The Beacon Hill Tunnel: The culmination of a grand engineering feat, 1931 newspaper article

Many thanks to IDJ for sending in the following newspaper article.

HF: I have retyped the original article to aid clarity and searches on the website.

Thanks to SCT for proof reading the retyped copy of the original article.





(By C.L.C.)  Special to the Sunday Herald.

In last week’s issue of the Sunday Herald an account of the early negotiations in connection with the construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway was given the fullest possible attention. This week our contributor continues his interesting narrative, dealing with the actual construction  and the culmination of a gigantic engineering feat which bears great credit on the indomitable spirit of the British pioneer.

The link between the Colony and the Chinese commercial centre in South China was achieved only by praiseworthy perseverance. Malaria stalked through the night and left its never ceasing train in the morning; inexperience on behalf of the ordinary labourer offered a check to the speed of the enterprise; and above all the British Corporation had to fight against its own Government. In the face of these three difficult hurdles, however, British pluck triumphed and a magnificent engineering feat was accomplished.

In November 1903, Sir Henry Blake left the Colony, and all further negotiations for the Chinese section of the Kowloon-Canton Railway project were conducted by the Hon. Mr. Francis May, Officer Administering the Government.

Sir Matthew Nathan, K.C.M.G. assumed the Governorship of Hong Kong on July 29 1904, but it was not until a year later that work was begun on the British section of the railway. Two years later, March 7, 1907, an agreement for the Chinese section was signed by the British and Chinese Corporation, and work on this line was begun.

Engineering Staff At Beacon Hill Tunnel 1908 Gwulo

Engineering staff at Beacon Hill tunnel Courtesy:

Early Work Useless

Sir Matthew was most enthusiastic over the project. A Royal Engineer himself, he thought he could accelerate its construction by making a start on some of the earthworks. This was accordingly carried out under the supervision of Mr. E.W. Carpenter of the Public Works Department, but when Mr. G.W. Eves was sent out by the Crown Agents to make a detailed survey and to superintend the construction of the line as Resident Engineer, he thought alteration of the alignment was necessary. Thus the greater part of the work accomplished under the supervision of the P.W.D. became useless.

The Pioneers

Among those who were associated with Mr. Eves in this great enterprise were Mr. R. Baker, now Manager and Chief Engineer of the Railway, Mr. G.A. Walker, who is now Traffic Manager and Mr. Morris is still on the staff. Others were Messrs. Waite, his two sons, Steen, Southy and M.H. Logan, who is now associated with Messrs. Palmer & Turner.

Hong Kong, a quarter of a century ago was not what it is today. The dogged spirits of these Britons may well be imagined. The task they had before them was no sinecure, and the nature of their work brought them in direct contact with a seething mass of natives, bellicose and otherwise.

Toll of Human Lives

In the construction of this railway, as in other big projects, human lives had to be sacrificed. Malaria was rampant in those far off days, and many miners and excavators succumbed to this malady. Doctors were attached to each section of the work, and quinine was not kept in bottles but in buckets. The construction of the line was not, however, without its humour. Feeding the coolies with quinine every morning was no light task, as Dr. Hartley and his assistants would testify. Every native worker had to be cajoled and humoured into opening his mouth, and quite surreptitiously a tabloid was shot into it to be followed by a pail of water.

Black Eyes and Cheap Beer

The Government was fortunate in this respect. Just about that time a number of Chinese excavators and Italian miners were repatriated from South Africa, and the opportunity was taken to employ these men on the work. But it was no easy matter to maintain discipline among these hardy workers. Beer was cheap in those days. The famous haunt of the miners was the Royal George Hotel, now known as the Palace Hotel. There they would adjourn after a strenuous day’s work to seek distraction and probably forgetfulness. It was not an unusual sight to see some of them turning out to work the next morning with their eyes blackened, lips swollen and bruises all over their faces. They would scowl at each other, and nurse their grievances. The Britons who had to control these men were their mentors and judges at the same time, and all ill-feelings were at once smoothed over and things made right between them. The Chinese also had their troubles over cards and dice. But withal they were honest and hardworking men.

Crown Agents Again

The construction of the Railway was in the hands of the Crown Agents, and all the Hong Kong Government had to do was to find the money. This anomaly was subject to much criticism at the time. Questions were even asked in the House of Commons, but this policy was defended on the usual grounds both in the House of Commons and at a meeting of the Legislative Council of the Colony.

Work, however, went an apace, and two years later, Sir Matthew Nathan was transferred to Natal. He was succeeded by Sir Frederick Lugard, who showed an equally keen interest in the work.

Defective Bridges

The anomalous state of affairs created by the Crown Agents having direct control of the construction brought further dissatisfaction to those who had the interest and welfare of the Colony at heart, when it was disclosed that deviation of the original plans had led to an enormous cost of the Railway. The Crown Agents came in for further criticism when it became known to the public that several bridges which had already been constructed were defective, and to be blown up and rebuilt.

