Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Van Stadens Pass and Bridges

As the Dutch boeren trekked ever eastwards in order to escape from authority, they encountered an enemy of a different kind: a series of rivers in steep defiles. The one solution was to bypass them by traversing the Langkloof route. The final challenges were the Gamtoos and Van Stadens Rivers.  The Gamtoos was the easier foe as it could be crossed by making a turn to the north. The Van Staden river was a foe of superior mein

Van Stadens Pass is a passage through the gorge of the Van Stadens River

Main picture: Crossing the drift in 1870

The original pass was named after one of the area’s pioneer farmers – Marthinus van Staden, who was the first person to plot a rudimentary track through the Van Stadens River Gorge.

Above: Van Stadens Road Progress plan to 31 December 1865

First proper pass constructed

During July 1852, White – presumably the same Henry Fancourt White who constructed White’s Road in Port Elizabeth – surveyed the road over the Van Stadens Heights and a new pass was built. The road between Jeffreys Bay and Port Elizabeth was at this time described as “exe­crable”. In November 1854 Andrew Geddes Bain reported on the roads in this area and stated that it would be best if a new road could be built following the line laid out by Mr. Bird, but warned the authorities that it would be cost­ly.

By 1860, the Cape Government, no doubt after much cajoling by irate road users, decided to rebuild the pass to acceptable standards for wagon traffic. From the end of 1863 employment was found for 30 “distressed labourers” on a new road across the Van Stadens Valley laid out by P.M. Pfeil. During 1864 and 1865 the new pass was built but with a drift across the river. George Apsey was the Road Surveyor and Pfeil the Inspecting Engineer from 1865 to 1867.

In 1866 the road was handed over to the Uitenhage Divisional Council. Two years later in November 1868 a massive flood washed away major sections of the pass and bridge, resulting in it having to be completely rebuilt.

Cadles Hotel position from 1865 map of Van Stadens Pass progress (North is to the bottom)

In May 1902 the construction of the earthworks for the narrow-gauge railway line between Port Elizabeth and Avontuur was begun. The House of Assembly passed the necessary Bill on 29 September 1902. The bridge over the Van Stadens River is the highest narrow-gauge bridge in the world. The Resident Engineer, C. Bodtker, was killed in 1904 and F.H. Rees took charge. This bridge was officially opened on the 18th April 1905. 

Railway bridge over the Van Stadens Gorge [Transnet LS_08_001_141]

During July 1902, a successful negotiation of Van Stadens Pass was made by the first motor car in Port Elizabeth, a 4.5 hp Benz owned by W. Alcock, a future mayor of Walmer.

On 31st January 1936 the Woodridge Preparatory School, with its spectacular view of the Van Stadens Gorge, was opened by L.J.A. Carter in the buildings of Cadle’s Hotel, Van Stadens Heights.

In 1938 a new pass was constructed as well as a bridge across the river. Up until this time there had not been a bridge but merely a drift. In December 1939 this concrete bridge across the Van Stadens River was completed and put into use. The pass remained a dirt road until the road was finally tarred between 1950 and 1953.

The first concrete bridge over the Van Stadens River

Bridge over the gorge

The pass through the Van Stadens River might have been a god-sent as it created a more direct route to Port Elizabeth than travelling via Uitenhage, but it was tedious. With its narrow single lane roads, the speed through this pass was a function of the slowest vehicle.

Frustrated motorists had long been dreaming of a bridge over the gorge itself to bypass the pass. During the 1960s, a plan was unveiled which proposed to build bridges over the most notorious passes in the Southern Cape. These included the Storm’s River, Blaauwkrantz as well as the Van Stadens.

The present bridge, crossing the gorge, was completed on 12 October 1971. It was the longest concrete arch bridge in South Africa and the sixth longest in the world, with a main span of 198m. It is 125 metres above the gorge. The two halves of the arch were constructed simultaneously from both sides. The engineers were an Italian firm, Impresa Ing, A, and P. di Penta. In November 1948 the Divisional Council made the Van Stadens outspan available for a wild flower reserve.

General Information

Beginning of works: 1967
Completion: 11 November 1971
Status: in use

Project Type

Structure: Deck arch bridge
Function / usage: Road bridge
Material: Reinforced concrete bridge
Construction method: Cantilever construction using temporary cable-stays

Location

Location: Eastern CapeSouth Africa
Crosses: Van Stadens River
Coordinates: 33° 54′ 33.30″ S    25° 11′ 49.25″ E

Technical Information

 

Arch span 198.10 m
Height above valley floor or water 140 m

The 1971 bridge was commissioned to span the 140-metre-deep gorge. The pass starts at 229m at the eastern side and descends 140 vertical metres to the old bridge [89m ASL]. From here, in a single frame, you have a good view of the lovely old bridge as well as the towering concrete structure of the new bridge, commissioned in 1971. The ascent up the eastern side of the gorge is almost the same height as the descent. The average gradient works out at 1:15 with nothing steeper than 1:10.

The old and the new bridges over the river

Today it takes only about 30 seconds to drive over the gorge on the N2. This is fine if you are in a hurry, but the charm of the old pass is still available to those with some extra time to spare. The downside of the tall new bridge is that it saw its first suicide victim soon after being built. One suicide followed another and soon the new bridge became known as the Bridge of Death. The authorities have subsequently erected cages along both sides and a call centre is on standby to help desperately depressed people.

Sources

https://www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za/find-a-pass/eastern-cape/item/236-van-stadens-pass-r102.html

https://structurae.net/en/structures/van-stadens-bridge

http://www.kougatourism.com/van-stadens-bridge-old-and-new/

,https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=11459

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)


4 Comments

  1. Hi Dean,
    Appreciate your interesting post about Van Stadens.
    Was an early pupil of Woodridge College and had many expeditions around the gorge.
    Saw all stages of the construction of the 1971 bridge.
    Your construction pic actually shows the Storms River Bridge (now called Paul Sauer) being built in the 50s.
    At Van Stadens the arch was formed in situ by gradually extending it outwards from each side using cables secured to tall pylons to support the sections being built. At Storms River on each side of the gorge they constructed half sections of the arch vertically and then lowered these into place, as shown in the pic.
    As you show in some of your other pics Van Stadens gorge is less rocky and precipitous than the Storms River gorge.
    Hope this comment does not sound too pedantic. Greatly enjoy The Casual Observer!
    Regards,
    Jonty Eales
    Sydney, Australia

    Reply
    • Hi Jonty
      I really appreciate your comment. I love comments which assist me in straightening out the info & pictures that I have

      Regards
      Dean McCleland

      Reply

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