The Iron Bridges of Hartbeespoort

by Albrecht Holm – Hartbeespoort Environment Heritage Association (HEHA) 

MEERHOF TRAIN BRIDGE

In 1924 the railway line reached Meerhof, where trains had to turn around and return to Pretoria. The station was called Schoemansville Halt. Because the few roads to Hartbeespoort Dam were in a poor condition, the trains carried agricultural produce, sand and passengers.

In 1927 a railway bridge was built over the Crocodile River and the railway line was extended to Magaliesburg. The bridge was built of steel lattice beams, riveted and bolted together. The bridge has three sections. The eastern section is 34m long. On some beams one can read the inscription DALZELL # STEEL GK. (The symbol # here represents the British crown.) The middle section is 57m long and the western one 20m. The last section does not have a lattice construction but is built of flat beams. The bridge is 4.9m wide. On the northern side pedestrians will find a walkway of non-slip steel plates.

Meerhof Bridge 1933

In 1891 a bridge was built over the Crocodile River by order of the State Engineer and Architect of the Zuid Afrikaansche Repubic (ZAR), Sytse Wopkes Wierda.This bridge had three spans of 13m (40 feet) each. It was situated on Schoemansrust, the farm of General Hendrik Schoeman (see 082). In the Government Gazette it was referred to as the “Schoeman Bridge”. It lies south of the Oewer Club in Schoemansville, under the waters of the Hartbeespoort Dam.

Late in April 1893 August Behrens trekked through the valley. He reported that a great flood had arrived during the night and swept the bridge away. We do not know whether the bridge was ever rebuilt. 

While the Hartbeespoortdam was being built in 1921-1924 all buildings and structures that would be inundated were demolished, so as not to be a hazard to shipping. If the bridge had still been standing it would have been demolished at that time. Shortly afterwards three more bridges were built in the vicinity – all in the Wierda style. They are the Magalies River bridge (013), the Crocodile River bridge (027) and the railway bridge at Meerhof. Could the construction workers have incorporated the steel beams from the Schoeman Bridge? Further research might answer the question.

Today the railway bridge at Meerhof is used by pedestrians taking a short cut between Meerhof and Broederstroom. Not all pedestrians are humans, however. The local baboons watched with interest and saw the advantages of using the bridge. They post guards till the troop have all crossed over, to warn them of approaching danger. These noisy crossings are an amusing sight, if you are fortunate enough to see it.

IRON BRIDGE OVER CROCODILE RIVER

In 1891 the Chief Engineer and Architect of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), mr Sytste Wopkes Wierda, had a bridge built over the Crocodile River. This was on the site of Genl Hendrik Schoeman’s farm, Schoemansrust (see 082). That would have placed it just south of the present Schoemansville or west of Ifafi on the old wagon road. The bridge was named the “Schoeman Bridge” according to the government gazette of the day. It was constructed of three spans of 40 feet (13m) each. The bridge was opened on 8th September 1891.

On 22 September 1891 there was a short article in the newspaper, “LAND EN VOLK”, which read: “DE PRESIDENT TE KROKODILRIVIER. Zaterdag morgen vroeg besoekt de President de Krokodilrivier brug van drie span die nu net klaar is. De President is heel tevreden met de bovenbouw, maar het ligt nog een bietjie lag naar zijn sin, als de water weer zoo hoog opgaan als voorleden somer. ZHEd heft dus gelast dat de rivier bedding waar rotslagen en klippen in voorkomen met dynamite op te blazen die dan de rivier vier voet dieper……..” Paul Kruger’s personal attention to detail and local knowledge of the might of floods and his practical recommendations are remarkable. Obviously he was also worried that his newly imported Staatsingenieur from Friesland was not quite prepared for the floods of the Transvaal because in the previous year floods damaged some of the foundation work on other bridges. The years jare 1890 and 1891 saw extraordinary floods, but worst was still to come in 1893:

Disaster struck two years later when a certain August Behrens recorded a massive flood which swept this bridge away in April 1893. we did however not find any official mentioning of this disaster, so it might be that the bridge was only damaged and later repaired.

When Hartbeespoort Dam was being built (1921-1924), all structures, which would be flooded subsequently by the waters of the rising dam, were demolished. Any bridges, whether original or re-built would therefore also have been demolished. After the dam’s completion, three new bridges were built. These are the bridges over the Magalies River, the Crocodile River (see 027) and the train bridge at Meerhof (048). There is a distinct possibility that material from the original “Schoeman Bridge” was re-used for these bridges. Further research is, however, necessary to refute or substantiate these claims.

The bridge across the Crocodile River in Broederstroom, also known as the Old Bart Pretorius Bridge, was built round about 1927 and is not used at present.  It consists of a 64m span of iron construction and two smaller spans of concrete construction.  As the bridge is 5,5m wide, it was only suitable for one-way traffic at the time causing many collisions and arguments when two drivers from opposite sides each believed that it was his turn to go.

In 1972 the new Bart Pretorius Bridge of concrete construction was built across the river with the result that the old one is no longer in use.

IRON BRIDGE OVER MAGALIES RIVER (ALSO KNOWN AS THE “BLUE BRIDGE”)

The bridge over the Magalies River was built round about 1927. Originally it was painted in a blue colour from which it got its name as the “Blue Bridge”. The width was sufficient only for one vehicle at a time, and motorized traffic had to wait until the coast was clean to cross the bridge. Testimony to the fact that not everyone waited patiently is evident in the bent railings still visible on the sides as a result of collisions!

The bridge had to be repaired time and again till it was replaced by a concrete bridge, wide enough for two lanes of traffic in 1981. The old bridge was left as a monument of yesteryears engineering.

Read more about the history of Hartbeespoort here.