Port Elizabeth of Yore: Chimneys as a Barometer of Progress

Today chimneys are viewed as a curse and a blight on one’s health and the environment. Unlikely as it now is seen, the filthy black smoke spewing out of these pencil-like structures was once viewed as the epitome of progress, a harbinger of wealth and prosperity.

As well-paying holiday jobs, chimney cleaning was a much-coveted job in the early 1970s when I was “recruited” to clean the chimneys of the Algorax factory at Swartkops. Even a half hour shower did not remove the fine granules from one’s skin pores!

Main picture: Henry Coleman’s steam mills with the first chimney

Initial steam mills

Initially the mills in the Port Elizabeth area were either driven by wind or water, the first being erected on Frederick Korsten’s farm at Papenkuilsfontein, later to be known as Cradock Place. This wind powered plant probably processed agricultural products. Much later, Gubbs was to erect a mill on his property, later known as Mill Party. With a lack of water in its minute streams, water could not have been the driving force.

When processing one’s own agricultural products, erratic wind availability was not a concern. However when processing products for export, reliability was paramount. Smart entrepreneurs would have to make the leap to steam powered mills which would require long chimneys stacks to disperse the smoke.

William Henry Coleman would install the first steam mill in the Eastern Cape. This would require the erection of a chimney. It was during September 1848 that Coleman’s steam mill was completed and ready for operation. It was located on the lower corner of Military Road and Baakens Street. It is not known what process this steam was used to power but, as the only industry in the area at that stage related to wool, it was presumably used to compress wool into tight bales which were easier to handle and required much less space on the cargo sailing vessels.

Shortly afterwards on the 26th April 1850, John Owen Smith’s steam mill, the second to be built in Port Elizabeth, began operating. The location of this mill is unknown but presumably it was in close proximity to the harbour.

Huge chimneys make an appearance

Both Coleman’s and Smith’s mills might have required chimneys, but they certainly were not impressive structures.

The first impressive chimneys were two erected by the Harbour Board in 1893. In order to operate the recently installed hydraulically powered cranes on North Jetty, the Harbour Board installed hydraulic power machinery in a building situated at the mouth of the Baakens River. These buildings were distinguished by two tall chimney. Later in 1906 when a separate electric generator was acquired to produce additional electrical current for lighting purposes, they probably utilised the original chimneys. 

The Tram Sheds in Baakens River valley with their chimney in the foreground and the dual chimneys of the Harbour Board further back
This photo of the 1808 flood shows the chimney stacks of the Tramways and the Harbour Board

Shortly thereafter in 1896, the Tramways commenced the conversion from horse drawn trams to electric trams. To do so, they constructed new premises on the banks of the Baakens River. Amongst the additions, was the construction of a power station to power the recently acquired electric Brill trams. This plant would require its own chimney, the third in Port Elizabeth.

Demolition of the chimney in the harbour

The flood of 1808 had been a shock to the town. Raging waters had destroyed or damaged buildings such as the Tramway and Mangolds Engineering buildings situated along the lower reaches of the Baakens River. Pressure mounted on the municipality to widen and improve the channel into which the river had now been constricted and to build a new bridge to provide a proper outlet in case of future flooding. The proposal did not fall on deaf ears and on the 9th January 1913, the municipality accepted the proposal to widen the channel.

As always in redevelopments, original structures have to be demolished. In this case it was the chimney stack forming part of the old Harbour Electric Power Station. Luckily for the Council, the Harbour Board proclaimed that it was surplus to requirements and could be demolished. IN due course, on the 17th February 1923, this chimney was demolished.

1923 Demolition of a harbour chimney Stack

According to the SAR&H Magazine dated April 1923, “The chimney was designed and built by Mr. T. Reeve, Engineer-in-Charge of the Port Elizabeth Harbour, with C. Clemence, Foreman Mason, in charge. Its height was 85 feet [constructed]in brick, with cast-iron cap. In the work of demolition half the base was cut away at a height of 14 feet above the ground and the chimney supported on bird-caging 2ft. 9in. high of 3in. x 3in. timbers. This bird-caging was thoroughly saturated with paraffin oil and set fire to at the appointed time. In 9½ minutes the whole [structure] had fallen beautifully into the Baakens River, as intended. In other directions buildings and telegraphs could have been struck and damaged by the fall [but survived unscathed]. Before the chimney actually struck the ground, it buckled and appeared to crack in several places. The builder was present at the felling.

The whole scheme of demolition was designed and carried out by Mr. C.G.C. Rocher, Assistant Superintendent (Maintenance), Port Elizabeth.

Fate of chimneys

With the introduction of electricity courtesy of the Mount Road Power Station, companies would no longer be compelled to generate their own electricity and hence the need to construct chimney stack became non-existent. Instead those chimneys were relocated to Eskom power station in Mpumalanga which would instead spread their sulphurous odour to Joburg.


Demolition of Chimney Stack (April 1923, SAR&H Magazine)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

Painting: 1872 Watercolour entitled View of Port Elizabeth from the hill behind the cemetery by Oliver Lester in 1874 in NMM AM

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.