Port Elizabeth of Yore: Bridges Over Troubled Water

River crossings for the early traveller were always time consuming and sometimes even hazardous if they were dependent upon the tides such as the drift across the Zwartkops was. Perhaps that explains the Divisional Council’s decision to place this crossing on its first to-do list after its establishment.  

This covers the trials and tribulations of the history of the Zwartkops River crossing from the use of the drift, to the pont and ultimately the various bridges and ultimately their effect on the ecosystem. 

Main picture: The Wylde Bridge across the Swartkops River. This bridge replaced the Rawson Bridge

Prior to the Bridges

Initially the drift situated in today’s Perseverance, close to Despatch, was used by wagons travelling from the Bay to Grahamstown as the location at which the crossing was made. As the crossing was only possible at low tide, this invariably caused a logjam at this point with tempers becoming flared as each waggoneer deemed that he was justified in queue jumping.

In later years, some enterprising soul set up a pont about 3 kilometres upstream from the mouth. Instead of the interminable waiting for the mid-tide and sloshing through the mud, the pont offered a more pleasant crossing 24 hours per day. Painted on a white board placed on the river bank were the tariffs as follows:

The pont was operated by a team of Africans on both banks whose task it was to pull the pont across. Many complaints were lodged by the farmers and the travellers at being overcharged, but nothing was ever done by the local authorities.

From a pipe dream into a tangible reality

After the trials and tribulations creating by the use of this pont, one of the first orders of business for the newly created Divisional Council in 1856, was to mollify the disgruntled users of the slow-moving pont by replacing it with a bridge. They came in for high praise as the long wooden structure embodying highly skilled engineering was considered to be imbued with great beauty. In 1859, it was duly opened by the wife of the Civil Commissioner and Chairman of the Council, Mrs. Campbell. It was christened the Rawson Bridge in honour of the Colonial Secretary, Rawson W. Rawson under whose administration the bridge was indebted for its being. Following this important ceremony, the attendees were invited to a “tiffin” or midday lunch at a nominal fee of 5s.

This bridge performed admirably. It is estimated that half of the materials with which the frontier towns were built, crossed this bridge as well as a great portion of the materials used in the laying of the North Eastern Railway.

A River Crossing by an Ox Wagon

Nonetheless, within six years of its erection, the bridge began to give trouble. This was due to rotting of its wooden pylons and rusting of the rails. One would have thought that the norm to protect the wood with bitumen or some other protective coating would have been a sine qua non but clearly such matters were not considered. Major repairs were urgently required. These were undertaken by W.T. Newton at a cost of £320 but it was deemed to be a waste of good money as it did not address the underlying cause.

Finally, it was the great flood of 1876 which was this venerable bridge’s nemesis. The worm-eaten piles were claimed to have snapped “with an expiring groan like a cannonade.” With that, the entire structure was swept down the river and into the sea 3 kms away. The loss of the bridge was a severe blow to the travellers and farmers of the hinterland. Fortunately for certain of the users of this bridge, a railway bridge was under construction.  Some people then considered that it was unnecessary to build a new bridge as the railway would be carrying the bulk of the goods. Their thought process then envisaged that a pontoon would suffice. In this state of indecision, an enterprising firm, Crabb & Lucas offered to have one erected and working within two months at a cost of £1,200.

Wylde bridge at Redhouse

In the meantime, the Council had decided that new bridge was essential. Into the breech before the bridge could even be designed, an ingenious Mr John Boyd rigged up a punt which he began to operate as a ferry much to the chagrin of the neighbouring toll-keepers who duly protested and issued all manner of threats against Boyd. The punt offered a great service to travellers and heavy traffic for a while. Then on one fine morning, the much-worn punt became swamped and sank to the bottom of the river. Unlike modern businesses, he in all likelihood did not display a disclaimer about not being responsible for losses, however occurred.

The second attempt at bridge building

It was the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works that started the process rolling. He wrote to the Divisional Council requesting to be notified of what steps they proposed to take in constructing a new bridge. Furthermore, they urged them to display a modicum of public responsibly in discharging their duty. At issue with such public works, was always that of cost which lurked unspoken in the background. In reply, the Divisional Council stated quite categorically that they were prepared to pay a quarter of the cost and assumed that Uitenhage would assume responsibility for the other quarter.

Alfred C Wylde

When they put this proposal to the Uitenhage Divisional Council, they received a rather blunt reply to the effect that “as the Divisional Council had assumed sole control of the Rawson Bridge since the termination of the appeal case in the Supreme Court and had enjoyed the whole of the revenue derived from its tolls, the Divisional Council of Uitenhage did not recognise any obligation to share in the construction of the new bridge.” In effect, this was a case of schadenfreude.

In spite of this spat, the drawing up of the plans by a Mr Greer proceeded with all haste in the likelihood that the bridge’s construction was a foregone conclusion. The total cost of this steel bridge was estimated to be of the order of £8,000, of which the Government contributed half. JJ Redgrave describes it as follows: “The new iron bridge, stated to be ‘light and elegant’, consisted of three openings spanned by wrought iron girders 100 ft. long, each 11 ft. deep and placed so as to form a roadway 16 ft. wide covered with teak planks six inches thick. It was designed in the country and manufactured by Westwood, Bailey & Co of London. The piers were circular in form and were so far apart that there was no fear of drift wood accumulating in times of flood and so bearing against the structure.”

