Trials and tribulations: The construction of Hartbeespoort Dam

  • 25 June 2012 | Stuart Dickinson

After a short ride to the top of the mountain by cable car, you’re greeted with sweeping views of the surrounding hills and valleys. One of the more prominent sights is, of course, Hartbeespoort Dam, which dominates 2 062ha of the valley.  

It was through great vision and perseverance that construction of the dam was finally completed in the 1920s.

It is now a popular destination for both tourists and local residents looking to escape the city for a few days. So next time you’re standing atop the mountain with friends or family looking down on this massive body of water, impress them with your knowledge of its history...

Construction began in 1896 at an inlet of the Crocodile River, close to where the railway bridge in Meerhof lies today. It was a project first envisioned by a Boer War general and original owner of farm Hartbeespoort, Hendrik Schoeman. He believed a dam would serve as a focal point for industrial, agricultural and residential development in the area – so much so that he invested £10 000 in its development, a considerable fortune in those days.

It was originally called Sophia Dam in honour of Schoeman’s wife, and was the largest in the southern hemisphere at the time. The outbreak of war soon after halted all plans to upgrade the dam, and in 1902 the general died.

In 1905, Swedish engineer August Karlson was hired by the government to start construction on the dam wall as we know it today in the Schoemansville area, and preliminary investigations began. Plans were postponed again when the South African Union was formed in 1910, but with increasing public interest, the Hartbeespoort Irrigation Scheme Act of 1914 permitted construction to continue in 1915.

Again war intervened, with World War One halting construction until 1918. In that year, farms were bought and divided up for residential areas, and the farm school in the area was demolished to make way for the dam basin.

Work also started on two cofferdams, which were used to dam up the river so builders could pour the wall foundations. But these were washed away by serious flooding and torrential rains in May 1921. This resulted in the frustrated engineer leaving.

The government hired a new engineer, and finally, in September 1923, the road was laid across the Hartbeespoort bridge – which was then the new main road between Pretoria and Rustenburg.

The design of the bridge was taken from Roman architecture, and built in an odd shape known as a “Triomfboog”, renowned for its strength in retaining water.

The arch built on the wall symbolises a gateway, and is a stark copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Over 250 000 bags of cement were used in construction of the wall, which was raised by 2,4m in 1970. This, along with the sluice gates that were installed, allows the dam to collect 205-million cubic metres of water.

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