When walking around a suburb one sometimes comes across an unusual street name, as an example: Jacob’s Ladder. Why one wonders was it so named? It could be argued that as there are two churches close by – the St James Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Trinity Church, Kalk Bay one could thus speculate that maybe the name was a reference to the Old Testament story of Jacob’s dream of a heavenly stairway. However, to come to a possible answer one must go back in time. There must have been a reason as to why the steps were built upwards from the Main Road, St James.
During the early nineteenth century, around the time of the second British occupation, whaling in False Bay had begun to be perceived as a business venture. Whales had been caught before – Seaforth had previously been the scene of the operation – but now it began to be more organised. Johan Heinrich Muller was granted two pieces of land in this area, one in 1814 and another in 1822. He erected a whaling station, in the vicinity of today’s Main Road, St James. Given the present heavily built up suburb, one has now to allow imagination to come into play.
Try to visualize space under a house where possibly whale meat or a whale boat could have been kept. In front of the whaling station there would have been open space, a very basic road, no railway line only a sandy area and then open sea. The harpooned whales would have been drawn up onto that small beach.
Whales are large creatures easily seen close to shore but the whale catchers had to have ample time to make their preparation for the catch. This is when the Jacob’s Ladder we know today, was probably known, simply for practical reasons, as The Steps or die Trappies. To get ready for the catch men had to sit at a fair height and observe the distant horizon for whales. Then pass the observations on to those who manned the boats and who had to get certain equipment ready. In time small houses were built up the hillside for the men and their families. Steps were needed to reach the lookouts and their homes.
At the turn of the twentieth century the steps were lit by oil lamps on the Main Road. A few years later in 1907 street lights were electrified. At first there were 120 steps but as the demand for more residential homes increased the “street” was lengthened to meet Boyes Drive with its magnificent scenic views. This was around 1920. By the time the Municipalities of Cape Town were constituted with main roads and side streets named, Jacob’s Ladder had become a public street. Practicality had been the reason for the building of the steps but its naming could very well have been a nod to the attractive two church buildings.