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.

The Victoria Falls Bridge - Record Engineering Feat

London Daily News, 10 May 1905

Sir Charles Metcalfe, the famous engineer, has just returned to this country from the scene of his latest triumph - a canyon on the boundary of Rhodesia, discovered by David Livingstone fifty years ago, where occurs a cataract that dwarfs Niagara. At Victoria Falls the Zambesi River rears over four hundred feet of perpendicular cliff, sending up fine columns of spray that attain an altitude of three thousand feet, and make a heavy rain that descends always on the surrounding, landscape. Among politicians, financiers, engineers, and travellers there was keen competition for the privilege of a few words with Sir Charles. I was so fortunate, however (writes a correspondent of the London 'Daily News' of May 10th) as to monopolise a little of his time.

"But," he laughed, "nothing in the way of a formal interview, if you please."

"You will say," I pleaded, "just one word about the famous bridge?"

"It has been 'built," said Sir Charles, "in record time, with record accuracy, and, I should think, at record cost."

"And what of the country thus opened up?"

"The country north of the bridge is better even than the country south of the bridge. It is extremely well watered. The soil is good and there is excellent pasture for cattle. Then, of course, there is great mineral wealth."

"What do you think of the falls?"

"There is nothing like them in the world. You cannot describe them they must be seen."

"Does the bridge mar the view?"

"Not in the least. If you are in Rain Forest, or looking at the Falls from their immediate vicinity, you are not conscious of the presence of the bridge. Indeed, it is difficult to see the Falls and the bridge at the same time."

"Is the climate of the country good?"

"Yes. This one fact will prove it. The survey party, great as were the hardships they were compelled to suffer, experienced no ill-health during the whole of their labours."

From the engineer who has built the bridge, I turned to Mr G. A Hobson, who designed it." Is it actually finished?" I asked him.

"Practically, and to all appearance," he replied, "but 80,000 rivets have still to be put in."

"Was the site a difficult one?"

"Difficult! It was an ideal site. What harder rock could you have than basalt? There was no element of chance or uncertainty about the building of that bridge. There it is and nothing can harm it."

"An earthquake?"

"Yes, perhaps an earthquake might, but nothing else, I fancy."

"What has it cost?"


"And how long will it last?"

"If proper care is taken it will last a century or so. If proper care is not taken, it won't."


"Paint, care, and attention. There are no concealed parts; the eye can see and the paint brush can reach every inch of the bridge."

"Need a great piece of engineering like this bridge ever end its life? Cannot it be replaced, piece by piece?"

"No. The end of its life must inevitably be reached in time."

"Have you known of a bridge suffering from senile decay?'

"Yes. There was the Victoria Bridge at Montreal, for instance, though in that case, as in so many others, it wasn't exactly the bridge's own fault that it became too old for service. Since it was built the weight of locomotives had gradually increased, until at last the burden of rolling stock was more than the bridge would bear."

"In the Zambesi bridge have you allowed for a further possible development in the type of locomotive?"

"No. For the limit of the carrying power of a railroad has beers reached. But we have made the bridge fully equal to the strain of the heaviest existing engines."

"How many engineering records has the bridge broken?"

"I will tell you one," laughed Mr Hobson, "that it hasn't broken. An American journalist came to me and asked if it wasn't the largest bridge in the world. Of course; it is very far from being that. One of the most interesting phases of the work was the initial one of getting the material across. For half the bridge was built out from either side. I think you can speak of our cableway as a record one. A stout steel cable, 870 feet long, was drawn across the ravine, being fixed to a steel tower on either side. A carriage, driven by electricity and with a carrying capacity of five tons, carried across the sections of half the bridge, as well as rolling stock, and all the material for fifty miles of railway."

"How far does the railway extend north of the bridge?'

"For sixty miles. By the end of June one hundred miles will have been constructed. Then we shall go on for 260 further miles, to Broken Hill, in Northern Rhodesia. By what route the continuation of the line will reach Cairo is a matter still under consideration."


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