From Georgetown to Mahaica: A Brief History of South America's First Railway History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
December 7, 2006

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The dilapidated railway station (Stabroek News file photo)

The Lamaha Railway Station in Cummingsburg, Georgetown, Guy-ana, stands as a tangible reminder of South America's first railway, a claim also shared by Peru.

In September 1825, the first iron railway in the world was opened in England. It was a remarkable engineering feat. On 10 March 1837, only twelve years later, plans were undertaken by the British in Georgetown, Guyana to build and operate a railway between Georgetown and the Mahaica River on the East Coast of Demerara.

The reports in the Royal Gazette on 14 February 1837 noted "we are happy to find that our anticipation of a railroad on the east coast is on the eve of accomplishment", On 10 March 1837, a general meeting was held on the East Coast of Demerara to discuss the feasibility of constructing a railway.

This meeting, according to the Royal Gazette was attended by all the proprietors and representatives of the estates on the East Coast of Demerara. The proposal for the construction of a railway was readily endorsed by those present. One of the major factors which may have influenced their support was the need to lessen the cost of sugar production through reducing the cost of transporting goods for shipping.

A committee was soon appointed and tasked with the responsibility of constructing an iron railway between Georgetown and Mahaica. Funds were to be raised through a joint stock company. The members of the committee appointed consisted of Dr. Michael McTurk, Peter Rose, James Stuart, John Croal, John Jones, B.J. Hopkinson, James Matthew and George Warner.

Not long after, Mr. Frederick Catherwood, a civil engineer, who had experience in the construction and operation of railroads in London and North America, was contracted on the recommendation of Mr. Lonke, a consulting engineer in England to the Company. He arrived in Guyana and surveyed the East Coast line within a few days. At the request of the Company, Mr. Catherwood also surveyed the West Coast of Demerara.

Mr. Catherwood's original recommendation was to construct an elevated line on trestles of greenheart piles seven feet above road level, an embankment being gradually formed to form the roadbed when the piles began to decay. The idea was eventually abandoned on account of the expenses to be incurred.

Raising the necessary finance within Guyana proved to be a major hurdle as many planters argued that they were almost bankrupt, unable to subscribe to shares of the company owing to the inevitable loss of their enslaved labour force. In the circumstances, two-thirds of the shares of the joint stock company were appropriated to subscribers in London, Liverpool, Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow, Amsterdam and Middleburg.

Due to this and other problems, the railway plan was temporarily shelved until 10 February 1845 when a sub-committee, consisting of George Anderson, Thomas Naghten, George Labalmondiere, John Stewart, Charles Cave, James Brand and Michael Mc Chlery, was appointed at a meeting of the General Committee of the Agricultural and Commer-cial Society in British Guiana. Legislation was soon enacted to regulate the constitution of Join Stock Companies for carrying on undertakings of a public nature and to authorize the taking of land for such purposes. In London, the committee undertook the task of raising the necessary finances with great vigour, generating 200,000 pounds instead of the 100,000 pounds projected.

In October 1845 the Demerara Committee of Management was selected to supervise the construction of the railway. This committee consisted of H.F.F. Young, the Government's secretary, John Croal, Peter Rose, Thomas Porter, James T. White, Duncan Mc Donald and W.M. Davidson. In March 1847 Mr. Catherwood returned to Guyana with the blessings of the London Committee to commence the construction of Guyana's railway.

There were considerable differences in regards to the site of Georgetown's terminus. Catherwood insisted that a site with a river frontage be selected, but this was contrary to the desires of the Demerara Committee. Croal, as head of this committee, was desirous of a spot at Thomas Lands, east of Cummings canal. Eventually Catherwood's demands were met by the committee and the Demerara Railway Company purchased Lots 1A and 3 Cummingsburg, the site presently occupied by the deteriorated Lamaha Railway Station.

On 19 August 1847, His Excellency, Governor Light, turned the first sod, in what was to have been a strictly private affair as a specially made wheelbarrow and shovel had not yet arrived from England. However, plans did not go as scheduled as Mr. Catherwood had extended several invitations to the press. In the end the affair was neither public nor private.

About the same time engines number 1, 2 and 3 arrived in Georgetown. They were respectively christened the Mosquito, Sandfly and the Firefly. The progress of the railway's early construction was retarded by the shortage of labour and capital. Despite these problems, some four miles of line were laid. Mr. John Bradshaw Sharples, an architect, was soon contracted by the British Guiana Railway Company to erect this and other stations along the Georgetown - Rosignol route for the sum of $85,000.

