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With the recent heavy downpours in Bloemfontein and the images and videos thereof popping up all over Facebook, one cannot help but be reminded of one of the biggest disasters to ever hit Bloemfontein, the flood of 1904.

In the early years of Bloemfontein its famous Bloem Spruit regularly flooded its banks after a heavy rainstorm. One bystander described it as follows: “A magnificent sight after a good downpour, the water, brown and foaming, shooting up as it flung itself against the huge boulders in its way, or swirling and eddying around them.” This, however, was under normal circumstances. In times of really heavy rains, the narrow, winding creek that snaked through the centre of the town was insufficient to drain the enormous volume of water from the wetland west of the town and, for the most part, everything in the path of the floodwater would be swept away. With the abundant rains in 1868, the water flooded through the gardens of the water plots south of the spruit. In 1874, the floodwaters caused £ 600 worth of damage to the municipal property alone, and in 1891 the spruit’s water level rose to as high as twelve feet (approximately 4 meters) after only one hour of heavy rain. When this happened, the Bloemspruit was impassable for hours on end and the water mass cut off the southern part of the village from the northern part. People who tried to get through were often swept away with carriages and all, sometimes with fatal consequences. However, none of these earlier floods could prepare the town and its inhabitants for the disaster that awaited her.

On Sunday, January 17, 1904, an unprecedented mass of water hit the town. The previous Friday, clouds began to gather west of the town. Heavy rain fell on Saturday, which was particularly welcome after the drought of previous years, and during Sunday morning’s church services morning prayers were offered in thanks. After dinner that afternoon, Charlie Fichardt and his foreman walked up the slopes of Brandkop to watch the effects of the rain when “suddenly a report like a cannon was heard from above Wessels’, another towards Johnson’s, and a third from about where the old Gloucester camp used to be. Then an immense body of water was seen to fall from the heavens and striking the ground, rushed round and round like water in a boiling cauldron, and then shot out like the smoke from a rifle, getting bigger and wider as it went, followed by immense sheets of water from the skies that hid everything in front from view.” Over the slope of the field, the water streamed to the wetland west of the town, flowing over the dam wall, and erupting along the spruit which still served as the only drainage channel for the entire area.

In Bloemfontein, the spruit ran strongly that day after the heavy rains, but it was not yet overflowing its banks, nor did any further rain fall in the town to warn residents of the possible danger. In fact, most were enjoying a Sunday afternoon nap when the tremendous mass of floodwater poured into the spruit, and were roused from their sleep by the sound of rushing water and walls crashing down.

Figure 2: The spruit in flood – viewed from Fraser Street toward Church (now Oliver Tambo) Street.
Figure 3: The Church (now Oliver Tambo) Street bridge across the spruit.

At half-past three that afternoon, the spruit had already flooded its banks, and the first floodwaters reached the steps of the Royal Hotel at the corner of Fontein Street. Fuelled by the heavy rains that began to fall in the wetland west of the town at three o’clock, the water level continued to rise – four to five feet (approximately 1 to 1, 5 m) deep in Fontein Street and two feet (half a meter) in St. Andrew Street. On the verandah of the Royal Hotel guests gathered to watch the spectacular view. With such tremendous power the water flowed that it uprooted trees and washed away houses in their entirety; first the weaker buildings and later the more sturdy ones, to be crushed against the bridges. All along the Bloemspruit horrified people fled onto roofs and into trees, trying to escape the floodwaters..

Figure 4: The flooded East Burger Street. The building on the left is most likely the Union Hotel.

On the verandah of the Royal Hotel, guests began to notice how buildings on the other side of the street were being washed away and realized their own danger. With the aid of ropes, a few could still be brought to safety across the floodwater of Fontein Street, but the entire verandah collapsed before everyone could be saved and the remaining people disappeared into the water and debris, including Detective Macdonald, who continued to struggle for another ten minutes before being swept away. The latter was at the time busy rescuing people from the floodwaters and years later Macdonald Street would be named in his honour for his heroic deeds that day.

Figure 5: The Royal Hotel at the corner of Church (now Oliver Tambo) Street on the left and Fontein Street on the right before the flood.
Figure 6: All that remained of the Royal Hotel after the flood.

More people perished when the buildings in which they sought shelter were carried away, and bodies were later found far outside the town. Horses and mules, trees, furniture, wood, corrugated iron, and other pieces of wreckage were all swept away by the floodwaters.

Figure 7: The aftermath of the flood – the Gordon Street bridge across the spruit.

Later that afternoon the rain stopped and the water levels began to lower. The worst danger was over. The extent of the damage, however, was considerable: during the few hours that the floodwaters raged through the town, nearly sixty people were killed, 175 buildings were destroyed, and demolitions amounting to £ 250,000 resulted. The bridges over Bloem Spruit were all damaged and not a single house was left in Fontein Street. Moreover, 3 000 people were left homeless.

Figure 8: The remains of T. Smith’s shop.
Figure 9: The remains of a house in Fontein Street.

That night it started to rain again. The water supply was cut off, and as a result of damage to the power plant, the town was in the dark. Police constables had to patrol the streets with lanterns to prevent the inevitable looting that follows any disaster of such a nature. Some of the victims slept in the various school buildings on bedding and mattresses donated by Bloemfontein’s shopkeepers and others were given shelter in private homes. Immediate steps were taken to relieve the distress and repair the storm damage. By the Tuesday after the disaster, The Friend newspaper had already received £ 671 from its readers, and in November the Flood Relief Fund totalled nearly £ 34,000.

Figure 10: A map indicating the scene of disaster. The shaded portion shows the areas damaged by the flood.

After this, it was quite clear that the spruit would have to undergo drastic changes to prevent a recurrence of the disaster. The necessary land, mostly private property, was expropriated on both sides of Bloemspruit, involving a total of 75 landowners, and from Government House (today the Old Presidency Museum) eastwards, the spruit was straightened and channelled to a depth of between fifteen and twenty feet (4, 5 to 6 m) and a hundred feet wide (about 30 m) – sufficient, it has been determined, to handle twice the volume of water that had just hit the town. The sides of the canal were lined with sandstone blocks, and the old bridges were replaced with new stone structures. By 1907 the canalization of Bloemspruit was completed and today Bloemfontein’s rainwater is still being diverted to the Renosterspruit and eventually the Modder River via the very same Bloemspruit.

Figure 11: The meandering spruit as it was before the flood.
Figure 12: The new channelled and straightened spruit with the Aliwal Street bridge in the foreground.
  • This article is an excerpt from a paper, Die vloed van 1904: Bloemfontein, presented by Elmar du Plessis at the annual conference of the South African Society for Cultural History (SASCH) held at Simon’s Town, 18-19 October 2019.
  • All photographs in this article are from the National Museum Photographic Collection.

References:

Haasbroek, H. 2015. Splinters en dorings uit die Rosestad se verlede. Bloemfontein (Sun Media).

Schoeman, K. 1980. Bloemfontein: die ontstaan van ‘n stad 1846-1946. Cape Town (Human & Rousseau).

Souvenir of the great Bloemfontein disaster. Compiled by the Central News Agency, Cape Town.

The Friend. 1904.01.20

Van der Bank, D.A. 1988. Die Bloemfontein-vloed van 1904. Nasionale Museum Nuus (34), p.15.

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