“There is no law here”: Pilgrim’s Rest Part 1

It doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence when the website for a heritage site boldly displays the disclaimer:

PILGRIM’S is ALIVE and WELL! (April 2016)

Despite all the recent media hype,


for business as usual.

But despite any qualms this disclaimer may have caused (or concerns I had regarding the website’s decidedly 1990s design), I nevertheless undertook the journey to this renowned historical South African mining town last week. What I found was a town that while technically “open for business,” was clearly on the decline, a near ghost-town. A half-dozen tourists trickled between the various preserved historical buildings of Pilgrim’s Rest “Uptown” and “Downtown,” and a small group of Afrikaner bikers congregated for a mid-afternoon tipple at the Royal Hotel.

Local kids hanging out near the Royal Hotel. Today, the Royal Hotel is one of the few businesses in Pilgrim’s Rest that seems to be doing a viable amount of trade. Photo by SR.

The residents we encountered seemed to be making a living in whatever way they could – we encountered a man herding cows along the road, several women hawking curios at roadside stalls, a few ticket-takers at town’s near-vacant museums, and a group of men engaged in the dubious tourist “car wash” business (your car is washed by the parking attendants without your permission while you are visiting the town, and you are charged for the service when you return). Although this racket is not unique to Pilgrim’s Rest, it seems to have taken off as a major income provider, given the large, official-looking signs explaining that we could be charged a “Maximum of 80 ZAR” (around $6), and the fact that our host in Graskop asked if we’d “had our car washed” when we returned that evening (we ultimately escaped with only a 20 ZAR window-washing). When I stopped to buy a pamphlet and some postcards at the gift shop, the lone staff member manning the entire museum, visitor’s center, and shop, seemed genuinely baffled at my request—I was evidently one of very few paying patrons in recent memory. However, despite the fact that the residents of Pilgrim’s Rest clearly were struggling to maintain steady employment, the buildings were largely in good repair, and at least in the main visitor center, and some portions of the interpretive signage seemed relatively new and up-to-date. In the visitor center, a new introductory panel proclaimed the mission of the preserving Pilgrim’s Rest:

The fundamental objective of the village is focused on the protection and management of this heritage resource to the benefit of the Pilgrim’s Rest community, the people of Mpumalanga and all South Africans, in order to conserve a vital and irreplaceable part of our history and its link to gold, for future generations.

It seemed there had been money in Pilgrim’s Rest, and recently. Equally clear, however, was that the industrial heritage of the town was not being managed in such a way as to act for the benefit of the community.

The Central Garage has been transformed into a small transportation museum. Photo by SR.

Pilgrim’s Rest is located in the Highveld region of Mpumalanga, the northeastern province of South Africa known for stunning scenery, Kruger National Park, and unfortunately, rampant political corruption link to NYT article on this topic. Beyond the larger graft described in the linked article, the mountainous region around Pilgrim’s Rest is notorious for fake “traffic police” stopping unsuspecting tourists and demanding an on-the-spot penalty fee (i.e. bribe). Pilgrim’s Rest lies adjacent to the Panorama Route, a sequence of scenic natural wonders, all of which charge a nominal fee for entrance. Between viewpoints, much of the landscape has been heavily impacted by the logging industry, which, in addition to tourism, has largely supplanted mining as the region’s major source of income. The Panorama Route effectively funnels tourists into very isolated areas where specific geological features or viewsheds have been preserved against the ravages of logging. Yet, the drive between interest points is dominated by the unnaturally straight rows of pine trees planted by the logging industry.

In 1873, a prospector named William Trafford ignited the first significant gold rush in South Africa when he announced his discovery of an alluvial gold deposit near the existing New Caledonia Gold Fields (also called the MacMac camp). Trafford’s announcement came in September, and by the year’s end, 1500 prospectors were mining in the area that would become Pilgrim’s Rest. Despite the discovery of other, competing gold deposits in the area, including those to the south in Barberton, and at Witswatersrand in what would become Johannesburg, Pilgrim’s Rest grew from a provincial mining camp into a regional commercial center. As was the case in Johannesburg, individual claims eventually became untenable as deeper excavations required bigger machines and more capital. In addition, the Transvaal government wanted to actively encourage industrialization, and so began a practice of granting major concessions to investors and corporations. David Benjamin, a London banker, gained a concession for the mining rights in Pilgrim’s Rest in 1881. Benjamin bought out other miners’ shares, and with the remaining small mining companies in the region, formed the amalgamated Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (TGME) in 1885. This marked the beginning of major institutional consolidation at Pilgrim’s Rest, and the end of the early days of solo miners working individual claims.

