The following extended feature is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.
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, both in the same incident, described here by I.A. Powell.
"When the third bay on the north bank was being erected a nine-ton girder was lowered into position by the crane, when it was found that the rivet holes on the girder and the piece already in position did not coincide. The fitters use a tool consisting of a spanner with a straight rat-tail shaft, called a 'drift,' with which they wangle the loose piece into position, so that the rivet holes corresponded, and the new piece can be bolted to the erected work. A fitter had his 'drift' jammed, failed to inform the foreman, who, the 'all clear' being given, gave the signal for the craneman to lift. The lifted piece being fastened to the completed work by the jammed 'drift,' the crane was pulling the weight of the whole structure. The wrought iron brake wheel collapsed, and the girder began to fall. There was an emergency foot break that could be applied but the craneman failed to apply it. He had fainted. The girder fell sideways onto a cross bracing girder, on which a white man and a native were working. Both were pinned down; the native was killed instantaneously, the unfortunate white man lived for three hours afterwards with most of his ribs broken and conscious almost to the last." [Powell, 1930]
Interestingly Powell describes a further fatality involving a painter who fell from the bridge. Although he survived his fall, he died three months later from his injuries. However no mention of this death is made in reports on the construction of the bridge, which refer only to the two previous deaths.
"When the bridge was nearing completion a large squad of men were painting the steel work. Each was suspended in a 'boatswain’s chair' like the sailors painting the side of a ship. Up above, the decking of this bridge was being put down. A baulk of 12 inch by 12 inch timber was dislodged, fell through the bridge and knocked one of the painters, an Italian, out of his chair, to fall into a pool of mud near the foundations, 89 feet below. Two Catholic Fathers were lunching with the chief engineer when the accident was reported by telephone. One gallant old padre raced down to the bridge on the chief's horse, to give the last unction to a dying man. When he was lowered down in a bucket he found the man sitting up and complaining of 'a pain in the head'. The man was taken to hospital and was discharged a month later but died three months after the accident from the injury to his head." [Powell, 1930]
In a further incident, indirectly linked to the bridge construction work, Powell describes the death of an early, and very adventurous, American visitor to the falls:
"Another fatal accident occurred during the construction of the bridge, though not directly connected with the work of erection. When the deep railway cutting on the North side was being excavated, adits [shafts] were driven through the walls on either side, and the rock was tipped through them into the Boiling Pot below the bridge, on the one side, and into the Silent pool on the other. The danger zones were demarcated by a line of ‘danger’ boards and visitors were especially warned not to go beyond the end board. One day, among the numerous visitors, were an old white-haired American and his daughter.
They, like most visitors, went down Palm Grove to take photos of the Boiling Pot, at the water's edge. One of the workmen on the bridge noticed a woman struggling with the body of a man, who was slipping down the rock into the water. A relief party headed by the chief engineer, was hastily got together, and, with a stretcher and first aid appliances, climbed down the gorge. Half way down we met the distracted and exhausted daughter, who said her father had been killed by a falling rock.
We found the old gentleman quite conscious; his right foot had been almost severed, and the leg broken above the ankle, He was a plucky old chap! He looked on while the smashed foot was cut away and the stump bandaged, muttering 'I won’t get over this, I am too old'. He was carried out and taken to hospital. The leg was amputated, but he died of shock after the operation. It was a sad story. Two old gentlemen, (the one over seventy years of age) and the daughter of the elder, under-took a tour of the world. The younger died in Kenya. The other at the Falls, and the unfortunate daughter returned to the United States, bereft and lonely." [Powell, 1930]
It was recorded that the Blondin operator, Mr Chalmers, saw the danger and blew his whistle but all to no avail. Mr Samuel Thomas Alexander was buried at the Old Drift cemetery, his gravestone one of the few that survives, and records ‘Born of American Missionary Parentage in the Hawaiian Islands, October 29 1836. Struck by a falling rock at Victoria Falls and died, September 10 1904.’
- Read new research on this incident in our feature Tragedy Strikes
- Read more on the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge in our feature Diamond Jubilee Paint Job - from the Rhodesia Railways Magazine, August 1963.
- Go back to the Bridge feature section index.