Focus on the Blondin

An extended feature

by Peter Roberts
Author of Sun, Steel and Spray


The construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge was delayed by the arrival of the railway at Victoria Falls. The bridge designer, George Hobson recalled:

"It was anticipated that the construction of the railway... would be completed by the end of that year or the beginning of the next, but unexpected difficulties... caused a delay of 4 months. The rail-head actually reached the site at the end of May, 1904. Until then the transportation of the bridge-material was impossible." [Hobson, 1907]

In readiness for the arriving bridge materials, a construction yard was established on the south bank, and a camp for the bridge construction engineers built close by. The first contingent of British engineers, including many Irish and Scottish workers, departed by steamliner to Cape Town in March 1904 and then by passenger train to Bulawayo. This was followed by an uncomfortable onward journey to Victoria Falls along the newly constructed, and still incomplete, railway - including travelling on construction trains and a final 56km in a post cart.

Construction Camp for the Victoria Falls Bridge engineers, known as Tower’s Camp

At an early stage in the preparations for the bridge, the idea was conceived of throwing a powerful transporter cable system across the gorge.

The cableway was to assist not only with the transport of material for the second half of the bridge, but also the rails, sleepers, locomotives, wagons and general stores for the continuation of the track on the other side, which would continue onwards as the bridge was being built at the average rate of 1 mile, equal to about 200 tons of material, per day.

In order to ease the burden on the bridge contractors, it was determined that this would be provided by the railway company, and a separate contract issued.

The Blondin, as it was later named, was critical to the building of the bridge and quite pioneering at the time. Hobson reported:

"In July, 1903, tenders were invited for a cableway to span a distance of 870 feet and carry a load of 10 tons net. The conveyor was specified to be capable of lifting and lowering as well as travelling with this load, and to be operated by means of electricity. The idea was to run wagons loaded with bridge-material to a point under the command of the transporting-apparatus.

"Among others, a proposal based on Mr. W. F. Brothers’s system was submitted. The aim of the designer of this system was to avoid haulage-ropes and to secure a uniform tension on the cable, and so to arrange the supports at both ends of the rope as to enable the load to travel as far as possible from one end of the cableway to the other. In the present instance the cable was designed to be carried on one bank by a steel tower 36 feet high, securely anchored at the rear with guyropes, while on the other side the support took the form of a pair of sheer-legs, 80 feet long, set at an angle of 45 degrees, hinged upon pins secured to foundation-plates bedded in concrete. One end of the cable was attached by means of trunnions to the end of the sheer-legs, and a counterweight of 60 tons was supported at the same point. The tension of the cable was thus balanced by the counterweight and was practically uniform in all positions. As the load traversed the cable to the centre of the span the counterweight was raised, and after the load passed the centre it fell, restored to the conveyor the work done, and reduced the power required to drive the load up the incline.

Blondin Sheerlegs

"The design at the time was comparatively new, and no apparatus of the kind had hitherto been made on such a large scale. It was therefore regarded-in some quarters-with ill-concealed suspicion.

"In effect the principle of the apparatus is that of an overhead travelling crane in a workshop, but instead of running on a solid rail it runs on a wire rope; the driver sits in the travelling carriage, and from there he controls the lifting, lowering, and travelling movements.

"The obvious criticism against this proposition duly made its appearance. No man, it was alleged, could be induced, for wages, to occupy the driver’s seat and travel all day long to and fro across that awful chasm for months together. Though many troubles were encountered, it may at once be said that this was not one of them." [Hobson, 1907]

The electronic transporter system was designed by Mr E A Poole, of Westminster.

Hobson again expands on the process:

"in order to guard against any unforeseen defect it was decided before shipment to erect the whole apparatus complete and test it, under a load, in working conditions. As it was chiefly for their use, the design was formally submitted to the contractors [The Cleveland Bridge Company] for their approval, and it was arranged that they should construct the steel tower and sheer-legs, erect and test the whole apparatus in their works, and re-erect it on the Zambezi.