Station houses, workshops, coal and coke sheds and large water tanks were soon built at the Georgetown Railway Station. It was proposed and adopted that the buildings be constructed in part of corrugated iron, as it was considered to be less expensive and more durable than other building materials.

On 24 June 1848, the first of two major disasters occurred on the railway. On that date, an inspection tour was organized for the members of the Railway Company and other prominent officials in Guyana. Wagons with seats were used to facilitate the touring party as no carriages had yet arrived. According to one report in the Royal Gazette, a large crowd had gathered and out of nowhere a cow jumped in front of the tracks, derailing both wagons. 'Some persons jumped and others were thrown out'. This accident resulted in the death of Mr. Butcher, an employee of the company, and Mr. Alex Wishart, a municipal officer of Georgetown.

As construction continued, the cost escalated and there were serious problems between the London Committee and the Local Committee. Government intervention was necessary to assure the repayment of loans offered.

Despite these constraints, after 14 months and 15 days the railway was opened as far as Plaisance on 3 November 1848. There was no ceremonial opening. Two trains ran daily outward and inward for the following rates. First class 40 cents, second class - twenty cents and a return fare of 1 3/4 rates.

As the railway extended, there were further problems related to the acquisition of land from estate proprietors. In the end an intervention from the Attorney General, R.R. Craig, allowed for the price of $40 per acre as required as the compensation coast. It appears, from the reports by the Railway Company that Mr. Catherwood's service and his demands were not favourably viewed by the committee and on 1 May 1849 his contract was terminated.

Construction was temporarily halted and Mr. Manifold, Catherwood's assistant, was placed in charge as the chief engineer of works. Apart from the termination of Catherwood, financial problems were mainly responsible for the delays. After much delay the government approved a loan of 50,000 pounds on 21 July 1849 to the Demerara Railway Company to continue construction. The line was rapidly extended and on 4 March 1850 it was opened at Buxton, at Porter's Hope, Enmore on 7 October 1850 and at Belfield on 24 November 1850.

By 1851 the construction to Mahaica was severely constrained by financial problems, as the company was again indebted. There were also serious disagreements with the London Committee which was desirous of curtailing all construction and keeping the line as it was. For reason unknown, the Demerara Railway Company's committee resigned and Manifold was left in charge of affairs. There were numerous proposals to lease the railway as well as to upgrade the engines and carriages which were regarded as being too slow by the local press.

Government's intervention was once again required to ensure the survival of the railway construction project. By the resolutions of a special ordinance, No. 14 of 1853, the rate of interest on the 50,000-pound loan was reduced from 6% to 4% annually.

Manifold was then charged with spearheading the project. He conceptualized the termination of the line at Mosquito Hall. There was strong opposition from the residents of East Cost of Demerara as well as numerous shareholders. His plans were immediately shelved and the proposal that a terminus be near the public road bridge at Helena was endorsed.

Followed a period of extensive work, the line was opened at Two Friends on 16 October 1854. This was known as Carmichael station in honour of the Committee's chairman, Sir James Carmichael.

The remaining works were again hampered by the acute shortage of finance and once again the government rendered assistance. On 1 August 1863 the line was extended to Clonbrook and on 31 August 1863 was completed at Mahaica.

On 31 August 1864, His Excellency, Governor, Sir Francis Hincks, formally declared the railroad, which measured twenty-one and one half miles, from Georgetown to Mahaica, open. The total cost of construction was estimated to be 313,890 pounds. Of this figure the Company bore the cost of 249,023 pounds while the remaining 64,867 pounds was a representation of the loans offered by the Government.

A large party of specially invited guests left Georgetown at 11 a.m. by a special train, which was elaborately decorated. On arrival at Mahaica about an hour and a half later, the party gathered at the station, which was also decorated.

His Excellency expressed the gratification he felt that this, the first opportunity he had to refer to the Demerara Railway Company, was to announce the completion of a work, which had occupied many years. Mr. James Stewart, the Chairman of the Demerara Board, in opening the day's proceedings referred to the advantages, which the completion of the railway afforded to all classes of the community.

On 30 June 1972 the East Cost Railway was closed and two years late, the Prime Minister of Guyana, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, admitted that this was indeed a grave error. He attributed the decision to the state of the economy during the period when petrol and construction costs were generally cheap.

When the station was closed, it was converted into a bus terminal. Today this historic structure stands almost in ruins, an eyesore in the heart of Georgetown's historic district. To preserve the memory of South America's first railway through the restoration of this edifice would be welcomed by all.