The Victoria Falls Hotel
The railway company quickly saw the potential to open a hotel on a prime site in close proximity to the Falls. The original Victoria Falls Hotel was intended only as temporary quarters for the railway employees, and was to be removed after construction of the bridge was complete as no buildings were to remain within sight of the Falls. However once established, it was quickly expanded and proved impossible to close, despite the objections of the Administrator of North Western Rhodesia, Robert Coryndon and the residents and traders of the newly established town of Livingstone.
The first structure was built in early 1904 and opened for business on 8 June. By the beginning of 1905, tourist traffic to the Falls had increased considerably and it was necessary to enlarge the accommodation at the hotel. Two locomotive sheds in use on the Beria line were dismantled and sent to the Falls. One was commissioned as accommodation and the other as a dining room. They remained on site until 1917.
Victoria Falls Hotel original buildings from the 1900s
The expanded hotel consisted of a wood and iron building, with verandas and a corrugated tin roof, raised from ground level to allow ventilation and freedom from pests and dampness and equipped with electric lights and fans, with hot and cold water.
The present dining room is the size of the whole original hotel. Capable of hosting 20 guests at a time, with 12 single and four double rooms, it was managed by an Italian, the chef was French, and the barman American, with Arab waiters. The all inclusive room charge of 12 shillings and sixpence is less than a dollar in today's money. Percy Clark commented "In the hot weather, the rooms were ovens, and in the cold, refrigerators. But nobody grumbled much. After all, what could one expect in the heart of Africa?".
A bar, known as the 'Iron and Timber', was provided for the men working on the erection of the bridge. It proved to be a popular watering hole for the rail and construction workers and many an evening was described as "lively", with drunken brawls commonplace. Contemporaries described them as a "collection of cosmo toughs" and "a rough lot, even for the wilds".
The Italian manager, Pierre Gavuzzi, who had worked at the Carlton and Savoy hotels in London, and was tormented ruthlessly by the bridge construction crew during their customary pay-day jubilations. Whenever the unfortunate fellow was spotted by the workmen, they chased him around the premises. If caught, he had to stand them all drinks. One especially bibulous evening, the poor man was lifted bodily and placed on the mantelpiece, where he was forced to remain until he sang a song to the satisfaction of the men.
Its opening marked both the start of formal tourism in the Victoria Falls area and the start of the development of a community in what is now Victoria Falls town. Percy Clark, the first European resident on the south side of the Falls, claimed to have had the first meal that was served to a customer at the Hotel.
McGregor outlines the impact of the hotel in her book, 'Crossing the Zambezi':
"The British travel agents, Thomas Cook and Sons, as official passenger agent for the Cape Government and Rhodesia Railways, followed the progress of the railway and construction of the hotel in its magazine, The Excursionist, (renamed the Travellers' Gazette in 1903), and began offering excursions from Cape Town in the same year. The company anticipated a rapid expansion of business at "Nature's greatest spectacle" where the traveller could "enjoy European luxury even here in the heart of Africa". The Falls was a suitable destination for royality, and others who arrived on the 'train de luxe' from Cape Town'."
The first designs for the next reconstruction of the hotel were supplied by Sir Charles Metcalfe, but the actual building erected in 1912 was designed by Frank Scott.
The hotel's logo, an African lion and Egyptian Sphinx, symbolised the ambition of the Cape to Cairo railway. It is the oldest operating hotel in Zimbabwe.
View from the Victoria Falls Hotel
At the Ordinary General Meeting of the Rhodesia Railways shareholders, held at the Head Office in London in 1905, a report was presented recording that:
"Lord Grey has told you that we have reached the Victoria Falls. We took over that line on June 20  and I think that, within one week after the railway was opened, more white people had seen that unique sight than had ever seen it before since God made it. We have also, since then, effected what we call a temporary hotel which, however, is a very comfortable one. It was every modern convenience and accommodation for about 40 people. It has most magnificent views of the bluff gorge. It has the electric light, cold storage, hot and cold water baths, and every modern luxury."
