The International Steam Pages

Prison Railways in French Guiana, 2014

Thomas Kautzor has been to Caribbean islands and other countries in the region 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 French Guiana (Guyane), 11th - 18th September 2014.

See also:

Public Railways:

Although a “Café de la Gare”, which by the way serves excellent food, exists in Cayenne (42, av. Léopold Héder), none of the public railways projected for the colony were ever built (the restaurant and bar is so-called because the owner believed that every major town in France should have a railway buffet).

Projects included:

In 1883, the colonial administration sold 1000 sq. km of savanna land at Kourou to the penitentiary administration at a preferential price, with the provision that a railway would be built to link Kourou with Cayenne (42 km), with an expected traffic of 12,000 passengers per year. In 1890 the project was abandoned by Governor Gerville-Réache, who deemed the existing road sufficient.

In 1899 the General Council approves the project by engineer David Levat to build a 100 km long meter gauge railway from Cayenne to the Approuage gold fields, via Matoury, le Tour de l’Ile, Roura, la Comté, l’Orapu, Saut Bagot and Matarony. Construction was due to start in 1903 and take three years to complete, and costs were to be kept low through the use of 1,500 prisoners. Later developments included a line to the Dutch border and another to the Brazilian border, for a total of 300 km. The project was abandoned in 1901.

In 1906, a mission by two military engineers recommended the construction of a 160 km long railway between Cacao (a village 65 km south of Cayenne now almost entirely inhabited by Hmong refugees from Laos and their descendants) to supply the Inini goldfields. Cacao could be reached by small river steamers from Cayenne. The proposal failed due to the high cost estimates. In 1910, the proposal was revived by Bridges and Roads Dept. chief engineer Renard, who claimed that costs could be reduced by a third by building the line as a Decauville (600 mm gauge) railway. It estimated transport figures of 24,000 passengers and 6,000 tonnes of freight per year. With the start of the First World War, the project was forgotten.

Prison Railways:

The closest Guyane had to a public railway was the prison railway at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, on the Maroni River which constituted the border with Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). Founded in 1859, the ‘Bagne (prison camp) de Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni’ was administered directly by the penal administration in Paris and not by the colonial administration in Cayenne. After arriving at the central camp in St-Laurent (‘Camp de la Transportation’) from metropolitan France, convicts were assigned to the various prison and work camps across the territory. Between 1890 and 1897, a 16 km long Decauville railway was built from St-Laurent to St-Jean, the site the ‘Camp des Relégués’ (repeat offenders of minor offences) upstream on the Maroni. According to some sources, material from the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition’s Decauville railway was used, but according to the Decauville works list at least the three steam locomotives were new:

  • 0-4-0T SAINT-JEAN (600mm, Dec. 5t 65/c1888) new to Ministère du Commerce, de l’Industrie et des Colonies, for Service de la Relégation, Guyane, Française ;
  • 0-4-0T MARONI (600mm, Dec. 5t 67/c1888) new to Ministère du Commerce, de l’Industrie et des Colonies, for Service de la Relégation, Guyane, Française ;
  • 0-4+4-0T TUMUC-HUMAC (600mm, Dec. 9.5t 161/c1892) new to Ministère des Colonies, Guyane Française.

On photos, the two smaller locos were seen as operating as 0-4-0T+T.

Another line, 22 km long, was opened from St-Laurent to the Charvein sawmill (northeast towards Mana). In addition a number of permanent and temporary branches were laid as required to various work and forest camps. Aside from the three steam locos, Asian buffalos were also used, while most single-car workings were powered by convicts, who either pushed the cars by hand or propelled them with bamboo poles. While photos of loco-hauled trains carrying newly-arrived convicts show them being transported on open flat wagons, passenger trains of open-sided toast rack coaches for officers of the prison administration and their families also operated on weekends. The railway appears on some of Francis Lagrange’s paintings on display at the Musée Départemental Alexandre Franconie in Cayenne.

