Port Elizabeth of Yore: Powering the Harbour in the late 1800s

Prior to the era of electricity, without light, the harbour was unable to operate at night. As steam powered cranes were available from the mid-1800s, these were installed during 1881 on the North Jetty. In due course, these would be replaced with hydraulic and later electrically powered cranes.

From an openness and disclosure viewpoint, I hereby state that all the technical details have been supplied by the Technical Editor, my brother Blaine. This does not imply nepotism as he provides his assistance purely on a pro bono basis.

Main picture: Steam powered cranes on North Jetty

The era of steam cranes
By April 1881, the new iron pile North Jetty was nearing completion, and the old woodwork had almost all been removed. The jetty was designed by Resident Engineer W. Shield based upon Sir John Coode’s plans. The decking comprised creosoted Baltic pines and four steam cranes were provided – two of two tons, one of seven and one of ten tons. The wrought iron was made by Head, Wrighton and Co of Stockton-on-Tees.

Steam powered (coal) cranes on the North Jetty
Hydraulic crane in operation from 1880

There were two landing places for passengers. Before the construction of the jetties, passengers as well as goods were brought to shore in surfboats. The advent of the jetties meant that passengers could embark and disembark from launches via a gangway. By 1898 the famous basket had been introduced here, but it was only used when weather conditions made it necessary.

Hydraulic cranes supplant steam cranes
Less than a decade later in 1890, Sir John Coode proposed that the steam cranes be replaced by hydraulic ones. In July 1894 hydraulic cranes and electrical power was provided to North Jetty.

The principal question that arises: What is the source of the hydraulic power. By sorting through all the extant photos of the PE Harbour with his primary resource being the Transnet Heritage Library, Blaine managed to track down a plausible photo being photo number THL P1096 with unidentifiable chimneys in the background. He had hit paydirt: the chimney used by the hydraulic power plant.

This is the only photo showing the hydraulic accumulator albeit far in the distance near the Baakens River
View of the hydraulic accumulator

Explanation of its operation
The chimney is for the boiler that drove the pump.  The tall structure next to it is for the accumulator.  It was constructed next to the Baakens River as it required fresh water for the steam plant as well as for clean water for the hydraulics.  That is why it was not closer to the North Jetty’s cranes.  Note the South Jetty’s cranes are the steam cranes that probably previously used on the North Jetty until they were replaced by the hydraulic cranes. Below is a picture of a hydraulic accumulator showing why you need a tall structure.  There is no other reason for the structure in that area.

Exploded view of the hydraulic accumulator and crane

Also interesting in the main picture are the two lines running south.  None are the narrow gauge which was not yet operational, but one could be the garbage line and the other could have been used for the Dom Pedro jetty which the Harbour Board commenced building in 1899.  The date of the photo is post 1891 as the Customs House is visible but the photo seems to be prior to 1895 as the church steeple does not display fire damage (I think), Could be later.  In December 1892 it was reported that the building for the hydraulic power machinery was nearing completion. The electric tramway opened in 1897 and there is no sign of their tall chimney pipe so I think the photo is dated 1895 but the photo below does display a chimney in the Tramway Building so it must be prior to 1897, the date of the introduction of the electric trams.

The chimney on the left is from the Hydraulic Power House completed in 1893.  The hydraulic accumulator (a heavy weight on top of a large cylinder to provide a constant water pressure) is housed in that square tower to its left.  They also had a small generator to power a few lights on the jetties and in the yards.

The front crane on stilts featured on North Jetty only for a few years before it was moved, mostly likely to the Dom Pedro Jetty

Electrical power
The chimney on the right of the hydraulic power chimney relates to the electrical power house completed in 1906 but the chimney was seriously undermined in the 1908 floods.

Perhaps that is why it had to be demolished in 1923

Various editions of the South African Railways and Harbour magazine
Various photographs from the Transnet Heritage Library
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).

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