The International Steam Pages
Steam Relics in Guatemala, 2012
James Waite has been on a brief trip to Guatemala - for more pictures from a happier time which include those of a special steam hauled train and the works which are now off limits see my own visit report from 2004. Click here for Thomas Kautzor's sugar mills visits in 2019.
I spent two days in Guatemala and before I set off had spent a great deal of time trying to obtain permits to visit the relatively small number of places I thought would be in reach. In this I was assisted immeasurably by the ever-helpful Francesca Sanchinelli who, with her husband Rene, runs the Posada Belen Inn and Museum in Guatemala City and who has many years of experience working in the country’s tourist industry. As this was a business trip the gricing component was of secondary importance but it’s fair to say that it was at best only half-successful.
Francesca arranged for her driver friend Raul, another really helpful person, to drive me around. We set off promptly for the FEGUA museum at the old terminal station in the city, just about the only remaining railway installation which is still open to the public. The museum is very well-presented. Long-term resident 2-8-0 no. 34 (BLW, 15337/1897), which for many years had been the oldest loco on the IRCA roster, looked as smart as ever and considerable more attractive since Henry Posner III removed its fake balloon smokestack. It was numbered 31 on the Guatemala Railway and IRCA until 1928 when IRCA adopted a new numbering scheme. It's one of only two locos built for the FC Central de El Salvador which was built between Cutoco and San Miguel, 42 miles apart, between 1893 and 1897. The line was taken over by the Guatemala Railway (which became IRCA in 1912) and rebuilt between 1904 and 1912 on a new alignment to become the easternmost part of the IRCA line in El Salvador.
A few years ago 2-8-2 no. 205 (BLW 74135/1948) which had been one of the two locos which Henry Posner’s Guatemalan operation had kept in working order, was moved alongside it at the buffer stop end of the old station. Numerous old vans, coaches, wagons and a few diesel locos make up the remainder of the preserved rolling stock in the museum. The star attraction amongst them must be “Guastatoya”, a beautiful old IRCA business car complete with arched windows, an open balcony at one end and ornate ironwork. Access to the coaches and wagons is freely available and the staff were most helpful in showing me around. At the far end of the museum compound, just beyond the train shed, 2-8-2 no. 204 (BLW 74134/1948) stands out in the open. It was overhauled quite recently under the supervision of an engineer from Bogota and remained in working order until Henry Posner’s contract was terminated by the government. Exposure to the country's tropical rainstorms can't be doing it any good and it's a shame it hasn't been moved under cover.
Just beyond the compound stand no’s. 165 and 168, the two Krupp-built 2-8-2’s dating from 1937 and 1938 respectively (works no's. 1685 and 1873) which had been stored at Zacapa shed way out on the line to the Caribbean coast. German-built main line locos were unusual in this part of the world. Thirteen of these Mikes were delivered to IRCA, supposedly as part of a barter arrangement in exchange for Guatemalan coffee which was greatly prized by the Nazi leadership then in power in Germany. Their move from Zacapa to Guatemala City in November 2007 was made at the request of the Fundación de Amigos del Ferrocarril de Guatemala and its cost was shared between the Fundación, the German Embassy and Mr. Posner’s organisation. It was one of the last movements over the railway before it closed for good. Happily there was a temporary exhibition taking place in the building next to where they stand during my visit so I was able to have a good look at them but they’re so hemmed in that effective photography was impossible.
Both Francesca and I thought we had obtained permission for me to visit the roundhouse and works just beyond the museum but access was resolutely refused and eventually I gave up trying. The roundhouse, an evocative place which has been well-photographed in the past, should be home to two more of the 2-8-2’s and to two 2-8-0’s similar to the ones in El Salvador.
Raul and I then set off for two of the sugar factories around 100km to the southwest of Guatemala City. Access here looked more chancy as no permit had been forthcoming despite occasional responses asking for my personal details. We were no more than 10 minutes away from Finca Pantaleón when Francesca phoned to say she had just been told that no visits were allowed. We called at the factory, a huge, modern affair, all the same. One of its locos, a 0-6-2T of obviously US appearance numbered FP002, lives alongside the security hut at the entrance gate. Raul did a great job of chatting to the guards who agreed to turn a blind eye for a few seconds while I photographed it. FP001, a 0-4-2ST, was clearly visible quite a long distance away outside the main factory building. The third loco there, a Shay and a rare beast for this part of the world, is supposed to be at the factory’s social club but sadly wasn’t visible from outside. Finca Pantaleón is around three km east of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa on route CA2, the main road west from Escuintla. (There is a picture of the 'missing' Shay here
Next stop was Finca El Baúl, around seven km north of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa on route 11. The factory is run by the Pantaleón organisation but clearly hasn’t received anything like the same level of investment. It is, however, home to a museum devoted mainly to numerous sculptures found in the area which are relics from the Cotzumalguapa people, the pre-Colombian inhabitants of the district who were quite distinct from the better-known Mayans. El Baúl was the site of a major city and some 200 or more sculptures have been discovered nearby. Also on display are four locos, “La Maruca”, a 0-4-2T which carries an Arthur Koppel plate but no works number, “Sujuyes”, a hefty-looking 0-6-2T (OK 11396/1927, 750mm gauge according to the works list and supplied to 'Nottebohm & Co for Guatemala'), a Baldwin 0-4-2ST and a Ruston & Hornsby 0-6-0DM. I haven’t managed to find out anything about where these locos worked. There are also a traction engine and a farm-type portable steam engine.
