South Western Railway Co. Ltd - Newsletter No.36

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Millwood House Museum - Newsletter No.36, November 1990

The "Coffee Pot"
The subject of this Newsletter is the little 2 ft. narrow gauge railway which used to run from the town to the forest, i.e. the South Western Railway - the Forest Train, or, as more affectionately known, the "Coffee Pot".

The transporting of timber in the late nineteenth century from the forest to the sawmills of Parkes and Templemans in Knysna, and to Thesens at Bracken Hill and then taking the finished goods to the jetty for export by steamers was a constant problem, particularly during the Anglo-Boer War. Mules and mule-drivers, previously used for this purpose, were recruited for the Imperial Army, and the drought and rinderpest had taken their toll of those other draught animals and beasts of burden, the oxen. In fact, the Knysna Forest Company (Parkes), were able to get only three to four loads of timber in for the mill over an entire week. To try and remedy this, George Parkes imported a traction engine in 1898 for haulage in the forest. But this proved impracticable on the poor roads, particularly when they were wet when the traction engine got badly stuck in the mud, and was not able to negotiate the many steep inclines. Some other solution to the problem had to be found.

Holiday Fun!
For those of us who grew up in Knysna, the "Coffee Pot" or South Western Railway was part of our holiday fun. An all-day picnic would be arranged when we would gather at the little corrugated iron station which stood in the lower end of town below what is now 'Rinzai Wood'. We would climb into the open trucks and sit on a canvas sailor on a bench placed there for us. If we were lucky we would return sitting on top of a pile of logs, which added to the fun of the day. If there were passengers for the caboose it would be put in front of the engine to prevent their eyes filling with smuts. I remember going on a Brownie picnic organised by Brown Owl, Miss Daisy Eberhard, which was an outing to look for maidenhair ferns in the forest streams.

on their way to a picnic
A group of children eagerly clambering on to a truck
placed in front of the "Coffee pot", on their way to a picnic in the forest.

Arthur Koppel
The railway was built over a period of about three years from 1904 to 1907 and operated for about forty-two years, closing down on 30 April, 1949. As far back as 1883 when the first wooden jetty was built on Paarden Island, Messrs. Thesen and Co.., shipping and timber merchants, were making enquiries about the feasibility of a small train to run from the jetty to the stores of the town of Knysna. This did not materialise because wooden rails were laid down and goods were brought up to the Customs House or Queen's warehouse in mule-drawn trucks. But the seed had been planted, and the idea of a regular railway to run between the Thesen sawmill in the forest at Bracken Hill and the town took root when Mr. C.W. Thesen approached Messrs. Arthur Koppel Ltd., a firm in Cape Town representing an engineering enterprise in Germany, for estimates of the cost of construction of such a railway for transporting timber.

Koppels offered to do a 'flying survey' and noted all the difficulties described of the line having to cross private, public and Government-owned land, of having to go up and down thickly-wooded hills and valleys and crossing rivers etc. The costs appeared to be prohibitive, so much so that Thesens decided to shelve the scheme and notified Koppels on 24 November 1901 to that effect.

But then something happened to make them change their minds and they contacted Koppels again and asked for the survey to be done by one of their engineers. They then approached to Government in the persons of Dr. (later Sir) Thomas Smartt, Commissioner for Public Works and Mr. (also later Sir) Thomas Price, General Manager of the Cape Government Railways (C.G.R) who both came to Knysna to inspect the proposed route. Mr. Hicks, the Koppels engineer, carried out his survey, and soon the good news came that Mr. A. Douglass, Commissioner of Railways had agreed to grant a subsidy of 1000 per mile as soon as the necessary Act had been passed by Parliament. This was "The South-Western Railway Company, Limited, Act, 1904, No. 16, May 31, 1904" which was assented to on the 28 May, 1904.

The Government's interest in the forest railway was owing to the Cape Government Railway's need for more sources for railway sleepers and also, the possibility of the new line becoming a useful means of linking Knysna with the narrow-gauge railway which started at Avontuur. But they were not prepared to put up any more money at this stage for such a link. Although the excitement and interest in the new railway was intense in Knysna and the Divisional Council "unanimously" adopted a resolution to assist the South Western Railway Company in every way, Mr. I.W.O. Read grumbled that the farmers were still unable to reach a market for their products and that he hoped the line would be laid soon and on to Avontuur. Unfortunately this did not take place.

The Act
The Act gave the Authority to build the railway; defined the route the railway was to follow; authorised the extent of the various deviations; gave authority to construct stations and sidings; defined compensation for, and transfer of, land ownership where the railway crossed such land; gave the Government the right (if it suited them), to buy the Company after twelve months' notice; established the right to approve tariffs of passenger fares and goods; and (rightly), insisted on every engine to be fitted with spark arrestors (to prevent forest fires). These spark arrestors gave the engines their "coffee pots", fat, bulbous fittings over their funnels, or a fitting rather like the inside of a coffee percolator:).

