Port Elizabeth of Yore: Quarries for Development

Large quantities of rock and stone are only required for extensive civil engineering projects. The first project to require such quantities was the construction of the abortive breakwater in the 1860s. Even greater quantities were required for the new breakwater and quays in the 1920s and 1930s.

With the second and third wave of buildings on the southern side of Main Street, copious quantities of rock were generated. As this construction did not coincide with harbour construction and an alternative use could not be found for this material, it was merely dumped into the Baakens Lagoon, converting the lagoon into a narrow canalised stream.

Main picture: Thomas Bowler’s painting the railway line ferrying stone from the quarry in St. Mary’s cemetery to the breakwater being constructed south of the Baakens River. Interestingly, the painting shows the rail link running through the graveyard.

The First Large Civil Engineering Project
Pressure was applied on the authorities to construct a proper harbour in Port Elizabeth in order to serve the needs of the rapidly expanding sea trade. This requirement only gained traction when on Tuesday 30th January 1855, the Board of Commissioners resolved to vigorously expedite the long neglected but indispensable project of constructing a breakwater or boat harbour to protect and facilitate the commerce of the Port.

The plan submitted was approved and the next step made by the Commissioners was to solicit the aid of a competent engineer. Mr. Matthew Woodifield, A.C.E., of the Civil Engineer’s Department, in charge at Meiring’s Poort, having been “directed to place himself in communication with the Board”. Furthermore, it was resolved to open a quarry in the immediate vicinity of the proposed works, to erect suitable workshops, to construct a tram road to convey stone to the location to be used, and to make such other preliminary arrangements as might be conveniently affected until the arrival of the engineer. These works were finished in February 1856, at which time Mr. Woodifield was expected to arrive from Meiring’s Poort to proceed with the principal work.

Original breakwater under construction with South End in the background

Apart from the wooden piles, approximately 100 000 tonnes of rocks were required. These rocks would be placed between the piles. As the breakwater was being constructed south of the Baakens River, a piece of land directly south of the breakwater was required as a quarry. It was envisaged that a railway line be laid directly to the breakwater. It was determined that the most suitable ground for the quarry was that adjacent to the St. Mary’s Cemetery on the southern side of Union Street. About the same time, St Mary’s Vestry Committee re-surveyed the burial ground and enclosed it thereafter.

Original breakwater with South End in the background

Permission was subsequently obtained from St Mary’s church to open a quarry on their burial ground. Permission was granted to the Harbour Board to remove the “piers” at the entrance to the burial ground for the purpose of laying down a double line of tramway to the stone quarry. Work began in November 1856. A set of signals was erected in Union Street to warn the public when stone trucks would be running down from the quarry. In addition, the tramway was put out of bounds because trucks would “be constantly passing at great speed“. By the end of the year 4 000 tons of stone had been deposited in the sea. The board soon took the opportunity to supply ballast to ships from a depot they constructed at the end of the breakwater. The charge via the various boating companies was 4s 6d a ton.

Market Square viewed from the Donkin with Whites Road in foreground c. 1870

The engineers proposed an ingenious method of moving the railway trucks to and from the breakwater. They installed two railway lines parallel to one another each with its own truck. These carriages were connected to each other via a rope which passed round a pole at the highest point of the track. Instead, the full truck at the top would pull the empty truck from the breakwater to the top point of the track.   

Approximately 100 000 tons of stone was used in the construction of the original breakwater. Even though the quarry seems to be too small for that quantity, the Technical Editor, Blaine McCleland, assures me that 100 000 tons is about 50 00m^3 which is a block 37x37x37m.  As Jon Inggs in his thesis only mentions this quarry being used, one can safely assume that the quarry in South End below the South End High School was not used.

The tramway from the end of the breakwater to the quarry was completed in September 1863. But, because of delays in getting iron work for the trucks, work on filling-in only began early in 1864. Some 30 000 tons were already deposited or had been quarried and were ready for removal.

Quarry above St. Mary’s Cemetery

When the basin was silted up due to the Baakens River coming down in flood and the northerly bound coastal flow of slit, the breakwater has to be “dismantled”. Unlike the process of creating the breakwater when the stones were merely dumped between the piles, the removal of stone was an extremely tedious process. This entailed using divers to manually extricate rocks. As a consequence, all future proposals the design engineers automatically over specified the requirements. Having been bitten, they were cleared quite shy and used this well-known CYA move.

