The Bridges Went Down Two by Two: Grahamstown Floods
It’s hard to imagine now, in the middle of a drought, but on Saturday 13 September 1879, 13cm of rain fell on Grahamstown in just over five hours. That is nearly 25% of the town’s annual rainfall, all in the space of one afternoon.
The day had started out drizzly, wet and cold enough to make most people decide against taking the excursion train to Highlands. Around lunchtime, it began to come down in buckets; the “incessant torrent” continued until 6pm. After that, it abated, and by 8pm the rain had stopped completely. But the Grahamstown drainage system could not cope with the sudden heavy flow.
Grocott’s reported that there was great damage to gardens, houses and streets as the streams swept away trees and debris. Houses on low ground were flooded, some up to a metre deep. At Dundas Bridge, a new bridge under construction was washed out, and the railway station was surrounded by water. At Somerset Street, the bridge collapsed and water flooded several homes and shops. One of the houses was occupied by a woman and her newborn baby, both of whom had to be rescued.
The worst-affected parts of town were those close to stream banks and on slopes: “The stream from the reservoir kloofs passing through the centre of the city was as full as could be. The reservoirs were before overflowing and some idea of the force of the water may be obtained by inspecting where the earth has been washed away in front of the Grey embankment. Some amount of damage was done to the Botanical Gardens, and the houses on Somerset Street suffered also. A good portion of the river wall in Huntley Street has been washed away. In this stream as in the other, trees and other things were washed down doing great damage.”
In the Fort England area, it was a catastrophe. Much of the land was given over to market gardens, and the flooding had wiped out entire crops, as well as ruined several houses. A Mr Page was said to be have been more or less financially ruined by the water: “his house and furniture, as well as garden, being wrecked.”
The next day, though, was sunny and clear: the excursion train, which had been trapped in Highlands overnight, and the passenger train from Alicedale were both finally able to get through to Grahamstown. King William’s Town and Cradock had also experienced heavy rain the previous night, and Alexandria had very nearly flooded because of an overflowing dam.
Although only one person died, it had still been a dangerous night to be outdoors. The post wagon had been delayed at Alexandria, it had tried to push through the bad weather. This didn’t work out: trying to cross a flooded stream, the wagon was overturned by the force of the water. The post-rider and the wagoner narrowly escaped drowning by clinging to trees and branches. When they got to dry land, they were glad to see their horses had survived – even though they were on the other side of the rushing torrent. The post bags had been washed downstream, but were eventually recovered, and their contents delivered. As they say, whether storm or hail or gloom of night, the mail must go through!
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