The Little Town That Could

Umniati River in flood with the new bridge under construction
Umniati River in flood with the new bridge under construction

Umniati River in flood with the new bridge under construction

The Little Town That Could 

The Beira and Mashonaland Railway Company completed the rail link south between Salisbury and the Globe and Phoenix Station, later called Que Que, in 1901. The link to Bulawayo was completed a year later. Now coal fired boilers could be introduced on the Globe and Phoenix Mine, meat to the market and women arrived in Que Que.  The daily passenger trains from Bulawayo and Salisbury still passed through Que Que, at the ungodly hours of one and two am respectively a half-century later.

The Little Town That Could

In January of 1953 clouds hung low and heavy like wet blotting paper while thunder rumbled ominously across the sodden land.  The heavens opened and torrential rain for the eighth day bucketed down.

Riverbeds that had been sandy wastes for the past two years were now raging torrents, carrying away precious topsoil, uprooted trees and the bloated carcasses of cattle and goats.  Roads were impassable in many places. The railway bridge over the Umniati River, linking Que Que to Gatooma and the towns to the north, collapsed.

Holidaymakers were returning home in time for the new school term. Behind the hissing Garratt steam engine passengers looked anxiously out of rain-streaked windows.

“What do we do now?”

“How long before the bridge will be repaired?”

“We are pretty low on cash.”

Dad, was mayor.  He reassured the crowd on the platform, “We’ll make things as easy for you as we can.  The railway engineers and their gang are already on the job.”

A rota system was organized.  The large kitchen at the boarding school was opened.  The Red Cross provided food; the Women’s Institute brought hot meals to the elderly on the train as well as magazines and books.  The ladies stayed to chat and give cheer to the worried folk.

The school bus ferried groups of passengers to the school for meals.

The welfare bus took others to the mine shower block for a hot shower.  Soap and towels were provided.

The Globe and Phoenix Mine Compound Manager, pith helmeted A. J. Liebenberg, cranked his car into high gear and arranged housing and food for the third and forth class African passengers at the First Aid Pavilion.

Much to the Hirsch children’s consternation, their home at #1 Silver Oaks Road was opened to families with young children, who had the run of the very large, long verandah.  They had use of our toys!  My Rosebud dolls suffered broken limbs and  torn clothes.  Brian’s Meccano set lost nuts and bolts, levers and gears and David’s golliwog disappeared altogether.   Mom was impervious to our complaints.  How could we be so selfish?

Our commodious kitchen was opened to mothers with babies to feed and bottles to sterilize late into the night.

Stranded motorists occupied all the rooms at Sloman’s Que Que Hotel.  Mattresses were put down in the lounge to accommodate the overflow.  Homeowners opened up their homes as well.  One family had measles.  Dad found a similar family in town.  All were sick together.

Teperson and Malkow’s Midlands Bakery did a roaring trade sending their “boys” down in their plastic capes with trays of hot sausage rolls, meat pies, chips and sticky buns for sale.

Mr. Kluckow of  Vernon’s Café, not to be outdone, provided enamel jugs of hot coffee and tea, packets of biscuits, sweets and Willards chips, as well as cigarettes and matches.

The Medical Officer of Health did a splendid job with sanitary pails.

Telephone lines were down, but news still came over the wireless at six in the evening.  A daily bulletin was posted on the station notice board chronicling progress on the damaged bridge.  Bets were laid.  The town’s rallying to the stranded passengers plight and the cheerfulness of all was catching.  A festive air developed.  Soccer matches and other games were played on the platform.

Extra food and hot drinks in thermoses were sent to the hard working railway engineers and their gang.  Ribald jokes were shouted across the turbulent river to folk on the far side who had come to watch the river and monitor progress.

After four days the bridge was deemed safe.  The Garratt was unhooked, the fire stoked.  Smoke rose in the soggy air.  With a few optimistic hoots the engine rumbled its way out of sight to test the bridge on its own.

For what seemed like eternity the swelling crowds waited and listened for the returning Garratt.  Youngsters put their ears to the line…then they heard it: the engine’s whistle, a whistle of success.

The whole town turned out to bid farewell to the passengers.  Dad wore his red robe with its ermine collar and mayoral gold chain.  There were tears of happiness and relief.  The most enthusiastic cheers were from the three Hirsch kids.

In response, the spokesman for the passengers concluded “Que Que is the little town with the golden heart, the little town that could.”

A big thank you to Eileen Underwood of New Zealand for this picture of the Umniati River and to Dora Dunkley (Candy) for details.