8: THE DIFFICULTIES OF BRINGING THE RAILWAY LINE TO UMTALI
THE DIFFICULTIES OF BRINGING THE RAILWAY LINE TO UMTALI
Prior to the arrival of the railways in Manicaland most of Africa remained unsurveyed the frontiers uncertain and ill-defined. The European population consisted of Civil Servants, the most important being the British South Africa Police, who were the backbone of the country. Others consisted of the missionaries, prospectors, store keepers, lawyers, farmers and remittance men, etc.
Those were the days of big game hunters who sought and killed their game on foot, with black powder weapons, unlike hunters using motor transport, and the high velocity rifles of today. They were also the days of unrestricted and unlimited slaughter, before game, conservation was imposed. The knowledge gained by those ruthless hunters and wanderers afterwards became invaluable, and led to means of access to parts unknown, preceding settlements in various areas.
Before a country can survive or progress at all it is necessary that transport facilities be forthcoming. Therefore roads, bridges and railways are essential. The Beira-Mashonaland Railway was considered indispensable to the progress of the settlements in Rhodesia. Fortunately, a close friend of Cecil Rhodes was Sir Charles Metcalf, a well known pioneer engineer, who administered the engineering firm of Sir Douglas Fox. He became the consulting Engineer for the whole of Rhodesia, Beira and Benguela railway system.
As the railway crept nearer Umtali the small populace, grew, tense and excited; the ox-wagon days were nearly over. With rinderpest and lung diseases in Rhodesia, the prices of provisions were becoming exorbitant, for instance a tin of bully beef was 2/6d, a case of milk 42/- and beer 7/- a bottle.
The railway was in the process of being laid from Macequece and travelled up the Menini river valley to the present Umtali. The gradient up the valley is maximum for nearly twenty miles, with numerous curves on the slopes of the steep valley. The hazardous, laborious project of building a railway from Fontesville to Umtali was full of problems, and its construction called forth great endurance and perseverance, and no better man could have been selected than George Pauling who was head of the firm Paulina & Company.
This remarkable man made rapid progress from a small beginning. He originally worked as a navvy on the South African railways and then started contracting work on his own account. When he was twenty four he had saved about fifteen thousand pounds, George Pauling, writing about that period in his memoirs, remarked. "I fervently wished that I had never heard of the Beira Railway, At one time practically every white employee on the job was suffering from malaria. In one fortnight we lost six white men, including' my bookkeeper and in one year sixty percent of the men died", Pauling put A.L. Lawley in charge of the building of the Beira-Umtali section, and he was satisfied that he had chosen the best man for the job - a man of strong physique who was also indefatigable and industrious.
In 1895 it was clear that the new link between Beira and Fontesville was most unsuitable owing to the Pungwe river changing its course, and the shifting sandbanks. Unfortunately the Beira
Railway could not finance the project. To Lawley fell the task of getting the railway across the sixty miles of marshy flats through the Amatongas Forest, up the two escarpments and finally to Umtali, an altitude of four thousand feet. Apart from malaria, swamps, etc. there were lions which added to the hazards. In one month lions killed two European gangers and on another occasion two men besieged in their huts, and often the African labourers had to climb trees to get away from the savage beasts. This is an incident related by Pauling: "A rather tall person whose feet were protruding from the temporary grass shelter in which he was sleeping, suddenly awoke when he felt something tugging at one of his feet. He immediately shouted for help and some of the African workers rushed to his aid, attacking the lion with firebrands plucked from their fires which had been kept burning to keep the intruders away. Fortunately the lion was drawn off from his prey, but the victim lost a portion of his foot".