"The precaution of testing the apparatus was justified in the event, for, in the machine tested, the transmission gear-which was composed of friction-wheels-utterly failed, and spur-gearing was ordered to be substituted."[Hobson, 1907]

Imbault’s appointment as the Chief Construction Engineer on site was partly because of his experience with similar overhead electric conveyors and he excelled in his role, and his first responsibility was the installation of this system.

The material for establishing the cableway reached Victoria Falls early in June, 1904, after considerable delay in its manufacture and in obtaining delivery out of the hands of the sub-contractors.

The confidence of the operator, who was to control it from a small seat perched precariously on its side, could hardly have been boosted when during installation, on 19th July 1904, a chain broke and the heavy machine crashed into the gorge. Though badly damaged, it was recovered and repairs were satisfactorily carried out in Bulawayo. An auxiliary cable was then introduced to prevent strain on the main cable.

After some quick repairs the apparatus was installed and in working order by the 28th July 1904. Before the transporter could be used for the first time it was necessary to clear the cable of various pulleys that had been used in positioning it and which had all gravitated to the lowest position, over the centre of the gorge. There were no volunteers for this dangerous task so the Chief Engineer, Imbault, had to undertake it himself, as one of the engineers recalled:

"Despite the offer of a bonus, not one of the workers would undertake the job and finally the chief engineer had to do it himself... it was an eerie sensation watching this man standing on a narrow plank in front of the gently swaying machine, 450 feet [137 metres] in the air, using both hands to undo the steel lashings, and passing the pulleys one by one to the driver at the back. A moment of vertigo, a false balance, and certain death. Truly he was nerveless." [Powell, 1930]

Early photograph of the Blondin, with the exposed foundations for the Victoria Falls Bridge in the background

The electronic transporter system became known as the Blondin after the daredevil tightrope walker Charles Blondin who had famously crossed the Niagara Falls by rope in 1859. The operator actually rode on the Blondin carrier itself, controlling it from a small seat perched precariously on its side. The operator was required to work the winch which had two separate electric motors; one for movement forward and backward over the cable, the other for lifting and lowering the loads.

Varian, one of the bridge engineers, described the system:

"A steel tower, 30 feet in height, was erected on the northern edge of the gorge, and over this a 4-inch-diameter steel cable was carried, and anchored in the rock beyond. The cable had a span of 1,000 feet. It was made fast on the south bank to the apex of a triangle of steel sheerlegs, which stood at a flat angle away from the span, their base in hinged sockets that took up the thrust. Where the cable ended at this apex, there was a sling supporting eighty to a hundred tons of rails as a counterweight; this allowed the main cable to remain flexible, the weighted sling rising and falling as compensation for the varying weights carried across the gorge.

"The name "Blondin" was really applied to the overhead carrier, which consisted of two four-feet wheels, grooved to ride on the four-inch cable and lined with hardwood so as not to wear it. One of our principal delays in the work of transport was caused by the necessity of constantly re-lining these wheels. The Blondin carried an electrically-driven winch to power its haulage both ways. Below were treble steel sheaves, the lower one carrying a chain-sling and hook; these were raised or lowered by a steel rope operated on the winch near the driver's most precarious looking seat.

"The driver of the Blondin, who worked it throughout the whole of the construction period, was one of the coolest men I have ever known, and deserved all credit for sticking to his job. No one envied him, especially on the occasions when permanent way material slipped in its sling in transit, jerking the carrier in a manner terrifying to behold." [Varian, 1953]

Blondin close up, showing materials being transported with workers. The blondin operator can also be seen.

Situated on the upstream side of the bridge, at a slight angle away from the centre line of the bridge itself, this electric cableway was capable of carrying a maximum of ten to twelve tons, with an estimated daily capacity of 800 tons. Electricity came from a portable steam-driven engine and dynamo, supplied by an un-named Newcastle firm, and which was located near the construction yard on the south bank. The Blondin was used solely for transport of materials, and not in the erection of the bridge.

