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Laingsnek Tunnel
Charlestown district, KwaZulu-Natal

NATAL GOVERNMENT RAILWAYS: Architect

Date:1891
Type:Tunnel
Status:Derelict

 


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Coordinates:
27°27'50.94" S 29°52'33.32" E Alt: 1650m

Text extracted and edited from Graham Leslie McCallum’s Blog Lang’s Nek Tunnel – Railway from Newcastle to Charlestown

The discovery of gold along the Witwatersrand in the 1880s made a rail line to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) an imperative. In 1890, the Natal Government Railways after exhaustive negotiations with the ZAR, began the laborious task of constructing the rail line up the escarpment to crest the Drakensberg Mountains and reach the interior plateau.
The distance from Newcastle to the top of the pass (a mere 27 kilometres) required a precipitous climb of 406 metres. The Natal Government Railway Engineers decided to construct a tunnel under the crest of the escarpment where it traversed the ‘nek’. This pass, named ‘Lang’s Nek’ after local farmer Henry Lang, gave its name to the railway tunnel.
R Wagstaffe & Co were contracted to build the tunnel, with work commencing in 1890. Tunnelers worked from apposing ends, blasting their way through the rock and earth. The headings met on the 24th of January 1891. The tunnel is a full 674 metres long with a 1 in 70 gradient. Five hundred men had worked on the passage, removing 195 000 cubic metres of spoil. The cost – 80 000 pounds, a considerable sum of money then. The tunnel was then faced in stone masonry in horseshoe arch section.
At the commencement of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in 1899, the Boers, under General Petrus Johannes Joubert, invaded Natal. The British and Natal Colonial forces retreated to Ladysmith leaving Northern Natal unprotected and intact. The rail line then served the Boers for logistical support in their war efforts. When in 1900 the British in turn had the Boers in retreat the Boers set about demolishing all infrastructure in their wake, including the entrances to the tunnel, which were dynamited, damaging the first 60m at both ends. The British discovered that the tunnel had not been damaged beyond repair, and workers quickly cleared the rubble from the line and tunnel. This allowed trains to supply the British advance into the Orange Free State and Transvaal.
For many years this construction was hailed as the greatest engineering accomplishment in South Africa.
The tunnel remained operational until 1984 when it was abandoned, replaced by a new tunnel that was bored alongside and to the west of the original.

(See link above for fuller text and additional photographs.)


Writings about this entry

De Jong, RC, Van der Waal, GM & Heydenrych, DH. 1988. NZASM 100 : 1887-1899, the buildings, steam engines and structures of the Netherlands South African Railway Company. Pretoria: C. Van Rensburg Publications on behalf of the Human Sciences Research Council. pg 231-232
Heydenrych, Heinie and Martin, Bruno . 1992. Natal main line story ; The. Pretoria: HSRC. pg 70 ill, 71