St Mary’s Cemetery, Baakens Bridge and the Breakwater in the 1860s

On page 164 of his thesis, Jon Inggs alludes to the fact that the Harbour Board was compelled to obtain rock from a second quarry. He claims that “The harbour board soon discovered that their quarry could not supply large enough rocks, so they were forced to tender out. Fortunately, they managed to obtain a good supply at a reasonable rate.” Given the fact that transport was problematic in that era, the quarry would have to have been within a short distance of St Mary’s quarry. As such, the only serious contenders would have been the Rufane Vale quarry near Brickmakerskloof or the South End quarry. Of the two, the South End would be the victor as the trucks would be able to roll downhill.

Quarries for the South End Seawall
The subsequent civils project involving large quantities of stone and gravel was the construction of a sea-wall on the beach opposite South End as well as filling in the low ground. Initially the lower quarry on the left of the Humewood Road was utilised but later the upper one at the back of the Seaman’s Institute was used. Simultaneously the engineers were still involved with the removal of the aborted breakwater which ran at right angles to the corner of the seawall at the edge of Baakens River.

Both small iron and small square wooden tiptrucks were used at the quarry. When filled they would run down the hill on their own “power” when filled as follows. Four or five trucks at a time would be lashed together. Only the rear one was fitted with a brake as well as a small platform from which a man could operate the brake. To start the movement, a gang of black workers would push the truck.The line curved to the south in order to reduce the gradient and hence the speed. When empty, the trucks would be towed back up the hill by mules pulling on a long chain. These mules always walked on the side so as not to contact the trucks.

The Chelsea Quarry
It was not until the mid-1920s that the next huge civil engineering project requiring vast quantities of crushed rock and stone, was initiated. This related to the construction of the first harbour in Port Elizabeth. Unlike the quarry for the breakwater’s stone which was within sight of the construction area, the location of the quarry was in the Chelsea area. The one consideration for this decision was that the Apple Express narrow-gauge line could be utilised to transport the stone to the harbour.

Apparently when they struck water while quarrying, the hole was rapidly filled creating a lake. As a child my cousin and her friends would swim in it.

Barge picking up a concrete block to transfer it to the Titan crane

The Harbour Supplement of the Eastern Province Herald dated October 28th, 1933 provides an overview of the construction of the breakwater and the three new quays. The stone was used in two processes viz production of huge concrete blocks in the Block Yard and the creation of concrete which was pumped underwater to form the platform on which the concrete blocks would be placed.

Titan crane in operation

In the blockyard cement would be received by train from the EP Cement plant located next to New Brighton and the crushed stone from Chelsea via the narrow gauge railway system. The cement, sand and stone were then mixed in giant concrete mixers and subsequently poured into moulds. After manufacture, the gigantic concrete blocks are then placed in the stock yard. When required on the breakwater, they are placed on trolleys and hauled across the Dom Pedro Jetty which was still in existence as the breakwater only commenced beyond the jetty.

One of the divers., Kenneth Hunt, who guided the blocks underwater

The process of creating the breakwater involved three steps. Firstly, a giant bucket type dredger would noisily clear rock and debris from the ocean floor. This would be followed by a suction dredger vacuuming up sand and silt. Next the concrete and stone carrying barge, the Pelican, would arrive while mixing the cement and the stone in the steel skips. By means of her crane, the Pelican would lower the skip into the water and it would be manoeuvred to the seabed where these divers would lay the foundations for concrete blocks from the Block Yard.

Other quarries
None of these were as important to the development of Port Elizabeth but for completeness’ sake, they have been included in his blog. Most are no longer operational. The Brickmakerskloof quarry, more correctly called the Rufane Vale Quarry. It ceased operations on 31st March 1941 when the Council ordered its closure when they declared that it was a nuisance in the area and disfiguring the Valley.   

During 3rd September 1932 the City Council decided to set aside the Baakens River Valley between Essexvale and Barnes’ Quarry as a nature reserve and the Walmer Municipality also agreed to add portions of land. The eradication of exotic prickly pear was begun, and fences were erected to keep cattle out. This was the beginning of Settlers’ Park; the name being given on 28 February 1952.



Eastern Province Herald Harbour Supplement, October 28, 1933
Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986

The Bay in Living Memory (Looking Back, Volume 58, 2019)

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