Blondin with steelwork for the Victoria Falls Bridge awaiting transportation to the north side of the Gorge

The railway line north needed 200 tons of material, per day, in order to advance the projected one mile per day. Although the total tonnage of the bridge-material was small in comparison with that needed for the railway, it was arranged that the contractors for the bridge should have the operation of the cableway in their hands, and should have priority right to its use in order to expedite its construction.

Blondin transporting materials, again with workmen hitching a lift

The cable which the Blondin ran along was itself of a complex design, consisting of nineteen steel wires, 0.125 inch [32 millimetres] in diameter, twisted around a hemp core. With a total circumference of 8.5 [21.6 centimetres] inches it was capable of caring a maximum load of 10 to 13 tonnes, with a daily capacity of eight hundred tons. Itself weighing about 5 tons it had an ultimate breaking-stress of 270 tons.

Blondin viewed from the Gorge

Hobson recalls that the Blondin apparatus presented many challenges:

"Many difficulties, most of them due to inexperience, were encountered in the working of the apparatus. The system of lubrication was defective. The insulation of the motor gave trouble and finally burnt out. This possibility, however, had been foreseen and a spare motor was quickly substituted. The worst trouble, however, occurred with the tires. With the object of minimizing the wear and tear of the cable, they had been made of a soft-natured cast iron. The load on each travelling wheel of the carriage was 7½ tons, and this heavy weight, running on the uneven surface of a cable made of six strands of hard steel wire, caused an amount of abrasion of the tread which became so serious that doubts were felt whether the apparatus would complete the work... The method of fixing the tire to the wheel-centre was so defective that several days were lost every time the tires were renewed. It was thought, however, that the wearing-out of the tire was the less of two evils: had they been more durable they might have quickly destroyed the cable. The latter, owing to its hemp core, stretched so much that it had to be shortened and re-fixed.

"Towards the end of the work thirty broken wires were discovered in the cable, which represented 13 per cent. of its total strength. It was thereupon decided to reduce the loads of railway-material to 5 tons, so as to minimize the wear and stress and save the rope for the completion of the bridge. A spare rope with a steel core was meanwhile ordered of the same size and strength; and, to make assurance doubly sure, an entirely new travelling carriage was ordered as a stand-by in case of need... it happened that the old conveyor just managed to complete the transportation of the bridge-material before giving out, as it did, entirely." [Hobson, 1907]

"The cable had actually stretched about 8 feet, and the elongation had been due no doubt to the presence of the hemp core. The aggregate weight of railway and bridge material carried by the transporter cable was about 15,000 tons, exclusive of the weight of the travelling carriage. The latter machine weighed 5 tons." [Hobson, 1907]

Varian described his 'hands-on' experience with the Blondin:

"In the first few days, while I was new to it all, I had an experience which tried me severely, as I dislike heights. The steel cage that carried the bridge-hands over to their camp, on the south bank was only used to transport them at the beginning and end of each shift. Our camp and offices were also on the south bank, about a mile from where the hotel now stands. I had been working away from the bridge, on the future line ahead. It was a Saturday, and I did not then know that the bridge works knocked off for the week-end that day at 4 p.m. I arrived at the bridge site and found it deserted. My only chance of getting back to camp therefore was to walk to Maramba Drift and cross to Giese's Drift if I could get a canoe. This meant a six mile [nine and a half kilometres] trek, but I had decided it was the only way out and was just leaving, when I saw the Blondin coming over. As I found out afterwards, it was trying out a new type of tyre core on its running wheels, and was running light.

"I waited for its arrival, and the driver offered me a lift back. This meant either hanging on to the hook of the chain sling, or sitting on the lower steel sheave of the hoisting gear. I decided to sit on the steel sheave. The driver accordingly let the gear down, and I took up position on the sharp edges of the block, the three steel ropes of the running tackle on either side of me, all thick with black grease. It was not a pleasant sensation when the winding gear started, with three steel hawsers around me and three sheaves below, all moving at different speeds. From the driver's seat directly above it was difficult to see exactly what was going on. When the upper sheave approached my hat in vet unwelcome proximity, I called out, just before my head was pushed down into my lap. The driver eased down, but could not do much to help as the hook of the chain sling had to be kept as high as possible to clear some temporary work on one of the bridge-erecting cranes. I wound my arms into the three ropes around me - now stationary - shut my eyes, and started praying hard. We left the bank, and as we passed over the crane it was so necessary to avoid, we were brought up with a jerk. The hook had fouled the crane. The praying continued, harder than ever. After an eternity, Heaven answered. A native appeared from nowhere on those deserted works, climbed the crane and freed the hook. With another jerk we swung out over the gorge, and began the final journey. At its end, a black and greasy mess descended from the lowering gear, thankful to be on earth again, and also thankful for having screwed up the courage to make the crossing and avoid the long journey round, even under such very trying conditions." [Varian, 1953]

