Short history on trams in Johannesburg

Since moving this blog from Posterous (RIP), the traffic has more than doubled and for the first time I’m also able to see what people searched for to get to my blog. A few weeks ago there was a spike in ‘tram’ searches so I decided to slot a quick history of trams in-between the Belgravia posts. First though, some interesting road facts…

Rustenburg Road can be seen running through WITS on this old map. Over time, the road has become broken up by urban development but still remains in parts.

Rustenburg Road can be seen running through WITS on this old map. Over time, the road has become broken up by urban development but still remains in parts.

The oldest road is reputed to be the Heidelburg to Rustenburg road. It was originally a wagon trail and remnants of it have evidently been preserved at WITS campus. Looking at old maps, the road today appears to be the same Rustenburg Road that snakes through the bottom of Melville and reappears in Victory Park. Part of the original road also became Barry Hertzog. This road existed before the discovery of gold.

It is said that Melville koppies, Parktown ridge and the Mondeor koppies were barren, rocky and almost treeless but looked much the same as today (minus the houses of course). In December 1886 there was only one tree in the whole of Raanjieslaagte situated in Church Square which became Von Branadis Square – roughly where the law courts are today.

The first road in Johannesburg was Commissioner street. It linked Ferrieria’s Camp to Jeppestown and was created by filling a wooden box with rocks that was dragged up and down by mules. With the fast influx of people and increased mining needs, transport became an issue. Most roads in the town (right up to the mid 1910) were still mostly sand without pavements, curbs or drainage. Attempts to macadamize the roads were made difficult by continuously overloaded wagons and heavy rain which both damaged the roads. Johannesburg only got a proper railway in 1892 (2.5 years after the stand-alone Rand Tram was set-up to transport coal from Boksburg) so all goods were transported into the town by wagon from either the Cape or Durban from wherever the railway lines ended. It is said the road (or wagon tracks) to Johannesburg were paved with skeletons of countless draught animals that died from hunger, thirst or exhaustion along the way.

Rand Tram was originally a stand alone tram line between Boksburg and JHB to transport coal. It soon extended and became the fully fledged railway we know today

Rand Tram was originally a stand alone tram line between Boksburg and JHB to transport coal. It soon extended and became the fully fledged railway we know today

The Rand Tram line ran east to west through the Randjeslaagte triangle. The mining camps and building development on the blocks laid out between Commissioner and Noord Streets presented a physical barrier, so the line was forced to skirt this barrier on the north side. In order to get back to alignment serving the mines the line had to curve through Doornfontein, Troyeville And Jeppestown seriously disrupting their block layouts. The Jeppe & Ford company consented to the line running through Jeppestown on condition all trains stopped at School Halt (named after St. Marys which later became Jeppe Halt and was also the busiest Halt after Park Halt at the end of Eloff street – now the Johannesburg Railway Station)

Arriving in 1889, the first town engineer, William Henry Miles from Bournemouth, supervised the laying of the first tram lines. In 1891, the first tram moved out of the Market Square terminus. Horse drawn tram lines were limited to town, Braamfontein, Fordsburg, Jeppe, Belgravia and Doornfontein. The horse tram sheds were located on the north side of the Staib street road depot. Within a few years double-decker trams were introduced and serviced the city for many years. The last horse-drawn trip was made to Braamfontein on 14 July 1906 (five months after the introduction of the electric tram)

Horse tram map 1891-1906

Horse tram map 1891-1906

The first horse tram 1891

The first horse tram 1891

Double decker horse tram mid 1890s

Double-decker horse tram mid 1890s

A major problem in planning the trams was the railway line which effectively cut the town in half. To get around this, bridges and subways had to be built because the existing level crossings where becoming too dangerous and difficult to maintain with the increase in traffic. The Main Street subway in Jeppe was finished in 1905, Braamfontein/Harrison Street subway in 1906, Siemert Road Doornfontein in 1910 and Vrededorp subway in 1911. In 1904 the Twist Street and King George bridges were also built.

Twist Street bridge Oct 2 1905

Twist Street bridge Oct 2 1905

The outbreak of the war put stop to plans to move to an electric tram system. The electric tram and the power station to supply the electricity was started in 1905. By mid 1906 most of it was completed – 25 miles of double track and 3 miles of single track. The first service from Market Square to Siemert Road railway bridge took place on 14 February 1906. By the end of the year 14 routes were in service.

