Thomas Kautzor has been to several Caribbean islands to check out what is left
of their railways and industrial heritage.
For the full general index, see Railway Relics (and more) in the Caribbean,
Thomas Kautzor reports on his visit with Torsten Schneider to Aruba, 22nd - 23rd September 2014,
click here for his visit to sister
island Curaçao. The third island of the former Netherlands Antilles,
Bonaire, never had a railway as far as is known.
Together with Torsten Schneider, I spent two days on the small island of Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela which was part of the Netherlands Antilles until 1986, since when it has been a country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Our main objective was to see the new standard gauge Oranjestad battery tram, which opened in
12/2012, this is covered in a separate
While in Aruba, we also had a look at what little is left of the island’s earlier railways:
Gold was discovered on Aruba during the first half of the 19th century. In the 2nd half of the century the Aruba Gold Mining Co., Ltd. (AGM) of London obtained a concession for gold exploitation from the government and started mining underground at various shafts, from which drifts radiated out. Manpowered railways were used underground to transport the rock to the shafts.
At Balashi, about halfway between Oranjestad and San Nicolas on the south coast, a smelter was built by AGM to process the ore. To facilitate the supply of mine timbers from the U.S. and coal from Britain, which at first had to be transported from Oranjestad harbor at great cost, a 20 ft wooden wharf at Spanish Lagoon, linked to the smelter by a light railway, probably of 24 inch,
610mm, gauge. Later the railway was extended into the smelter itself and used to transport crushed rock from the crushers to the cyanide tanks where the separating process took place. The ore itself was brought to Balashi from the numerous outlying mines at first by donkeys, until in 1881 a steam traction engine was brought to the island. Named “trinkichi” in the local Papiamento language, it was the first example of mechanical traction on the island, and was used to transport supplies to the mines and ore to the smelter.
In about 1901, the gold mining operations were turned over to Aruba Gold Concession, Ltd. While this company tried to reduce costs by reducing the number of shafts in operation and reducing the workforce by relying on independent miners to supply ore, by 1908 it was in serious financial trouble, with most of the easily-mined gold veins mined out. By 1914, mining operations finally ceased due to the inability to be able to obtain explosives, cyanide and other supplies. Later, the rails and cars were sold for scrap. Today, all that remains are various shafts as well the ruins of the Balashi Smelter, now a minor tourist attraction.
Phosphate was discovered at Cerroe Colorado, at the southeastern tip of the island, in 1874, and in 1879 the Aruba Phosphate Co. (APC) was founded. The company very quickly realized that shipping the ore by donkey to San Nicolas harbor and then by lighter to the larger ships would be a problem, and as a result it was decided in 1880 to build a modern L-shaped steel pier at San Nicolas, linked to the mines by a 30 inch,
762mm, gauge railway. A steam tug was also ordered to assist steam ships to dock. By the end of 1881 the 7 km railway serving the mines at Cerroe Colorado and Cerroa Culebra, with one small English-built steam locomotive, was completed. By the end of 1881 a second loco of the same type was ordered, each could haul 10-12 loaded tipping cars downhill to the pier, where the ore was unloaded directly into the waiting ships. Business boomed so much that in 1882 a more powerful 0-4-2T, capable of hauling 30 cars, was ordered from H.K. Porter. Workers were able to load up to 300 tons per day, which was the average capacity of the three-masted ships in the West Indian phosphate trade. Aside from 91 tipping cars, the APC also owned a one-axle inspection coach lettered ‘A’.
However, due to large discoveries of phosphate in the U.S. and elsewhere for fertilizer, by the mid-1880s demand started to decline. Following the outbreak of WWI in 1914, cutting off supplies and disrupting shipping, the company made the decision to shut down. The mines were closed and the locomotives abandoned on a siding a Serroe Culebra. In 1915, a representative for Shell Oil signed a deal to buy the rails and tipping cars for use at the Shell Oil refinery construction site in Curaçao. Only some rails remained on the pier and in the harbor area at San Nicolas. In the mid-1930s the locos were pushed into the mine pit at Serroe Culebra and covered with trash by crews of the Lago refinery.
In 1924 the Lago Oil & Transport Co., Ltd. of Canada (formerly Lago Petroleum Co.) built an oil depot at San Nicolas to transship oil from Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela to be refined in Curaçao. Initially, the old APM pier and the remaining railway tracks were used and extended. It 1927, the decision was made to open a refinery, and during contruction between 02/1928 and the opening of the refinery in 1929, mixed 30 inch/standard gauge track was used and eight standard gauge flat wagons imported from the U.S., as the narrow gauge flat cars were too small to transport some of the heavy components. At first Milwaukee petrol locos were used. Three of these would be needed, two at the front and another pushing, to get the standard gauge cars off the pier, later helped by a steam winch. After the refinery was completed, the third standard gauge rail was removed, but the narrow gauge network was kept to move supplies from the pier to the commissary, cold storage rooms, bakery and pipe storage area. By 1936 a Plymouth petrol loco (one of 6-ton 3762 of 3/34 or 5-ton 3921-2 of 6/37) was purchased and assigned to the food supply trains. At noon, a daily ‘lunch-train’ of four crew cars was also operated between the acid plant at the far end of the refinery and the mess hall. Throughout the 1930s and WWII the railway operated 24 hours per day.
