[Cover of a 1933 brochure issued by the railway; col. AM]
LA GUAIRA AND CARACAS RAILWAY
FERROCARRIL DE LA GUAIRA A CARACAS
by Allen Morrison
To escape pirates, hostile neighbors or just the heat and humidity of the coast, South Americans often built their cities high in the mountains, isolated from the civilizations that developed in North America and Europe. Centuries later, these cities welcomed immigration and sought foreign investment and technology to bring them up to date. One of the major industries of the 19th century was the construction of railways to connect these cities with nearby ports. The British built a line in 1867 between Santos and São Paulo (alt. 2,600 ft) which used cables to move trains up and down the slope. Rack-and-pinion railways opened between Rio de Janeiro and Petrópolis in 1883 and between Puerto Cabello and Valencia, Venezuela, in 1886. The railway from Guayaquil to Quito, Ecuador (alt. 9,350 ft), which used switchbacks, was not completed until 1908. La Paz, Bolivia (alt. 13,000 ft), did not have direct connection to a port until 1917.
The Venezuelan capital, Caracas, is situated only seven miles from the Caribbean Sea, but lies at altitude 3,000 ft [see map]. Surveys for a rail line from La Guaira began in 1867 and British and U.S. engineers disputed the route and financing for 14 years. An English group finally secured a contract in 1881, registered La Guaira and Caracas Railway Company in London, and began construction of a 23-mile line that involved neither cables, switchbacks nor rack. It ordered eight locomotives from Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. in Manchester and an assortment of passenger and freight cars. The line began carrying passengers in July 1883.
Here is one of the original locomotives, numbered 1-8, that Nasmyth, Wilson supplied between 1882 and 1884. [col. Christopher Walker]
In 1888 LG&C ordered four locomotives from Beyer, Peacock & Co. in Manchester, which it numbered 9-12. It later bought six more locomotives from Nasmyth, Wilson, making a total of 18. The picture below shows Beyer, Peacock #10. [col. Christopher Walker]
LG&C's passenger terminal in La Guaira was this structure on the harbor [see map]. The view in the photograph is southwest, toward Maiquetía in the distance. Caracas lies atop the mountains on the left. [LG&C brochure, 1932, p. 6: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
Many of LG&C's passengers arrived at La Guaira by ship and transferred to the train for Caracas. The last car on this train was reserved for guests of Hotel Klindt in Caracas. LG&C track gauge was 36 in = 914 mm. [col. AM]
This train has stopped at Maiquetía, the line's second station [see map]. The Beyer, Peacock locomotive is the same model shown in the picture above. LG&C locomotives usually traveled cab first. [postcard, col. AM]
The Pariata Viaduct in Maiquetía helped the railway achieve altitude before it began its climb up the mountain. The view is north, toward the Caribbean beyond the trees [see map]. The train is going away from the camera, toward La Guaira. [postcard, col. AM]
Ten miles from La Guaira, at altitude 1,533 ft, the railway reached Zig-Zag station where the line formed a giant S-curve [see map]. Sidings enabled uphill and downhill trains to pass. [postcard, col. AM]
A closer view of Zig-Zag station, looking in the other direction [see map]. The building next to the train is in both pictures. After electrification, the line's power plant was built here. [postcard, col. AM]
The postcard below shows the famous Boquerón pass, at altitude 2,021 ft, 12 miles from La Guaira [see map]. From this point train passengers could see 65 miles out over the Caribbean. [col. AM]
In 1927 LG&C began electrification of the line and ordered six electric locomotives from Brown, Boveri & Cie in Switzerland and five electric autovías from Cravens Railway Carriage & Wagon Co. in England. The new locomotives were numbered 19-23 (see article with diagrams). [Revista Elite, Caracas, 5/5/1928; courtesy Alfredo Schael]
Electric service on the line began 9 April 1928 and was officially inaugurated the following 1 May. Travel time from La Guaira to Caracas was reduced from two hours to 75 minutes. The picture below shows one of the new locomotives pulling a freight train. [LG&C brochure, 1932, p. 11: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
New highway construction in the 1930s brought competition to the railway – although it is difficult to imagine heavy automobile traffic on this road! [postcard, col. AM]
This photograph shows one of the four autovías, numbered 31-34, built in England and electrified by English Electric. The picture was taken near the factory before the vehicle went to Venezuela. [English Electric Journal, London, 4/1928, p. 74]
The other side of car 33 in the railway yards at Caracas [see map]. [LG&C brochure, 1932, p. 3: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
Car 32, pulling a passenger coach, leaves one of the railway's eight tunnels. Date of the photograph is unknown. [col. Centro de Documentación, Museo Guillermo José Schael, Fundación Museo del Transporte, Caracas]
Somewhere high on the line – note Caribbean Sea in the distance. This looks like a charter, probably in the 1940s or 50s. The vehicle's fleet number is not visible. [col. Centro de Documentación, Museo Guillermo José Schael, Fundación Museo del Transporte, Caracas]
The origin of this gasoline-powered car is unknown. It may have been built in Venezuela. [LG&C brochure, 1933, p. 18: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
The railway station in Caracas ["Est. F.C. La Guaira" on Caracas map]. View is north, toward the mountains that the railway crosses. Note electric tram at the corner of the building. [LG&C brochure, 1932, p. 18: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
A passenger train at Caracas station in the late 1930s. Note that the locomotive is missing a headlight. [col. AM]
The cover of LG&C's 1932 brochure. [col. AM: see BIBLIOGRAPHY]
Despite heroic efforts, good service and nice brochures, LG&C saw its passengers and freight move to automobiles, buses and trucks in the 1930s. The line's 36-inch track gauge complicated interchange of both passengers and freight in Caracas, where all other railways (and the tramway system) used 42-inch gauge. LG&C was nationalized in the 1940s and purchased outright by the Venezuelan government in 1950. Storms damaged the line in 1951 and the government, preoccupied with the construction of a new highway between La Guaira and Caracas, did not make repairs. The railway never reopened.