There’s another OK loco at Finca Concepcion, by the railway line close to Escuintla, but we had run out of time and returned direct to Guatemala City.
Next day we visited Zacapa. There’s an outstation of the FEGUA museum here which is housed in the second floor of the old station building and has a well-presented collection of small exhibits. Zacapa used to be quite an iconic place, noted for the Hotel Ferrocarril, a large wooden structure with verandahs overlooking the loco shed. It had once drawn its custom from passengers awaiting onward connections at what was an important junction station in its heyday. Bob Whetham wrote an evocative description of a less than cheerful overnight stay there in its declining years in his excellent book “In Search of the Narrow Gauge” (SonoNis Press, Victoria, BC, Canada, 1996 ISBN 10:1550390694) when he was the only customer and there was only one staff member in attendance. Sadly the hotel was demolished in 1985 and replaced by a utilitarian warehouse building. One of its rooms has been recreated in the museum and there’s a similar exhibit in the museum in Guatemala City. It must have been a bleak and cramped place in which to stay.
One interesting photo in the museum shows a preserved loco, a 2-8-0 numbered 313 with the Del Monte symbol on the cab, at Bananera/Bandegua, in the Morales area not far from the Caribbean coast where the United Fruit Company ran an extensive railway system. The curator assured me that the loco is still there but we didn’t have the time to drive that far so it will have to wait for another day.
The shed at Zacapa does not form part of the museum and is securely fenced off and guarded. It was another place for which I thought I’d arranged a permit but this turned out not to be the case. Raul and the museum attendant were very helpful, however, and persuaded the guard to let me look around briefly. The roundhouse was an open sided building, ideal for the harsh tropical temperatures at this low altitude. Clearly the place has seen no maintenance for many years and it’s rapidly becoming an open-roofed building as well. The departure of the two Krupp locos has left three Mikes in residence, no. 199 (BLW 74129/1948) inside the shed and no’s. 153 (BLW 60589/1929) and 183 (BLW 73098/1947). No. 153’s tender is lettered for the Cia. Agricola, United Fruit’s Guatemalan subsidiary.
All in all it’s hard not to feel sad at what has happened to the Guatemalan railway when only a very few years ago Henry Posner must have spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to revive the system and the steam trips over the scenic line north from the city must have been spectacular affairs. Incidentally his website at http://www.rrdc.com/op_guatemala_fvg.html continues to be updated with news over the long-running litigation which arose from the Guatemalan government’s cancellation of his company’s contract. The most recent report is that the government and their lawyers have parted company – unlikely to be a sign that their case is going well. Just maybe he will get his contract back one day but, with the continuing theft of rail and decay throughout the system, whether there will then be anything worth saving must be open to doubt.
Books about the Guatemalan railways are thin on the ground. A good contemporary account with works lists is Gerald M. Best's "Central American Holiday" published in 1960 in connection with a US enthusiasts visit there. A more recent one with good photography both of Guatemala and of many of North America's long defunct narrow gauge lines is "Narrow Gauge Railway Scenes" by Adolph Hungry Wolf published by Canadian Caboose Press in 1992, ISBN: 9780920698419.
The Posada Belen is an excellent small hotel housed in a building dating from 1875 in the old city not far from the FEGUA museum. It’s full of old small sculptures, probably from the Mayan era along with a wealth of more recent historic artefacts and has an excellent restaurant. It’s at
A minor mystery concerns 0-6-0 no. 4 of the Guatemala Railway and IRCA (Societe Liege 978/1894). It was one of three identical locos built for the FC de San Salvador a Santa Tecla (today a suburb in the west of San Salvador) and sold to the Guatemala Railway in 1909. Back in 1961 it was preserved in a park in Guatemala City. Does anyone know if it's still there? (Incidentally the FC de San Salvador a Santa Tecla was electrified in 1923 and closed not long after, a victim of road competition.)
Baldwins 205 and 34:
Finca Pantaleón's 0-6-2T
A distant FP 001
Finca El Baúl's OK 13956
The Baldwin 0-4-2ST
Zacapa's roundhouse, with 199 inside and 153 and 183 outside:
Zacapa is also home to a number of other 'steam relics' (see Residual Stationary Steam Equipment in Guatemala and Guatemala's Railway Heritage), but not included in those pages are this Brownhoist steam crane and a steam hammer:
Finally the preserved 2-8-0 seen 'as displayed' and also with the benefit of Photoshop restoration: An original picture is available here http://www.flickr.com/photos/30122607@N08/2813367285/.