The Tramways of
British Guiana
[Guyana since 1966]

Allen Morrison

British Guiana – today called Guyana – was one of three colonies settled by Northern Europeans on the northeast coast of South America [see map]. Jurisdiction and borders were disputed for 400 years and it was not until recently that any degree of autonomy was achieved. French Guiana became a département of France in 1946. Dutch Guiana acquired independence and became Republic of Suriname in 1975. British Guiana got its independence in 1966 and was renamed Guyana; it became Republic of Guyana in 1970. The Dutch gave the name Stabroek to their metropolis on the Demerara River [see map]. The British renamed it Georgetown in 1812.

In 1848 the British built a railroad, 5 miles long, from Georgetown to Plaisance, which was the first railroad on the South American continent [see map]. (Peru and Chile opened their first railroads in 1851, Brazil in 1854, Argentina in 1857, next-door Venezuela not until 1877.) The British later extended the line 60 miles and built another railroad west from Vreed-en-Hoop, on the other side of the Demerara River. Dutch Guiana built a steam tramway at Paramaribo in 1905 and each of the Guianas had short industrial lines. French Guiana never had a passenger railroad.

A street railway began carrying passengers in Georgetown in 1877. The line was acquired by Georgetown Tramways Company in 1880 and used vehicles built by John Stephenson Company in New York. The colorized postcard view below shows the terminus of an unidentified line about 1890. Note architecture of the houses, very different from what one would find in neighboring Venezuela or Brazil [col. AM]:

The next postcard shows downtown Georgetown in the 1890s. View is south from Water and Church Streets [see map]. The tower on the left belonged to the Royal Agricultural Society. The tower in the distance, at the other end of Water Street, is at Stabroek Market. The horsetrams on the right are labeled "Vlissingen" and "Belair" [col. AM]:

The photograph below, taken at the same place as the view above, provides a better idea (despite a street lamp) of the Stephenson model. That's Stabroek Market tower in the distance [see map] [col. AM]:

In 1899 a group of Canadian industrialists, who had just built the electric tramway in Kingston, Jamaica, founded Demerara Electric Company in Montreal and purchased Georgetown Tramways Company and the British Guiana Electric Light & Power Company. DEC ordered 14 open electric trams, with Westinghouse motors and Peckham trucks, from St. Louis Car Company in Missouri. The new cars were numbered 1-14. The photograph below was taken in Georgetown in 1900 [Street Railway Journal, New York, 6 April 1901, p. 417]:

Demerara Electric inaugurated its new tramway in Georgetown on 25 February 1901. Track gauge was "standard" 56 1/2 inches, the same as used by the country's pioneer steam railroad. The following picture, taken from the tower at Stabroek Market, shows one of the new electric cars on Croal Street [see map]. Note left-hand operation, British-style. The spire on the left belonged to Town Hall. The large building with three gables right center was the Court House [postcard, col. AM]:

The tram shown on this primitive, very early postcard, published about 1903, seems to be numbered 34 or 54. That is impossible, for no tram in Georgetown was numbered higher than 18. This must be car 14. It is about to cross one of the town's many canals [see map] [col. AM]:

The postcard reproduced below shows the same view down Water Street, looking south toward Stabroek Market, as the second and third pictures above [see map]. The tram is number 6 [col. AM]:

The Dutch laid wide streets in Georgetown with canals in the center, à la cities in the Netherlands. The British covered the canals with promenades and there was plenty of room for tram tracks on the side. The postcard view below shows car number 3 on Main Street [see map] [col. AM]:

Demerara Electric ordered two more trams from St. Louis in 1902, numbers 15 and 16. In contrast to previous views of Water Street, this view is looking north. St. Louis car 15 is traveling south [see map]. That's the tower of the Royal Agricultural Society in the distance. In the process of colorizing their black and white images, early postcard publishers unfortunately erased tram tracks and wire [col. AM]:

DEC ordered another pair of trams about 1909, numbered 17 and 18, this time from Brush Electrical Engineering Company in Loughborough (near Nottingham), England. (Exact date of the Brush order is unknown; Brush records are lost.) In contrast to the St. Louis cars, which had eight benches, the Brush trams had nine, but lacked bulkheads. DEC built a new line south to Peter's Hall [see map] [Brush Electric Street Cars, Leicestershire Museum: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]:

The English journal The Electrician reported 18 passenger motor trams running on 14 miles of standard gauge track in Georgetown in 1923 [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. The Seawall route ran through a park near the Atlantic Ocean [see map] [postcard, col. AM]:

The "Seewall" terminus. Seawall cars followed a peculiar U-shaped route: the line ended in both directions at the promenade along the ocean, but did not form a complete loop [see map] [col. AM]:

The Georgetown tramway closed at the end of February 1930, after 29 years of operation. It was one of the earliest abandonments of a major electric tramway in the Americas – preceded only by closures in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1927 and Corrientes, Argentina, a few weeks before. Disposition of the rolling stock is unknown, but it seems likely that the Canadians transferred some of their equipment to the tramway also operated by Canadians in nearby Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago [see map], which acquired additional cars at that time and ran for another 25 years.



(in order of publication)

"Georgetown" in "Foreign Notes" section, Street Railway Journal (New York), 27 X 1900, np. Paragraph on the completion of the new electric tramway.

"Demerara Electric Company, Ltd., of British Guiana" in Street Railway Journal (New York), 1 XII 1900, p. 1151. Quarter-page description of the new installation.

N. Swan and Norman S. Rankin. "Electric Railway for Georgetown, Demerara" in Street Railway Review (Chicago), 15 XII 1900, pp. 705-707. Long, detailed description. Nine small photographs, but only two show trams, and only horsecars.

"The New Electric Railway at Georgetown, British Guiana" in Street Railway Journal (New York), 6 IV 1901, pp. 417-419. Excellent article. Six large pictures: tram 14 (reproduced on this page), closeup of a horsecar, street construction and interiors of the power station.

"Colonial Electric Railways and Tramways" tables in supplement to The Electrician (London), 1923. "Georgetown (Brit. Guiana)" entry reports corporate data, opening date, track length, rail type and weight, gauge, voltage and rolling stock.

Algernon Aspinall. Pocket Guide to the West Indies. New York, 1923. "British Guiana" section p. 375 describes tram routes. Adjacent map shows streets, but not tram lines.

Albert Raymond Forbes Webber. Centenary History and Hand Book of British Guiana. Georgetown, 1931. Brief history of the electric tramway, from 1901 to 1930.

J. H. Price. The Brush Electrical Engineering Company Limited & its Tramcars. Maidstone, Kent, 1976. Definitive 32-page illustrated history of the famous tram builder, many of whose records, unfortunately, were lost in a fire.

Brush Electrical Engineering Co., 1912. Brush Electric Street Cars [reprinted, with new Foreword by J. H. Price, 1980]. Leicestershire Museum, Leicester, 1980. Large 40-page picture album showing examples of trams built by Brush. The photograph of Georgetown tram 17 reproduced on this webpage is on page 19 of the album.

Republic of Guyana. Lands and Surveys Dept. Administrative Map Region 4 Demerara / Mahaica. Georgetown, 1982. Inset street map of Georgetown, scale 1:20,000, was the basis of the map on this webpage.

The author wants to thank John Rossman in New York, the staff of the National Library of Guyana in Georgetown, Harold E. Cox in Wilkes-Barre, and the late J. H. Price in Peterborough for their kind assistance in the preparation of this page.




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10 September 2008

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