San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Railroad Ties: A Lifelong Fascination with Trains

PLANES and cars may be the preferredmeans of travel, but trains fascinate.In Costa Rica, the history of railroads datesback to l857, when a nine-mile spur linewas built to carry coffee between Barrancaand the central-Pacific port city ofPuntarenas, to the west. It was the first railservice in Central America and was knownas a burrocarril because the cars werepulled by mules traveling at the rapid paceof nine kilometers an hour.For the next 40 years, spur lines werebuilt to haul coffee, bananas, lumber andother products, but there were no cohesivelines spanning the country. On the Atlanticside, various contracts were registered duringthe late 1870s for building a linebetween San José and the Caribbean portcity of Limón, but all stopped short of thecapital.The most famous of the railroad magnatesat the time was U.S. citizen MinorKeith, who was given land on the Atlanticslope when government funds ran out,which he used to plant bananas and form theUnited Fruit Company. In l890, during theadministration of strongman Tomás Guardia,the line was completed and ran fromGuardia’s native city of Alajuela, northwestof San José, to Limón. In 1905, this linebecame the Northern Railway Company.On the Pacific side, various attemptswere made to extend rail service from SanJosé to Puntarenas. Work on this line beganin 1897 but went only as far as Orotinabefore financial troubles paralyzed thecountry as well as the railway, and it wasnot until 1910 that the line was completed.The first steam locomotive, the MaríaCecilia, built in Pennsylvania and namedafter the granddaughter of former PresidentRafael Iglesias, began runs to Orotina in1898. (The María Cecilia and the Gandoca,a spur-line locomotive for hauling lumber,are on display in the side yard of the PacificStation in San José, Ca. 2, Av. 20/22.)JOBS with the railroads drew immigrantsto Costa Rica from Jamaica and theCaribbean islands, the Orient, Panama andthe United States. Within this latter groupcame Alfred Lingo of Cumberland,Maryland, who signed up through theUnited Fruit Company’s recruiting officein New Orleans and began work as a roadmaster for the Northern Railway Companyaround 1905. His job was supervisingmaintenance along the right of way.Around 1910, Lingo married InezZavaleta of Cartago, and in 1914, their sonAlfred was born. Young Lingo grew up inSan José and worked briefly on the railroadin the l930s before going to the UnitedStates to study engineering at theUniversity of California in Berkeley. Buthis interest in railroads never waned.Now, at 91, following a long career asan electric-power engineer, Lingo still volunteersat railway museums in California.He recently returned to Costa Rica for alook at the railroad’s history and broughtalong several photos and old schedulesfrom the Ferrocarril Eléctrico al Pacífico(Electric Railway to the Pacific), where heonce worked.ELECTRIC railways were still in theexperimental stage in l926 when the governmentof Costa Rica decided to buy nineelectric locomotives from the A.E.G.Company of Germany, as an alternative tohigh-priced diesel engines for runs toPuntarenas. Only Germany and Argentinahad electric railways at the time, and it tooka while to make the necessary changes hereand prepare the line, including the tunnel atCambalache, with electric wiring.It was also necessary to train engineers. The new locomotives had two diamond-shaped pantographson their roofs, which had to be raised and loweredto connect with the current. Karl Holkemayer of the homecompany stayed in Costa Rica to supervise the changes,and it was he who started up the first locomotive for itsinaugural trip in April 1930. The public, scared the trainmight explode, stayed away.In time, these trains became popular for freight and passengersand serviced 31 stops along the 116-kilometerroute. Best of all were excursions to Puntarenas, then themost popular vacation spot for Central Valley residents.“There were two passenger trains a day pulling five orsix first- and second-class cars,” said Lingo, who presenteda schedule and copies of photos to the train museum inRío Grande de Atenas, northwest of San José.ACCORDING to Lingo, there was only one rail line,with trains running in both directions at the same time.“It was the job of the telegraph operators at the variousstations along the way to advise the crew of one trainto pull onto a siding and let the other train pass,” Lingoexplained. “Schedules were down to the minute, and engineersknew when they would be pulled off the main line.”But the system sometimes failed, and in 1932 a head oncrash occurred in Orotina, severely damaging bothlocomotives.“It could have been the telegraph operator’s fault, ormaybe the engineer felt he could wait until the next station,”Lingo speculated. “Nobody ever determined whyone train did not stop.”Investigations did not always follow. Nor were theythorough. Lingo was one of the workers who “cut the twodamaged locomotives in half to make one new one.” Oneof the photos shows him with his coworkers in front of thenew engine No. 4 at the Pacific Station’s workshop.Although the original picture, with the names of all theworkers on the back, was displayed in the railroad museumin the old Atlantic Station, it and other historic items of railroadinghistory have disappeared, along with any recordsof the accident.THE electric trains ran until 1995, when the CostaRican Railroad Institute (INCOFER), which now ownedboth the Atlantic and Pacific lines, closed freight andpassenger service and almost shut down completely,with cars, buses and trucks making the trips faster andcheaper.The contents of 140 years were scattered, part to privatecollections, part to museums, and 5,000 linear metersof documents went to the National Archives, making thetask of finding information almost impossible.Of the nine original locomotives, four are still around.One is displayed in the yard at INCOFER’s Pacific Stationon Av. 20, Ca. 2. Others are at the railroad museum in RíoGrande de Atenas and the Children’s Museum and Parquede Diversiones in San José. The fate of engine No. 4 isunknown.

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