Bumped to a Big Boom: The 1896 Braamfontein (South Africa) Train Explosion

Max S
8 min readMay 26, 2024


Braamfontein (“Blackberry Springs”) is a central district of Johannesburg today, providing 7000 of the metropolis’ 957441 residents (as of 2011). Back in the 1890s Braamfontein was a small suburb, grown from a farm of the same name and first mentioned in 1888.

The location of Johannesburg (and thus Braamfontein) in southern Africa.

The site, 52km/32mi south of Pretoria and 96km/60mi southeast of Rustenburg, lay in an area with a lot of mines which had been started as the area proved to offer relatively large amounts of gold in its soil. The area had even seen a full-on “gold rush” in the 1880s.

A map from around the time of the explosion, with comparative points marked on a current map.

The Train Involved

A lot of the mining in the area was done with explosives to break up the rock that was supposed to hold the gold, which created a high demand for explosives due to the number of mines operating in the area. The explosives, usually dynamite, were brought in on dedicated trains. One of which, arriving on the 16th of February 1896, consisted of eight freight cars carrying a total of 60 metric tons of dynamite spread across 2300 boxes. The train was pulled by a NZASM (Nederlandsche-Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij = Netherlands–South African Railway Company, the official railway company in the area) 40-Ton Class locomotive.

The NZASM 40 Ton Class was a multipurpose steam locomotive introduced in 1891, constructed by the Maschinenfabrik Esslingen in Germany. Each locomotive of the type measured 10.22m/34ft in length at a weight of 40 metric tons excluding 2.6 metric tons of coal and 6.9 metric tons of water. The locomotive ran on three driven axles and a single trailing axle, set up for the 1067mm “Cape Gauge” (narrower than the global standard of 1435mm).

NZASM 40 Ton number 50, identical with the locomotive involved in the accident. The locomotive in the accident was either number 55 or 57.

The Accident

A freight train with fresh supplies for Braamfontein arrives at the town’s station on the 16th of February 1896, carrying 60 metric tons of dynamite aboard 8 freight cars. The train ran on a regular schedule, but actually wasn’t required yet this time as it arrived while the mines’ stockpiles were still nearly full. The station staff, requiring the station’s through-tracks for other traffic, moved the train to a siding just west of the station until they could figure out where to put the new explosives. Storage space was found by the 19th, with workers starting to unload the explosives. It was during this process that the train was required to move further down the siding, freeing up space for another inbound train. A shunting locomotive headed over to push the train to its new place, entering the siding and pulling up to the train. Moments later an explosion obliterated the station, seeming to crack the earth itself in two. Sand and debris were launched high into the air as the site disappeared into a cloud of smoke and dust. The cloud dissipated in a few seconds, revealing a massive crater where the train had been. A hole 60m/197ft long, 50m/164ft wide and up to 8m/26ft deep had replaced the station, with the detonation shattering every single window in Johannisburg and being heard as far as 200km/124mi away. At least 75 people were killed in the blast, over 200 injured and around 3000 lost their home.


Braamfontein and some surrounding suburbs were largely destroyed by the blast, requiring responders to come in from other, further away areas and also transport survivors there. The freight train’s locomotive had been launched into the air by the explosion, it was recovered some distance away, sticking in the ground at a 45° angle. The people at the time may not have known, but they had become witness to one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Workers pose for a cameraman as they dig out the freight train’s locomotive.

If there ever was a full investigation into the explosion the records of it have been lost to time, but it’s still quite straightforward to figure out the cause of the accident: The explosives aboard the train.

Traditional Dynamite is quite unstable, being able to achieve detonation without a controlled detonator setting it off in a variety of ways. The explosive was invented in 1866 by the Swedish Alfred Nobel in Germany, , being a more robust and easy to handle alternative to black powder. A stick of Dynamite (it can actually have other shapes too, but sticks are standard) consists of an absorbent material (often clay or diatomaceous earth) soaked in nitroglycerin wrapped in paper to protect/isolate it. A blasting cap (a small explosive charge) is then inserted into the stick and, come usage time, wired to the detonator. Dynamite fresh off the production line is comparatively harmless and safe, the problem comes when it isn’t used soon-ish and/or improperly stored. The nitroglycerin, an extremely volatile explosive liquid, will “sweat out” over time, pooling below the dynamite or soaking whatever the sticks are inside of. Dynamite can also be set off if exposed to blunt force, tests with a hammer usually see it set off when hit from a height of 20–25cm/8–10in, 4x as much height (and thus force) as pure nitroglycerin requires to be set off. Chrystals of leaked nitroglycerin can also form on the outside of aging dynamite, making it even more sensitive to shock, friction and extreme temperatures.

