The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Cuba 6
Eastern Cuba

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index.

Other Cuban tales:

Mill 503 Orlando Gonzalez Ramirez

24th February 1997 2-8-0 1837 departs Limones. 

We arrived at Limones Palmero LP in mid-afternoon to find a loaded train was about to depart behind 1837 (ALC 1920). A couple of locals had parked their motorbike and side car next to the line to be part of the shot. The passenger in the sidecar lost his machismo as the bike refused to start and the large engine passed uncomfortably close as the train ran through the village street.

The train did not go directly back to the mill, instead it ventured down the Las Trozas branch. For the return working a Groucho suggested he pose on his horse whilst the train passed. Chasing the train back to the mill provided more opportunities as the sun sank. 

The action was not over as 4-6-0 1732 (Alco 1916) was working home on another train, enabling sunset shots. This was an excellent afternoon with engines working hard in pleasant scenery, no wonder we visited again in 1999. 

4th March 1999 saw small Baldwin 2-6-0 1563 setting out from the Portilla with a huge load in late afternoon, we caught it again at Cabrera Junction where it had been held. The crew and had difficulty getting the train underway, lots of slipping accompanied the attempted restarts; seemingly it had no sand. As we chased it on the mainline towards the mill it really sounded great as it now crisply moved its train, whilst we aimed for glints. It was good to see these smaller engines working such a heavy train. 

1563 passes Cabrera Jn 4th March 1999.

Mill 504 Ecuador

Towards the end of the 1997 season there had been a serious collision that destroyed two engines. In 1999 we found Vulcan 1564 on the pilot. It was activity near the shed entrance that attracted our attention as large Vulcan 2-8-0 1904 was shunting two cripples or wrecks consisting of:- 1680 a 1920 built Baldwin from Mill 623 Julio Antonio Mella and 1817 the Alco involved in the crash, that had obviously rolled over. The cripples could barely move despite the efforts of 1904. A bevy of shed staff were supervising the move using some precious oil, which was in short supply. The boiler on 1680 was complete, but parts of the motion had yet to be rebuilt whilst 1817 had a stripped boiler and the staff were trying to unjam the cylinder motion, whether in an attempt to cannibalise it or just reposition the hulk Iím not sure; but it was giving them and the crew of 1904 a major problem. Whilst observing the shenanigans we missed the arrival of light 2-8-0 1578. This engine was another replacement from Mill 603, American Libre. 

I was impressed how despite shortages of basics like oil the staff were working to get one of the engines back to work. It seemed the dice were loaded against Cubans in so many ways, partly due to the Russian abandonment, but mostly because of US sanctions; this was a desperately poor society.

1564 on pilot duties at Ecuador Mill. 4th March 1999

Mill 515 Ciro Redondo.

1829 approaches the Mill. 3rd March 1999

Ciro Redondo; with its large Baldwin 2-8-0s usually had something to offer even if it was only shunting bogie hoppers. One morning I filmed 1834 (Baldwin 1919) which was blocking the road crossing for several old Yank cars. 1834 was refusing to restart its heavy load, which made for some interesting video, although the driver who had to keep re setting the engine from forward gear to reverse was having a bad day. 

The traffic control office was a delightful Southern America plantation style building, another delight was the attractive girls who worked there! A footbridge connected the office to the mill yard, from the bridge observed wagons being dragged by cable into the mill to be raised by huge hydraulic jacks till they tipped their contents.

Of course railfans are often thwarted, one afternoon we followed a train of empties to a remote LP driving on treacherous dirt roads till we lost the train as it slipped down a branch with no road access. We waited for is return. The wait turned into hours, eventually a road water tanker turned up followed by the engine which replenished its tender before returning to the LP. A wasted afternoon! We headed back to the mill only to find a cane burn is out of control and smoke is spreading throughout the area. With a huge storm brewing it was time to forget trains. 

Mill 522 Venezuela

Not my favourite mill as the roads were full of dust and with poor seals in hire cars the dust spread over everything. The countryside was flat and uninviting, and the crews seemed to not bother with basic safety. A case in point was a crew member who insisted performing his party trick which involved riding the connecting rod, machismo and stupidity ruled here! Crews liked racing railfans which nearly resulted in a collision as one crew did not brake in time for a junction where a diesel hauled train was waiting, luckily the diesel driver was able to quickly reverse whilst sounding the horn, giving the steam crew a lucky break. What followed was a 3 way shouting match with the two train crews and the junction signaller. Not content with the mayhem they created the steam train rocketed away breaking the couplings with the rear of the train, it took them sometime to become aware of the situation. 

There were photographic locations including a flat crossing with the FCC and some of the villages the line passed were picturesque. The steam fleet had been reduced with new and ex FCC diesels, although an interesting 4-6-0, 1657 (ALS 1916) was retained for pilot duties. 

Mill 635 Rafael Freyre 

Rafael often started cutting cane later in the season than most mills and some fans came away without seeing trains. In 1997 I was with a tour group and sharing a car with fellow Australians who had visited before. This was one of the mills that still relied on hand cut cane, with bullock carts taking it to LPs. The trick was to get a train before sunset on the curve at Barjay and that seemed to depend on trains not getting stuck on Altuna bank or tripped to one of the spurs such as to Hondura LP (which was scenic). 

The engines are all Baldwins built from 1905 to 1919. The crews painted the tenders with a range of insignia's from leaping swordfish to caricature jet fighters. 

In 1997 I was lucky to see early morning workings on the west line. The afternoon was spent watching a loaded cane train struggle up Altuna bank, which required blow-ups and splitting the train after it stalled. It was 17.00 and the light had gone by the time it had finished its struggle, still a long way from home, and no chance of seeing it at Barjay, but I was happy with the action!. 

The steam engines were all Baldwins built from 1905 to 1919, the crews painted the tenders with a range of insignia's from leaping swordfish to caricature jet fighters. The exception was an ancient 0-6-0 Baldwin no 1, built in 1882. The mill had repaired this engine for tourist work and I joined a TUT charter operating on the Port Line.

In 1999 I arrived at Rafael in early March, to find they had still to start cutting. Luckily I was able to join another charter albeit with empties, which enabled me to get photos at Altuna and Barjay, but it was not the real thing.

I had planned to finish my trip with another couple of days at Holguin at the end of March and by this time there was real line work, thatís what I wanted! The old engines shake as they haul heavy trains, the burners making a ferocious noise, what a blast! 

Charter working Altuna bank, 8th March 1999

8th March 1999 heading to Barjay

Barjay, a great location, but this is another charter seen on 9th March 1999. I was back 3 weeks later to record the real thing on video as cutting started late in 1999.

Havving finished at Rafael Freyre, a long drive west back to Havana was needed to return the hire cars.

Stuffed and mounted at a petrol station near Aguada de Pasajeros, 14th February 1999. This Baldwin 0-6-0 was Minaz 1163 which had been recorded at Guillermo Moncada mill.  Confusingly, it carries C. Covadonga, the earlier name for Antonio Sanchez, a standard gauge mill. Guillermo Moncada had previously been Covadonga.

Final scene 14th February 1999. Hershey (Mill 205) continued to use old electrics. Cuban steam succumbed not to diesels but economics as sugar fields were converted to citrus farms. 

Rob Dickinson