As most Durbanites will know – the very first steam locomotive and train in South Africa steamed 155 years ago along a track between the Market Square, Durban and the Point on the 26th of June 1860. As the track lengthened to new horizons and branched-off to new locations, so new railway stations were built to service the traders and passengers who used the train for transport.
Near Rossburgh the rail line split into three. This junction was known as the ‘South Coast Junction’ or ‘Booth Junction’. The first branch running to Clairwood Railway Station where the rail line branched in 2 again, one track running down the South Coast of Natal and the other running along the edge of the Bay to the following stations, namely Jacobs Railway Station, Wentworth Railway Station, Bayhead Railway Station, King’s Rest Railway Station, Fynnlands Railway Station, Island View Railway Station and ending its commercial route at Wests Railway Station at the foot and headland to the Bluff. At Fynnlands Railway Station the line branched with a line running to Salisbury Island Railway Station. The second branch from Rossburgh ran to Booth Railway Station and then inland, while the third line ran to Seaview Railway Station and on to the hinterland.
(below) Wests Railway Station.
(below) In this photograph the Station Master poses beside the Wests Railway Station. Note how the Bluff rising precipitously in the background.
This line extended beyond Wests Railway Station to the breakwater at the headland of the Bluff. This line allowed port engineers to move large quantities of rock and concrete blocks via train to construct and maintain the breakwater.
Although the first railway is South Africa became operational in 1860 between the Point and village of Durban , John Milne, the first harbour engineer, like to claim that honor for his wooden rail track laid around the base of the Bluff headland in 1856.
The sandbar at the entrance to the bay posed as a hazard to shipping as all to often the depth of the water over the bar was insufficient to permit safe entry. With the arrival of settlers from 1849 and increased economic activity, the need to remedy access to the harbour became a critical issue.
Milne believed, correctly as it turned out, that by narrowing the entrance to the bay by construction of North and South piers, the natural ebb and flow of the tides would scour the sandbank and produce a deepened channel. To build the piers required, Milne needed suitable stone a large supply which existed at the base of the Bluff headland.
Until 1854, stone was quarried where West’s railway station stands. Then a more accessible supply was blasted out of the top of the Bluff Headland. To convey the stones to a calm point within the bay from where they could be ferried across for the construction of the North pier, Milne decided to build a rail track.
The rails were made from Milkwood trees which were common around the bay. After initial difficultly with those appointed to cut and saw the timber, Charles Gregory and William Hart got the job done and the track was laid. It was placed just two meters above the high water mark and measure just above 1.6km in length.
Eight wagons were constructed to convey the stone which was cut into blocks roughly 20kgs each in weight. A “train” of four wagons was hauled along the track by a team of eight oxen. Once a week a fresh span of oxen was swum across the bay to relieve the others. (No mention is made of the fates of the previous teams of oxen).
By the the end of 1856 construction of the north pier had reached 137 meters in length . Even in its infant form and without a corresponding south pier, the depth of the water over the bar had improved. But Milne’s efforts became frustrated by politics. The new Governor, John Scott, was critical of the quality of the Bluff stone and wanted further engineering opinion. Disagreement over expenditure saw Milne dismissed from his post in 1858.
Consequently, Milne’s wooden railway track around the Bluff headland fell into disuse. Early in the twentieth century the whaling company built railway over Milne’s track to transport whale carcasses to its factory on the seaward side of the Bluff.
There is a photograph of Milne’s railway track in Killie Campbell Library. Hugging the base of the bush-covered Bluff just above the waters edge, that modest wooden railway track constituted the first settler footprint on the Bluff.
(Information derived primarily from Terry Hutson’s 1997 article in the Natalia)
1898 – Opening of the Bluff Railway In June 1898 large posters advertised the opening of the latest Natal Government Railways (NGR) branch line extension from Durban station to West’s at the tip of Bluff headland. The inaugural trip was set down for 13 June. On that day 30 paying passengers along with David Hunter, the general manager of NGR, were aboard to mark the historical occasion.
The following stations marked the route the Bluff train took: from Durban Station the first stop was Berea Station, then Congella, Umbilo, South Coast Junction (Rossburgh), Clairmont, Jacobs, Wentworth, King’s Rest, Fynnland, New Brighton (Mrs Shortts property) and finally Wests. The Mercury’s description of the journey published on June 14 provides an idea of the state of the environment at this time. “The route through mangrove, sugar cane and banana beside the lapping water of the Bay afforded new glimpses of the port and neighborhood.” (Sugar cane was grown in the Umhlatuzana River area).
The historic, first train left Durban Station at 9:50am and returned just before noon. Although Sam West reportedly delighted that his name marked the terminus of the line, the occasion was without any fanfare. The railway had taken fourteen months to complete at a cost of £3,000 per mile. The final mile terminating at West’s had required 13,000 cubic yards of stone to secure and stabilize the embankment.The fare for a first class, single journey was one shilling and nine pence. Return was two shillings and three pence. Second class was one shilling and two pence with return just four pence more expensive. Third class was just seven pence with no figure mentioned on the advertising poster for return. Only two trips to the Bluff were scheduled daily: mid-morning and mid-afternoon with more frequent services over the weekends.
On the very day of the opening of the new Bluff destinations, the mercury published a letter from the irate Bluff resident who signed himself “Wentworth”. The writer objected to the trip scheduling as being totally inconvenient for children attending schools in Durban or those with business interests. “In the absence of any road forth that name, the least the government can do is to provide a decent train service.” (One must remember that apart from the Catholic mission for Africans, there were no schools on the Bluff until Fynnland Primary School was opened in 1936).
Nonetheless, the railway was a huge boon to the Bluff residents and visitors as there was no established road which meant a difficult trek through bush to travel around the bay. Alternatively, there was a ferry service from the Point across to Wests and Salisbury Island. However, that was not how the Durban Chamber of Commerce saw it.
In a letter dated 13 June 1896 to Prime Minister John Robinson, without giving reasons the chamber said it was “disapproving of the Bluff railway scheme” and preferred to see the Government develop more wharfage along the town side of the Bay. In his reply, Robinson ignored the Chambers Bluff reviews and reassured it that his Government was already proceeding to extend the wharfage on the town side.
Correspondence relating to the construction of the railway provides another insight on the Bluff line. Jane Shortt, widow of Portland Bentinck who died in 1885, claimed compensation from the NGR for encroaching on her property. In 1896, when the rail Route was being surveyed, Mrs Shortt noticed that it had passed through part of her new = Lot No. 27 which she stated had been bought by her late husband in 1857. The chief engineer of NGR promised that her claim would be dealt with in due course.
Although the establishment of the Bluff railway was indicative of the growth of the Bluff as a residential node, there was also another reason for the lines construction: Harbour development and expansion envisaged the relocation of the messy coaling depot from the Point area to the Bluff headland. The railway was a crucial factor in that development which required reclamation and wharfage construction in order to establish the coating depot.