History Archive
Railway Industry


The first meeting to discuss the building of a railway between Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth was held on 1859. Nothing came of this until 1866 when a special meeting was held in Port Elizabeth to promote the construction of the railway line.

Uitenhage was the centre for the wool washeries and a railway was needed to transport the large amount of wool processed here. By 1873 the railway station was being laid out in Market Street.

From the beginning the station was known as "The Dolls House". The building was of red brick which was supplied by the Uitenhage Brick Makers. It consisted of a double-storeyed building in Gothic style, with a high pitched roof in which were three dormer windows. Less than 20 years after it was opened in 1875, it was felt that the Uitenhage station was not large enough and should be pulled down.

The building remained in use until 1951 when it was vacated for the new station in Bubbs Avenue. The old building was restored to its former glory in the 1970ís. This unique building is now the Railway Museum and was proclaimed as a national monument in August 1976.


South Africaís most famous trained baboon, one which always remained faithful to his master, was "Jack the Signalman" from Uitenhage.

James Edwin Wide, a guard on the old Cape Government Railways, lost both legs at the knee in a railway accident near Kleinpoort in the Eastern Cape. Thus crippled in 1877, he took a post as signalman at Uitenhage station.

About four years later Wide was in the Uitenhage market place when an ox-wagon came in with a large young baboon acting as "voorloper." The owner told Wide that the baboon learnt quickly and was unusually intelligent. This gave Wide an idea. His cottage was half a mile from the signal box and he had made himself a light trolley propelled by hand apparatus. Wide decided to buy the baboon so that it could push or pull the trolley.

Jack the baboon soon mastered this simple task. Moreover, he learnt to lift the light trolley on and off the railway track. Wide kept and important key in his signal box. It unlocked the points that enabled locomotive drivers to reach the coal-sheds. Whenever a driver wanted it, he gave four blasts on his whistle and Wide would trotter out on his crutches and hold up the key. Jack watched this performance for a few days, then raced out with the key as soon as he heard the four blasts. Thereafter it became one of his duties.

Finally the time came when Wide was able to entrust the signal levers to the baboon. Wide would hold up one or two fingers and Jack would then pull the correct lever. He always looked at his master for confirmation. In the end, the baboon needed no instructions from his master. Jack really knew which lever to operate for each approaching train, and caught the various offerings thrown to him by passengers.

He knew the difference between the "home" and "distant"signals, and also the engine whistles; and although he was always under the eye of his master, he never made a mistake or required telling twice. Jack was one of the sights of Uitenhage for many years, and his astonishing feats of intelligence was the wonder of all who witnessed them. Jack died in 1890 after developing tuberculosis.


When the railway line reached Uitenhage, the Government authorities realised that the engine sheds erected at North End, Port Elizabeth, in 1875, would not be large enough to serve the extended line. A bigger scheme had to be devised and so in 1876 the Uitenhage Shops were established.

The first completed block provided adequate accommodation for repairing three locomotives at a time and the Carriage Shops had room for half a dozen of the short four-wheeled vehicles then in use. The wagons and carriages were all four-wheeled vehicles fourteen and a half feet long and accommodating very few passengers. They were fitted with chain brakes, weighed 3,5 tons and carried a load of 6 tons.

As Railways progressed, so did the Uitenhage Workshops, and it was relocated to a larger and more modern facility in 1976.