A brief history of the Victoria Falls Bridge (Part 2)
Part two of an occasional series looking at the history of the second most popular landmark in the region - the Victoria Falls Bridge (see also Part One). Written by Peter Roberts and taken from his book on the bridge, 'Sun, Steel and Spray,' this article looks at the background to the selection of the site for the Victoria Falls Bridge.
Choosing the site of the Victoria Falls Bridge
The Victoria Falls Bridge was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, a key feature in his dream of a Cape to Cairo railway, even though he never visited the Victoria Falls and died two years before the railway reached them - before construction of the Bridge had begun.
Rhodes is often quoted to have said: "Build the bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls". G A Hobson, engineer and designer of the bridge, explains:
"That he ever gave this direction has been doubted, and even denied by some people, including one, at least, of his own relatives; but I have it on the authority of one who, better than any other man living or dead should know the facts of the case, that the record is true." [Hobson, 1923]
It's a shame he doesn't name his source, but the most likely candidate is Sir Charles Metcalfe, a close personal friend of Rhodes, and the Chief Consultant Engineer for the construction of the railway from the south. Metcalfe followed Rhodes's wishes and determined to locate the bridge just below the Falls. He carried out the preliminary examinations of the site in June 1901, during the time the Boer War, before returning to Britain to raise funds for the project. Metcalfe was to later write "no part of the railway was made for sentimental reasons", however the location of the bridge is the one exception to his statement.
As H F Varian, an engineer who joined the team building bridge and who would continue work extending the railway line north observed:
"The choice of its site was more for sentiment than for practical reasons... A simpler crossing could have been achieved six miles further up, [near Kandahar Island] where the longest span need only have been 150 feet." [Varian, 1953]
Sketch map of the Victoria Falls Bridge site, from Varian (1953)
The bridge designer, Hobson (1923) contended that below the Falls was the best possible site for the bridge.
"I am of the opinion that it is the best possible position for a bridge near to the Falls. The very beauty of the spot has, however, created objections to its selection. " [Hobson, 1923]
He dismissed the alternative site, saying:
" It would be a long straggling structure of no great beauty, and it would mar, to a large extent, the attractions of the broad, shining Zambezi, which presents at this spot a river scene of unparalleled beauty, scarcely inferior in its own way to that of the Falls." [Hobson, 1923]
But perhaps the most decisive factor was the cost, which would have been some three or four times that of the site across the gorge and require an extra eight miles of railway line.
Hobson expands on the final choice of site (1907):
"The choice of the site was finally governed by the natural formation of the walls of the chasm, advantage being taken of the minimum distance to be spanned, combined with the soundest foothold obtainable. The position fixed upon is about 700 yards below the cataract."
Find out more about the bridge here.