The 'percolator' funnels of the locomotives.

Provision had also to be made for fire breaks of "at least ten feet wide within a distance of at least 30 feet on each side of the line. There were to be not less than three trains a week from terminus to terminus. Many provisos and conditions and safeguards (for the Government) were built into the Act, but being a private Bill this was to be expected.

The other private forest railway - Evelyn-Pirie Forest Railway
There was in fact to be only one other private forest railway in the Cape and that was the narrow gauge Evelyn-Pirie forest railway 16 miles out of Kingwilliamstown on the slopes of the Amatolas. It was owned and built by Mr. J.A. Howse a well-known saw-mill owner in the eastern Cape. The railway was built in 1910, was 2 and 1/2 miles long, starting at the saw-mill at an altitude of 2,320 ft. With the working out of the forest the Evelyn-Pirie Forest Railway closed down in 1917.

First Board Meeting of the SWR Co.
The South Western Railway Company held its first Board Meeting on 12 February 1904. Members of the Board were the brothers C.W. and Hjalmar Thesen, George Parkes, snr., H.P. Morgan and J.H. Templeman. Mr. C.W. Thesen, the prime mover in the enterprise, was elected Chairman. Less than two months later the Company was formally registered, and the survey of the projected line completed. The cost of construction was initially estimated at a staggering 71,609, but the route was re-surveyed and a shorter way through the forest was found bringing down the estimated cost to a more manageable sum of 49,958. A Swedish engineer Mr. C.A. Westfelt, was appointed to be in charge of construction, and work began in September of that same year. Only local men were employed on the construction and no work was let on contract.

Finances: Nominal capital of the Company was 50,000 of which 14,350 was subscribed for by mostly the local public; 16,625 was Government subsidy, and 20,000 was in the form of Debentures held, first by the Standard Bank and then by the Government. Among the local subscribers were several members of the Thesen family, Messrs. Peter Hoethe, T. Bertelsen, H.P. Morgan, Carl Westfelt, George Parkes, snr., B. Wehrle, J. Krog, Mrs. Louis Ryan, Templeman Ltd., Coote Noble and Co., Estate Sarah Morris, Geo. Parkes and sons, etc. A Trustee was appointed by the Government to represent the interests of their Debenture holders.

Construction took nearly three years, proceeding without too many engineering difficulties, and in May 1907 the South Western Railvway was ready to start operating. The establishment of the little railway consisted of a Manager, a clerk, a ganger, 3 part-time Stationmasters, viz. Jack Rex, Templeman station, Deepwalls; Freddie Rabbetts, Bracken Hill (Thesens'); and Tom Perks at Parkes Station (Veldtmanspad). Then there was 1 guard, 1 Engine Driver, Tom Kennett, 1 fireman and 10 railway workers. The old rails on the wharf were taken up early in 1907 and the new narrow gauge rails laid down by the Company, branch lines were laid to Messrs. Coote Noble & Co., J.H. Templeman and Geo. Parkes & Sons.

There appear to no records of any official opening of the South Western Railway after it was completed in 1907. On 31 July a large number of townspeople took advantage of the weekly half-holiday to take a trip on the train to Deep Walls and back, and earlier in the month the mayor, Mr. W.P. Cuthbert was: "loud in his praises of the beautiful scenery" when he travelled on the line from the little Knysna station, along the edge of the lagoon, across the hills and into the forest.

The Knysna station situated down below where Oracle Works and Rinzai wood are now, was a little corrugated iron building with a pitched roof and lean-to's on either side lined with wood on the iside.

The old Forest Train
The old Forest Train in front of Knysna Station.

"Water pirates"
The railway line skirted the lagoon across the properties of W.H. Mason (Costa Sarda now), Adam McIntosh (now Lagoonside Caravan Park) and W.P. Cuthbert (now Waterways) - a good flat shoreline safe from floodtides thanks to the Paarden Island causeway. Then it rose somewhat to cross the Heads road (George Rex Drive) just below the turn-off from the present N2 at what was then known as Keurdrift. A few yards east of Keurdrift was the first water tank (near the present Staniforth property), where with a canvas shute the engine would be "watered". It was at this spot, taking advantage of the water cascading down, that a group of local washerwomen used to gather to do their laundry. "Water pirates" they were dubbed! From here the line continued to rise slightly across the lands of Melkhoutkraal (then owned by Mrs. G. Stroebel) and Hunter's Home, owned by Thomas and William Horn, and across the top of Woodbourne, passing George Rex's grave and across what is now the Industrial Area north of the Coloured cemetery, winding its way round the outskirts of Hornlee from the Hornlee hotel and down following the curve of Fountain road to the Noetzie road and climbing along the side of the hills at "the Horseshoe", making an almost complete circle to ease the gradient.