During the construction of the railway members of many tribes from all over the country came to seek work. Mr. Varian, M.I.C.E., F.R.G.S., (late Chief Resident Engineer Construction, the Benguela Railway, Angola) a well known Pioneer Engineer, tells the story of a tribe of Africans, living near the Zambesi river, who were reputed to be either immune from snake bites or to have some secret means of immunizing themselves. Whilst working on the Pungwe Bridge Mr. Varian came in contact with a member of this tribe. It so happened that a largo snake had just taken refuge in a hole in the bank, and all the other African workers had run away, knowing well that the snake was too quick and deadly to be trifled with. This primitive African, belonging to e Zambezi tribe, garbed in scanty clothes of bark and skins, came forward and announced he would deal with the snake. Mr. Varian watched him operate from nearby. Without hesitation, he plunged his hand and arm straight down into the hole. When he withdrew it there was an extremely angry reptile in his grasp,coiling like a flash around his arm as soon as it was free of the hole. The man had evidently caught it too far back and it had sufficient freedom to raise its head and strike its fangs hard into the fleshy part between the African's thumb and first finger. He gripped it gently with the other hand and withdrew the fangs, but itfreed its head and struck once more, close to the original wound. A few minutes later he had the reptile completely under control, resting coiled up on his outstretched hands, and so brought it towards Mr. Varian to be examined, Mr. Varian informed the African that he had seen enough, and he had better kill it and got rid of it. The snake specialist replied, "If he killed it the next one he encountered would retaliate and kill him". So he walked a couple of hundred yards away from the path and tossed the snake carefully with both hands into the long grass and returned at once to his pick and shovel work. Mr. Varian saw him again on several consecutive days after that. The wound healed in a healthy manner. Mr. Varian tried to extract the secret from him, but he said the fellow mistrusted the White Man and refused to give awayinformation.
As previously stated, when the railway was taken over from the contractors Pauling & Company in 1900, Colonel Beal was its first manager. He resided in Umtali. In 1901 dr. Charles Wibberley from the Argentine Railways was appointed General Manager, With him came Mr. Alexis Solely who afterwards succeeded Mr, A.M. Moore as Chief Resident Engineer. A survey was made at the time to see what
possibilities there were of a rail track between Umtali and Penhalonga to serve the Penhalonga and Rezende gold mines. Mr. Varian surveyed this project but considered it would be too costly, the only possible route being over the Pass which would necessitate a steep gradient, and then a tunnel. Mr. Varian, however, relates his experiences While undertaking the survey. "The Pass was noted for lions and several incidents have been recorded. It is related that a man had out- spanned his cart and six mules near the top of the Pass, and had fallen asleep under the cart. He was taken by lions and never heard of again, although the mules were not touched".
One night Mr.. Varian was in his bell tent whilst surveying the Pass, his Africans being camped a few yards away from him. He had no gun with him and only his little rough-haired dog, Vicky. He was fast asleep when he was awakened by the loud protests of baboons in the rocks down the Penhalonga side of the valley. This meant lions or leopards were after them. The Africans stopped their chattering, and replenished the fires. They were evidently listening as intently as he was. Then came, the unmistakable rumbling, the cough and smell of the lion. It seemed to be coming towards them and Vicky remained perfectly mute. Varian lit a candle and the rumbling came quite close and then stopped. He realised that the lion had begun to take serious interest and tried to disguise where he was by placing his muzzle close to the ground and producing a light blowing sound. The only indication of his whereabouts came from Vicky. She suddenly became rigid, her back up and well Up on her toes. Varian leaned over the side of the stretcher, striving to catch any sound from outside, intently watching Vicky, especially, as he had been told that a lion invariably jumped, on a tent and knocked it down. Vicky, still at dead point, began to revolve slowly like a compass needle, round the walls of the tent, moving each foot in turn in the same position. Still no sound from outside. Twice she made a complete turn, which seemed an eternity to the listener. At that time Varian was literally sweating with fear, and then came the first sound from the direction of Vicky's pointing. Fortunately for them the lion, having encircled the tent and moved round by both scent and sound, decided that the hunt for dogs meat was off, after which the little dog began to relax.
A last the railway reached Umtali in February 1898, The narrow gauge track of twenty two pound weight rails would today resemble one of those children's railways to be seen at amusement parks. However, it managed to deal with the traffic before being replaced, a couple of years later, by the standard 3' 6" gauge line. The replacement was carried out in record time, and completed in about six months, compared with the original construction period of five and a half years.
