The Tramways of
Situated at an altitude of 4,175 meters/13,698 feet, the Villa Imperial de Potosí is often called the highest city in the world [see map]. In the 16th and 17th centuries its silver mines made it one of the richest and largest cities in the world, with a population approaching 200,000. The silver rush moved to Peru and Mexico in the 18th century and Potosí's population shrank to 8,000. New industries revived its economy in the 19th century and Potosí has about 150,000 residents today. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1987.
The story of the Potosí tramways is one of the most mysterious in the world. The line operated only a few years – perhaps only a few months, and information about it is sparse and contradictory. Histories and descriptions of the city do not mention tramways. Only two sources of information have been found: (1) two paragraphs by Philip Smith in a U.S. Government survey published in 1918; and (2) an article by Gastón Dick published in a Bolivian magazine in 1983. See BIBLIOGRAPHY below.
The inauguration on 14 May 1912 of the steam railroad branch from Río Mulato [see map] brought new prosperity to Potosí and provided easy access to the Pacific port of Antofagasta. On a visit to La Paz, Bolivia's capital, a local entrepreneur and politician named Donato M. Dalence met George N. Rowe, an engineer for Tranvías de La Paz. Dalence brought Rowe to Potosí where the two planned a tramway line to Miraflores thermal baths, northwest of town. Dalence founded Ferro Carril Eléctrico de Potosí and on 17 September 1912 ordered two open passenger cars and a freight car from St. Louis Car Co. in the USA. The first two pictures show one of the passenger cars at the St. Louis factory on 5 December 1912. [col. Harold E. Cox]
The "U." suggests that Dalence abandoned his plan for a suburban line and renamed his company Ferro Carril Urbano de Potosí. The passenger cars were trail cars with electric trucks, but no motors or other electrical equipment. This made them lighter and cheaper to ship and reduced customs charges as they passed through Chile [see map]. [col. Harold E. Cox]
The vehicles arrived in Potosí in 1913. Dalence and Rowe equipped them with Westinghouse motors and other equipment and built a 15-block electric tram line between the railway station and Plaza 10 de Noviembre in the center of town. Track gauge is unknown, but was probably one meter, which was used by Rowe's tramway in La Paz and by most of the steam railroads in Bolivia:
Potosí's first tramway service, powered by electricity, was inaugurated in 1915. The precise date is unknown, what happened after the inauguration is uncertain, and no picture showing an open electric tram running in Potosí has been found.
In his 1918 article – which reports data from 1917 – Philip Smith states: "The equipment, which came from the United States, operated perfectly for the short time that it ran . . . but has never been put into regular service, owing to some difficulty between the owner and the municipality over an accident that occurred at the inauguration of the road." In his 1983 article Gastón Dick writes: "Al poco tiempo de inaugurado el servicio se produjeron por lo menos dos accidentes . . . En ambos casos, las paredes sobre las que quedó apoyado el enorme tranvía evitaron que se volcara completamente" [Shortly after inauguration there were at least two accidents . . . In both cases the walls that the enormous tram came to rest on kept it from turning over completely].
The Spanish text is unclear but implies that the trams derailed. Smith adds: "The cars proved too big and have been rebuilt in the shops of the road to a size better adapted for the narrow streets and sharp corners. More powerful brakes have been fitted, also, as there are very steep grades in Potosí. The line is expected to be in operation soon, but at present (August 1917), the only service offered to the public consists of one small car drawn by two mules." The postcard below, dated 10 May 1916, shows the mule-drawn tram. [col. AM]
Fig. 9 that accompanied Smith's text shows the same mulecar. Its origin is unknown; it was possibly made out of the freight car acquired from St. Louis in 1912. [Smith, p. 28: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
Gaston Dick thinks that the electric tramway closed in early 1916 after a fire at the power plant – which may have been set by Donato Dalence's political rivals. He quotes a Potosí newspaper of June 1916 that mentions "the abandoned electric tramway". Dick believes that the muledrawn tramway that replaced it closed in December 1917.
Smith's 1918 article also includes this photograph of the power plant. He makes no mention of a fire. The gentlemen seem to be the same ones shown on the mulecar above, and two of them are no doubt Dalence and Rowe. [Smith, p. 16: see BIBLIOGAPHY]
His 1918 article also reproduces this picture of a rebuilt electric tram, labeled "TRANVÍAS DE POTOSÍ". The St. Louis open model of 1912 had been completely transformed. See comparison below. [Smith, p. 28: see BIBLIOGAPHY]
Dick says that much of the information for his 1983 article came from Lidia Dalence de Vaca Gusmán, Donato Dalence's youngest daughter, whom he located and visited in Potosí. Among other things she gave him the photograph below, which she says was taken in front of her house on Av. Villazón [see map above]. Unfortunately, she did not say when the picture was taken . . . [col. Gastón Dick O.]
Image quality is poor, but this is the only known illustration of an electric tram running in Potosí. One of its most interesting aspects is the clothing on the women on the (ex-mulecar) trailer. Fashion experts say that women did not wear white hats and white stockings until the 1920s. The picture cannot be dated exactly, but it is certain that it was not taken in the 1910s. In other words, we do not know when Potosí's second electric tramway began operation. But we know that it operated at least one day in the 1920s.
The complete story of the Potosí tramway has yet to be told. Considering the lack of data and the years that have passed since its existence, the whole story may never be told. Of the 120+ electric tramways that the author has researched in Latin America, this is one of the most elusive.
The composite illustration below compares the original open tram of 1912 with the closed tram that Potosí engineers built out of it in 1917. The left axle of the original vehicle has been lined up with the left axle of the car after reconstruction. The new body is about 20% shorter and the tram's axles have been moved closer together.
(Potosí is one of three places with that name that had electric railways in Latin America. The other two are in Mexico: the city of San Luis Potosí and the Ferrocarril El Potosí near Chihuahua.)
Reginald Lloyd. Impresiones de las Repúblicas Sud-Americanas del Oeste en el Siglo XX. London, 1915. This lavish 1,109-page volume contains hundreds of illustrations of every type, including two on p. 395 that show electric wire over tramway track on the streets of Potosí. No tram, just the track – but rare evidence of the existence of an electric tramway in this city.
Philip S. Smith. "Electrical Goods: Bolivia" in U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Special Agents Series 167. Washington, 1918. Two paragraphs on the electric power and tramway installation in Potosí, pp. 14 and 26. Photos of the power plant on p. 15. Pictures of a horsecar and an electric tram on p. 28. The source of three illustrations on this webpage.
Gastón Dick O. "También Potosí Tuvo Tranvías Eléctricos" in Potosí de Ayer y de Hoy (La Paz), 10 de Noviembre de 1983. Very speculative, but the best account of Potosí tramway development that has been published to date.
In addition to the works noted above, the author would like to express his special appreciation to two persons: (1) Miguel Salas Aguilar of Oruro, Bolivia, who traveled to Potosí and located and copied the article by Gastón Dick O.; and (2) Harold E. Cox of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the valuable information that he provided and the rare illustrations that are reproduced at the top of this page.
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