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The Sekondi-Coomassie Railway

How the Sekondi-Coomassie Railway was driven through the forests of the Gold Coast



LEVELLING AND BALLASTING THE LINE. The work was done entirely by local labour.

WHILE every great railway possesses its individual romance, yet, tucked away here and there, in odd corners of the globe, are short isolated lengths of the steel highway which claim more than ordinary attention. Among these are the railways of West Africa, and in particular that of the Gold Coast, which possesses a romantic glamour which is peculiarly its own.

The popular conception of this section of the African continent is somewhat hazy. Generally it is dismissed as “The White Man’s Grave”, comprising vast tracts of dense, impenetrable, fever-laden jungle, concealing lagoons and swamps, where death lurks unseen in a hundred different forms. This impression, however, is quite wrong. The country certainly has a climate which is far from kind to the white man at present, in the same manner as the frost-bound wilderness of Canada was a certain death-trap until the pioneers opened it up to let in the sunlight. As West Africa becomes settled and developed, the insalubrious conditions will disappear; the country will be rendered as tenantable and as attractive as the southern extremity of the continent.

The idea of criss-crossing these vast expanses of virgin territory by the railway was suggested first by Mr. (afterwards Sir) William Shelford, M.Inst.C.E. Railways were the obsession of this accomplished engineer, and he concentrated his activities and skill upon West Africa. In the early nineties of the last century he attacked the problem vigorously, because he foresaw that, once this untouched region was given a fair start, settlement and development must go ahead with a rush.

At that time West Africa was a veritable “Tom Tiddler’s Ground”, awaiting the coming of the capitalist and toiler. But the machinery of development could not be set in motion until facilities were offered for access to the interior. The shore of the Gold Coast is hemmed in by a thick belt of jungle, 150 miles or more in width. To venture into this huge, untrodden forest demanded no small amount of pluck and determination. The exotic vegetation presented a solid barrier, through which advance could be made only by hacking and cutting, since the jungle was intersected by very few, narrow, and tortuous paths, trodden down by the feet of the natives.

The railway conquest of West Africa was inaugurated with the dispatch of a survey party to Sierra Leone in 1893 by Mr. Shelford, the Colonial Office having decided to open up the hinterland. Actual constructional work was commenced in 1896. Step by step the railway, of 2 feet 6 inch gauge, was driven forward from Freetown until it had reached Pendembu, 230 miles up country, and a short distance from the Liberian frontier.

The first attempt to survey the unknown interior for the ribbon of steel proved disastrous. Three Englishmen started out to make the reconnaissance. The party comprised a surveyor, his assistant, and a doctor. The latter was indispensable, owing to the country’s evil reputation. Disease was more to be dreaded than any form of hostility or accident. The surface of the ground is carpeted with a thick layer of decaying vegetation - the putrefaction of centuries - and the rainfall, which is severe, has converted this bed of leaves, branches, and dead-fall into a spongy, soddened mass, freely interspersed with pools and swamps, where the mosquito and other pests multiply by the million. Accordingly, malaria is rife; in fact, at that time it held the country more securely against a white invasion than the most cunning and determined tactics of the unfriendly natives.

The trio had not gone far before the formidable character of their undertaking was revealed very vividly. The swarming implacable insects counted their first victory: the doctor was bowled over by malaria. This was the sorriest trick that fortune could have played, and it was decidedly unnerving. Then the assistant fell a victim to the malady, and before the gravity of the situation was grasped he had crossed “The Divide”. It is not surprising that the surveyor himself, who had cheated misfortune, was dismayed by this calamity. His first care was the interment of his dead chum. He gave him as Christian a burial as the limited circumstances of the bush permitted. The provisions were tumbled out of the thin wooden boxes in which they had been packed for transport, and from these few sticks a crude coffin was contrived, in which the body was committed to a hastily-dug grave. As the doctor was recovering slowly, the surveyor packed his traps and made a laboured, painful return to the capital, where, after the grim story was related, arrangements for another dash through the inhospitable interior were prepared.

