My family has ties to Port Elizabeth and Bethlehem in the Free State, but it is to the latter that I can relate more. My grandparents and most of my mothers family lived there at one point. The biggest employer in the town was the South African Railways, they maintained steam engines there, and the town was conveniently placed for access to a number of regions. Sadly, when the line was electrified the first to go were the steam engines, and then one day the passenger trains stopped going there, and the town suddenly became not as important any longer. The last time I was there was in 1989, and that was for a funeral. My trip this time around was to try connect to some of my relatives and do the genealogy, and of course to visit family graves and try to make some sense of this link to my past.
I was very young when we were able to visit by train, and my memories are sketchy at best, and seem to revolve around the trip on the passenger train with its wooden balcony coaches, leather upholstery and unique smell. The town doesn’t really stick out much in my mind, although there are some areas that pop up in old family photographs. The one which I will always have a fondness for is the Athlone Castle at Loch Athlone, as well as Pretorius Kloof where we used to go on outings. Today both are closed although the Athlone Castle was later purchased by a private owner who restored it as a private residence, and a stunning job was made of it too.
Loch Athlone is no longer accessible to the public and the Kloof was closed following floods earlier in 2011.
Bethlehem has a lot of history to it and that history is reflected in the abundance of old buildings that still line its streets. I am sure that when my mother was young many of those buildings were being used for different purposes, although the churches still retain that sense of permanence. Bethlehem has a lot of churches, and they are beautiful. The one that dominates the town is the NG Kerk Moedergemeente that occupies almost 2 city blocks.
It’s a magnificent structure that was built in 1910 to replace an older church that had been built on this site. Equally impressive is the Town Hall which dates from 1930. On one side of the Town Hall is a small Garden of Remembrance that I have posted about separately.
As usual the museum was not open during my visit (why does that always happen to me?), and I believe that some of artifacts in it do relate to my family. I was also on the look out for Staffords Hill where my mother used to play as a girl, and the old family house in Ellenberger Street that we all used as a base whenever we visited Bethlehem. Looking at that same house today it seems so much smaller than I remember it. I was able to go past at least 4 houses that remnants of the family used to live in at various times and they all had this mass produced pokey look about them.
My mother always told us how she attended the Truida Kestell school, and how she used to ride her bicycle there and back in all weather. Given how bitter the weather can be in Bethlehem I am sure it was not fun. She would probably not recognise the school today though.
Bethlehem Station is a mere shade of its former self. At one time there would have been dozens of steam engines hustling and bustling around goods wagons and passenger trains. Today the offices are locked, the platforms are deserted and only the occasional goods train passes through. A lethargic security guard sat on a bench on the platform and didn’t even challenge my being there.
I would have liked to spend more time at the station, but we were running out of time and I hadn’t even hit the cemeteries yet! There are four cemeteries in Bethlehem. We visited the Muller Street Cemetery with its Boer War era graves, as well as the Morelig and Utopia Cemeteries.
My family is in Morelig, and when they passed away all those years ago the cemetery was still expanding. The SADF wanted the property next to the cemetery and that prevented any further expansion. The town is home to the Engineers and quite a few NSM’s complained about the cold during their service here. I was quite pleased to find a Field Engineers Memorial outside the military base too, but photography was very difficult. I was also able to find one of our missing military graves which was a nice addition to our Border War lists.
On the morning of the second day I went walkies around town. It was almost rush hour, which in Bethlehem means that lots of large trucks start their engines and head towards Cape Town and Durban. The sad thing is that the large trucks park the town full at night and everybody gets woken up in the morning as they start their engines and head off to their destinations. This traffic used to be all moved by rail.
One of the less desirable aspects of the town is how many Johannesburg inhabitants have bought houses here as “country retreats”, driving up the house prices, making accommodation very expensive for locals. During the weekend they flock to the town and cause havoc in the quiet streets with their Johannesburg driving habits. Many locals are not too pleased about this, but given that many locals have had to leave the town to find work the change in demographics is to be expected.
DRW © 2011-2022. Images recreated 20/03/2016