1897 - First train arrival in Bulawayo

The first train arrived in Bulawayo in 1897. November 4, 1897 was the day chosen as the official inauguration of the railways although the first train arrived in Bulawayo on October 18.

The arrival of the first train in Bulawayo coincided with the switching on of electric street lights in Bulawayo at a time London in England was still using gas street lamps.

Four special trains were organised for the big day. The first carried guests from the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Port Elizabeth and East London. The second had guests from Kimberly and Bechuanaland, the third with guests from Cape Town, Graaff Reinet and Grahamstown while the last one had distinguished guests from England and Cape Town.

The guest list comprised prominent people in the expansion of the British Empire in Africa. It included six members of the Imperial Parliament, the High Commissioner of the Cape, the Governor of Natal, members of Colonial Legislatures, leaders of thought and action, bankers, merchants and clergy.

The first of the four trains arrived in Bulawayo at 7AM carrying 96 passengers. The second arrived at about 7.30AM with 60 passengers.

Train No 3 and No. 4 failed to make it after Train No. 3 came off the tracks at Figtree, holding back Train No 4. The official opening ceremony went on without them.

The opening ceremony was performed by Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner at the Cape in front of a massive crowd which included Ndebele chiefs.

A luncheon was held at Palace Hotel. The hotel was the venue of three banquets held over a 10 day period.

The Bulawayo Chronicle opined: “Today is the parting of the ways for Matabeleland, the relegation of the old method of transport and the beginning of civilisation in its entirety. Up to the present, we have been living in a kind of semi-civilised state, at times cut off from our fellows, isolated from the seething world outside… the happy-go-lucky methods so common in new towns, and indeed so necessary in the early days of the settlement will no longer be possible, for we shall have keen businessmen amongst us, men who are not accustomed, and have no stomach for pioneering yet who are quite ready to reap the fruits of the work done by those who bore the burden and heat of the day.

“In many hearts there will be feelings of regret that the old order of things is passing away…there will be greater expansion of trade, the industries will develop, our plains will smile with rich farms, and our exchanges will be busy with gold… Today means something more than a holiday, it includes the commencement of the period in which we shall become a glorious gem in the British Crown or byword amongst the nations. Let the people see to it.”

Despite the train having just arrived in Bulawayo, its promoter Cecil John Rhodes was looking beyond the city.

A telegram was out from him: “We are bound and I have made up my mind to go on to the Zambezi without delay. We have magnificent coalfields lying between here and there, which means a great deal to us engaged in the practical working of railways. Let us see it on the Zambezi during our lifetime. It will be a small consolation to me and to you to know it will be there when we are dead and gone.”

Line construction began from Fontesvilla (55km from Beira, Mozambique) to Umtali (now Mutare) in September 1892 and from Vryburg in Cape Province, South Africa to Bulawayo in May 1893. The latter was completed in October 1897 and the former four months later in February 1898.

The link between Harare and Bulawayo took place in October 1902 after the initial construction was brought to a halt by the outbreak of Anglo-Boer war in October 1899 which necessitated the supply of materials via the Beira line.

The next stage was the construction of the line northward which began from Bulawayo in 1903 and eventually reached the current Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo border in December 1909.