These economic and structural changes had significant consequences for the built environment of the town. As the official pamphlet notes:

“The histories of the Transvaal Gold Mining Estate and Pilgrim’s Rest are inseparably linked. Both shared the fluctuating fortunes of the mines”

Already by 1876, miners were upgrading from tents to permanent buildings. By the 1890s, the city was a major commercial center. Over the following decades, the town’s fortunes waxed and waned with the productivity of the mine, and in response to the vicissitudes of the national and global gold markets. By the 1910s, the Pilgrim’s Rest revenues were beginning to dwindle as gold became harder to extract. The unique geography of the region meant that the reefs were often thin and hard to track. Mines were constantly opened, closed, and reopened again (TGME opened thirty mines in all over nearly a century of operation). After WWI, a number of forestry experiments in the area proved so profitable that mining no longer seemed the only viable economic mainstay of the region. Fortunes for the town turned temporarily in 1932, when gold prices spiked, and for a short time, the town entered another “boom” period. But, by the 1950s, mining operations had reached their all-time peak and in 1968, TGME sold out to another mining company. In 1972, the last mine ceased function. TGME (now a subsidiary of another company) sold the town of Pilgrim’s Rest to the Provincial government as a heritage site in 1974. It was declared a National Monument in 1986.

The Information Center, complete with (often quite dated) posters and pamphlets for other area attractions and things to do in town. Photo by SR.

Even as the mining fortunes rose and fell over the last century, the architectural fabric of Pilgrim’s Rest has changed relatively little. One history of the town attributes the stagnant nature of the town to a proud and stubborn resistance to modernity. Purportedly, a new magistrate who arrived around the turn of the century was waylaid on his way into town by an angry villager who declared:

”You have come to a queer place! This is the Republic of Pilgrim’s Rest. There is no law here except what we make ourselves.”

However, more so than temperament, the preservation of Pilgrim’s Rest is connected to its history as a company town, owned in its entirety by TGME rather than by private individuals. The town expanded and contracted to serve the needs of the mine, and building stock was conserved rather than torn down and replaced with each boom-bust sequence. Due to its rural, mountainous location, Pilgrim’s Rest relied on the building materials that were simple to transport or could be acquired locally. As such, the town has a particular vernacular that unites many of its significant buildings. Corrugated iron siding forms the bulk of the walls and roofs, while carved wooden tracery and columns in a late-Victorian style lend ornament and articulation to the various commercial buildings. More permanent building materials, such as stone and brick, were typically reserved for structures such as the banks and churches. Still, most residences in the main part of town and the commercial buildings share the same basic grammar of sheet metal and carved wooden ornament, distinguished by fine-grain details, paint color, and ample signage.

The Old Bank is one of the few stone buildings in town, but its corrugated sheet metal roof and wooden ornament are typical of almost every historical building in town. Photo by SR.

After completing a circuit of the main town, John and I hiked up to the historical cemetery overlooking the town (complete with ominous squawking bird and creaky gate). By that point, I felt viscerally disconcerted by the tenor of the whole place. We’ve been to some pretty off-the-beaten track places here in South Africa, but this was the site that left me feeling the most on-edge.

We walked back to the downtown car park, past a row of former miner houses, the town’s elementary school, and its clinic. A pair of local boys raced past us up the hill, laughing and teasing each other as they ran—a blip of normalcy in what had been a truly strange experience. Returning to our rental car, its windows freshly washed, I felt an unmistakable sense of relief at the prospect of leaving. What had happened here? Why did the lived experience of this place feel so desolate? Was it merely a fluke of regional economic circumstance, or were there more global forces at play? The individual answers I’ve found are inconclusive but together situate Pilgrim’s Rest at the center of a debate raging in South Africa about how to manage the country’s historic sites, and the particular place and purpose of industrial sites as part of national heritage.

To Be Continued…

The infamous Robber’s Grave of Pilgrim’s Rest. On the day I visited, most other tourists I saw mostly went directly to the cemetery. Overlooking the rest of the town, the cemetery has a macabre ambience and several notable permanent residents. Photo by SR.


“Pilgrim’s Rest Home Page.” http://www.pilgrims-rest.co.za, accessed August 14, 2018. Last updated 2016.

Pilgrim’s Rest Museum. “Pilgrim’s Gold: A Humble Place That Made a Huge Constribution to South Africa’s Gold Industry.” Introductory museum text panel. Undated.

Pilgrim’s Rest Museum. “Pilgrim’s Rest: You are never too late for the Gold Rush.” Pamphlet from the information center. Undated.

Schultz, Judith. “The History of Pilgrim’s Rest.” Pamphlet from the information center. Undated.

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