The International Steam Pages

Industrial 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:

Gold Mining Railways:

Decauville railways were in use at mining sites from an early date. Most were only small operations with no locos.

Gold was discovered at Saint-Elie, about 100 km inland from Sinnamary, in 1873. In 1884 construction of a light railway to replace the mules was begun, but ended two years later after only 3.5 km had been completed. Work resumed two years later by another company which completed 20 km. This was later purchased by the ‘Société des Gisements de Saint-Elie’, which had completed 33.5 km of track between Saint-Elie and Gare Tigre (Saint-Nazaire) by 1898. This company lasted until 1919, when it went into liquidation. Local miners took over until in 1923 the ‘Société Nouvelle de Saint-Elie et Adieu Vat’ took over and by 1926 the railway was operating again, the 5kg rail having been replaced by 9kg rail. A small steam locomotive was brought in, but is said to have in fact never operated. Soon it was abandoned along the line, while mule traction was in use. Much later, after World War II, mules had been replaced by humans, with eight teams of four men (mostly St-Lucians and Haitians) which could haul up to a ton per team. In 1956 the new company failed and gold mining reverted to individual private enterprise. The railway remained in use for some time, and a local grocer even converted one of the wagons into a motorized trolley. In 1993, after the opening of the Petit-Saut dam on the Sinnamary River (creating Europe’s largest man-made lake), half of the line was flooded.

Prior to that, ‘Electricité de France’ (EDF) had paid for the track along that section to be lifted and the rails stockpiled at the new Gare Tigre which had been built, but which has since been vandalised. The few residents of St-Elie Municipality, most of whom are illegal “garimpeiros” from Brazil, now use quads to get from the Gare Tigre to St-Elie. In the past one could hike the railway, but most of the wooden bridges (there were 101 bridges of over 4 metres length) have now rotted through so this has become dangerous. The mayor of St-Elie however has grand plans for his municipality, which include bringing tourists by speedboat across the lake and then by train to St-Elie.

The small steam loco was flown out by helicopter in 1993 prior to area being flooded. It has since been sitting inside the Hydreco lab compound (the company which monitors the water quality of the lake) at the base of the dam, under a small roof. Although it is classified as a National Historical Monument, it is in very poor condition. According to the experts, it is thought to be either a very early 10-20 hp Krauss, or a copy of a Krauss by O&K predecessor Max Orenstein. As such it would be a candidate for the oldest preserved O&K in the World. Checking for any stampings proved impossible as the boiler is home to some very nervous bees.

 Stored outside the compound together with the parts of steam-powered gold placer Courcibo are a number of narrow gauge wagon frames and other parts.

Other railways:

At the sawmill in Dégrad Corrèze on the Orapu River in Roura we found an active internal 600 mm gauge railway. We counted 14 trucks. The turn-off from the N2 (Route de l’Est) is opposite the Auberge des Orpailleurs 67.5 km from Cayenne, then 3.5 km over a good dirt road.

The ‘Ecomusée municipal d’Approuage-Kaw’ (EMAK, in Régina (111 km from Cayenne on the N2 towards Brazil) has the frame of a Decauville ‘Progrès’ 0-4-0T. Nothing is known about its history, it used to by on display at the Guyanese Space Center (CSG) in Kourou and was donated to EMAK after 2006. At the CSG it still had a very rusty boiler. The museum is open We/Fr-Su 09.30-17.30.

At Saut-Maripa, 20 km upstream from Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock, the border town with Brazil 184 km from Cayenne, a 2 km long 600 mm gauge portage railway in the past allowed speed boats to overcome the rapids by transferring excess loads onto hand-powered flat wagons. The railway is not in use anymore and the wagons are gone, but the track remains in place. The turn-off to the rapids is 2.5 km before St-Georges on the N2, from where a 19 km dirt road leads to the upstream end of the railway, where there’s a base camp for the French Army’s 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3e REI), who monitor and patrol the Oyapock River, France’s long border with Brazil. The downstream end can be reached on foot or by speed boat. On the way, the railway passes in front of the gate of a small ‘Electricité de France’ (EDF) hydro-electric power plant.


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);

Pierre Rostan, “Les voies de l’or”, pp. 53-55 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, and Dr. Philippe Cerdan, Director of the Hyrdeco lab, for allowing us to visit and giving us a tour of the Petit-Saut dam site.

Rob Dickinson