It was the discovery of gold which prompted the construction of the first railway on the Gold Coast. Intrepid prospectors braved the pestilential forests and diligently panned the up-country streams. They discovered traces of colour, and, following up the clues, at last struck the main reef of yellow metal at Tarkwa, some 40 miles from the seaboard. The news of the discovery precipitated the inevitable rush, as well as an inflow of capital, but it was no easy matter to gain the alluring gold belt. There were no facilities for transporting the essential heavy and cumbersome machinery to the claims, while the conveyance of the yellow fruits of exhausting labour to the coast was just as laborious. Incoming vessels had to discharge into small boats which ran the gauntlet of the heavy surf and dodged the sand-bars which littered the waterway leading to the interior. They crept up the river with considerable difficulty to a point as near the mining area as possible and there unloaded. The material then had to be tugged, pushed, and carried over rude tracks through the jungle to the mines. By the time the mines were reached transport charges had run away with £40 per ton.


A TEMPORARY BRIDGE OVER THE SUYAM RIVER. This view shows the nature of the country through which the railway runs.

No industrial concern could work under such conditions and show a profit. Accordingly it was decided to drive a railway from a convenient point on the coast to Tarkwa. After scouring the shore line of the Gold Coast from end to end, it was decided to create a terminal port at what was virtually an unknown spot, which then was little more than a native village - Sekondi. It is not a harbour, but merely a small, open bay; but it was the only choice between two evils. Possibly, some day, when the colony attains a position of greater prosperity, and in view of the fact that Sekondi occupies a strategical position in relation to the developed interior, harbour works will be taken in hand, to remedy the deficiencies of Nature for the safety and convenience of shipping.

Having secured a foothold on the coast, the railway builders undertook to drive their line forward from that point. The first section comprised some 40 miles, but it was as hard a 40-mile stretch as any engineer could wish to tackle. There was the densely-matted jungle, a fearful climate, a fiendish rainfall, and a comparative absence of gravel with which to carry out the earthworks. Englishmen, of course, were in demand to superintend operations; but it proved to be no white man’s land in those early days. The deadly climate mowed them down like flies, while some of stronger physique, although they outwitted the “old man with the scythe”, went raving mad.

Yet the surveyors had painted the picture of what was to come very convincingly. Events proved they did not exaggerate the conditions one whit. They themselves had had many a stiff struggle to advance. Driving survey lines through a gloomy forest which is so dense and overgrown with brush that it is seldom a clear view 100 feet ahead can be obtained is despairing toil. The country was found to be gently undulating, but the majority of the depressions were filled with swamp or stagnant, fetid pools, concealed from sight by the overgrowing scrub, so that a sudden immersion to the thighs or waist was by no means uncommon; while such unseemly disturbance of a silent lagoon was sufficient to provoke dense swarms of mosquitoes to spirited attack.

In such country as this the man with the transit and level must be gifted with what the American terms aptly “a nose for a railway”, meaning an instinct, cultivated by prolonged and difficult experience, to obtain the best route in the shortest time and with the minimum of expense. When the outlook is shut in on all sides by dense vegetation, it is a toss-up whether the line already plotted is really so good as one which might be found a few miles to one side or the other. Still, each of half a dozen different routes is certain to possess superior features here and there. The problem is the selection of the line which offers the greatest number of advantages and the minimum of defects. No matter how completely the engineer may achieve his task, the sum of his efforts is certain to meet with criticism, as a result of subsequently acquired knowledge.


BUILDING THE ANCOBRA BRIDGE. The most important on the line. The central span is of 180 feet.

Surveying in tropical climes is attended with another factor which is not encountered in more temperate regions. The decided route or “location” is indicated by a row of pegs, spaced 100 feet apart - the length of a chain - down the centre of the narrow survey cleavage through the scrub. These pegs indicate the centre of the track. At regular intervals they are supplemented on one side or the other by another stake, known as a “bench mark”, on which is indicated the altitude at that particular point. When it came to setting out these indispensable pegs in West Africa the engineer was confronted with the possibility of indulging unwittingly in a plan of re-afforestation. The stakes being cut from green wood invariably started to sprout after lie had moved on. Then, as the survey line became obliterated in a very short space of time, owing to the amazingly rapid growth of the scrub, lively interludes and waste of time were encountered occasionally in searching for the location pegs by the constructional armies. When a nude stick planted by the surveyor has grown into a fully-fledged tree by the time the railway builder arrives, identification is by no means easy. Accordingly whenever a bench or location mark of importance had to be indicated the surveyor utilised something devoid of sprouting propensities. This generally assumed the form of a small block of concrete, sunk into the ground, from the centre of which projected a few feet of iron barrel. Such an expedient, while highly effective, has to be used but sparingly when one has to move rapidly through a dense country and when the only available transport facilities are the heads of natives!

