Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Railway Line to Humewood and the Driftsands

Of all the Branch Lines in Port Elizabeth, this one appears to be the least known. Initially it was laid as part of the project to tame the supposedly deadly driftsands which would encroach and smother the site chosen for the harbour. To prevent this apocalypse, it was decided to cover this moving sea of sand with the garbage generated by the residents of Port Elizabeth. The garbage was required as fertiliser for the planting of the chosen species of grasses, bushes and trees, the sand being further stabilised by spreading tree branches and erecting wooden fences at intervals as required.

This standard-gauge railway line was constructed in late 1892 or early 1893, and the use of the coastal section of this railway for passenger traffic followed the sale, on 30 May 1893, by the Harbour Board of 20 marine villa sites between the original Happy Valley (where the Apple Express railway line now runs) and Klein Shark River.

Main picture: The platform adjacent to Customs House to embark on the journey to Humewood

The terminus of the Humewood Branch Line

Raison d’etre

The movement of the driftsands in the early 1890s with the buildings at the Fishery [present day Hobie Beach] being covered, gave additional impetus to the Driftsands project. The objective of this project was to stabilise the dunes by planting vegetation on them. This would now be augmented by covering it with the town’s refuse.

Before the era of vehicles, the solution to the logistics problem lay with the railways. In 1890, Humewood and the surrounding area were totally undeveloped.

Map of the 6 mile long Driftsands Branch Line

Developments prior to Humewood being established

One of the earliest developments prior to the establishment of Humewood was undertaken by Piet Retief, the future Voortrekker leader, who, during the 1820s, built a house on the Strandfontein property. It encompassed the whole of current day Summerstrand, and the house stood on the site of the present Beach Hotel.  

Frames’ Reservoir

In 1864, Frames’ Reservoir on the Little Shark River was opened. It would provide water to the parched town. As the water was gravity-fed, the pipes ran along Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Avenue) to North End, leaving the higher sections of the town without water.

In view of the fact that this area was so isolated from Port Elizabeth, when the town experienced an outbreak of small-pox in 1882, it led the Council to construct two wood-and-iron buildings – the Lazaretto – on the south side of the Little Shark River as an isolation hospital.

The Shark River taken from where the current Brookes Pavillion is situated. The building is the Lazeretto Infectious Diseases Hospital

Railway line

The action which provided the impetus to lay a railway line southwards was the sale of 20 marine villa sites on the 30th May 1893 on the south beach between the original Happy Valley  [next to Hume Park] and the Klein Shark River. This act marks  the beginning of Humewood which was named after William Hume, the Chairman of the Harbour Board at the time. As there was no direct connection between South End and the newly-proclaimed suburb, a direct road to the property following the coastline had to be  constructed.

The Government had recently laid a railway line from outside Customs House in Jetty Street parallel to the Humewood road past the 20 stands,  which had recently been sold, all the way to Shark River. In those days the Shark River had a bifurcated mouth, requiring the building of two bridges over the river. The one branch of Shark River, now filled in, is no longer visible and the second over the Little Shark River was to become known as Happy Valley. After crossing this stream the railway line veered right into the sand dunes. The gauge of this railway line was the Cape Colony’s standard gauge of 3 foot and 6 inches.   

The Sak River (now Shark River) which was flowing through what today is Happy Valley (My Afrikaans/English ‘Groot Woordeboek’ gives two interpretations of the Afrikaans word ‘Sak’ – 1. ‘bag’ (as in wheat) or ‘pocket’ (as in sugar) and — 2. To ‘sag, sink or subside’. The English population evidently thought the word meant ‘Shark’, hence this interesting interpretation)

The first section of this 3 ft 6 in gauge railway still survives. It runs from the Humerail Station as far as Ocean Avenue, which is the turn-off from Beach Road to Kings Beach carpark.

This railway line would only operate for 10 years. On the 23rd October 1903, the Harbour Board’s passenger train service to Humewood was  terminated. As the Driftsands project was drawing to a close, it was probably apparent to the Harbour Board that the passenger service which only ran once per week on a Sunday, could not cover the costs of the service. In the wake of the extension of the tram route to include Humewood in October 1902, it made little sense for the Harbour Board to offer a competing service. On 21st January 1903, the tram service to Humewood, operating at half hourly intervals and a trip cost 3 pence, commenced.

From Christmas Day 1912 the tram extension from Humewood Beach to the Beach Hotel in Summerstrand came in use. This extension was probably laid down not only to service the customers of this hotel, which was then considered to be in the middle of the country, but it would also provide transport to an open-air bioscope operating in an enclosure next to the Hotel.

Extension of the tram line to Humewood
The first cafe at Humewood Beach, Robert Cell’s Beach Cafe. This wood and iron building was rented from the Harbour Board from 1908. It was demolished for road widenng on 31st August 1912
Passengers alighting from trams at Humewood


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

(For further information on this subject, you are referred to Richard Tomlinson’s article ‘Forgotten Conqueror of the Driftsands: E B Dwyer’ in Looking Back (The Journal of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth), Volume 54, 2015, pages 18 – 23.)


  1. Very interesting transportation history. Nice that there are a few remnants around to match the history with present day Humerail / Humewood.


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