening up the Natal interior, reaching Botha’s Hill in March 1879, Camperdown in October 1880 and finally Pietermaritzburg two months later.

By the time gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in October 1886, the Natal railhead had reached Ladysmith, close to the Orange Free State border, and Charlestown, on the Transvaal border on 7 April 1891. Although, for political reasons, the Cape railway was the first to reach Johannesburg on 15 September 1891, the shorter Durban line was linked into the Transvaal system on 16 December 1895 and, because of the transport infrastructure previously developed, Durban remained the preferred port of importation for the mines. This was strengthened in 1904 when Chinese contract labour bound for the Witwatersrand began to pass through the port, and after 1910 when these began to be replaced by migrant workers from the Transkei.

At the same time that the railways were beginning to reach for the interior, they also began to link up the sugar plantations north and south of Durban. On 25 May 1878 the Umgeni Line reached Avoca, Mount Edgecombe on 15 March 1879, and Verulam on 1 September 1879. Progress down the South Coast was perhaps more sedate, reaching Isipingo on 1 February 1880, but only advancing thereafter as far as Port Shepstone by 17 July 1901. The coastal line was never taken beyond St Michael’s-on-Sea, and only reached Kokstad on 3 November 1924. The proposed linkage between Kokstad and mTata has never been built.

By the 1870s Durban Central had begun to grow beyond its original boundaries, and as work on the Western Vlei progressed, so then the western side of town began to gain in importance. As a result a number of streets were added to the town plan.

Initially the 1878 line from Durban to Pinetown ran directly out of the station and west along Pine Terrace, curving its way past the cemetery and along Cathedral Road before exiting town on what became Alexandra Street. It then crossed the Western Vlei discharge into the bay near Albert Park before taking a direct route to Congella and Umbilo, where stations were located. It seems probable that, at about this time, additional roads such as Commercial, Queen, Victoria, Prince Edward and Leopold Streets were laid out north of Pine, while Grey, Albert and Field Streets were developed as cross-streets. As a result, by 1888 the railway line running between Gardiner and Grey Streets was interrupted by five level crossings to serve what were becoming some of the busiest streets in town, causing delays to both railway and vehicular traffic.

At this point the Government put forward to the Council a proposal outlining a new route out of town, which would have included the construction of a new and more imposing railway station at the corner of Railway and Pine Streets. At the time Durban’s station was still a rough timber-framed structure clad in corrugated iron, offering few of the amenities that a major regional railway terminus should have done. Nonetheless the Council held out for an alternative route, taking the line of Railway Street up to Leopold where it would have turned west up to the Western Vlei, and skirting the cemetery until it joined the old line beyond Albert Park. In 1889 an agreement was struck whereby the Council’s route was accepted, and pegging its capital contribution to the project at £5000. Despite Government promises of a speedy conclusion to the work, the deviation line was only opened to traffic in 1894, while the new railway station was completed on 30 November 1898. The amount of office space provided by this handsome two-storey structure only lasted for five years, and, in 1904 another two storeys had to be added at an approximate cost of £139,000.

As a result of this deviation a new station, known as Berea Road was opened, probably in August 1904, at the base of the main road link with Durban’s developing inland residential suburbs. In time it was also to play an important role in the future development of an Indian enclave in this area.

Last updated : 19-Oct-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 19-Oct-2011