This particular area of fynbos was covered with watsonias in the Summer and Tom Kennett, the genial engine driver, would readily stop anywhere along the route for those who wished to pick flowers.

Parkes Station
Then came the 8-mile siding where timber was sometimes loaded on to a truck which had been shunted off on to the spare line while the rest of the train carried on to the terminus. At the 12th mile was Bracken Hill station where Thesens had their saw-mill and a shop. The saw-mill was later to move to Paarden Island in the 1920's. From Bracken Hill the line went through the forest coming out just before Veldtmanspad where it travelled alongside the road for a short distance to Parkes station at mile 16. Here the Parkes's had a small settlement and shop and a saw-mill which they had taken over from Sheppard & Williams in 1892. Goods and mail were brought there by the "Coffee Pot". (The mail contract was quite a little shot in the arm for the Company and the "Coffee Pot" was a welcome postman right up to the terminus and back). If the Parkes's stationmaster's wife, known as "the Forest Fairy", wished to board the train here, a bench would have to be placed in one of the open trucks for her, as being a very heavy lady, she was quite unable to fit into the caboose!

Deep Walls
From the 18-mile siding the line carried on to its final station, Templeman, and the terminus at Deep Walls. Here there was a large open clearing in the forest which served as a central collecting depot for logs from the main forest. This was approximately four hours from Knysna by train, 20 miles by "Coffee Pot" and twelve miles by road - a gradual rise from sea level to 1400 ft. (May I, at this point, stress the name is Deep Walls, not Diepwalle). The flat loading ground can be seen on the left of the road, and on the right was the home of the part-time stationmaster, Jack Rex, grandson of George Rex. He was succeeded by Sarah Van Rooyen, who was in turn, followed by Salmon Franszen. In Spring, narcissi and snowdrops can be seen still flowering where the stationmaster's garden used to be. Templeman's saw-mill was situated on the rise above the road.

The route from Knysna to Deep Walls
The "Coffee Pot's" route from Knysna to Deep Walls.

Rolling Stock:
Engines -

Trucks and wagons -
There were 33 trucks: 15 bogies and 1 covered bogie; 14 small flat trucks; 1 large flat truck and 2 bogie body trucks. The trucks were designed to carry up to 70 tons of logs @ 4d per ton per mile, this tariff remaining practically unaltered, increasing by 0.8 of a penny by 1949 - after 42 years! Nor were logs the only freight the train carried - finished timber from the mills back to Knysna, goods for the shops and domestic freight was also carried - and of course, passengers too. (When Messrs. Geo. Parkes & Co. moved their saw-mill from the town to the Industrial Area, they donated 2 of the flat bogies left at the mill to Millwood House).

The First Train
The first train to the forest.

The covered bogie or caboose cum-passenger "coach" was converted locally being equipped with wooden seats and arched "windows" with no glass and open to the elements. So when it rained the openings were boarded up which not only excluded all the light but also made it impossible to enjoy the scenery.

Time table
The first time table, 1907.

Madeira-type chairs
When visitors from the Royal Hotel went on to the train for a day's outing my father sent down 2 Madeira-type chairs with a railway worker beforehand to be placed in an open truck for the benefit of the passenger.

Mr. H. Noren, first secretary and manager of the Railway who resigned to join up in World War I, noted that "quite a number of celebrities travelled in the passenger caboose, such as General Lord Methuen on his way to the Port Elizabeth Show, and Dr. (Sir) Leander Starr Jameson. "Dr. Jim", then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and Dr. Smartt and party, arrived quite unexpectedly in Knysna by car on 2 December, 1907, on a holiday trip (the P.M.'s first visit to Knysna). They visited the Heads and the jetty spending the night at the Criterion Hotel, inviting Mr. C.W. Thesen and Mr. Steytler to dinner. Next day they had their two motor cars loaded on to the train and travelled to Bracken Hill from where they went by cart to see the experimental station at Edinburgh. They then re-joined the "Coffee Pot" and proceeded to Deep Walls where they had their cars offloaded and continued their journey by road to Uniondale.

Mr. H. Noren
Mr. H. Noren, the first Manager of the South Western Railway.

The South Western Railway ran smoothly for the first few years and in 1909 it was already possible to set up a Sinking Fund for the replacement of rolling stock and other essentials, but hard times unfortunately, were around the corner.

©Copyright: Mrs. Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams


Compiled and written by: Mrs. Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams.

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