The right-of-way is somewhat of more imposing width on the Gold Coast than generally is allocated for this purpose. This is essential to protect the track and the telegraph wires from the destructive effects of windfalls. Some of the trees indigenous to this country are of huge proportions, ranging between 20 and 30 feet at the butt, and running to a height of 140 feet or more. Owing to the exceedingly wet character of the climate, the trees, generally speaking, are of little or no commercial value, being for the most part “soft”. Pulping would appear to be their only possible commercial use. In fact this should offer a great attraction, seeing that British manufacturers are compelled to go two or three thousand miles afield for their supplies of raw material in the paper-making industry.

While many of the larger trees are somewhat hollow and brittle, being analogous in this respect to the Canadian cottonwood, others are solid through the butt. Such a tree offers a pretty problem in its removal from the right-of-way, two or three days’ continuous labour being required to bring it to the ground. In clearing operations natives were used almost exclusively, and although hand-felling with primitive tools may seem to lack expedition, in this instance the native was found to be more efficient, reliable, and cheaper than the much-vaunted modern methods. As these large trees averaged about twenty to the acre of right-of-way, and about 40 acres per mile had to be cleaned of all vegetation, this initial task in itself was a stupendous undertaking.

The felling of the trees and the cutting of the luxuriant undergrowth was only one, and the easiest, half of the work. When brought to the ground the vegetation had to be destroyed, as it was useless for constructional purposes. The large trees were split, hacked to pieces, piled and fired, which, owing to the wet climate and the wood being green, occupied time. Then came reckoning with the stump. As with the majority of trees growing in a wet region, and where there is a thick upper layer of decaying vegetable matter, the roots do not thrust themselves very deeply into the subsoil, but rather radiate in all directions along the surface. The usual method of treating these obstacles was to dig around the stump, severing the roots, and then to haul the mass to one side by the aid of rope and tackle to be burned in due course. Though progress was somewhat slow under these conditions, it was preferable to blasting the stumps, as it enabled native labour to be used, whereas expert and highly paid skill would have been necessary.

Although the swathe through the forest is 300 feet wide, the windfall obstruction of the railway is not eliminated entirely. Indeed, the interruptions from this cause upon the Gold Coast number about two hundred per annum; falling trees constitute the worst foe against which the management is pitted. The tall giants, owing to indifferent root-hold, are brought down very easily by a high wind, and as those on the edge of the clearing naturally lean towards the light, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they topple across the metals.

As the Gold Coast, from its hot, moist climate, is virtually a gigantic greenhouse, the undergrowth thrives amazingly. So much so that it is necessary to cut it back about twice a year; otherwise the permanent way runs the risk of being blotted out within a very short space of time. Thus the expense of clearing does not end with the initial operation; maintenance of the open space through the jungle is unavoidably expensive; in fact it represents a prominent item in the working costs.

As a rule when such a country is opened up by railway, a pioneer line is laid. Expense is kept down to the lowest possible amount, the engineers following the path of least resistance, reducing earthworks to the minimum as well as disregarding the elements of curvature and grade. Then, as the railway settles down and the traffic grows, elaborate overhauling is taken in hand and the line is rebuilt practically. This policy has been found to be the most successful and remunerative in the United States, Canada and Australia, but it has its drawbacks; re-aligning always is expensive.

In the case of the Gold Coast Railway the guiding principle was “First cost: last cost”. True it made the bill for construction somewhat heavy, but the wisdom of the policy has been justified completely by results. No grades exceeding 1 in 50 or curves of a less radius than 330 feet were permitted. Some heavy earthworks became requisite at places, while some of the embankments are of large proportions. The rails, weighing 50 lb. per yard, are laid upon pressed steel sleepers - wood was useless - while there is a complete absence of timber trestles or bridges from one end of the line to the other.