A cutaway view of a stick of dynamite, showing the actual explosive (A), the paper wrap (B), the blasting cap (C) and the wire to a detonator (D).

The dynamite on the train at Braamfontein was likely fairly new, but it wasn’t handled or stored properly. It had been hauled in on a train in the South African summer heat (the southern hemisphere places February in summer) and then sat in a siding for several days, further heating up the dynamite inside the freight cars. If the sweltering heat in the freight cars didn’t set the dynamite off on its own the shunting locomotive certainly did the trick, giving the heated, likely “sweating” sticks a good jolt which introduced both a shock and friction. This, at the latest, set off the dynamite either all at once or in an extremely fast chain reaction, vaporizing the freight cars and throwing the locomotive (figuratively) into the neighboring zip-code. The reason why such an incredibly violent explosion didn’t create a larger crater lies in the position of the dynamite, seeing little resistance on all sides except the ground below. Most of the explosive energy thus headed outward rather than down into the ground below. This allowed most of the energy to travel across the (relatively flat) area as a shockwave, making short work of most structures in its path.

What was left of Braamfontein as the dust settled.

The explosion at Braamfontein is a great example of why dynamite never found widespread adoption in warfare and hasn’t been in widespread industrial use in decades. While it is a highly effective and handy explosive it’s also still highly unstable, and apart from not detonating if simply set on fire will go off in a variety of unintended ways. Stories have been circulated about people finding boxes with a stick or two in old barns and setting off an explosion because they set down the box after lifting it up. Some stories (whose truthfulness may be questionable) paint the picture that it’s harder to not set off dynamite than it is to set it off.

When most people think of dynamite today they tend to think of TNT, which is an entirely different (and safer) explosive. This confusion comes in part from “TNT” being a much shorter and more memorable term, which was also used by the media (like the “Bugs Bunny”-Cartoons) who would label any explosive “TNT”.

TNT found widespread use despite being less powerful as it is all one material, rather than one material soaked in another. TNT, in contrast to dynamite, also found adoption into warfare since it could be poured into shell casings in its liquid form. Mining is nowadays often done with ANFO (Ammoninum Nitrate — Fuel Oil)-based explosives, which are also more stable than dynamite and can even be created on-site with supply shipments only carrying ammonium nitrate or some sort of fuel oil (often diesel) rather than the finished explosive. Having an explosive “split up” into its contents obviously reduces the risk of an accidental explosion during shipping/storage, but ammonium nitrate on its own has been involved in industrial accidents involving unintended detonation in the past. Recently a fire had triggered the 2020 Beirut Explosion, where 2750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse were set off by a fire reaching fireworks stored in the immediate vicinity, creating the 6th largest non-nuclear explosion in history. In this case, it can be assumed that the detonating fireworks served as the “blasting cap”.

A shock wave races through Beirut following the devastating 2020 explosion of stored ammonium nitrate.

Modern explosives get transported by train on a regular basis, and one usually wouldn’t know from looking at the train. Some railways had specialized explosives cars around the middle of the 20th century, which were painted bright colors and labelled with warnings down the side, but those measures appear to have fallen out of fashion. In North America, most rail companies demand little beyond a standard warning label (similar to those found on train cars carrying fuel or flammable gasses) and in some cases disallow cars carrying explosives to be coupled directly behind the locomotive in order to separate them from both people and a possible ignition-source.

The safety-label (red square) on a Canadian tanker car. 1075 refers to a group of gases like Butane or Propane, TNT would carry the 1356 or 3366 depending on its condition. ANFO carries the 112.

The disaster at Braamfontein stands as a clear reminder of the dangers that come with lacking care in the handling of dangerous goods, even if technical advancements make repetition quite unlikely. A small memorial stands at Braamfontein Cemetery today, a granite pillar engraved with gold lettering reminding visitors of the tragedy. Due to the era it stems from the memorial has its inscription differentiate “whites” and “coloured”, something you luckily wouldn’t find on a memorial created in recent times. There are also several individual graves referring to the explosion in their inscription, and some locals claim that the property holds a mass grave of unidentified bodies and body parts.

The inscription of the memorial at the cemetery.


This was the last weekly installment of the Train Crash Series. Changes in my private and professional life have made it very hard for me to keep up the pace, so starting next week I will stretch the schedule out and release on the first Sunday of each month. I hope that most of you will still find your way here.


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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.