The end of an era for a Stellenbosch single-lane bridge

Built in 1691, Steenenbrug, alias Plankenbrug, alias the Adam Tas Bridge at Bosman’s Crossing, was the first access to Stellenbosch across the Kromme River, now known as Plankenbrug river. Earlier this year, an intergenerational group gathered on the banks of the river to say farewell to this remarkable but humble single-lane bridge. Johannie Serdyn, a council member for Ward 11, organized the event.

The bridge is neither safe nor practical for the traffic volume it carries, and a two-way bridge will replace it.

Hannes van Zyl and Pietman Retief shared historical knowledge about the bridge, the people crossing it and the changing environment surrounding it. Anecdotes were woven into the discussions, and audience members also contributed to the bridge’s colourful history.

These stories became a bridge between the modern community of today and, on the other hand, the various layers of Stellenbosch’s history that began with the Stone Age.

Steenenbrug was the entrance to Stellenbosch from the Cape for about 260 years: from 1691 to the early 1950s.

In this respect, Steenenbrug is a phenomenon of ‘grandpa’s axe’: Grandpa’s axe now has its eighth handle and sixth blade. But it will always be grandpa’s axe. The bridge was rebuilt numerous times, but the builders reused the original stone each time.

Simon Janssens and Matthijs Diederick built Steenenbrug for the Heemraad on Hans Grimpe’s farm, In die Hoek, in 1691. A stone bridge was specified. (Interestingly, Adam Tas later got married to Grimke’s widow.) It was the first public works project in the Stellenbosch area. The bridge took travellers into Stellenbosch until the Municipality and Province rerouted Adam Tas Road in the 1950s.

Two hundred and sixty years is a long time, and there is an extensive history of lives and interesting people connected to the bridge. However, next to the bridge is a declared archaeological site, the Stellenbosch Archaeological Reserve. This site takes us much further back in the history of people in Stellenbosch, as far back as 600,000 years.

The recent history of the Stellenbosch Archaeological Reserve began in 1899 when Louis Péringuey stopped one evening to talk with the builder who was restoring the bridge again. On this misty, rainy winter’s evening, while sharing the bridge building’s fire, he noticed the layering in the pit that the bridge builder dug for stone to repair the bridge. He noticed that the layering did not seem natural and collected some rocks that appeared to be palaeolithic stone tools.

Six years later, in 1905, he delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the SA Archaeological Society, arguing that people lived in Stellenbosch for much longer than was then believed. The samples he collected were the first documented evidence of Stone Age people’s presence in the area and perhaps pointed toward the possibility that the river crossing had been used thousands of years before the bridge of 1691.

Stone Age people were remarkably successful over hundreds of thousands of years, adapting to major environmental and climate changes while accumulating knowledge about natural resources and ways to use them sustainably. Moreover, the preserved artefacts show evidence of gradual innovation and discovery to make life easier, without any evidence that the artefacts were used for making war.

The first Europeans recorded meeting Khoekhoen herders groups of up to 100 people living in the area.

The achievements and contributions of indigenous people are an early platform for human life in Stelllenbosch. We can honour it as such.

For more information on the colourful history of this part of Stellenbosch, such as René Santhagens (Santy), who began Oude Molen Distillery, other buildings for wine & brandy such as Bosman’s Siding, Bosman’s Crossing, KWV Industrial Park and Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery, Simon van der Stel and the Eerste River, see the following sources:

  • Francois Smuts editor (1979) Stellenbosch three centuries
  • Todeschini, F and L Jansen (2017) Heritage and the Development of Stellenbosch
  • Road Bridge – Steenenbrug – Stellenbosch. Dated: 6 January 2021. Drawings prepared by: Rennie Scurr Adendorff Architects
  • Todeschini, F and Jansen, L (2018) Draft Revised Heritage Inventory of the Tangible Heritage Resources in the Stellenbosch Municipality
  • Stellenbosch Heritage Foundation http://www.stellenboschheritage.co.za