Although a high-class railway was laid down the constructional costs were reduced appreciably by exclusive resort to native labour and methods. One searched the grade in vain for steam shovels and other heavy and expensive mechanical appliances familiar to similar works in other parts of the world - all because the native and his ways and means of doing things were found to be quicker, better, and cheaper. Nor was the spoil removed from this cutting to build up that embankment, as is the invariable rule. The former was thrown to one side, while the material required to fill a depression was taken from an adjacent ballast, or “borrow” pit.

The engineers were handicapped seriously by being compelled to carry every ounce of material required for the railway from the railhead, whence it was brought by train to the point of construction upon the heads of natives. On one, occasion the engineer was describing the methods which had been adopted to a party of interested gentlemen, among whom was an American. The latter was familiar with the procedure followed by railway builders in his own country, and that human heads should be utilised for transport purposes perplexed him keenly. He reflected for a few seconds, and then, determined to solve what to him was a quaint puzzle, he fired the inevitable “Why?”

“Oh! Because there was no other way!” was the retort.

“What?” ejaculated the astonished American. “Weren’t there any animals - horses, mules or oxen?”

“No!” retorted the engineer blandly. “Only snakes and mosquitoes!”

The American was nonplussed, but he dismissed the Gold Coast as being a “Gol-durned country”.

The disadvantage of building the railway from one end only was that as rapidly as an embankment was raised the rails had to be laid over it, no interval being permitted to allow settlement to take place. Inasmuch as the earthworks were built on treacherous ground, although the depressions were drained as far as practicable, and the ballast was little better than loam or silt, subsidences were frequent. When the wet season set in the new earthworks suffered heavily at places, the soft soil either being washed away, packing tightly, or spreading, thereby producing ominous “sink holes.” Further dumping and ballasting had to be carried out, the metals being lifted with jacks as the ballast was tamped beneath. To make matters worse, as the line approached the gold district, the mines, instead of shipping their material over the route followed before the coming of the railway, landed it at Sekondi and dispatched it to the railhead, whence it was transported overland. The result was that the railhead not only became choked with railway constructional material for the line, but also with goods for the mines.

As the railway penetrated the jungle the labour question became somewhat acute. The forest is practically tenantless. White labour was impossible, even if it had been available, from motives of cost and the susceptibility of the white man to the dreaded indigenous diseases. So a native recruiting campaign was inaugurated. The District Commissioners of the British West African colonies circulated appeals for labourers throughout their respective territories. At first the harvest was not very inspiring, but as the natives learned that the White Man’s money was certain and regular, and that fair treatment was meted out, while good food was provided, they accepted the opportunity to supplement their means of existence. The wages from the civilised point of view certainly were not princely, averaging a shilling per day with all found, but the native was perfectly satisfied. When work

was in full swing 16,000 natives found steady employment, 12,000 of whom were brought in from Lagos. Upon the completion of the railway this vast army, or those who preferred, were restored to their homes. The natives proved to be highly intelligent, and for the most part developed into good workmen. They were accommodated in large camps, which assumed such proportions, with serried rows of well-thatched huts, as to suggest prosperous native villages.



The natives proved tractable and, on the whole, were not so lazy as those found in other parts of the continent. Squads of natives were drilled to act as police, and they kept law and order in a perfect manner. Once a month the whole toiling population lined up round the engineer’s hut, gaily bedecked and dressed as if for a fete. In the hut was a table and one or two engineers, before whom the natives passed in a regular, well-ordered queue to draw the reward for their labours in the coin of the realm.

The cost of construction was inflated very appreciably owing to the distance of the railway from the purchasing markets. Every ounce of provisions, building material, and other necessaries had to be brought from England. The one item of freight was exceedingly heavy, many articles by the time they were landed at Sekondi having increased seven- or eight-fold in price, and this handicap was felt most seriously in connection with such commodities as matches, sugar, soap, and so forth.