Electric trams had a fair reach

Electric trams had a fair reach

Of interest are two accidents: On 5 December 1906 tramcar no.51 overturned in Yeoville and on 27 March 1907 two cars collided at the bottom of Twist Street due to a locust swarm. By 1925, the overhead tram lines reached a distance of 136km and serviced by 191 cars. Before WW2 there were 242 tramcars plus another 138 motor buses and 38 trolley buses that serviced other routes. With the increase of traffic in general from the 1930s, negotiations began to look at lowering the railway lines starting with Jeppe. This work started in 1936. The Main Street subway was eliminated (See picture of this subway on the Jeppe Grand Station Hotel post here) and bridges built at Nugget Street, Cleveland, Denver, Tooronga, Geldenhuis and 6th Ave, Mayfair.

Trolley bus 1935

Trolley bus 1935

Tram lines on Louis Botha Ave at the bottom of death bend

Tram lines on Louis Botha Ave approaching death bend

Tram lines on Jan Smuts Avenue at the top of the hill before heading down to Zoo Lake

Tram lines on Jan Smuts Avenue at the top of the hill before heading down to Zoo Lake

Trsm going up Jan Smuts with underdeveloped Valley Road in the background

Tram going up Jan Smuts with under-developed Valley Road and Parktown ridge in the background

Laying tram tracks at Terminus in Market Street

Laying tram tracks at the new tram shed in President Street

Tramways power house in Johannesburg - possibly in Newtown

Tramways power house in Johannesburg – possibly in Newtown

Tram in Ellof Street

Tram in Eloff Street

Trolley Bus in Melville corner 4th Ave & 7th Str

Trolley Bus in Melville corner 4th Avenue & 7th Street

These trolley buses replaced trams. This one is going around Clarendon Circle 1958

These trolley buses replaced trams. This one is going around Clarendon Circle 1958

By 1954 it was decided that most of the trams were at the end of their useful life and would be replaced by trolley-buses over a period of seven years. The last trams ran on 18 March 1961, exactly 70 years after the first horse-drawn tram left Market square. The very last electric tram, a 40 year-old double-decker, was driven by the mayor of Johannesburg Dave Marais. In his farewell speech he said, “It is said, that there is no room for trams in a City like Johannesburg”.

Check out Mark Straw’s photo collection of the last tram taken at the James Hall Transport museum here.

The very last electric tram ride 16 March 1961

The very last electric tram ride 18 March 1961

Check out this wonderful piece written by Steve Hayes who was the last tram conductor to be hired by the JMT. On his third day as a new conductor he worked the last scheduled tram service on Friday 17 March 1961.

Ticket from the last electric tram ride

Ticket from the last electric tram ride

Here are trolley bus videos from 1980 and 1973 showing various buses travelling around the city and suburbs of Johannesburg shortly before they were decommissioned.

This video shows some footage of the last tram ride in 1961 (even though it’s labelled 1930s)

Here are some pictures of a recently acquired 1931 map of the Johannesburg tram system

1931 full map

1931 full map

City centre, Braamfontein and Parktown

City centre, Braamfontein and Parktown

City centre expanded

City centre expanded

Eastern suburbs

Eastern suburbs

Key map

Key map

Southern suburbs

Southern suburbs

Western suburbs

Western suburbs

Northern suburbs

Northern suburbs

North western suburbs

North western suburbs

Suburb info and attractions

Suburb info and attractions

1931 Map front cover

1931 Map front cover

This is a very detailed map of Johannesburg from 1929 with the tram routes indicated in red. It’s 17MB so please be aware when clicking on the image. Click here for the original post and more info on the map.

1929 Map of Johannesburg

1929 Map of Johannesburg showing the tram lines in more detail

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This entry was published on June 1, 2013 at 6:03 pm. It’s filed under Johannesburg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

54 thoughts on “Short history on trams in Johannesburg

  1. Pingback: Old Johannesburg new blog post up | Marc Latilla

  2. Bruce David Kellock on said:

    Wonderful stuff!!! Where do you find these wonderful old photos and maps?

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks! Mostly out of print books I’ve collected since starting this research. Also found some great as yet unused pictures at the Africana Museum

      • Jane Eagle on said:

        Hi Marc, do you know what happened to the actual trolley buses when they were phased out in the early 1960″s?

      • Marc Latilla on said:

        Hi Jane,

        A few of them made their way to the James Hall Transport Museum near Rosettenville. They have at least six different models on display.

  3. Garth Johnson on said:

    Wonderful old Johannesburg. So different to the chaos of today, or is it?