Catching a lift on the Blondin

In order to assist with the transport of materials to the north bank, it was desirable that a light shunting engine be transported over to the north side. The 19 ton 'Jack Tar' locomotive was dismantled and transported over the gorge piece by piece by means of the Blondin cableway. The boiler and lighter parts sent over first. What was left, the body frame and cylinders, weighted twelve tons and had to be transported in one piece. Varian described how the cable sagged under this load and dangled over the gorge with a fourteen metre drop in the cable. There it hung for three hours as the Blondin's engine struggled to cope with its weight, until boosting of the power in the electrical plant the carrier slowly managed to pull itself to the other side. The driver sitting in his little seat with a drop of 350 feet below him is said to have coolly smoked throughout his ordeal. Varian summarised the importance of the Blondin:

"The first call on the Blondin was of course the transport of bridge material, the heaviest sections being the lower boom members of the main arch, which were 27’ 8” [8.43 metres] in length, and 6½ tons in weight. At other times it was used for transporting every type of material for the continuation of the main line, which was proceeding slowly towards the new Maramba depot in process of establishment by Pauling five miles [eight kilometres] beyond the bridge close to the site of the present station of Livingstone. The depot was developed with a small engine shed, coaling and watering facilities and a storage dump for the permanent way material. Rails, steel sleepers, rolling stock and all possible stores and materials were carried across the gorge by the Blondin, mostly in loads of five tons each." [Varian, 1953]

Pauling employed many Irishmen when building the railways. Once the Blondin was operating, they were accommodated on the northern bank to carry on with their track laying responsibilities. One Saturday afternoon, duties done for the weekend, they crossed over to the southern side to take advantage of the hospitality at the Victoria Falls Hotel bar and tried their best to drink the place dry. By some accounts, they nearly succeeded. They were taken back to their camp by the last Blondin trip of the day, leaving one of their number behind, too drunk to walk - or even move. The next day, they awoke to find their companion was in his own bed on the north side. The only suggestion that made sense was that he pulled himself over, hand-over-hand (and perhaps foot-over-foot) on the Blondin's supporting cables, too drunk to appreciate, or remember, just what he was doing!

A steel cage 12 feet square and hung from the Blondin was used to transport workers and materials across the gorge. Early tourists who thought this sort of experience might be fun, could travel across in about 4 minutes, paying 10 shillings for the privilege. When the cable was first erected, many distinguished visitors to the falls took a journey across in the suspended carriage, including Princess Victoria Schleswig-Holstein and Lord and Lady Roberts. Lord Roberts and his party, who visited in September 1904 and who was later to have Kandahar Island, just above the Falls, renamed in his honour.

Lord Roberts had in 1900 commanded British forces during the Second Boer War (after which he was replaced by Lord Kitchener). As part of Lord Roberts' retirement celebrations he arrived in Bulawayo in September 1904 and his party travelled by train to Victoria Falls. The biographer David James records:

"In September, 1904, the whole family... went on a three months' tour of South Africa. They landed at Cape Town and went straight up country to see the Victoria Falls. Here they had the incomparable thrill of crossing directly over the gorge in a cage on a wire span. Roberts himself was lost for words of description, as are most who see that fabulous sight."

Their visit is recorded in a rare series of photographs.

Visit of Lord Roberts and party, about to climb into the Blondin carrying cage.


The group gets ready...


..and are slowly winched up by the Blondin carrer to take them across the gorge








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