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 full capacity of the Blondin was fifteen tons, but this load was only approached once, when the first engine was transported to the north bank to continue the construction ahead. The engine was first dismantled on the south bank, to be taken over piece-meal. The boiler and lighter parts went over first, and then the frame – weighing over twelve tons with cylinders attached – was tackled. The sheaves were drawn up to their fullest extent, with the frame suspended below, only just clear of the ground. Soon after the journey began, it was obvious that it was not going to be easy. Slowly the carrier reached the middle of its line over the gorge, where the sag in the cable was at its greatest. There it stopped. The dip was forty-three feet, and the Blondin was no longer overhead. We could look down on it, as the power was insufficient for it to climb the resulting grade. Preparations were made to run a block and tackle, and wind it up by winch, but that was a long job. In the meantime, extra rails were loaded on to the sling at the sheerlegs, and all possible power boosted up in the plant. After three hours, it slowly began to move again, and with every foot the grade on the sag decreased until eventually it laboriously reached the north bank. During the whole of this ordeal, the driver seemed immune from nervous strain, and sat coolly smoking on his little seat with 350 feet of open space below him." (Varian, 1953)

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 - note the headlamp,
presumably fitted to allow work at night over the bridge.

The Jack Tar, functionally described as a flat sided 0-6-0 ‘Saddle Tank’ shunting locomotive, was built in 1889 by Manning, Wardle & Co of Leeds, Yorkshire. Workshop build number 1159, the engine was first sold to a local contractor, J. P. Edwards of Chapel-le-Frith, and used on the construction of part of the Midland Railway line between Dore and Chinley in the Derbyshire Peak District (Croxton, 1982).

After use by another contractor, the little engine was purchased by Pauling and Company in 1896 for £1372, shipped to Beira and reassembled at Umtali (now Mutare), where it was altered to the standard southern African 3ft 6in gauge.

Pauling used the engine on the construction of the line to from Umtali to Salisbury, before being sold over to the Mashonaland Railways in 1899 (becoming MR No.7 in 1900) and used on the widening of the Beira line (from 2ft to 3ft 6in gauge).

The Jack Tar

The Jack Tar

After work on the Bridge was finished the Jack Tar returned to Beira for light shunting duties, before being transferred to Bulawayo in 1927 as a workshop shunter. The engines small size was again an advantage as it could fit on the traverser with a 65 foot coach, whereas all other locomotives were too long.

In 1935 re-boilering was necessary with resulting changes in appearance, including a brass engine dome, and the open driver's cab was enclosed to give more protection to the driver. In 1942 the Jack Tar was retired to Umtali for workshop light shunting duties, until finally withdrawn from service for preservation in 1953.

The engine was exhibited at the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition in 1953, prior to which the original black livery was replaced with dark bottle green, lined with red, black and 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 Jack Tar

The Jack Tar after repainting

The engine is now fully restored and displayed at the Bulawayo Railway Museum. In 1965 the engines 'vital statistics' were recorded in comparison with the work-horse of the day, the 20th Class Garrett:

"Jack Tar's vital statistics, compared with a modern 20th Class Garrett (in brackets) are: Tractive effort at 75 per cent 7,160 lbs (69,333 lbs); Total Weight in W.O. 19 tons 1 cwt (225 tons 10 cwt); Length Over Couplets 22ft 10 in (95ft 0 1/2in.); Diameter of Driving Wheels 2ft 9in (4ft 3in); Cylinders 11 1/4in. x 17in. (20in. x 26in.); Coal Bunker 12 cwt (14 tons); Water Tanks 500 gal. (8,000 gal.); Boiler Pressure 140lb/ (200lb/; Grate Area 5sq.ft. (63 sq.ft.); Heating Surface-Total 350sq.ft. (3,772sq.ft.)" (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, Jan 1965)

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 the Victoria Falls Bridge 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)

The Line North

The line north required an estimated 200 tons of rails and associated material to be transported across the gorge each day in order to advance the railway projected daily target of one mile (1.6 km). Work started in early 1905 and progressed simultaneously with the Bridge construction, with 50 miles of the 94 mile (151 km) line to Kalomo completed before the Bridge was even open for construction traffic, with all the rail materials carried across the gorge via the Blondin and transported on the north bank by the Jack Tar.