As a further precaution against possible damage, the Inspector R.E. Wright advised the Council to remove the old swamped punt which lay upstream of the bridge lest it become entangled in the piers during a subsequent torrential downpour. It was the engineers Greer and Jarvis who were awarded the contract to “float” the massive girders into their places on the bridge. Thirty-five dignitaries and guests together with countless spectators attended the opening ceremony on a fine Saturday 27th September 1879.  The opening address was given by the Resident Magistrate and Chairman, Alfred C. Wylde, in whose honour the bridge was named. After having poured the obligatory baptismal bottle of champagne – Monople – on the structure, Wylde led the procession across the bridge. It was then on to the Beaconsfield Hotel where the proprietor, Matthew Berry, provided a champagne banquet at the Council’s expense.

This bridge embodied several firsts. Foremost amongst them was the fact that it was the first of its kind to be designed in the Colony. Furthermore, it had been built without a single mishap due to the skill and efficiency of the skills. Even the accountants received accolades in that the ultimate costs were within original estimates, unlike other public works.

The Wylde Bridge, NMB’s oldest bridge, has undergone a four-million rand make-over

In due course, as a result of several fatalities from drownings due to the masts of sailing boats colliding with the bridge and capsizing, chains were hung around the pier to act as lifebuoys in case of accidents. They had to be raised periodically in order to remove their coating of barnacles. Notice boards were erected on the roadside warning of the inherent dangers of fishing from the bridge or sailing beneath the bridge.

By 1916, the structure was again beginning to display signs if wear and tear in spite of it being periodically repainted. A thorough inspection revealed that catastrophe was imminent as one of the main joints was merely being held together by a single rivet and hence the bridge had become unfit for traffic. The bridge was immediately closed to traffic. During this closure lasting for almost a year, travellers and vehicles were taken across by means of a ferry. The reopening ceremony was held at noon on Tuesday 20th March 1917 and was performed by the Administrator, Sir Frederick de Waal. The dignitaries first had to endure a sumptuous lunch at the Zwartkops Hotel, the convey of cars then proceeded to Schoenmakerskop via the recently completed Circular Drive. Hopefully they all trooped into The Hut at Schoenmakerskop and were served the best tea and scones in Schoenmakerskop by my grandmother, my aunts with my father assisting by being nuisance as he was only six years old.

Bridge at the mouth

It was the new National Road which decided the location of the new bridge. As if preordained, the road meant the destruction of the Deal Party beach which then had to be protected against the sea by a concrete monstrosity christened the dolos. The N2 highway then crossed the mouth of the Zwartkops estuary at its mouth.

Dolos in Cape Town

The design of this bridge is a recipe for ecological disaster in that its design constricts the flow of the Swartkops River. In addition, the Motherwell Freeway Bridge has also altered the course of the river and contributed to choking the natural flow. Together with the Wylde Bridge at Redhouse, all three of these bridges now contribute to the ongoing retention of pollutants in the estuary, though, with the Wylde bridge and build up on the land sides of it forming a ‘second’ river mouth slowing down the flushing of pollutants out to sea and creating a bottle neck between it and the Motherwell bridge hindering sea water from travelling up past the village of Redhouse during the tidal exchanges. It is well known that sea water is a marvellous sanitiser. Whenever there is a large flood the ‘upper’ river mouth and the river mouth on the sea side of the N2 are flushed out and widened allowing for the sea water to travel far up the river on a high tide and do its cleansing work.

In addition, the unprecedented growth of Motherwell has put enormous pressure on the sewage and water pipes being borne under the bridges to Motherwell. Add in the immense pressure on a storm water drain system and irresponsible plumbing pouring into the Swartkops River and one has a recipe for disaster. Exacerbating the situation, is the siting of industry along the banks of the Swartkops all the way up past Uitenhage. As for that sewage treatment works right in the middle of the estuary, that was unconscionable.

Bridge on N2 over the Swartkops River as well as the polluted Swartkops River Estuary

The size of the river mouth was never fixed or immutable. It fluctuated depending upon the volume of water in the river itself. Periodically, the width of the river was extended substantially whenever there were floods. This process ensured that river system was periodically cleansed as it was flushed out. Now all the pollutants are trapped within the estuary and the river system. Maybe if the correct solution had adopted viz a San Francisco type of bridge, the N2 would have branched inland to Perseverance as that solution was too costly. Alternatively, the road could have been on stilts from the Algorax factory all the way to the northern bank of the Swartkops River.


Development in the Swartkops Valley has come at a cost. The design of the roads, bridges, housing and factories have all severely compromised the long-term health of this ecosystem. All developments have impinged on its viability and sustainability. Unless rapidly addressed, it will be a blight on the denizens of NMB.


A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)


Could THIS be the real reason why the Swartkops River is so polluted?


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