Port Elizabeth of Yore: What Happened to the Baakens Lagoon?

Like many of the rivers in the Eastern Cape, the Baakens River also originally possessed an impressive lagoon. Old photographs and paintings show it being used for leisure activities such as boating. 

What eventually happened to this splendid lagoon? 

Main picture: Baaken’s River looking up from the mouth in 1860 with Fort Frederick atop of the ridge

Long before the lagoon vanished, it became unusable for pleasure activities. The main culprits were the various industrial activities along its banks with the guilty party primarily being the wool washing operations. The leisure seeking citizens of Port Elizabeth rapidly forsook this enchanting valley for more salubrious pastures. This is a timely reminder of what the true cost of progress is: environmental degradation.

Map of PE by the Royal Engineers showing the Baakens Lagoon

During July 1864, the Municipality narrowed the channel of the Baakens River near the mouth and were granted permission to sell plots of the reclaimed land and create gardens with the proceeds. The gardens did not materialise. Instead the money was used to purchase what is now Victoria Park

Factories in Baakens Valley
Factories in Baakens Valley

During the 1880s, the construction of the Lombard Chambers in Main Street and the extensions to the Standard Bank, generated vast quantities of rock as the steep rocky embankment behind Main Street had to be excavated. Those copious quantities of rock had to be disposed of somewhere. The closest location on which to dump it, was the Baakens Lagoon. Being in less than salubrious condition, the lagoon was an ideal dumping spot. The Town Council gave their immediate consent subject to the condition that it was dumped on the northern fringe of the lagoon.

Baakens River in 1860s with wool washing operations visible
Baakens River in 1860s with wool washing operations visible

Once the initial consent had been given, further requests followed. At that time, Port Elizabeth’s roads were not paved. Consequently, after heavy rains, a deluge of debris was washed down these steep roads. By dumping this in the lagoon, the Town Council would hit not two birds but three with one stone; they would gain valuable land, remove an obstacle between the centre of the city and South End and they could conveniently dispose of the rubbish.

Other industries followed and shortly the lagoon had been reclaimed
Other industries followed and shortly the lagoon had been reclaimed

Very soon, the Baakens River was reduced to its present attenuated stream and the fact that once the Baakens River had possessed a stunning lagoon is now erased from its memory.

The flood in 1908 showed that the channel was too narrow at the mouth of the Baaken’s River. On 9th January 1913, the Ratepayers accepted a scheme to widen and improve the channel of the Baakens River and to build a new bridge in order to provide a proper outlet in the unlikely event that there would be floods in future.

The Baakens River Mouth today
The Baakens River Mouth today

Could vessels have sailed into the lagoon?

If they could have, they would have especially when the south-easter was raging. Unfortunately, they could not do so. At the mouth of the Baakens River, there is a band of rock that crosses the mouth. One can see it clearly today because the freeway columns are built on it. In fact, they could not have had a better foundation. It is this band of rock which caused the lagoon to be formed.  What happened is that the high tides would flow in, and at low tide, the band of rock acted like a dam wall and retained a raised water body until the next high tide. Of course, the flow of the river was unimpeded at low tide as it could still flow over this rocky band.

The Baakens lagoon being filled in

It was during high tide that small sailing vessels with a very shallow draft could make it over the rock band and sail into the lagoon. Larger vessels never entered into the river estuary as is the case of the Buffalo River in East London. That is the reason why the estuary was never dredged as a harbour and instead one was built.


Vanished Lagoon from Looking Back dated June 1963

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)

The Baakens River Mouth by Jonathan B. Mercer in Looking Back 2012


  1. What a pity The Baakens River lagoon was messed up by stupid humans.

    But I suppose in the times when this occurred, leisure ranked quite low on a list of life’s priorities.

    • Just by the way, while appreciating that development is a necessity, mankind should utilise areas that will minimise ecological degradation. Apart from the Baakens Lagoon, the estuary of the Papenkuils River with its flamingoes, should also have been preserved


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