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 Wilderness | Looking Back : 

The Wilderness – 85 years Ago

1928 was one of the most significant years in the development of Wilderness. In that year the George-Knysna branch railway was opened and the old Wilderness farmhouse-guest house was restructured as the Wilderness Hotel.

The Railway
1928 saw the culmination of four years of construction work on the George-Knysna railway, started simultaneously from both ends in 1924. The idea for the line went back to the arrival of the Mossel Bay line in George in 1907, but money did not become available until the early 20s when economic depression brought pressure on the government to provide employment for Poor White poverty relief.
Of particular interest to Wilderness residents is a 1921 map of the proposed route drawn by the resident SA Railways engineer, Mr. H.G. Dempster in early 1921. In this, the line is clearly shown as running on the north bank of the lagoon, roughly along the line of the present Waterside Road, which was then a rough track through the bush to Fairy Knowe.
In 1925 it was reported that “ staking out of the line is complete as far as Victoria Bay. It is too early yet to determine the exact course beyond the Wilderness”. But the Dempster route was the expected one.
Owen Grant, the managing director of the newly formed Wilderness (1921) Ltd, was horrified by this alignment which would have wiped out all the residential plots along the north side of the river. He apparently travelled to Cape Town where he persuaded J.W. Jagger, the minister of railways, to change the route to the current one, crossing the Touw at the mouth and again near Freesia Rock. It is a pity that the construction at the mouth consisted of a long embankment and a short bridge – a choice later copied by the roads department. A longer bridge might have delayed the silting of the river by allowing a faster outflow at times of high flood.
The Kaaimans bridge provided formidable challenges. The concrete pillars went over 20 metres into the sand to reach bedrock. Storms and attendant floods, which washed away support structures, contrived. to delay completion by a year. Over 160 mm of rainwas recorded at the Wilderness in mid-September,
1925. By April, 1928, the George & Knysna Herald was commenting that the cost of £ 420 000, or about
£ 10 000 per mile made it one of the most expensive pieces of construction in the country
The Wilderness Station was the only station on the line between George and Knysna.
There were, of course, several sidings but the Herald describes the lakes as “ lonely and desolate, their shores almost uninhabited .”
On 17th October, 1928 the minister of railways, Charlie Malan, together with many bigwigs and about 300 schoolchildren, doubtless very pleased by the holiday, travelled by train to Knysna for the opening. On arrival there the train passed under a triumphal arch, smashing a suspended champagne bottle as it did so.
During November the railway had to be closed for a fortnight for final work on the Kaaimans bridge, re-opening finally on 30th November.
Wilderness Hotel
From 1921 until 1928 the Wilderness Hotel had been owned and run by Mrs. E.J.Ferguson, very much along the lines of the establishment run by the van Niekerk sisters before the 1st World War.
Early in April, 1928 the newspaper was suggesting that the hotel “ would be an ideal place where tourists might leave the train for half-an-hour and take their luncheon amid entrancing scenery ”. More leisured days then than now.
Later in the same month it reports that the Hotel will be closed for four months from the 28th “ for alterations, additions and renovations”. Mrs. Ferguson had sold her hotel to Owen Grant and Wilderness (1921) Ltd and intended to “ take a trip to Zanzibar with her youngest daughter .”
By October, just at the time of the opening of the railway, the hotel is reported as “glorified out of all recognition in the hands of its new owners” Its weekly rates were £3 .3s ( about R6.30 ) out of season and £ 4. 4s ( R8. 40 ) in season, with daily rates of 12/6 ( R1.25) or 15/- ( R1.50) respectively. Much has changed since those days !

 
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The Wilderness – 85 years Ago