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▪ This Day in History

History of South Africa

Alfred Nobel and his link with
Carl Friedrich Wolff - founder of
Early Days - 1903 to 1935
Flag & Coat of Arms

It was a railroad that stimulated the birth of .
It is a new kind of railroad that is impacting its future.

The First Railroad

Zuurfontein Station

Prior to the Great Trek of the 1830's, the area on which now stands was known only to hunters and nomad cattle farmers. The first seeds of the story were planted when, on 25 October 1859, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (Z.A.R.) issued a title deed for part of the farm Zuurfontein on which would develop many years later.

The discovery of gold in 1886 some 50 kilometers west of Zuurfontein stimulated, amongst others, the building of a railway line, which would serve as a link between the Transvaal gold fields and the east coast. On 25 June 1890, the Z.A.R. government granted a concession for the building of a railway line from Pretoria, bypassing Johannesburg on the east and directed to the Vaal River by the shortest route. The main line cut directly through the farm Zuurfontein, thus forging another link in the destiny of the yet unborn township of .

One of the stations established was at Zuurfontein. Zuurfontein station soon became a gathering place for resident farmers in the area where they collected their supplies.

The Dynamite Factory

The next major development determining the future of was the building of the dynamite factory at Modderfontein.

In conjunction with the largest dynamite manufacturer in Europe, the German-owned Nobel Trust, a new company was formed in 1894, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperkt.
In 1895 building of an explosives factory at Modderfontein commenced.

A contingent of specialists came from Europe for the task of erecting the world's largest dynamite factory. They left their home in Hamburg, Germany early in 1895. They made the long sea voyage to Cape Town, on to Durban and by ox wagon to Pretoria.

From Pretoria they traveled by train to the little siding of Zuurfontein. This was the end of their journey. Near this siding lay the site of the great dynamite factory they came to build.

On the platform, in the uniform of the Netherlands Railway Co. stood the stationmaster of Zuurfontein.  He pointed to a wagon track that disappeared into the veld. The men who set out to walk to Modderfontein were employees of the Nobel Dynamite Trust, the advanced guard of skilled workers who were yet to follow. The Trust at that time operated explosive factories throughout the world. It had acquired a controlling interest in the new company, the Zuid Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperkt.

Modderfontein Factory was laid out on 2400 hectares of virgin Highveld teeming with game and wildlife, and devoid of industry, raw materials and skilled workers. Construction started in April 1895 under the supervision of the first Factory Manager Franz Hoenig, an Austrian seconded from the Nobel explosives factory at Pressburg in Hungary. He was faced with many problems in setting up a great factory on a bare bit of veld, but the main one was people. As the construction of the factory neared completion, a call went out to Nobel factories throughout Europe for people to come and work at Modderfontein.

Scots came from Ardeer, Italians from the great works at Avigliana and Germans from the Baltic coast as well as Austrians.  Maintenance teams from Holland and England joined the workforce. At one stage representatives of no fewer than 17 European nationalities were on the payroll. Black employees were recruited from the four corners of the sub-continent.

The Zuid Afriaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperkt was a company formed expressly to supply dynamite to the mines. It was the brainchild of Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic. So it was that on 22 October 1896, President Paul Kruger traveled from Pretoria to the farm Modderfontein to open the new factory.

The first workers walked the 10 kilometers from Zuurfontein station to Modderfontein. It soon became clear that a railway link to Modderfontein was essential.
The new railway line from Zuurfontein to Modderfontein was constructed in 1890 to transport workers and building materials to the factory site. In establishing this link, a triangular piece of land was isolated. Carl Fredrich Wolff, who was the negotiator between the government and the explosives factory, bought the land and had it subdivided. He named it Estates, after the town in Germany, called Kempten, where he came from.

On the 25th August 1903 the then Surveyor-General, H.M. Jackson, approved plans for the establishment of a new township "the said property to be known as " and the township officially came into existence.


Next: Prehistory