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.

Tragedy Strikes

A fatal incident occurred during the preparation of the railway cutting on the north bank, involving an elderly American traveller, Mr Samuel Alexander, from Honalulu, Hawaii, who was tragically struck by a falling rock whilst walking in the gorge below the excavations. Powel, one of the group of railway engineers involved in preparing the bridge foundations, writing in 1930:

“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." (Powell, 1930)

Samuel Alexander, son of American missionary [American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM)] to Hawaii, William Patterson Alexander (July 25, 1805 – August 13, 1884), was an influential agriculturalist and industrialist in the American sugar industry. Travelling with his daughter, Annie Alexander, tragedy had already struck the group with the death of their third travel companion and friend, Mr Thomas L. Gulick, who had become ill and died in Kijabe, Kenya on 15th August.

"On Sept. 7th, Mr. Alexander and his daughter were at Bulawayo, and thence rode to visit the grave of Cecil Rhodes at Matapao. The air was cool and exhilarating, but Mr. Alexander seemed a little depressed, and said that he felt a foreboding of disaster. In the evening, they took the [train] cars for Victoria Falls, and there arrived the following morning. In the afternoon, (Sept. 8th), they walked out to take their first view of the Falls; and Mr. Alexander again spoke of his forebodings, and carefully informed his daughter where to find his letters of credit and the tickets for their voyage on the steamer to leave Capetown for England on Sept. 28." (Honolulu Advertiser, 1 Nov 1904)

Annie recorded details of the incident during her return to Hawaii, published in the Honolulu Advertiser:

"They had just clambered over some great boulders to look up into the terminus of the waterfall, when they observed small rocks falling down the precipice, about 350 feet high, directly above them. They instantly turned and ran, the daughter ahead. Looking up she saw two men leaning over a railing watching herself and her father. When they had run about 30 yards, and seemed to be out of danger, the daughter set up her camera while her father stood leaning against a rock six or eight feet distant observing her. Something caused her to look up, and she saw a boulder, about three feet thick, bounding toward her. It seemed likely to pass by at a little distance, but striking a rock it veered, and struck her father's foot, and she found him writhing on the ground. She called to the men above for help and ran to him. Three of them quickly arrived with bandages and cotton. Mr. Alexander said to his daughter, "This ends my career, Annie ; I am too old a man to stand an operation." (Honolulu Advertiser, 1 Nov 1904)

High above the gorge, the Blondin operator, Mr Chalmers, had witnessed the and blew his whistle to alert the workmen.

"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)

Mr Alexander was buried at the Old Drift cemetery, the funeral conducted by Mr Sykes. His gravestone is one of the handful that survives, although broken, recording ‘Samuel Thomas Alexander. 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 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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