The great day came after years of waiting. The whole of Umtali was present to witness tho arrival of the first train to enter Umtali station. Everybody was laughing and talking enthusiastically,, looking down the line for the first glimpse of the train. The flags flying throughout Umtali proclaimed that it was a red-letter day in the history of the Colony, a day never to be forgotten. Many lives had been lost and the devotion to duty on the part of those remaining had distinguished the construction of the line. With dogged determination men had overcome great obstacles and difficulties. The line had bean laid through jungles, swampy regions bedeviled with malaria and infested with tsetse fly. These had taken their toll.
Here was an achievement which called for recognition - an achievement as outstanding as any yet accomplished in Southern Africa.
As the whistle sounded in the distance, it caused a few minutes of tormenting suspense, and then a burst of applause rang out as the engine, decorated with bunting, whistling and puffing, slid into the wood and iron station. As it came to a halt the crowd went wild, shouting and cheering joyfully. I was present at the time. To those onlookers it must have been hard to believe that this link with the coast had at last been established, and in consequence they could now expect more than the bare necessities, which had been their lot up to this time. A celebration committee had been formed, and sports festivities, a rifle competition, etc. organised. A ball and banquet had been planned to take place in the Court House. A sale of stands was in the offing, and so the day, crowded with hilarious events, ended.
Gradually the novelty of seeing the train arriving wore off, and all settled down again to continue a normal existence, but now with rosier prospects for the future. One incident worth repeating was when Rhodes first met Lawley and it gave an insight into the nature of those two prominent men. Lawley was at a construction camp at the time. Rhodes quite inexcusably became excited, and began to abuse Lawley in the presence of the whole camp until, as Pauling records, by a gradual crescendo of un-parliamentary language, Rhodes reached his highest falsetto tones. Lawley had to retain his hold over his men and their respect for him, so without hesitation he asked Rhodes who the hell he thought he was, and told him in a flood of railway vernacular that there was no necessity for him to squeal like a damned rabbit. It was the best thing he could have done - Rhodes respected him for standing up to him and after this episode they became and remained good friends.
Twelve months from the date of the arrival of the railway at Umtali, it reached Salisbury. This section of one hundred and seventy miles (31 6" gauge) was built under the aegis of the Manicaland Railway Company and all the materials were transported over the Beira railway.
Umtali received a great boost when the railway arrived, as the officials decided that the workshops should be erected in Umtali, as being near the coast it would be very convenient. This entailed not only the building of large sheds where engines could be overhauled, but also building houses for the staff. The General Manager, Mr. Wibberley, was allotted a double-storey building in the centre of large grounds. Afterward Mr. Dan Livingstone took over from Mr. Wibberley.Others on the staff were Mr. Hosgood, Mr. Huxtable, and Dr. Stewart who was the first Railway doctor, succeeded by Dr. Craven. Eventually Mr. Uibberley's residence became the Railway sports grounds where tennis and bowls were the chief games.
The railway shops certainly did add to Umtali's population. Even today many of the old houses put up for the employees remain standing and occupied. At a later date the main workshops were moved to Bulawayo and this was a bitter disappointment for little Umtali, as a great number of residents left. However, some of the workshops remain today. The workshops proved very beneficial and maintained the rolling stock and locomotives on the Beira-Umtali lines.
On December 12th, 1916 a meeting was called by the railway workers to form a branch of the Railway Workers' Union in Umtali: Mr. H. Nathues (acting Chairman), Messrs Eades (acting Secretary) Miller, Mayor Dawson, Rey, with Messrs. I. Gates and Eickhoff invited guests). Membership in Bulawayo was one hundred and eighty. Salisbury eighty seven and in Umtali, after the meeting twenty two new members were enlisted. It was made clear that they were not forming a society against their employers, but against those who would prevent them getting what these employers gave them. After the meeting Mr. Eickhoff responded to an appeal for a few words: "It was resolved that the meeting heartily agreed with the views expressed and all were prepared to join and remain members of the Union and support the delegates in every way. In thanking the General Manager it was appreciated the way he met the deputation in September last".
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