Athlone Bridge, soon after it opened, was a key link to the new suburb of Durban North.
Athlone Bridge, soon after it opened, was a key link to the new suburb of Durban North.

Not a bridge too far

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Sep 25, 2021

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The old picture this week is of the Athlone Bridge and was posted on the Facebook page “Durban Down Memory Lane” by local historian Gerald Buttigieg. In the background is Whitehall Court built in the popular Berea style.

The bridge was a key link to the development of Durban North. It was built in 1927 by Durban North Estates, under the guidance of its chairman Graham Mackeurtan. It was opened that year by the Earl of Athlone, the Governor General of South Africa, after whom the bridge was named, and the Mayor of Durban, Councillor H L Buzzard.

Until that time the only bridge across the uMngeni River was the Connaught Bridge which linked Umgeni and North Coast roads. The only entrances to the new Durban North were at Blackburn Road (from North Coast Road) and from the Queen’s Bridge Hotel to Riverside, today Riverside Road.

The new Athlone Bridge today from the Windsor Golf Course looking at Whitehall Court. The supports from the old bridge can be clearly seen. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

In 1916, a group of Durban businessmen floated the idea of Durban North Estates. They had visions of an ideal garden suburb, with its sea frontage and gently sloping hills.

They bought a large tract of land known as Prospect Hall Sugar Estates. The area was divided into the two distinct districts of Riverside and Prospect Hall, separated by the Bridgevale Valley.

The company started to sell land in 1927 which proved difficult because there were no services and the roads were no more than dirt tracks. Hence the decision to build Athlone Bridge.

The company launched a publicity campaign urging the public to buy at “bedrock” prices before the completion of the bridge sent prices soaring. More than half of the original 800 plots were sold by the end of the year. The construction of Northway also began that year, starting from both ends.

The Durban Corporation soon provided a bus service to the new suburb. Fares were 3d to Riverside and 5d to the terminus at Prospect. Children of residents travelled free to and from school.

Despite the fact that the Ellis Brown Viaduct on the M4 was built in the 1950s, by the 1960s the single lane traffic on Athlone Bridge no longer made it viable.

Buttigieg also writes that towards the mid 1960s, concerns were expressed that the bridge structure was deteriorating and was no longer safe. So a new Athlone Bridge was constructed alongside it.

The second picture is his own 1968 picture of the two bridges side by side with the last section of the new Athlone Bridge ready to go in place.

Construction of the new Athlone Bridge in 1968. Picture: Gerald Buttigieg.
The new Athlone bridge today. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

When the old girder bridge closed, demolition began. A major problem occurred when a large section fell away into the river resulting in difficulties retrieving it and raising fears it might have weakened the new bridge, which as Shelley Kjonstad’s pictures taken this week show, has stood the test of time.

On the Facebook post, Joy Reynolds shares her memories growing up in Whitehall Court. “Overlooking the river, I took delight in watching a herdsman herd the cows from the local dairy farm, near the Hyper.

“He would drive them into the river towards the island in the middle and then he would scale a rope at the beginning of the bridge, run along the wooden pedestrian walkway, then down another rope, on to the island.

“He would tend the cows all day and then repeat the performance in the late afternoon. Such entertainment for us kids.”

The Independent on Saturday

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