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      I think it was the same, just more contained than it is today.
      I wasn’t around back in the late 60s/early 70s but I sometimes wonder what it was like when the highway around JHB opened for business and what a massive impact it must have had on previously used main roads. There must have been a brief period where driving or taking public transport to work was actually ok…

  4. johannes GUIGARD on said:

    are you sure the 1935 trolleybus is from Johannesburg? It looks like it has a number plate, which Jhb trolleybuses never had, and also the line number and direction indicators look different from the ones normally in place. Johannes

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Hi,
      Not 100% sure, but the book the picture came out of (JHB Centenary) says they were put to work on the Sydenham route in 1936. The picture is to small to make out any detail like if the number plate is an old ‘TJ’ plate or if that’s the JHB coat of arms on the side (if I have to be honest, it doesn’t look like it). As for whether they had number plates or not, I don’t know. The original trams had no plates as far as I can see but I can’t comment on the trolleybuses. The trolleybuses from 1934-36 came from the British firm Guy Motors

  5. A history we know very little from and I am 62 – this is amazing – well done and thanks for dedication and work

  6. rafdotcom on said:

    Very informative
    Thank you

  7. I caught many of those trams. Wonderful memories and wonderful blog.

  8. Barry Eslick on said:

    I am doing research on my family tree and would like to know where Anglican churches were situated in Johannesburg in the 1910/20s. As a child, I rode the trams with my grandparents – they had bells as a means of demanding right of way when traffic was heavy. Fond memories!

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Hi Barry,
      Thanks for your thoughs. A post on early churches (not just Anglican) is in the planning stages. I’ve recently come across a bunch of old churches from the centre of town and Braamfontein from 1886-1920 that no longer exist. It will take me some time to get it together, but please come back and visit or subscribe to get all the updates.
      Thanks,
      Marc

  9. Thank you for your interesting article on Jo’burg trams. I arrived in Johannesburg as a 13 year old in October 1957 and took the tram through Kensington and into the city until they were replaced by buses in 1961. There wasn’t nearly so much traffic on the roads in those days and the rush hour was confined to the early morning and between 4.30 pm and 6.00 pm in the evenings.Today there seems to be permanent rush hour on the roads! Buses and trains were reliable and punctual, so many people travelled on public transport to and from work, rather than using their cars. In fact, I can remember the days when my father would take us out for a “run” in the car on a Sunday afternoon as a treat! I doubt whether anyone indulges in that kind of activity these days!

  10. Reblogged this on architecture and she and commented:
    Interesting article about old electric trams and busses in Johannesburg…

  11. Hi, the ‘trolleybus 1935’ picture is actually a Belfast Corporation bus, Belfast in Northern Ireland, the destination indicators that Belfast used are very distinctive. I have ridden and filmed Johanessburg tram No. 60 at the National Tramway Museum at Crich in Derbyshire, UK several times, was one of the streamlined pre-war trams preserved?. Very interesting site.

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks for that information Bob! I’m not sure if one of them was preserved. I have a few pictures of the trams at the James Hall Transport Museum that I’ll post here. Perhaps you can shed some light on them.

  12. Hi,
    I have just remembered that I have a book by Tony Spit about the Johannesburg trams, this says that 1936 streamlined tram 214 is preserved (amongst others) at the James Hall Transport Museum. These trams were built by Metropolitan-Cammell in the UK and were similar to trams built for Liverpool around the same time. I acquired the book many years ago, second hand, it was published by the Light Railway Transport League ( now Association) in the UK in 1976 and has long been out of print. I hope that this information is useful.

  13. James Smith on said:

    Hi Marc,

    Thanks for a very interesting article. The trolley buses at the Transport Museum are from Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. The two Johannesburg trolley buses include the last trolley bus to run in Johannesburg in 1986.

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks James! I vaguely remember trolley busses but do recall the lines they were connected to staying up for many years after they stopped operating.

  14. The caption of one of your pictures is completely incorrect. The wording “Laying tram tracks at terminus in Market street” , is not right. The place in the picture is not the terminus in Market street at all, it is a view of the tram sheds in President street. This picture was taken when shed number one in President street was being built and the tracks being laid for trams to get in and out of the new carshed. The wording should thus be, “Laying tram tracks at the new tram shed in President street”.

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks Fred! I can only go on what the reference books tell me but I’ll update accordingly. Do you know where in President Street the sheds were?

      • The number one carshed was in President street on the corner of West street. The names of various streets have recenlty been changed.

        There was another carshed, shed number two. This is not pictured in your excellent photo series. However, carshed two was also in President street but slightly further away from the city centre on the corner of Cogh street. Carshed two was built at a much later date.

  15. Pingback: Rare 1931 Map of Johannesburg tram system | Johannesburg 1912 - Suburb by suburb research

  16. oldsqueaky on said:

    I was at the National Tramway Museum in Crich yesterday and they had an old JHB tram still in its original livery, sporting destination signs for Turffontein, Show Grounds, and Rissik Street. It was an awesome museum, and it is a pity that James Hall was never able to have a running tram at its site. Great blogpost though, I missed out trams by 2 months.