Mainly due to international pressure, in 1938 the French government decided to close the Bagne. It however took until 1946 for the last convicts to be returned to metropolitan France. The railway was abandoned at that time. Many remains of the Bagne’s railway remain today, including:

What is known as the “gare” in St-Laurent was in fact the railway’s main depot and works. The metal structure still stands next to the river at the north end of town. Nearby, piles of the pier which was equipped with a track remain. The lines were laid were today’s roads are, those bridges along the line to St-Jean were in fact the railway bridges which have been enlarged.

At St-Jean, the frame of a four-wheel Jung diesel loco (thought to be a long-framed type EL105, EL110 or ZL114, built from 1937) is on display together with two bogies. 

Mr. Royère at St-Jean keeps another bogie at his private home, while another one (retrieved from Charvein) is on display at the Camp de la Transportation in St-Laurent.

The Camp de la Relégation in St-Jean is presently used as a base camp for a detachment of the French Army’s Cayenne-based 9th Marine Infantry Regiment (9e RIMa), who patrol the border with Suriname. A few years ago, 6 km of light track were undug inside the camp. Much more might still be hidden in the jungle. When the St-Jean pier as built, a steam locomotive was pushed by bulldozer into the Maroni River. There have been attempts to retrieve it, the last time in June 2009 by archeologist divers, but it could not be found so far. A “train” is also said to be abandoned somewhere in the jungle near Godebert, on the way to Charvein, it is however difficult to find out what is meant by that: a loco, a loco and wagons, wagons, a wagon, a length of track?

Another prison railway was operated at Kourou, between town and the surrounding savannas, where cattle were raised. Here too, excursion trains were run on weekends.

Guyane’s most well-known former prison camp and most-visited tourist sight are the ‘Iles du Salut’ (Islands of Salvation), a group of three small islands 14 km off the coast of Kourou. It was part of the Bagne from 1852 to 1946. Devil’s Island, the smallest of the three could be reached by sloop only with difficulty because of the strong maritime currents and was used for political prisoners. It was linked to Ile Royal, the largest island and the reception centre for the general population of the penal colony, by a cableway to transport food and other supplies for the prisoners and their guards. On Ile Royale, the masonry brick tower is still in place, as is the winch on Devil’s Island. A pulley is on display in the small museum on Ile Royale.

The ‘Camp Crique Anguille’, also known as ‘Camp des Annamites’ because it was used for mainly political prisoners from French Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), is located in the Montsinéry-Tonnegrande municipality 38 km southwest of Cayenne and was opened in 1930 under the control of the colonial administration. The idea was that the convicts could be used to develop the Inini region, an area totally covered by forests. The camp was constructed by the convicts themselves. From 1939, the convicts were freed at the end of their sentence and the camp finally closed in 1945. A 600 mm gauge Decauville railway linked the camp with a creek on the Tonnégrande River. The camp could in the past be reached by an hour's walk along a footpath and the creek was a popular weekend destination for people from Cayenne, but the site was abandoned a few years ago. Currently, the municipality is developing a new and shorter footpath starting from the D5. We found remains of tracks, what may have been a winch base and two skips.


F. Perraud, “Les voies ferrées de la Guyane”, pp. 41-43 in Connaissances du Rail No. 152 (Nov. 1993);

D. Trevor Rowe, “The Locomotives of South America” (pp. 100-104, The Guianas), Locomotives International, St. Teath, Cornwall, 2000;

Bernard Montabo and Elie Stephenson, “La Guyane – « Un nom, une histoire », Tome 2 – Le XXe siècle”, France-Guyane / Editions Orphie, Cayenne, 2011;

Dennis Lamaison, “Quand la Guyane voulait son chemin de fer”, pp. 50-53 in Une saison en Guyane No. 07 (Aug.-Dec. 2011);

Philippe Boré, “Guide de la Guyane”, Cayenne, 12/2012;

Armand Hidair, “Les Secrets de la Retenue – Une histoire d’eau de d’électricité en Guyane”;

Olivier Puaux and Michel Philippe, “Archéologie et histoire du Sinnamary du XVIIe au XXe s. (Guyane)”, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris.

I would also like to thank Philippe Boré, author of “Guide de la Guyane”, for helping us prepare our visit.

Rob Dickinson