Trains and The Merida Railway Museum

Beryl Gorbman

The Museo de las Ferrocarilles en Yucatan is located in Merida,on Calle 43 between 48 and 46, Colonia Industrial. No phone, not much of an office, no indoor exhibits except for inside the railway cars. Go on a nice day as you are walking around outside and occasionally going into a railroad car.

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Although in the heyday of rail transportation here, the State of Yucatan had more railroad track than any other state of Mexico, it now has  a sketchy system, which no longer carries passengers. As recently as the 90s, it was possible to take the overnight train to Palenque, or the narrow gauge railroad from Merida to Peto for the day. Now our only link to trains in Merida is the sound of  lonely whistles of freight trains passing through at night.

Railroads here were born of the need to transport henequen from the haciendas in the 1800s. Originally, according to Merida’s John Grimsrud in his very excellent article about the Yucatecan transport system, the rails were built to fit onto existing sacbes, the ancient raised roadways made by the Mayas, as these were the most direct routes among settlements. 4500 kilometers of this simply constructed track was built. To accommodate the width of the sacbes, the rails were laid in a narrow path (narrow gauge rail). You can see bits and pieces of this track today in hacienda grounds, or in some places, running next to the automobile roads. Carts and railroad cars were made to fit onto these tracks. Narrow gauge rail flourished here from the haciendas, in the 1800s, until the last decade or two.

Rail track in a working hacienda

Rail track in a working hacienda

Narrow gauge passenger vehicle from a hacienda. Now in Railroad Museum.

Narrow gauge passenger vehicle from a hacienda. Now in Railroad Museum.

Until they built the new highway, railway track ran between Merida and Progreso. That’s how people got to the beach and that’s how fish was transported from the Gulf to the market here in town. You could still see the stations, on the western side of the roadway, up until a few years ago.

From the early twentieth century until about thirty years ago, the rails that were left after having been abandoned by major carriers, became a transportation free-for-all, according to Allen Morrison, an expert on Latin American rail systems. People built their own flange-wheeled vehicles or used old ones from the haciendas. If two such vehicles met head on, the solution was that everyone pitched in and helped lift the lighter of the two off the rail temporarily.

Some trams were powered by gasoline, some by steam, some by human power, and some by mules or horses. As recently as 1984, people were using home-made trams to get around in areas such as Tixkokob, Tekanto, Acanceh, Cuzumah, Homun, Tixpehual and Motul, to name a few. And as you can see in the photos in the henequen article on this site, henequen facilities are using the rails even today. There is very little track left, however, and these scenes will be obsolete soon.

Allen Morrison’s series of comprehensive, almost academic articles about train transportation in the Yucatan is available online. See this link. His photos are excellent.

On the few henequen-producing haciendas left here in Yucatan, you can still see small horses and mules pulling carts full of huge, spiny henequen leaves from the fields in to the processing building, and then removing carts full of green sludge, which is pulled back to the fields, and henequen fiber, which is transported to another location for binding and shipment. See article on this blog about henequen haciendas.

Yucatan imported steam engines and railroad cars, made for these tracks. The steam engines burned wood and according to Grimsrud, “consumed an astronomical quantities of wood…further denuding the Peninsula of its forests.”

The first railroads into the Yucatan from other parts of Mexico and beyond appeared in 1950. There were no automobile roadways until 1960!

There are several old train stations in Merida. The main one is the gorgeous restored building on Calle 50 at about Calle 45, now an art school. I’m told there is another downtown at what is now the massive Casa de Campesinos and that there is one near the old jail in Centenario. I’d love some input on this, please.

The Merida Railroad Museum is in a field, not far from the art center ex-station, and it is simply a collection of old railway cars and horse-drawn vehicles that ran on narrow-gauge track. Some of the rail cars have been restored, most have not. Train buffs visiting there will have a field day.  A few of the cars have stepladders but most of them require ingenuity and some degree of physical ability and determination to access. Our favorite was the ca. 1860 car with two bedrooms, kitchen and living room complete with red velvet accoutrements. The walls and the interior sides are of polished dark wood. It’s a true memento of another time.

Kitchen of gorgeous old rail car
Kitchen of gorgeous old rail car
Sitting room of railway car
Sitting room of railway car
Corridor
Corridor
Outside of old passenger car
Outside of old passenger car

Note: It’s difficult to photograph these cars externally, as they are all lined up next to each other. Also, there is very little light inside.

Other photos from the museum.

shock absorbers?
shock absorbers?
Steam engine
Steam engine
Steam engine
Steam engine
Freight car
Freight car
Horse-drawn vehicle for narrow gauge track
Horse-drawn vehicle for narrow gauge track
Freight
Freight
End of the line
End of the line
Inside the steam engine
Inside the steam engine
Wonderful old machinery
Wonderful old machinery

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About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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3 Responses to Trains and The Merida Railway Museum

  1. 16 MAR 2010

    I ARRIVED BY TRAIN FROM MEXICO IN MERIDA IN 1977, RODE LOCAL TRAIN TO ACANCEH, THEN AGAIN RODE TRAIN MERIDA – MEXICO -GUADALA.
    IN MID 1980S. TOOK MANY PHOTOS OF BOTH THE STANDARD AND NARROW GAUGE OPERATIONS BOTH EN ROUTE AND IN MERIDA STATION. YOU HAVE A VERY LOVELY STORY TO TELL.

  2. Louis N. says:

    I remember that in the 1960s, it was possible, for those who lived in Garcia Gineres, to just catch the train by the Penitentiary (where Calle 59 begins). Maya ladies would be selling jicama, mandarinas, naranjas, and Maya gents would be selling sweets. Then the train would stop, and off you’d go, stopping in every little pueblo, until reaching Campeche. The train would be filled will all kinds of people, from middle class folks in the assigned seat cars, to campesinos with baskets of fruit, henequen fiber, livestock (chickens! pigs! caged birds!).

  3. Very nice page. Congratulations. I find a lot of websites and YouTube videos now about the extraordinary horsecar operation at Chunkanán, using 9 km of the old tracks (1907) between Chunkanán and Acanceh. Hurricane Isidore destroyed the Chunkanán hacienda in 2002. Does anyone know when the new tram service began, and who was the enterprising person behind it?

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