Many residents of Livingstone, most probably traders and hoteliers, complained that the Victoria Falls Hotel should be demolished. The Hotel had been envisaged as temporary accommodation for engineers employed on the bridge construction work - presumably for key figures such as George Pauling, Sir Charles Metcalfe and others - and it had been assumed that it would be demolished as soon as work was completed. Indeed the Chartered Company Administrator confirmed that it was only a temporary expedient and that it would be abolished as soon as accommodation was available in Livingstone. Townspeople were also unhappy that the Hotel, and indeed Percy Clark, had been granted licenses to run curio shops. They argued that the settlement at the Falls should be abolished and all tourists accommodated and served in Livingstone. Although accommodation was later developed in Livingstone, the Victoria Falls Hotel still attracted the bulk of the visitors to the area, even utilising railway carriages as overflow when the hotel was full. In 1907 the Livingstone Mail recorded:
"His Honour, the Administrator, announced that he had failed in his endeavours to have The Victoria Falls Hotel abolished. It had originally been erected as temporary accommodation for engineers and those employed on the bridge and Railway construction and for visitors to the Falls. It was to be pulled down as soon as a new township (Livingstone) was laid out. His Honour could now hold out no hope of the being done."
From 1910 a local passenger train ran from Livingstone to Victoria Falls on Saturdays and Sundays, known as "The Weekender". Not only was there no real road from Livingstone to the river, and the bridge then only provided a railway, and no pedestrian, crossing. To meet the demands of residents supporting the hotel, this local train service took Livingstone socialites over for Saturday night dances, the carriges being used as overnight resting quarters.
By this time the town had its own local newspaper, The Victoria Falls Advertiser.
Victoria Falls Hotel swimming pool
Originally the railway line ran in front of the Victoria Falls Hotel, between the hotel and the gorge, but a torrential rain storm, during which several inches of rain fell in a few hours, in 1909 washed away the track. It was rebuilt just behind the hotel, on leveller ground, where it still runs today.
It soon became necessary to improve the original temporary buildings, and plans were drawn up to replace them with larger brick buildings in 1913. Construction did not start until 1914, and was subsequently delayed by the outbreak of war in Europe. Eventually the new buildings were completed and opened in 1917, although the old iron and wood section was retained for many years as an annex.
The Victoria Falls Hotel had originally been built by a separate company as an offshoot of the BMR. This was leased to private individuals until 1917 when the lease was taken over by the recently formed catering department of the railways.
Victoria Falls Hotel courtyard
Efforts to encourage tourism included the running of two special trains, in 1926, carrying 350 American tourists from a world-cruise liner and including visits to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, with the parties staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel for a couple of nights. The success of this tour, to be the forerunner of any more, led to the enlarging of the hotel in 1927. Another fifty bedrooms were built, with bathrooms and other facilities, were included in the new 'hammerhead' wings, along with modern rail station in a style to harmonise with the hotel.
The Victoria Falls Hotel was last refurbished in the late 1990's, when a new wing was added and the hotel completely refurbished in an Edwardian style, but with a range of modern facilities and amenities that include satellite television, new air conditioning systems, luxurious fittings and soft furnishings and a new restaurant, called Jungle Junction after the airline pilots’ nickname for the Victoria Falls stop-over point on the England – South Africa flying boat service between the 1940s and 1950s. It now has 182 rooms and is rated as one of the world's 25 most famous hotels. The spray from the Falls can be seen from the terrace and lawns, along with the bridge and second gorge.
Victoria Falls Hotel from the air
Within the courtyard is an old trolley, the last remaining one of many that used to carry guests of the hotel to and from the Falls along a special rail track. This service was started in the early 1920s and was discontinued in 1957 and was especially useful in the days when almost all guests toured the Falls and surrounding rain forest in full day dress and raincoats, making the walk there and back both hot and tiring. Today’s visitors must walk the short distance to the Falls from the hotel.
A visit the grand Victoria Falls Hotel is recommended for anyone, and it is well worth the time to walk through the lobby, courtyard and to the veranda. Tourists are encouraged to stop for afternoon teas and to sit and enjoy the view of the Falls, gorges and bridge. The Victoria Falls Hotel remains one of the most famous luxury hotels in the world, and is well worthy of its reputation.