A vessel laden with supplies put out from Liverpool once every month while work was in progress. The commissariat was a heavy responsibility, bearing in mind the large army of toilers that had to be fed. But the arrangements were laid so carefully that no apprehensions ever arose under this heading, although now and again everything went awry from some unforeseen mishap, such as the total wreck of a supply steamer off the West African coast. Losses in landing at Sekondi, owing to the absence of harbour facilities, were considerable, but this was a drawback which could not be compassed. These misfortunes, however, affected the progress of the railway more adversely than the labourers. Several weeks’ delay ensued while duplicate orders of the lost material were being fulfilled at home and shipped.

As the railway was approaching Tarkwa in 1899 the first serious indication of native hostility to the white invasion became manifest. In April, 1900, King Prempeh rose in rebellion. The disaffection spread like wildfire. The engineers working on the advance works, or engaged in survey-revision work, were deserted, while the natives imported into the country for the enterprise, becoming nervous, retreated towards the coast or the big camps. The survey engineers, concluding that the rising was somewhat trivial, stuck to their ground, only to retreat when they learned the true significance of the outbreak, or to be driven in. Work at the railhead was thrown all sixes and sevens. Importation of labourers from the adjacent territories was stopped summarily, the government fearing that upon being landed the recruits might go over to the enemy. The natives already in employment were commandeered by the military authorities to act as carriers for the troops selected for the forced march to Coomassie to quell the outbreak. There was a complete disorganisation, and everything was brought to a standstill.

A wash-out in the Achemotah Valley


A wash-out in the Achemotah Valley.

In 1899, prior to the outbreak of the war, Mr. Frederic Shelford, who had taken over the reins of railway building operations upon the retirement of his father, and who inherited the pioneer’s enthusiasm in a vigorous railway expansion policy for the Gold Coast, matured plans for continuing northwards from Tarkwa to Coomassie. Prospectors scouring the country north of the existing gold district had discovered further deposits of the yellow metal. Mr. Shelford, having been on the spot, recognised the extent of this later discovery, as well as the possibilities of developing other resources which were lying dormant. Thus the moment was opportune for extension, and he communicated his views to the Right Honourable Joseph Chamberlain, who was then Colonial Secretary. The Minister was sympathetic, but a counter-proposal had been advanced by Sir William Maxwell, the Governor of the Gold Coast, for the building of a line from Accra, the English capital, to Coomassie. Mr. Chamberlain agreed that a railway should be built to the Ashanti stronghold, though he suggested that surveys should be made both from Accra and Tarkwa respectively to Coomassie. He promised, whichever route was the more favourable, that construction should be undertaken without delay, as he was fully alive to the urgent necessity of the enterprise.

The survey between Tarkwa and Coomassie was undertaken by Mr. Frederic Shelford personally, and he started out with one assistant and fifty native porters. Progress was found to be even more difficult than it had been between the coast and Tarkwa. It was an endless tramp through a succession of evil swamps and dense jungle, where the rainfall is terrific, 4 or 5 inches of water being by no means uncommon in a single “tropical shower”. There was not a single native track to help Mr. Shelford. His compass was his sole guide, and he hacked and hewed his path foot by foot. In order that he should not be impeded in his reconnaissance, the personal impedimenta had been reduced to the scantiest necessities. No camp outfit was carried beyond a few utensils for the preparation of the food, and to filter and boil the drinking water. At the end of the day a small clearing a few feet in circumference was made, to allow the camp, such as it was, to be pitched, while the ground, with its damp pile of rotting vegetation, constituted their couch.

This expedition also met with misfortune. Mr. Shelford’s assistant was struck down by black-water fever before they had penetrated far. While this reconnaissance was being driven, the Ashanti War broke out, although the party were ignorant of the fact. Mr. Shelford plodded forward, cutting, hacking, and hewing his narrow way through the forbidding and now hostile country. Fortunately for him, he escaped the vengeance of the rebellious natives, who evidently had massed at Coomassie. The result was that when he at last gained Prempeh’s capital he was surprised to find the English troops in possession. He himself was the first Englishman to enter the stronghold from Sekondi. His northward dash from Tarkwa, spying out the lay of the country for the railway, had taken about three weeks. The survey thus obtained was compared with that run via Accra to Coomassie, and, being found preferable from all points of view, it received official acceptance.