The electric locomotives were scrapped, but the four autovías remained at Caracas station until at least July 1959, when this photograph was taken by an Italian visitor. [Giacinto Masino]
Today, a half century after its demise, LG&C's right-of-way is buried in dense brush and is almost untraceable. All rolling stock has disappeared – with the exception of a Beyer, Peacock steam locomotive that was discovered in the 1970s and is displayed today at the Museo del Transporte in Caracas. This is the same type locomotive as #10 shown near the top of this page. [col. Centro de Documentación, Museo Guillermo José Schael, Fundación Museo del Transporte, Caracas]
The La Guaira and Caracas Railway was one of three mountain lines in Latin America that were built or electrified in the 1920s. It climbed 3,000 feet in 23 miles and had grades up to 4%. The meter gauge Estrada de Ferro Campos do Jordão in Brazil, which opened in 1924, climbed 3,860 feet in 29 miles and reached a grade of 10.5%. Like the LG&C, it was built by English engineers and used similar tram-like motor cars. The 56 1/2 inch gauge Ferrocarril de Los Altos in Guatemala, built by AEG of Germany, began partial operation in 1928 and full service in 1930. Its length was 27 miles, similar to that of the LGC, but it had grades up to 9.25% and climbed 5,680 feet, almost twice as high. The Guatemalan railway ran for only three years. The Brazilian line still carries passengers today.
Venezuela. Ministerio de Obras Públicas. The Memorias and other MOP publications of the 1880s contain innumerable reports, often illustrated, about the construction and operation of the La Guaira & Caracas Railway.
Untitled report on the electrification of the La Guaira and Caracas Railway in Railway Age (Bristol, CT), 29/10/1927, p. 870.
"Electrification of La Guaira & Caracas Rly." in English Electric Journal (London), 4/1928, pp. 74-77. Nice description of the project. Two photographs and two diagrams.
Venezuela. Ministerio de Obras Públicas. Memoria de Obras Públicas. Articles and pictures of the Ferrocarril de La Guaira a Caracas in 1928, vol. 1, p. 235; 1929, vol. 1, p. 209; and 1929, vol. 2, p. 197.
La Guaira and Caracas Railway. La Guaira and Caracas Railway. Undated travel brochures issued by the company and no doubt distributed on ocean liners. Nice pictures of tourist sites, maps, and views of LG&C equipment. Judging from advertisements and clothing, the two editions owned by the author seem to have been produced in 1932 and 1933.
"Remarkable Venezuelan Mountain Line" in Modern Transport (London), 12/7/1942, p. 3. Good historical description of the railway in both its steam and electric eras. Map and four illustrations.
Luis Cordero Velásquez. La Venezuela del Viejo Ferrocarril. Caracas, 1990. The development and construction of the Ferrocarril de La Guaira y Caracas, pp. 77-97.
Rafael Arráiz Lucca. El ferrocarril en Venezuela: Una historia sobre rieles. Rafael Díaz Casanova, ed. Caracas: Consorcio Contuy Medio, 2006. Elegantly produced survey of Venezuelan railroads, including new lines under construction. Good maps. Construction of the La Guaira & Caracas line pp. 22-43.
Alfredo Schael. Ferrocarriles en Venezuela: historia complicada. Caracas: Instituto Autónomo Ferrocarriles del Estado, 2006. Illustrated history and description of the railroads of Venezuela. Extensive discussion of the La Guaira & Caracas line, especially on pp. 25-37 and 68-79.
In addition to the photographers and authors noted above, I would like to express my gratitude to Alfredo Schael of Caracas, Christopher Walker of London and Giovanni Fullin of Venezia for their generous assistance in the preparation of this page.
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