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Vryheid Branch Line
Vryheid district, KwaZulu-Natal

McLAGAN and MABY Brothers: Contractor

Type:Railway Line
Style:Industrial Archaeology

The Vryheid-Voetpaddrif Railway Line, designed and constructed during 1898–1899 by the DEPARTEMENT VAN SPOORWEGEN (Railways Department) of the South African Republic (ZAR [Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek]). This was the only railway line designed and constructed by the ZAR itself (that is not by a private company by way of the granting of a concession as was the case for all other railway lines constructed in the ZAR, for example those of the NZASM endeavor or the Selati Line).

The line had been mooted in discussions between officials of the Natal Colony Government and President Kruger in 1893 11 06-21 as a distraction from the more important business of a link from Charlestown to the Republic by way of the proposed NZASM South-Eastern Line. In discussing the less important matter of the branch line to Vryheid it was agreed that the parties would each bear half the costs of the Bridge over the Buffalo River, thereby joining the New Republic (Nieuwe Republiek), incorporated into the ZAR in 1888, to the rail infrastructure as in fact done in 1898.

The line was constructed from Vryheid to Voetpaddrif (on the erstwhile border, formed by the Buffalo River). Here the line, crossing both river and border, connected to the NATAL GOVERNMENT RAILWAYS (NGR) branch-line from Dundee, which, forming part of the same network, was constructed with the purpose of connecting the NGR rail system to this stand-alone ZAR railway line to Vryheid.

The ZAR Staatsalmanak of 1898 (for 1899) reports [here in translation (NJC)]:

Railways and Steam trams under construction

Vrijheid–Voetpaddrift Line. The contract with Mr L de Jager for the construction of this line has been transferred by him to the company McLagan & Maby Bros. Constructions has commenced and is continuing under supervision of an engineer and staff, appointed by the government. The bridge over the Buffalo River is being constructed by the Natal Colony, the costs for which will will be carried for the half by the Natal Colony and for the other half by the Zuid-Afrikaansce Republic.

In our researches it remained unclear as to the status of the line at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. In the biography of the rail engineer James MACKENZIE it states that 'he was employed by contractors on the construction of the ... line (...) from Dundee to de Jagersdrift on the Vryheid line the completion of which was interrupted with the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War. In 1901 due to the war he had to flee to the Cape sacrificing all his possessions ...'.

However, it is recorded The Brisbane Courier Tuesday (November 19 1901) 'RAILWAY EXTENSION IN NATAL.'
The railway extens on north-eastward from Dundee, in the north of Natal, has now been completed to a point bevond De Jagers Drift, on the Transvaal frontier, the scene of the recent disaster to Major Gough's force.

Which suggests that the works were being continued, and further, in John Nicholson’s reminiscences of the [Anglo-Boer] war he records the following:

De Jager’s Drift. We left at 6 a.m. for Vant’s Drift. There were four of us in all. It appears the Boers have been reported near here so we had to go and nd out about it. None of us knew the road and no-one knew the distance, which was quite 25 miles [40km], a great deal too much for a patrol to do in a day.

Some of the country was very rough and rocky, and it took us until 3 p.m. to get there, with a halt of only one hour between. We off-saddled and rested an hour and then set off home which we reached at 8.30 p.m., tired out and having lost our way once or twice in the dongas and trees near Doornberg, and [we] also got among wire fences and railway cuttings. …

Saturday 30 March 1901
Vryheid. We marched at 5.40 a.m. as advance guard and support to the guns. We crossed the Blood River by the new temporary road bridge in place of the one blown up. …
Friday 14 June 1901
Blood River. The convoy moved on slowly and outspanned near the earthworks of the Dundee–Vryheid railway for about five hours. …

It is thus assumed that by the time of the outbreak of the war the link in Natal was incomplete. A text of 1903 based on a 1895 version states:

DUNDEE BRANCH AND VRYHEID EXTENSION LINE. Formerly this branch terminated at the Coalfields, seven and a half miles from the junction. It has now been extended to the Buffalo River (21 miles) and is being carried through to Vryheid (59 miles from Glencoe). Vryheid is the most important township in the territory recently annexed to Natal.
VRYHEID is at present reached by post-wagon from Dundee. The railway is being constructed to this town, and before long, direct rail access will be possible.
(See )

Also in the literature Wasserman citing Warwick, Major General Bruce Hamilton arrived in Vryheid on 5 March 1902

… The cattle-rustling operation by the combined British-Zulu force was generally successful and netted hundreds of head of cattle. On the completion of it, Dinizulu’s men returned to Zululand via Vryheid. However, Sikhobobo and his followers’ participation, as Transvaal subjects, placed them in a very difficult position and they could not return home. Consequently, they were accommodated in the railway station buildings in Vryheid under the protection of Major General Hamilton and Magistrate A.J. Shepstone.

This indicates that of the built infrasture was alreary in place in the course of the war, either already built, all perhaps a continuation of the project in the time of British occupation.

After the Peace of 1902 the project was revived:

The Buffalo-Vryheid Railway was constructed by Messrs. Maclagan & Maby Bros. on behalf of the late South African Republic. On the inclusion of this district in the extended boundaries of Natal, an arrangement was made between the present Transvaal Government and that of Natal to take over the new Railway, which was finished by the original Contractors under the supervision of the Natal Railway Engineering Department, and is now worked as part of the general Railway System of the Colony. (Natal Government Railways. Report of the General Manager of Railways for the year 1903.)

Prof Johan Wassermann (History Education, Faculty of Education University of KwaZulu-Natal); 'THE ANGLO-BOER WAR IN THE BORDERLANDS OF THE TRANSVAAL AND ZULULAND, 1899–1902': The Black People's War [See : Warwick, P. 1983. Black people and the South African War 1899–1902. Johannesburg: Raven.]
The Brisbane Courier
Nicholson’s Volunteer Composite Regiment CV : Regimental number: 205 Ex-corps and rank: Natal Carbineers, trooper Enrolment VCR : 1 October 1900 Squadron : 2nd; Discharge : 31 July 1902, disbandment of Regiment Prepared and annotated by MARK COGHLAN. (See: Natalia)
See: Natal Railway Guide.]

Writings about this entry

Heydenrych, Heinie and Martin, Bruno . 1992. Natal main line story ; The. Pretoria: HSRC. pg 85