#ThrowbackThursday – building the Cableway

#ThrowbackThursday – building the Cableway

In our second #ThrowbackThursday feature we tell you how the Cableway came about.

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A rare colour image of the cable car taken during the 1940s

If it hadn't been for two wars, there would have been a railway line or a funicular running up Table Mountain, instead of cable cars.

The idea to find a quick way to the top of the mountain was first mooted during the 1870s. By then a number of people, including prominent Capetonian Lady Anne Barnard and her entourage, had already climbed Table Mountain.

Plans to build a rack railway were disrupted by the first Anglo-Boer War in 1880. A rack railway is engineered for trains chugging up steep mountainous terrain.

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Cape Town during the 1930s

For decades after this, plans lay dormant until, in 1912, the Cape Town City Council commissioned engineer, HM Peter, to investigate the various options for a public transport system to the top.

Peter suggested that a funicular, a cable railway, running from Oranjezicht through Platteklip Gorge would be the best solution.

Even though it was going to cost £100 000 - an exorbitant amount of money at that time – a referendum was held and the people of Cape Town voted overwhelmingly in favour of the funicular.

But the First World War broke out in July 1914; once again putting paid to the plans. South Africa, a British Colony at the time, was drawn into the War, which ended in 1918.

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A view from the top station

As the country recovered, plans fell dormant until 1926 when Norwegian engineer Trygve Stromsoe proposed to the Cape Town City Council that a cableway be built to transport people up and down the mountain.

The idea caught the interest of a group of influential businessmen including Sir Alfred Hennessy when he was presenting a functioning scale model of how the cableway would operate.

Hennessy and fellow investors, Sir David Graaff and Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, formed the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company (TMACC) to finance construction, with Stromsoe taking the fourth seat on the board of directors.

A week after viewing the model, the company chose a site for the lower cable station and swiftly appointed a firm of local architects, Walgate & Ellsworth, to design the upper and lower stations as well as a tearoom at the summit.

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The first cable car

The building of the Cableway was contracted to Germany’s Adolf Bleichert and construction got under way speedily. The building was an engineering feat, with no existing cableway, cranes or helicopters on the mountain to haul the heavy machinery required to build the first cableway.

Instead they constructed a rudimentary track for a "soapbox" to transport workers, equipment and building materials. There were no deaths or injuries, but there was a birth.

The wife of one of the workers gave birth on the mountain, as the couple lived there in temporary housing, together with other workers, for the duration of the build. The company also had a small budget for silk stockings, as ladies tended to snag their hosiery on the fynbos.

TMACC spent £60 000 over two years to build the Cableway, which became one of Cape Town’s first tourist attractions.

Built with steel and wood, the first cableway, while safe and efficient, was primitive by today’s standards. But it offered a safe way to ascend the mountain in under 10 minutes. The car could carry 19 passengers and a conductor.

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A group assembled for the opening ceremony, October, 1929. From left to right: Sir Alfred Hennessy (chairman), Mr J B Taylor, Lady Graaff, the Rev A J Lewis (Mayor of Cape Town), Lady Hennessy, Sir Lionel Phillips, Mrs J W Jagger, Mrs Burmester and Admiral Burmester

In October 1929 Cape Town Mayor, Reverend AJS Lewis, presided over the Cableway's official opening ceremony, which was attended by more than 200 guests.

The Cableway quickly became a landmark in Cape Town, transporting some of the city’s most illustrious visitors, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. During their official visit in 1947, the King and Queen of England and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were met at the top of the mountain by 77-year-old Prime Minister Jan Smuts, an avid hiker, who had walked to the top. Smuts shared the cable car with the royal family for the return trip, arriving in time for a joint sitting of both houses of parliament.

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King George VI, Sir Alfred Hennessy, Prime Minister Jan Smuts and Queen Elizabeth in 1947

See more pictures from the Cableway's 85th birthday celebration.

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