The bridge was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, part of his grand and unfulfilled Cape to Cairo railway scheme, even though he never visited the falls and died before construction of the bridge began. Rhodes is recorded as instructing the engineers to “build the bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls”. It was designed by George Anthony Hobson of consultants Sir Douglas Fox and Partners, not as is often stated, Sir Ralph Freeman, the same engineer who contributed to the design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. At the time of the design of the Victoria Falls Bridge, Freeman was an assistant in the firm who, in those pre-computer days, was calculating stresses.
The bridge was constructed in England by the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company, before being shipped to the Mozambique port of Beira and then transported on the newly constructed railway to the Victoria Falls. It took just 14 months to construct and was completed in 1905.
The bridge was officially opened by Professor George Darwin, son of Charles Darwin and President of the British Association (now the Royal Society) on 12 September 1905. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists the bridge as a Historic
Constructed from steel, the bridge is 198 metres (650 ft) long, with a main arch spanning 156.50 metres (513.5 ft), at a height of 128 metres (420 ft) above the lower water mark of the river in the gorge below. It carries a road, railway and footway. The bridge is the only rail link between Zambia and Zimbabwe and one of only three road links between the two countries.
The Victoria Falls Bridge did not bring the first train or the first railway to Zambia. To push on with construction of the railway north as fast as possible, Cecil Rhodes insisted that the Livingstone to Kalomo line be laid before the bridge was finished. Then a locomotive was conveyed in pieces across the gorge by the temporary electronic cableway used for the transportation of the bridge materials and nicknamed the ‘Blondin’ by the construction engineers. The locomotive was re-assembled and entered service months before the bridge was complete.
For more than 50 years the bridge was crossed regularly by passenger trains as part of the principal route between the then Northern Rhodesia, southern Africa and Europe. Freight trains carried mainly copper ore (later, copper ingots) and timber out of Zambia, and coal into the country.
The age of the bridge and maintenance problems have led to traffic restrictions at times. Trains cross at less than walking pace and trucks were limited to 30 t, necessitating heavier trucks to make a long diversion via the Kazungula Ferry or Chirundu Bridge. The limit was raised after repairs in 2006, but more fundamental rehabilitation or construction of a new bridge has been aired.
During the Rhodesian UDI crisis and Bush War the bridge was frequently closed (and regular passenger services have not resumed successfully). In 1975, the bridge was the site of unsuccessful peace talks when the parties met in a train carriage poised above the gorge for nine and a half hours. In 1980 freight and road services resumed and have continued without interruption except for maintenance.
Today one of the Victoria Falls Bridge’s main attraction are historical guided tours focusing on the construction of the bridge and which include a walking tour under the main deck. On the Zambian side there is a small museum about the bridge which is free to enter and contains cafe selling refreshments. Also located on the bridge is the Shearwater 111 metres (364 ft) bungee jump including a bungee swing and zip-line. Concerns about safety of the attraction were raised in late 2011 after the bungee’s cord snapped and a young Australian woman fell 24 metres (79 ft) into the fast flowing river with many crocodiles.
The bridge was originally referred to as the Great Zambesi or Zambezi bridge, later becoming known as the Victoria Falls Bridge.