At the turn of the century in 1901, the “bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls” was the brainchild of Cecil John Rhodes in his role as chairman of Rhodesia Railways. A daring engineering proposition that would link Zimbabwe and Zambia by rail, across the great Victoria Falls.
Location and proclamations
There were strong objections and proclamations that to build the bridge so close to such a natural wonder was an act of engineering vandalism. George Hobson the designer of the bridge whilst acknowledging the objections, agreed with Rhodes vision however, and dismissed the suggestion of alternative sites and construction was underway by 1904. Despite the death of Cecil Rhodes in 1902, the choice to continue with this location was not purely for sentimental reasons, as the alternative location further upstream would require a costly 8km more railway line.
Engineering beyond belief
The construction of such a bridge in the early 1900’s created a huge challenge and pushed engineering capabilities far beyond any other building work of its time. In the Bulawayo Chronicle of 1901, an artist’s sketch of the bridge was printed, eliciting much disbelief at the possibility of such a feat. Not only did engineers have to content with planning the building with no scaffolding, there was the matter of moisture affecting the steel to consider as well.
Danger pay rejected and the Chief steps in
The steel bridge known as trussed arch design, is 158 metres long and weighs about 1500 tons. Each section was built in Darlington in England and transported to site then put together from cantilevers fixed to the rock on either bank, to be joined eventually in the centre. This was done by means of a cableway nicknamed “The Blondin” after tightrope walker Charles Blondin. So new and dangerous was this piece of construction equipment, that not even the offer of a bonus could tempt workers to undertake the job of guiding it, that eventually it fell to the chief engineer himself.
The result of the successful construction of the bridge was compared to the wonder of the falls themselves when it was officially opened in 1905.