The Indomitable Tramways of
Celaya is a town of 292,000 (today) in the agricultural region of Guanajuato state, 250 km northwest of Mexico City. It is strategically located at the intersection of the old Ferrocarril Nacional line from Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo and the old Ferrocarril Central line from Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez. (The two railroads merged as Ferrocarriles Nacionales in 1908.) Celaya is featured on this website because it had the last animal-powered commercial tramway in Mexico, possibly the world.
The area's first steam railroad was the 914 mm (36 in) gauge Ferrocarril de Celaya a León, which opened in 1880 from a station constructed on the city's west side [see map]. It had financial difficulties, never reached León and was purchased by the Ferrocarril Central, whose rails arrived from Mexico City in 1881. Ferrocarril Central regauged the FCL line to 1435 mm in 1882 (and later built a new station on the city's north side). Ferrocarril Nacional's line from Mexico City reached Celaya in 1883.
During this period - the exact date could not be found - Franco Parkman, one of the financiers of the FCL, built the first of two tramway systems in Celaya. The 914 mm gauge Ferrocarril Urbano de Celaya ran from the Ferrocarril Central station on the city's west side across town to the Ferrocarril Nacional station on the east [see map]. The second system opened about 1893: the 600 mm (23.6 in) gauge Ferrocarril de Celaya a Santa Cruz served the factories and farms north of town and continued to the city of Santa Cruz, 28 km northwest.
Not much is known of the city's tramway development during the next 60 years. A 4-volume history of Celaya, published in the 1940s, barely mentions the city's rail lines [see BIBLIOGRAPHY, below]. U.S. and Mexican government surveys reported occasional data. An 1888 article stated that the Ferrocarril Urbano de Celaya operated 6 passenger cars and 2 freight cars on 4.438 km of track. A 1925 survey reported 6 passenger cars and 14 freight cars on 5.2 km of track. A 1926 survey says that the Ferrocarril de Celaya a Santa Cruz operated 13 trailers and 8 gasoline-powered vehicles - a tractor, 3 passenger cars and 4 freight cars - on 30 km of track. Unlike other Mexican tramways that survived the Depression, Celaya's urban system was never electrified and seems never to have replaced its mules with gasoline motors.
At some point the Ferrocarril Central abandoned its station on the west side of town and built a new railroad station on the north. The Ferrocarril Urbano built a new tram line to serve it [see map].
The appearance and origin of the vehicles that ran on these lines in the 19th and early 20th centuries is unknown. But the trams that were photographed on the urban system in the 1950s are types that were built by John Stephenson and J. G. Brill in the 1880s - and may be the original cars. No orders for Celaya have been found in Brill records, but an 1891 advertisement of the John Stephenson Co. lists Celaya as a customer. Some - or all - of the equipment that was running in the 1950s may have been purchased from other tramway companies.
No illustrations have been located of the 600 mm gauge Ferrocarril de Celaya a Santa Cruz. The photographs below show the 914 mm gauge urban system. Most were taken by J. Wallace Higgins during a visit on Saturday 7 February 1953, a year before the tramway closed.
The first view shows an open car on the reserved track that led to the railroad station north of the city [see map]. Note the pile of sand, essential for mule traction, on the left [J. Wallace Higgins]:
In this scene the railroad line is visible through the trees [see map]. The tram is proceeding south [J. Wallace Higgins]:
None of Celaya's trams bore fleet numbers in 1953. This 5-bench car, waiting at the line's only passing siding, was probably built in the 1880s by J. G. Brill in Philadelphia. It is approximately 70 years old [J. Wallace Higgins]:
"Jardín" on this fare receipt probably refers to the flowered Plaza on Calle Hidalgo [see map]. In 1953 the line ran only from the Plaza to the Ferrocarril Central station on the north. The extensions to the old Ferrocarril Central station on the west and the Ferrocarril Nacional station on the east, shown on a 1940s map, had closed [col. AM]:
Here are two cars passing at the siding. No closed trams were in service during the photographer's visit, even though it was midwinter in Mexico [J. Wallace Higgins]:
According to the street names on the building, this southbound car is turning from Avenida Alvaro Obregón onto Calle 5 de Mayo [see map]. The steam railroad is beyond the foliage in the distance [J. Wallace Higgins]:
This postcard is unmailed and undated, but was probably made in the 1920s. According to its caption, the wide thoroughfare is Avenida Benito Juárez [see map] [col. AM]:
The Ferrocarril Urbano also did a substantial freight business. This flat car is bringing flour from the mill on Calle 5 de Mayo [see map] [J. Wallace Higgins]:
At the north end of the private right-of-way the tram track became double and ran alongside the railroad line [see map]. No track connection was possible between tramway and railroad because the latter used 1435 mm gauge [J. Wallace Higgins]:
Finally, here is the tramway terminus at the Ferrocarril Central station on the north side of town [see map]. Is the mule trying to get out of the sun? Away from the camera? Onto a train? All three? Is it a mule? [J. Wallace Higgins]
The other side of the railroad station – and a good close-up view of the tram [col. AM]:
This photograph shows one of the closed cars, probably also built by Brill. The name of the photographer and date of the photograph are unknown [col. AM]:
When was the last time you looked inside an active mulecar barn? The roof looks pretty leaky. According to tramway historian Harold E. Cox, the closed trams on the left are a type built by the John Stephenson Co. in New York. Note the mule [J. Wallace Higgins]:
The 600 mm gauge Ferrocarril de Celaya a Santa Cruz tram system closed in 1940. The Ferrocarril Urbano system, shown above, ran its last streetcar in May 1954 - fifteen months after theses pictures were taken.
