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 Jack Tar

To move heavy materials and assist with the construction of the Bridge a light shunting engine was required on the northern bank. A 19-ton locomotive, named the Jack Tar, was dismantled and transported in parts over the gorge by means of the Blondin cableway.

The boiler and lighter parts were sent over first. The remaining section, the body frame and cylinders, weighed 12 tons and had to be transported in one piece. Varian described how the cable sagged under this load and dangled over the gulf with a fourteen metre drop in the cable. There it hung for three hours as the engine struggled to cope with the weight, until by boosting the power of the electrical plant and by other means of assistance the carrier slowly reached the other side. The driver, Mr Chalmers, sitting on his little seat with the daunting drop below him is said to have calmly smoked throughout the crossing.

The Jack Tar was built in 1889 by Manning Wardle & Co of Leeds, Yorkshire and purchased by Pauling and Company in 1896. It was shipped to Beira and assembled at Umtali (now Mutare), where it was used on the construction of the line to Salisbury and widening of the Beira line, before being transferred to Victoria Falls in 1904.

Once on the north bank the engine was re-assembled by engineer Teddy Layton. The Jack Tar claimed two notable ‘firsts’ during the construction of the Bridge.

Its first claim to fame was to pull the first train in Northern Rhodesia, over a short track built in a day by the railway construction workers. It later became the first locomotive engine to cross the Bridge, pulling a ‘train’ of two trucks from the northern bank across the temporary deck and rails back to the southern side.

The Jack Tar

The Jack Tar

After the Bridge was finished the Jack Tar returned to Beira for light shunting duties, before being transferred to Bulawayo in 1927. In 1935 re-boilering was necessary with resulting changes in appearance, including a brass engine dome, and a fully enclosed cab was fitted in place of the original open shelter. Finally the original black livery was replaced with dark green, lined with yellow for show purposes (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, January 1965). One loss was a little anchor previously fitted to the front of the chimney, a reference to the origins of the engine’s name - a term for seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy. The engine is now fully restored and displayed at the Bulawayo Railway Museum.

The Jack Tar

The Jack Tar housed at the Bulawayo Railway Museum

Maramba to Kalomo

With the transportation of rail equipment to the northern bank the building of the northern extension of the railway to Kalomo could begin, with Pauling quickly establishing a new base of operations on the north bank at the Maramba depot:

“Pauling & Co established a depot with a small loco shed, coaling and watering facilities, and a permanent way store on the north side of the Maramba river just south of what is now Livingstone. It was the scene of much activity... and adjacent to the locomotive depot the Paulings built quarters for their staff and even had their own guest house which was used by George Pauling and his friends when on tour in what was, at the time, Northern Rhodesia.” (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, July 1967)

The short extension of line from the Bridge to the Maramba depot was completed in a day, in typical Pauling show-boating style. Mr William Trayner, editor and publisher of Northern Rhodesia’s first newspaper, the short-lived Livingstone Pioneer and Advertiser, was aboard the Jack Tar.

“At sunrise on the level ground above the bridge gangs of men started laying rails in a land where previously no railway existed and went on laying them all through the day, while others gave the finishing touches to a locomotive that had been brought over piece by piece, filled the boiler and lit the fire and then, towards sunset we all had a two-mile ride on a railway that hadn’t existed at sun-up that same day.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1963)

First Train to Cross

The first engine to cross was the Jack Tar, crossing from the northern side where it had been shunting railway material transported over the gorge by the Blondin, back to the south side. In order to test the structure the Chief Engineer, Imbault, had the two trucks fully loaded.

“Mr Imbault, the engineer in charge of the work, ordered the construction train to be loaded to its full capacity, and instructed the engine-driver to take the train over the bridge at top speed. The driver hesitated, when Mr Imbault said, ‘All right; get off the engine, and I’ll do it.’ The driver thereupon replied, ‘No, sir! if you’re game to do it I can do it’ and getting up steam dashed over the bridge with his trainload of ballast, the whole structure swaying under the weight, whilst the engineer (Mr Imbault) excitedly shouted, ‘Shake, you beauty... shake, you beauty,’ meaning the bridge, which he did not want to see too rigid.” (Prahran Telegraph, July 1906)

The Jack Tar crossing the Bridge

The Jack Tar crossing the Bridge

Materials were now shunted over the Bridge overnight by the Jack Tar, two trucks at a time, starting in the evening as soon as the Bridge workers had finished work for the day. On one occasion when working trucks over the Bridge late one night its side rods killed a leopard crouching on the walkway beside the track. Perhaps injured or ill, or without space to run from this unfamiliar machine, the animal refused to flee and its skull was crushed by the advancing engine. It is thought that this was the same leopard which had previously claimed the title of first animal to cross the completed Bridge.

“While a small engine, weighing fifteen tons, used by the railway contractors, was crossing the Victoria Falls bridge, over the Zambesi, just after nightfall, it ran over something on the line. The driver pulled up to ascertain the nature of the obstacle, and was considerably surprised to find an enormous leopard lying terribly injured between the rails. The brute expired in few moments. It measured 8ft. in long and it is marvellous that the engine was not derailed. (Boulder Evening Star, August 1905)

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A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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