The overthrow of the Ashanti king and the pacification of the country after its addition to the Gold Coast enabled the construction of the railway to be resumed, and in May, 1901, Tarkwa was linked to the coast. Then the development of the mines went forward with a rush. In one stroke the transportation charges were reduced from £40 to £5 per ton, and the effect was felt immediately. The heaviest machinery now could be brought up with ease and installed. Before many

months had elapsed the heart of the hinterland was a throbbing hive of activity.

There was no pause in railway-building operations. The Sekondi-Tarkwa-Coomassie survey having met with approval, the advance to the former capital of Ashanti was commenced in June, 1901. Eighteen months later the railway had penetrated to Obuassi, 86 miles beyond Tarkwa, having advanced at the rate of 4¾ miles per month, which, bearing in mind the heavy clearing and earthworks which were necessary, constituted a striking performance. In September, 1903, the objective was reached - Coomassie was brought into railway communication with Sekondi on the coast.

So far as bridges are concerned, heavy works of this character were not found necessary. The most important, perhaps, is the Ancobra Bridge, on the branch line, 19 miles in length, which runs from Tarkwa to Prestea. This bridge has four spans -  two approach each of 45 feet, one of 90 feet, and a central span of 180 feet respectively. The erection of the main big span was carried out on the overhang or cantilever system, the spans on either side being used as anchorages. The bridge is of the half-through, or “trough” type, supported upon concrete piers 40 feet in height. The next largest bridge is that across the Huni River, the main span of which has a length of 150 feet. All the smaller bridges are of a permanent character, with concrete piers and abutments, and steel plate girders.

The rolling stock is of the latest type. The locomotives follow the British design with American cow-catcher and head-light. The most powerful engines are of the 4-8-0 class, and these handle the traffic between Sekondi and Coomassie. To protect the European drivers from the sun and rain the roomy cab is fitted with a double roof. The coaches are of the end-corridor pattern, upholstered according to the class.

It comes as a surprise to the stranger to the Gold Coast, who is familiar with the railway travelling comforts of home, to find cars fitted with kitchens, sleeping-berths, baths, and other luxuries traversing a country which only a little more than a decade ago was “dark” in the fullest interpretation of the word. His astonishment is complete when he finds that he can assuage his thirst upon the “Coomassie Limited” with a bottle of Bass for sixpence, or a whisky-and-soda for nine-pence! Truly the advance of civilisation is rapid.

The metamorphosis of West Africa constitutes one of the most remarkable incidents in railway history. In few other countries where maps were non-existent, where the rainfall averages as much in a month as during a year in Great Britain, where the forest was untrodden, and where malaria reigned supreme, has so sudden and complete a change been wrought in such a short space of time. In 1897 Sekondi was a handful of straggling mud huts dotting the shore. To-day it is a busy terminal port with sidings, substantial administration buildings, a hospital, and other attributes to a busy growing centre. In August, 1898, the engineers commenced to carve their way through the forest, and although work was interrupted by scarcity of labour, a harassing climate, and the Ashanti War, the first 40 miles to Tarkwa were completed in May, 1901 - a matter of thirty-three months. The overthrow of King Prempeh and the resultant pacification of the country enabled construction to go forward more rapidly on the northern extension, Obuassi being reached in seventeen months, while the last lap of 44 miles into Coomassie was finished in seven months—an average advance of 6‘3 miles per month. On the Tarkwa-Obuassi section rail-laying reached 12 miles per month, which conveys some idea of the energy with which the work was prosecuted when untrammelled.

This achievement is all the more remarkable when the difficulties concerning the personnel are borne in mind. The changes in the staff were everlasting, owing to sickness. During the progress of the work no fewer than ten chief engineers were appointed in turn.

Does the line pay? Well, whereas in 1905 the net receipts were £51,000, in 1911 the net earnings were £183,798. Such a result proves conclusively that the £1,857,237 sunk in the railway development of the Gold Coast is proving a highly profitable investment, which is certain to increase as the illimitable resources of the country are opened up.



[From Parts 2-3 of Railway Wonders of the World by Frederick A. Talbot

You can read more on “Across Africa by Rail”, “The Gold Coast” and “The Uganda Railway” on this website.