Waterval Boven Train Disaster, 16 November 1949

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Information provided by Hans Bornman from his unpublished book, Lowveld Tour Guide:

The site where a train derailed in 1949 is declared a heritage site dedicated to migrant labourers who lost their lives there.

Ever since the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, workers were sourced in Mozambique to work on the mines. With the rail link between Lourenco Marques and Johannesburg in the 1890’s, train transported these workers, as the case still is today.

One of these trains transporting workers from the mines to Mozambique never reached its destination. On the morning of November 16, 1949, the steamtrain pulling the carriages ploughed into the embankment on the side of the bridge spanning the Elandspruit outside Waterval Boven.

The impact caused many of the wooden carriages to derail. Seven of these, which were on the bridge at the time, crashed into the river, dragging their sleeping inmates and their colourful luggage with them.

Heavy rains were reported all over the country at the time and the Elandspruit was in spate. Those involved in the accident, who did not succumb to their injuries, were washed away.

One carriage did not plummet into the river, but hung precariously over the edge of the gorge. A number of workers, flung out of their berths, crawled in the pitch darkness to the exit – the one hanging over the precipice, and fell to their deaths.

The community rallied itself, inhabitants of the town ran down to help and doctors and ambulances from as far afield as Bethal and Lydenburg rushed to the scene. The seriously injured were airlifted to Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria and a special blood donation service was established in Pretoria to assist with the increased demand.

Fifty three bodies were recovered from the wreck, with several patients succumbing to wounds en route to hospital. The remains of the victims who died on site were buried in the cemetery at Boven. Their unmarked mass grave still lies in the corner of the graveyard.

A song written in Xhosa about the disaster called “The Road Back Home”, was recently identified by Ms Graca Mandela as the winning entry at a national choir festival in South Africa.