Port Elizabeth of Yore: Topography vs Early Main Roads

In a town’s layout, topography matters and, in Port Elizabeth’s case, hugely important. Two geographical features guided the direction and type of development. These were the Baakens River valley and the steep hill immediately southwest of Main Street. Both factors impinged upon the direction and type of development.

Main picture: The Royal Engineer’s Map of 1810 shows the main roads of the pre-820 Settler era

In the case of the average town, development would occur equally in all directions from a central point. This can be equated to the ripples generated when a pebble is thrown in a pond. Without impediments, such as islands in the pond, the ripples will always be perfectly circular and equidistant from the centre.

Baakens Valley
The effect of the Baakens Valley was more intrusive to town growth than what is perceived by the average resident of Port Elizabeth. Take the development of Walmer as an example. Despite Walmer only being located no more than 10kms from the centre of Port Elizabeth, the area was only proclaimed as a town in 1887. Before that it was owned by the Muller family who rented out portions to farming tenants who used a road through Gubb’s property which became Mill Park. The major factors influencing this unhurried development of this town was the lack of a proper road connecting them as well as the steep climbs.    

The road south over the Baakens River which then veered sharply westward, never crossed the Baakens until it reached the river’s watershed. In no small part the fact that the river valley was deeply cut into the earth, cleaving it in two, mitigated against crossing the river except with extensive engineering.

Potential routes for roads over the hill: Spurs and saddles
The topographical features which most reflective of the land from Military Road to Cooper’s Kloof were spurs and saddles. A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge. Between the spurs are saddles which form the lowest area between two highlands (prominences or peaks). The least steep route to the top of a spur is via a saddle. In the case of Port Elizabeth these saddles were represented by impassable kloofs; in the case of Whites Road, Donkin Street and Russell Road requiring expensive civils projects to make them passable.

These topographic features had the impact of forcing the town’s development northward along a narrow coastal plain. The removal of this constraint required the construction of roads up the saddles. At the moment when this constraint was removed, the town literally exploded southward only to be constrained by the Baakens Valley in its growth westward.

Military Road
When Fort Frederick was constructed in 1799, the military base required a road from the landing beach near the mouth of the Baaken’s River to the Fort. The Royal Engineers were in luck. The saddle between last two spurs before the Baakens Valley were relatively benign requiring minimal “engineering” work. This road served the military forces adequately until the mid-1830 when the General Plan No. 7 reflects which is termed a New Military Road. I assume that the amount of work required in this case would be substantially less than that required to level a kloof. The probable type of work would have been to remove steep inclines and level the surface.

An unanswered question in my mind is why the general public never used this thoroughfare prior to the construction of roads in the other kloofs. The only possible explanation is that the road passed through a designated military area with restricted access.

A slightly less plausible explanation of the history of Military Road up until 1837 was that Castle Hill which was relatively smooth, served or doubled as Military Road. A clue to buttress this supposition is provided by my techical editor, Blaine, my brother. This supposition accords the naming of the road as Castle Hill to the fact that its destination was Fort Frederick. Perhaps even though Fort Frederick was never anything other than a fort, it was accorded the sobriquet Castle. Based upon similar logic, the military complex on Cape Town’s foreshore was called The Castle even though it too was merely a fort.

Saddles as roadways
Between the fingers of land – saddles in topographical parlance – protruding towards the sea, lay the town’s potential salvation. Instead of being compressed into a narrow strip of land between the hill and the sea, these kloofs offered the solution as roadways affording passageway to the plateau above the hill.

Below is the painting of Castle Hill by Henry Fancourt White reflecting a relatively benign slope up the hill.

Castle Hill painted by HF White in 1850

The road up the hill is the relatively smooth Castle Hill. If these suppositions are correct, then why was it necessary to wait until White’s Road was constructed in 1850 before there was an adequate road up the hill. The only possible response is that Castle Hill must have been too steep for the coveyances of the day.

Map showing the elevation of PE Central together with the potential roads. 1: Military Road 2 Castle Hill 3: Donkin Street 4.  White’s Road

In due course, all of the kloofs were converted into major roads from the narrow strip of land at the coast to the plateau at the top of the hill.

Name of StreetOriginal nameWhen road constructed
White’s RoadKloof near the churchMarch 1850
Donkin StreetUnnamed kloofDecember 1856
Russell RoadHyman’s KloofAugust 1863
Albany RoadCooper’s KloofSeptember 1865

The opening of these roads up the hill enabled the rapid growth in this area. Notwithstanding that, travel up the Hill was still compromised as the horse-drawn trams, introduced in 1881 were unable to climb these steep roads. It was only with the introduction of electric trams in 1897 that public transport was available to the Hill.

1881 First horse drawn tram between Market Square and North End, THL N58552

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).
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by J.J. Redgrave (1947, Rustica Press)

Rate this post

Leave a Comment.