Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Sun, Steel & Spray

A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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.

Bridging the Zambezi - the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge

We now look upon the Victoria Falls Bridge as an integral part of the history and environment of the Victoria Falls area, but its construction in 1904-5, caused much controversy and objection. Many claimed that the bridge should not be built so close to the Falls as it would mar their natural beauty.

The bridge was the result of Cecil Rhodes’ failed ambition to create a ‘Cape to Cairo’ railway, linking the entire length of the continent - the ‘iron spine and ribs of Africa’. Together with Sir Charles Metcalfe, long-time friend and engineer, and the railway contractors, Pauling & Co, over 2,500 kilometres of this line would be planned, financed and constructed, through Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the Rhodesias (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and on into the Congo, in a period of less than twenty years.

Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes

At the official opening of the railway line to Bulawayo, celebrated on 4th November 1897, Rhodes sent a telegram announcing: "We are bound, and I have made up my mind, to go on to the Zambesi without delay. We have magnificent coalfields lying between here and there, which means a great deal to us engaged in the practical workings of railways. Let us see it on the Zambesi during our lifetime. It will be small consolation to me and to you to know it will be there when we are dead and gone".

The Victoria Falls Bridge was a crucial link in the route of the railway north, the planning of which Rhodes personally oversaw. Even though he never visited the Victoria Falls, it was Cecil Rhodes who dared to envisage building a "bridge across the Zambesi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls".

Map of the Victoria Falls Bridge Site (from Varian, 1953)

Sketch map of the Victoria Falls Bridge Site (from Varian, 1953)

It is often disputed if Rhodes gave this instruction, and there is no contemporary written record of him making such a statement. George Hobson, engineer and designer of the bridge recalled: "That he ever gave this direction has been doubted, and even denied by some people, including one, at least, of his own relatives; but I have it on the authority of one who, better than any other man living or dead should know the facts of the case, that the record is true".

It was Cecil Rhodes, in his role as chairman of Rhodesia Railways, who in 1901 commissioned the extension of the railway from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, and gave his personal approval to the provisional design and location of the bridge. Unfortunately, Rhodes would die 1902, two years before the railhead reached the Victoria Falls and construction of the bridge could begin.

The positioning of the bridge, so close to the natural wonder of the Victoria Falls, was not without controversy. Many protested that the bridge was an engineering act of vandalism and should not be built so close to the natural wonder of the Victoria Falls. Despite objections and engineering advice in support of an alternative site upstream, the bridge designer, George Hobson, was firm in his belief that the site selected was the best. "I am of the opinion that it is the best possible position for a bridge near to the falls. The very beauty of the spot has, however, created objections to its selection".

Design plan for the Victoria Falls Bridge (from Hobson, 1907)

Design plan for the Victoria Falls Bridge site, from Hobson (1907)

Hobson defended the bridge site and dismissed the objections of those who protested against its location: "It was the lot of engineers occasionally to be charged with perpetrating acts of vandalism, and the engineers in the present instance had not escaped the attacks of those highly aesthetic people who asserted that utilitarian works of man should not be permitted to exist in the presence of scenery famous for its natural beauty. It was sometimes possible to sympathize with these views, but, on the other hand, even a railway-bridge need not necessarily spoil; it might even add a charm to a beautiful spot, and a line of metals might give considerable interest to a grand scene without the least detriment".

He expands on his consideration of an alternative site, painting a picture of a less attractive structure, which would mar the beauty of the river upstream of the falls: "It has been contended that there is another and a better site some few miles above the Falls... For the most part the piers of a bridge, if built there, would stand upon a rocky shelf in shallow water, and there would be only two deep and broad channels to cross. It would be a long straggling structure of no great beauty, and it would mar, to a large extent, the attractions of the broad, shining Zambezi, which presents at this spot a river scene of unparalleled beauty, scarcely inferior in its own way to that of the Falls. If we can descend to sordid considerations, the cost of its construction, which I have taken the trouble to count, would be three or four times that expended on the present bridge... I may, therefore, venture to say that if there are a sufficient number of persons who hold the pure aesthetic view, and are willing to subscribe towards its fulfilment the necessary capital, without expectation of any return, no one will object, and there is a firm of engineers able and willing to give them satisfaction".

Construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge

During construction, a visitors book was kept at the engineers camp, with the aim of recording reactions to the bridge. It was recorded that: "Before the scheme was put in hand, there were not a few complaints in the public press, declaring that the erection of a bridge at the Falls would mar the beauty of the surroundings. To ascertain the general feeling of the visitors on the site chosen, a book was kept at the engineers’ camp, and a very large majority of the opinions are favourable to it, many visitors being converted from hostility to approval on seeing the facts of the case – in fact, one guest goes so far as to say the following: ‘The falls in their present position cannot possibly detract from the beauty of the bridge’ ".

The crossing of the Zambezi, immediately downstream of the natural wonder of the Victoria Falls, where the river is trapped within the narrow zig- zagging Batoka Gorge, required a bridge that would push engineering and construction knowledge of the time to its limits. The result was hailed as a man-made engineering marvel which in the eyes of the developing world rivalled the wonder of the Falls themselves.

View of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The completed Victoria Falls Bridge, looking downstream towards the Victoria Falls Hotel

Despite objections and engineering advice in support of the alternative site upstream of the Falls, Rhodes’ wish prevailed - even against the opposition of his brother, Colonel Frank Rhodes. Hobson recorded: "When at Victoria Falls last July (1905), I had many talks with one of the chief malcontents, the late Colonel Frank Rhodes. Looking at the bridge from our breakfast table, in his cheery way he said: 'Well, I have done all I could to prevent the bridge being built there; but there it is, and nothing is now left for me to do but pray daily for an earthquake.’ But he confessed that he liked the thing itself very well'". His prayers were perhaps answered in 1910 when an earthquake shook the town of Livingstone and a shower of rocks dislodged into the gorges below the Falls. However the bridge remained unaffected.

The Victoria Falls Bridge has been cited by engineers for its elegance of design and to the way it relates to its natural setting. According to the American Society of Civil Engineering, the bridge "embodies the best abilities of the engineer to enhance the beauty of nature rather than detract from it". The President of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Sir Alexander Kennedy, recorded in 1907: "The lines of the structure, themselves quite beautiful, brought out at once the vastness of the gorge itself, which without the structure could not be realized. Before the bridge was built the gorge was something very beautiful but quite indefinite, but directly that beautiful arch was put up it gave an entirely new interest to the landscape. He did not think anybody who had seen the Victoria Falls bridge would ever find fault with the engineers who designed it". Like Rhodes, one wonders how many of the actually saw the bridge in its setting with their own eyes, rather than from photographs.

View of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The completed Victoria Falls Bridge, taken from the upstream Zambian side.
On the opposite, Zimbabwean side, the small toll house can just be made out.

The bridge soon became a popular tourist attraction in its own right, offering pedestrians, as well as train passengers, a spectacular new view of the Falls and gorges below. Today the bridge is the second most famous landmark of the region, after the Victoria Falls themselves, hosting a 111 metre bungee jump with a hair raising 80m bungee swing and 300m zip line. The recently refurbished Visitor Centre with viewing platform, restaurant and refreshment bar is located on the northern bank.

Today views on the bridge are still divided. In one recently published coffee-table book on the Falls, the authors make the following emotive statement: "Once construction is complete, it is much more difficult to remove it than if it were simply disallowed in the first place. In time it becomes an accepted part of the landscape, and eventually an object of historical curiosity. Few now would wish to see the Victoria Falls Bridge removed, but it is, in truth, a hideous monument to Victorian vanity".

The Victoria Falls Bridge

View of the Victoria Falls Bridge, showing single rail line and the new road, added as part of the early 1930's upgrade of the bridge's upper deck.

- Read more on the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge in our feature Accidents and Incidents - a look at the human cost of the construction of the Bridge.

- Go back to the Bridge feature section index.

A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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