Port Elizabeth of Yore: How not to build a Breakwater

Was it a Comedy of Errors or Merely a Dose of Reality?

With the rapid growth in exports from Port Elizabeth, incessant demands arose to build a proper harbour in the form of jetties and a breakwater. The initial attempt at harbour building was the construction of a jetty using the wreck of the vessel Feegee as its base. Its usefulness was short-lived as a sudden gale drove several vessels through it, irreparably damaging it.

Various configurations of a breakwater were later proposed and the design that was adopted was constructed just south of the Baakens River. This was the start of a town’s nightmare as first the sea and then a flood were to silt the harbour up, posing a threat to the operation of the landing beaches. Instead of a crowning achievement, this episode resulted in not only the necessity of dismantling the breakwater but even more disconcerting, it caused the postponement of the construction of the breakwater and quays by 60 years.

If successful, it would have been a transformative change for a town in no small measure defined by its primitive method of discharging cargo onto flimsy lighters out on the roadstead.

Main picture: The breakwater south of the Baakens River – a fatal design flaw

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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.

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Port Elizabeth of Yore: Construction of the Breakwater

Despite a breakwater being a critical component of  a harbour, Port Elizabeth was deprived of one until the 1920s. That consigned the unloading of the ships to be performed in the roadstead, an archaic practice, long since abandoned by other ports.

The initial attempt at building a breakwater in 1856 was disastrous as it became unusable due to silting after the flood in 1867. It would be fifty years before another attempt would be made to construct the breakwater.

Main picture: Breakwater with the Charl Malan Quay still under construction

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