In 1939, four out of a total of eleven Plymouth type BFA 6-ton locos were ordered in an attempt to modernize the railway. Equipped with Ford petrol engines, they were No. 2301-4 of 1/38, 2315-6 of 3/38, 2323-4 of 7/38, 2415-6 of 7/39 and 2549 of 10/40. These locos replaced the worn-out Milwaukee locos. The first four were immediately put in use on the railway’s most difficult job, hauling trains of 14-ton sulphur hoppers between the pier and the acid plant.
During WWII, the Lago refinery became the largest producer of aviation fuel in the free world, with one out of every 16 gallons of aviation fuel produced. As a result, from 1942 the German Navy tried to destroy the refinery with submarines. By the war’s end the Brookville 6-tonners were tired and needed to be replaced, so an order was placed with Brookville for four BCL-10 10-tons diesel locos No. 3242-4/8 of 7/1947, which with their 98 h.p. Caterpillar engines became the largest locos to ever operate in the Netherlands Antilles. These larger loco could work all the heavier jobs at the refinery, however their working schedule was cut to only one daily shift as modern rubber-tired vehicles were taking over many of the functions the railway used to carry out within the refinery.
In the early 1950s work started on a large desulphurization plant, which would remove sulphur from crude oil, making the refinery self-sufficient in sulphur. It was to be put in use in 1956 and therefore the decision was made to abandon the rail system on November 1, 1955. In 1961 most of the track was removed to make way for new road construction. Some years ago, railway tracks still remained in place on finger pier No. 1. Today, the refinery is operated by the Valero Energy Corp. of San Antonio, Texas, and the pier is off-limits to casual visitors.
As the Lago refinery was being built, another refinery was being built just west of Oranjestad by the Arend Petroleum Maatschappij (Eagle Petroleum Co.), a subsidiary of Shell Oil. A small wooden wharf was built at Taratat, and a 24 inch,
610mm, gauge railway used to bring in construction materials. As the site was completely level, unlike at Lago, two Muir Hill four-wheel 4-ton 30 h.p. petrol locos could cope with the job. Components for the refinery were loaded on four-wheel 5-ton flat wagons built by
Du Croo & Brauns, which could be coupled by drawbars. The refinery was put into use in June 1928 and after it had been completed, most of the railway was kept in use for bringing supplies from the pier to the commissary and cold storage plant. As at Lago, a crew trains were run at shift changes for the workers, however they had to ride on the regular flat cars. It soon became evident that the Taratata wharf was too small and a new 420 m. long pier was built at Druif, west of the refinery.
By the late 1930s, the railway reached its largest extent at 8 km of track, including spurs and sidings, and serving both the Taratata wharf and the new Eagle Pier. The 14 5-ton four-wheel flat wagons had been supplemented by nine 10-ton 12-foot bogie flat wagons, also built by
Du Croo & Brauns. At the beginning of WWII the Eagle refinery was at the peak of its production, and also become the target of German submarine attacks. Because it did not produce aviation gasoline, it was shut down from 1942 to 1945. After it reopened, the two Muir Hill petrol locos were replaced by a Hunslet loco, equipped with a two-cylinder Ailsa-Craig diesel engine. By the 1950s, management of the refinery had to make a decision between either modernizing the refinery or shutting it down. The later was chosen, and the railway was now used to dismantle the refining units. By 1958, all production stopped at the site, but the tank farm was still used for storage by Shell Curaçao. In 1960, the railway itself was dismantled. The Divi Divi Resort was later built on the site of the tank farm, while the Eagle Pier was dismantled in 1974 to make way for another resort, leaving no traces of the refinery. Today, Eagle Beach is one of the major tourist beaches in Aruba.
Aruba Model Train Museum
Located at Koolbaaibergstraat 12, Lago Heights, San Nicolas, this museum was set up Mr. J. de Vries at his private home in 12/2001. Mr. de Vries, a retired Dutch insurance representative, has collected model trains during his whole life. Also on display at the museum is a board with photos of Aruba’s railways, as well as some relics, including a wagon axle (24 inch,
610mm, gauge although APM’s railway is thought to have been 30 inch,
762mm, gauge) and a buffer retrieved from the Serroe Colorado site. The museum is open by appointment (tel. +297-584-7321).
- Lee A. Dew, “the railroads of Aruba and Curaçao / railverkeer op Aruba en Curaçao”, Rotterdam: Publishers
- David Rollinson, “Railways of the Caribbean”, Oxford: MacMillan Caribbean, 2001.
- Susan Camppbell, “All Aboard”, in Nights Aruba 2014 (destination guide), Oranjestad, pp.