Public Incensed

The public was incensed and questions were asked at a meeting of the Legislative Council. Sir Frederick Lugard explained that technical responsibility for work undertaken by the consulting engineers rested upon them.

It was further explained that direct intervention by the Hong Kong Government was only justified in the case of urgent necessity: if the Government believed the quality of work to be unsatisfactory, it would be beneficial for it to intervene. Such an occasion arose in the judgement of the Government when the bridges were reported to be defective by an expert committee, and they were rebuilt.

7,256 Feet Tunnel

While this by-play was going on between the people and the Government, work on the British section was steadily progressing. This section extending from Kowloon to Samchun via Taipo is 22¼ miles long. There are in all five tunnels; the longest of which, the Beacon Hill tunnel, is 7,256 feet long.

The interest, of course, centred on the construction of the Beacon Hill tunnel. This is described as one of the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished in the East. Besides a large expenditure of money, the construction of this tunnel demanded its toll of human lives during the twenty eight months of constructional labour.

Drilling From Two Ends

This tunnel was started in January 1907, drilling work was commenced simultaneously from the North and South ends. Notwithstanding the many difficulties which had to be surmounted, both as regards labour and explosives, excellent progress was made. This was largely due to the experience and skill of Mr. Waite, Tunnel Superintendent.

Beacon Hill Tunnel Under Construction 1908 Flikr

Beacon Hill Tunnel under construction 1908 Courtesy: Flikr

In February 1908, it was announced that the expenditure on the tunnel had exceeded the estimate by $198,977. In September of the same year, after nine months’ work, the tunnel heading from north to south had reached a total of 4,603 feet – an average of about 10 feet a day.

Then hard rocks were encountered, and this reduced the pace of progress. From the beginning of the work until the end of the year, the progress per week was 40.27 feet, while in 1908 it was 68.15 feet. By the end of 1908, a total of 5,644 feet were driven – 2,528 feet from the South and 3,116 feet from the North.

The Meeting of the Headings

To all railway men and tunnellers , the “meeting of the headings” is a signal for general rejoicing. This was no less the case with those who were engaged in the Beacon Hill tunnel.

After two and half years of hard work, the tunnel was pierced at 5.50p.m. on May 17, 1909, several months ahead of the estimated time. The staff were most jubilant. A grand engineering feat and a novel undertaking in this part of the world had at last been accomplished.

Beacon Hill Tunnel (South Portal) 1909

Beacon Hill Tunnel (South Portal) 1909 Source: Pinterest

At 4.30p.m. on that day everyone was on his toes, so to speak, and the air was tense with excitement. A large charge of gelatine was placed in the drill hole and when this was discharged the rock which barred the way was removed. The smoke soon cleared and there was a wild rush of miners and others, all with one object on view the honour of being the first to go through the tunnel. The honour fell to a Chinese excavator who was closely followed by an Italian.

Tunnellers Celebrate

As the two headings met, hearty greetings were exchanged between the workmen from the north and south faces. Two baskets of champagne were in readiness to celebrate the occasion, and there underground, in the centre of Beacon Hill, the pioneer tunnellers of South China met and celebrated the occasion in the time honoured manner.

The cost of the Beacon Hill tunnel was placed at not less than a third of the total cost of the Railway, which was three million dollars.

After this joyous occasion, work in connection with the opening-out operation was proceeded with and then followed the bricking up and the laying of the permanent way.

The Last Brick Laid

The arduous work accomplished, no time was lost in getting on with the construction. Gangs of men were employed on different work and in different sections. Nine months later, His Excellency, Sir Frederick Lugard laid the last brick in the tunnel at an informal ceremony, attended by a few members of the Legislative Council and the Railway staff.

In the construction of the four minor tunnels little difficulty was experienced except with the one at Taipo. There extra expense was incurred on account of heavy landslides in the vicinity owing to slushy clay. Certain portions of the work was contracted out to Messrs. Leigh and Orange, Architects of Hong Kong. This company was responsible for the reclamation of 41 acres of foreshore along Chatham Road and also the Construction of a small tunnel.

The First Train

The British section was completed in 1910, and on October 1 of that year, the first train was run along the line by Sir Henry May, K.C.M.G., who had succeeded Sir Frederick Lugard. It was a red letter day in the history of the Colony, and practically the entire community was present at the function.

The Opening Of The Kowloon Canton Railway 1910 Pinterest

The Opening of the Kowloon Canton Railway 1910 Courtesy:

The Chinese section was not open until a year later, October 1911. This section unfortunately has a history of its own. A month after the official opening, the Viceroy ordered its suspension for some reasons which were not clear to the public at the time.

On November 28, the line was opened again, and since which date the trains and line have been commandeered time after time by rival Chinese warlords.

Source: The Hong Kong Sunday Herald 13th December 1931

This article was first posted on 4th January 2023.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Beacon Hill Tunnel, KCR, longest tunnel in China 1910
  2. Beacon Hill Tunnel – Kowloon Canton Railway – further details
  3. KCR Beacon Hill Tunnel Ropeway – 1907

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