The author is indebted to J. Wallace Higgins for permission to reproduce his photographs - and for the priceless memories of his visit 50 years ago. He is also grateful to tramcar specialist Harold E. Cox for help in identifying the equipment that ran in Celaya. Shreds of data were also found in the following documents:
(in order of publication)
Street Railway Gazette, New York, May 1888. "Mexican Street Railways", pp. 22 & 30, has an 11-line description of the Celaya urban system.
Mexico. Secretaría de Fomento, Colonización e Industria. Anuario Estadístico de la República Mexicana, 1893-1907. México, 1894-1912. Yearly reports on the motive power, track gauge and length of the "ferrocarril urbano" in Celaya.
Mexico. Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas. Departamento de Dibujo. Carta del Ferrocarril de Celaya a Las Haciendas de Roque y Plancarte. México, no date [c. 1900]. Detailed map at scale 1:28,500 of the first 7 km of the interurban line. Shows routes in Celaya and branches to various farms.
Fernando González Roa. El Problema Ferrocarrilero. México, 1915. Brief references to the Ferrocarril de Celaya a Santa Cruz, p. 61.
Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas. Departamento de Comunicaciones Terrestres. Estadística de Ferrocarriles y Tranvías de Concesión Federal, 1922-1934. Mexico City, 1926-1935. The "1923, 1924 y 1925" edition describes the finances, motive power, gauge, length, rolling stock and employees of "Tranvías Urbanos de Celaya". The 1926 through 1934 editions describe the length, gauge and rolling stock of "Tranvías de Celaya a Roque y Santa Cruz".
U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. Trade Promotion Series no. 16: "Railways of Mexico" by W. Rodney Long. Washington, 1925. "Celaya to San Roque & Santa Cruz Railway", p 114, briefly describes the interurban line and its development.
U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. World Survey of Foreign Railways. Washington, 1933; Supplement, 1936. Finances, length, gauge, rail weight and inventory of rolling stock of the Tranvía Celaya a Roque y Santa Cruz. Oddly, neither of these USBFDC documents mentions the Ferrocarril Urbano de Celaya.
A. Vega Schiaffino. Plano de la Ciudad de Celaya. México, no date [c. 1941?]. Street map shows a tram line between the Ferrocarril Nacional station on the east and the Ferrocarril Central station on the north. But it does not show the interurban line, so presumably was published after 1940. Acquired by U.S. Library of Congress Map Division in December 1944.
Luis Velasco y Mendoza. Historia de la ciudad de Celaya. 4 vols., México, 1947-1949. The urban tramway is mentioned, briefly, only on p. 235 of vol. III. Steam railroad development is described on pp. 242-243 of that volume.
Laurence Veysey. "Animal Traction in Celaya" in ERA Headlights (Hoboken, NJ), November 1955, p. 3. Nice article with map and three photos of the urban line. Abandonment noted.
"Tram with Four Feet" in Travel (New York), November 1956, p. 50. Two good pictures and brief article about the urban line (which, apparently unknown to the editors, had closed).
Streetcars in Celaya and Tampico, Mexico, in 1953. A YouTube video made from film shot by Vitaly Uzoff.
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