  17. Patrick Button on said:

    I well recall being taken to see the parade along Jules Street in 1961 of the last trams to run in JHB followed by a parade of the double-decker buses that would replace them. The newly proclaimed Republic and the introduction of decimal coinage were coincidental novelties then.

  18. I travelled to Yeoville Boys’ School by tram from Abel Road Berea in the early 1940s. Even then I loved travelling on the tram’s upper floor on the open platforms. A tram overturned as it turned from Lily Ave into Kotze St, Hillbrow during those years and driver unattendede Trams regularly ran across Louis Botha Ave from the Yeoville Terminus and crashed into the wall at KES.

    • Fred Craandyk on said:

      The tram which overturned was not on the corner of Lilly and Kotze street, but on the corner of Tudhope and Abel road.

      • Marc Latilla on said:

        Hi Fred, check out the last map I’ve just added. It may be the one you’ve been looking for. Also found a ticket form the last tram ride

  19. Very nice. You might find this post on Johannesburg trolley buses interesting.

  20. Pingback: On the buses: fifty years ago today | Khanya

  21. Fred Craandyk on said:

    Thanks for the map, fantastic old relics of days gone by. I still have a number of old tram tickets issued on the Johannesburg trams, including some last day tickets. Amongst them are tickets sold on the last day of operation on the Newlands and Yeoville services when those routes were abandoned.

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Nice!
      I added a link to the piece from a guy who worked as a conductor on the last day. Very interesting.

  22. Guy Drew on said:

    Hi Marc,
    Thanks for keeping this history available. We used to travel on a trolley bus to and from Parkview Senior School each day. In the mornings, we hoped to get the driver who would fly down 3rd Avenue in Parktown North at such a speed that the electrical arms connecting to the overhead powerlines would bounce off and make us late for school.

    The bus had a long pole stored underneath the chassis in a tube for retrieving the arms.
    On a really good (time-delaying) day, the driver would need to come upstairs to use the pole to retrieve the arms.

    There was a turning circle outside Jan Celliers School opposite Zoo Lake. Sometimes the driver had to climb out and pull on a cable on one of the supporting lampposts to switch the points on the rails.
    At other splits such as 3rd Ave and 7th Ave in Parktown North, the points somehow knew if the bus was a No79 turning left towards Parkhurst or a No79A going straight across 7th Ave to the terminus without any driver intervention. Don’t know how that worked.

    Regards

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks for your memories Drew! Fascinating

    • Fred Craandyk on said:

      On the Johannesburg and other South-African trolleybus systems, the switches or “frogs”, as they were often called, were operated by an electro magnet. You recall the trolleybus having the possibility of either going straight on or turning away or branching off. For that purpose a frog, or referred by some as points in the overhead, were installed where ever a line branched off. Should a trolleybus want to go straight ahead, that means it did not want to turn either left or right, the driver of the bus would take his foot of the power pedal and coast whilst passing underneath the overhead frog. Needless to say, he would take care that his bus did not travel too fast whilst negotiating the overhead frog. There was a speed limit of 5 miles per hour whist doing so. Passing through without touching the power pedal, would ensure that the trolleys went on the line going straight on. But, should the driver want to branch off, he would keep his left foot on the power pedal. Keeping it depressed slightly. When passing the frog in such a manner, an electro magnet situated in the overhead frog, would operate the tongues which inturn would direct the trolleys to the turn off set of wires.

      It will be clear to you that negotiating a frog with the power pedal slightly pressed, the speed would automatically become too high.To counteract the exessive speed, the handbrake would than be applied halfway to limit the speed.

  23. Pingback: Thinking about public transport in Johannesburg | The New Neighbour

  24. ,ghgnbvv on said:

    Hello, Great article, do you have any picts of the Tramway Hotel in Fordsburg, I lived there for over a year in the 1970s.

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks! I have seen a few pictures of the hotel. I will post them when I do the Fordsburg piece. Was the hotel connected to the tram service somehow or was it just the name?

  25. Pingback: 100K views for Johannesburg1912 | Johannesburg 1912 - Suburb by suburb research

  26. Nqobile Lombo on said:

    Awesome doing some research about Melville 1880’s to 1937, mapping exercise. Anyone have updated maps?

  27. Hi, what a fantastic article. Many thanks for taking the time to put it together. I travelled by tram between the City and Highlands North from 1963 until 1967. I loved those trams…… mind you they were pretty ugly when they came unstuck from the overhead wires!
    I notice that the video no longer exists and I was wondering if you still have it?

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Hi Robin, thanks for pointing that out. I’ve found it again as well as two others of interest. It seems it was taken down and re-uploaded.

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