Port Elizabeth of Yore: Grandiose Freeway Scheme

By the 1960s and after a decade of spectacular economic growth, traffic volumes had increased substantially. Burgeoning vehicle ownership had exacerbated the situation. Lest we forget, the road grid was designed to cater for the central business district and North End whereas the commercial and industrial growth was northwards. Something had to be done to arrest the traffic situation.

The proposed solution was the construction of a freeway network.

Main picture: Settlers freeway under construction

Proposed solution

In the wake of this need, the skills in most demand all related to the construction industry with civil engineering being in most demand. Instead of performing more minor upgrades and repairs, they now could revel in some large scale projects with bridges and underpasses, flyovers and “spaghetti junctions”

After ample discussion, the following freeways were marked as critical:

  • A freeway along the coast from the harbour to Deal Party. This would eliminate the traffic along the Main Street, Queen Street, Princes Street and Adderley Street route with its plenitude of traffic lights to regulate the flow of traffic and would connect the northern suburbs with the southern suburbs.
  • A freeway from the western suburbs of Sunridge Park, Kabega et al connecting with the coastal freeway at Smelly Creek near Deal Party. This would be the western bypass.
  • Finally, the prestige project – The Baakens River Parkway – commencing at the coastal freeway near the mouth of the Baakens and stretching up the Baakens River to Greenbushes..
The Creek Junction in June 1965

Highway to Hell

The construction of the first two proposed freeways went ahead with little opposition but the Baakens River Parkway project hit headwinds in the form of conservation groups which vigorously opposed the despoilation of the Baakens Valley with four lane roads, bridges and tunnels. Perhaps as a sop to the environmentalists, it was proposed to convert the lower portion of the Baakens Valley into a park. This entailed the destruction of all buildings in this area among which were some of the oldest buildings in Port Elizabeth. Perhaps the engineers in flights of fantasy even considered reverting this area into its original state viz a lagoon catering for the nautically minded.

The sketches of the roads clinging to the vertical sides of the valley awoke envy in the engineers. Certainly they were impressive but were they necessary bearing in mind that the future of the old City Centre was in the balance given the recent approval for the construction of huge shopping mecca at the Fairview Race Course to be called Greenacres. Without a raison d’etre, the Central Business District would wither. Resident associations questioned its cost and rationale and whether it was a prestige grandiose project.

Winds of change

By the 1970s, Port Elizabeth’s fortunes were waning. Toyota had recently made a substantial investment in vehicle manufacture in South Africa but did not select Port Elizabeth as its location. BMW would shortly follow Toyota’s decision and located themselves at Rosslyn north of Pretoria. The die was cast. Prior to this, the location of a component manufacturer was a slam dunk. It could only situated in Port Elizabeth. The possible location was now more diverse. Some OEM parts suppliers selected the Reef as their location rationalising the decision based upon the fact that their raw materials such as steel were produced there. Others rather based their new production lines in Durban. Port Elizabeth’s reliance on the motor industry was absolute but with the centre of industrial and economic gravity tilting ever northward could a grandiose freeway system still be justified?

McWilliams house in the Baakens Valley

Effects on the Herald & Waltons

During 1972 E.P. Newspapers required clarity as regards the status of the Baakens River Freeway Project  not in times of writing a article about it but rather its impact upon their site. In February Gurth Walton of Waltons together with Tony Sturrock of E.P. Newspapers, interviewed John Mercer, of the City Engineers Town Planning Department. Both the newspapers and Waltons were then subject to the possibility of five metres being taken from their frontage on Military Road. This was part of the grandiose scheme of Douglas MacCullum, the then city engineer, for a freeway running up the Baakens Valley to the Western suburbs, with a major interchange with the north/south freeway over the mouth of the Baakens River. This restrictive notice had been in force for many years. In fact it was operative when the Markham Hotel was rebuilt in the early 1950s, and is the reason why it was set back from the present line of Military Road. If the strip had been expropriated, then both Waltons office block and the old Herald building would have been left on too small a site for viable re-development.

Waltons offices were in need of urgent major repairs, hence the interview at that time. As a result of the interview it was concluded that the municipality would not be proceeding with their plans for at least three years and may be not for five. It was decided to proceed with the repairs. In the words of the report to “Waltons” board, “on balance the plan which seems wisest for us to adopt is to spend the money on our present office block in the hopes that we will be allowed to remain here in excess of three years. If we are not able to sell our whole property at a good enough price to enable us to re-establish our factory elsewhere at the time when we do have to move from the office block, we should at any rate at that stage be in a better position to afford the cost of putting the office into the factory, especially as we will be paid out for the whole office building on an expropriation basis.”

Victory for sanity

Since then, of course, the city council has come to its senses. After much activity by environmental pressure groups and the public at large, the council scrapped all plans for a free- was in the valley and for the widening of Military Road. The development of the Greenacres complex and the consequent shift of the commercial centre of gravity away from the old city centre no doubt helped speed that decision. Two lasting reminders of that grandiose freeway plan firstly, the abutments on the existing north/south freeway over the Baakens River where they were meant to link with the Valley freeway, and, secondly, the bridge over nothing in the William Moffat Expressway where it was planned to cross the Valley freeway.

Another important aspect was touched on in that interview. To quote from the same report “it is apparent that in the long term the planners are following a concept outlined a couple of years back of clearing all industry out of the Baakens Valley and restoring it into a park. This would sweep through our present site and that of E.P. Newspapers to allow pedestrian access under Military Road to the Civic Centre. While they have been obliged to buy the old market building, this was not in an effort to speed up the park extension concept but only because they could not allow the re-development of this site as it was projected that access from the freeway to Military Road and the Civic Centre would pass over the site. Any extension of the Baakens Valley park into the Civic Centre was a very long term one and is not one which would need to be considered by us at this stage. It might, however, have to be considered by anyone who attempted a consolidation of sites in our area with a view to a large re-development scheme. The council’s purchase and demolition of Mangolds old building in Horton Street in the last couple of years shows that the park concept is still very much alive. It is something that will have to be borne in mind by the board in future years.

Readers’ comments

According to Andrew Dunn: Grandiose in scheme, under-engineered by design. The Mount Road on and off ramps were initially two lanes until.it was discovered that the central spindly round columns were insufficiently stable. Even after addition of double larger square columns they remain a single lane to this day. How on earth the Roman’s could build bridges that worked and the PEM couldn’t has always puzzled me?


History of the E.H. Walton 1845 – 1995 by G.S. Walton (1995, EH Walton, Port Elizabeth)

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