Harold Pauling died soon after the railway had reached Victoria Falls, and Mr A L Lawley took charge of the railway construction from Livingstone with P St G Mansergh doing the preliminary surveying. The terrain was easy country for the track-laying gangs, the only obstacle being the Kalomo river which needed a bridge with three 100-foot (30.5 m) spans. Pauling’s men laid an incredible nine and a quarter kilometres of this line - in the Pemba area - within a single working day (totalling eleven hours of uninterrupted track-laying).

“By the time the bridge was open to traffic, some 50 miles of line beyond had been laid by Pauling and his men, and Kalomo, 94 miles from the V F, was reached in May 1905. Pauling’s workers had laid five and three quarter miles [9.25 km] of this line - in the Pemba area - in the then staggering time of eleven hours. This had arisen as the result of a conversation between Sir Charles Metcalfe, Chief Engineer on the line, and a visiting French engineer [no doubt Imbault], who had asked what length of rails could be laid in one day. ‘Guess,’ said Sir Charles. The Frenchman hazarded half a mile. Sir Charles spoke to the men and they set to; a quarter of a mile was laid in just 20 minutes. Spurred on by this, they continued the race for 11 hours. (The practice at this time was to lay rails and sleepers direct on the ground's surface. Ballasting was carried out later.)” (White, 1973)

The then administrative capital of Kalomo was reached in May and the line from Victoria Falls opened to traffic in August 1905.

Jack's Sister Engine, The Maramba

In mid-1905 Paulings received delivery of a second shunting engine, also manufactured by Manning, Wardle. Perhaps impressed with the Jack Tar's performance during the construction, Pauling ordered the engine in late March 1905 and received in Beira three months later.

"According to Manning Wardle records their number 1656 was a 'special' 3ft 6in gauge 0-6-0 saddle tank with 12in by 18 in outside cylinders, ordered on 29 March 1905 and dispatched on 06 June 1905 to Pauling and Co Ltd at Beira. Of similar design to Jack Tar, this second tank locomotive was named Maramba (the name of a small river that joins the Zambezi just above Victoria Falls), she was used on the construction of the railway to Kalomo and Broken Hill." (Geoff's Trains website)

The small engine was stationed at Pauling's Maramba Depot, and named 'Maramba No.1.' The locomotive varied in a number of differences to the Jack Tar, some perhaps specifically requested by George Pauling himself.

The Jack Tar

Maramba No.1

"A close comparison of photographs of the two locomotives reveals a number of differences in their design, the chief of which are that the 'Maramba' has evenly spaced wheels; much more protection in the cab for the driver; a higher, thinner chimney; two steps instead of one, no vacuum brake, and the usual safety valve on the boiler top instead of 'Jack Tar's' tapered brass valve. Other minor differences are also visible. The only known 'vital statistics' of 'Maramba' are that the cylinders were of 12 in diameter and 18 in. stroke compared with 'Jack's' cylinders of 11 1/2 in by 19 in stroke." (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, July 1967)

Croxton records that the Maramba engine was used on the construction of the line north, to Kalomo and on to Broken Hill. Kalomo, however, had already been reached - in May 1905 - before the new engine had arrived at the Zambezi (Broken Hill was reached in January 1906). The engine then worked on the later extension of the line into the Congo, becoming the first engine to reach Katanga.

"By 1972 Maramba was stored at the KDL Lubumbashi Workshops in Katanga and by 1988 she had been seen plinthed outside Lubumbashi Station." (Geoff's Trains website)


Croxton, A (1982) Railways of Zimbabwe [Originally published in 1973 as Railways of Rhodesia]

Boulder Evening Star (August 1905) Leopard Killed By Engine. 2 August 1905 [Online source, retrieved from:]

Geoff's Trains website (undated) The Jack Tar [Online source, retrieved from:]

Northern Rhodesia Journal (January 1963) The Railway Reaches the Falls Bridge. W. Trayner. Vol.5, No.3, p.60.

Prahran Telegraph (July 1906) On The Zambesi. 28 July 1906. [Online source, retrieved from:]

Rhodesia Railways Magazine (Jan 1965) Old Timers Are Laid To Rest. Vol.13, No.9, p.15.

Rhodesia Railways Magazine (July 1967) There was only one Jack Tar, Vol.16, No.2, p.19.

Varian, H F (1953) Some African Milestones Wheatley : George Ronald. (Reprinted 1973 Books of Rhodesia).

White, B. (1973) The Trailmakers, The story of Rhodesia Railways. Supplement to Illustrated Life, Rhodesia, 31 May 1973.

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A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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