Rail­ways

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of th­ese ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

T he other day, much to my de­light, I saw a toy train pulling tourists and lo­cals alike along the streets of Rod­ney Bay. My heart leapt and I wanted to climb aboard. Un­for­tu­nately it was full. What a great ini­tia­tive, I thought; what a splen­did idea.

Some years ago, quite by chance, I was in St. Kitts in­spect­ing the won­der­ful work the Tai­wanese had been do­ing to as­sist their adult ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme and com­put­eras­sisted learn­ing, when I came across a sim­i­lar but more am­bi­tious project: Saint Kitts’ Scenic Rail­way that takes pas­sen­gers on a three-hour tour mak­ing a 30-mile cir­cle around the is­land with 18 miles by nar­row gauge train and 12 miles on sight­see­ing buses. Built be­tween 1912 and 1926 to trans­port sugar cane from the is­land’s sugar plan­ta­tions to the sugar fac­tory in the cap­i­tal city of Bas­seterre, to­day the “Last Rail­way in the West Indies” pro­vides vis­i­tors with “an un­sur­passed op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the scenery and cul­ture of the is­land’s un­spoiled coun­try­side”.

For years I have con­ducted my own stud­ies into the cul­tural, ge­o­graphic and his­toric her­itage of our own is­land and have al­ways been tor­mented by the nag­ging thought that there are so many op­por­tu­ni­ties we have missed. Four sugar mills used rail­ways on the is­land of Saint Lu­cia. The cen­tral fac­tory in the Cul de Sac Val­ley, south of Cas­tries, op­er­ated 13 miles of track in the mid-1950s with three diesel lo­cos and over 130 steel cane cars. The Roseau fac­tory fur­ther south, seven miles from Cas­tries, op­er­ated 16 miles of track with three diesel lo­cos and 145 cane cars, again in the mid1950s. Both the Den­nery fac­tory at La Caye in the Mabouya Val­ley on the is­land’s wind­ward coast, and Vieux Fort fac­tory at the south­ern tip of the is­land, near the in­ter­na­tional air­port built by the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing WWII, op­er­ated ex­ten­sive sys­tems up and down the Mabouya Val­ley and across the Vieux Fort Plain. Sadly, in the early 1960s sugar cane cul­ti­va­tion was re­placed by the farm­ing of ba­nanas, an in­dus­try that col­lapsed as ev­ery­one knows a few years ago and is un­likely to be re­vived any time soon.

Noth­ing ap­pears to re­main of the cen­tral fac­tory. The Roseau fac­tory not far from Jacmel was for­merly owned by Geest In­dus­tries and later used as the cen­tre for an ex­ten­sive ba­nana op­er­a­tion. The for­mer 2’ 8”-gauge sugar cane rail­way was then used to trans­port ba­nanas from the fields to a cen­tral pack­ing shed near the fac­tory, which is now used as a me­chan­i­cal work­shop. The rail­way used two Mo­tor Rail, one Rus­ton & Hornsby and one Hib­berd diesel lo­cos and was re­port­edly still in op­er­a­tion in 1988. The fac­tory was taken over by St. Lu­cia Dis­tillers Ltd. in 1972, a joint ven­ture be­tween Geest In­dus­tries and the Barnard fam­ily. To­day it is owned, I be­lieve, by CLICO and is the is­land’s only dis­tillery, us­ing mo­lasses im­ported from Guyana to pro­duce rum.

One of the Mo­tor Rail lo­cos is on dis­play next to the rum tast­ing shed, which in­cor­po­rates the pil­lars from the old gantry crane, while the Rus­ton was re­ported stored in a shed a few years ago. Den­nery Es­tate at La Caye Denne be­longs, or be­longed, to the Barnard fam­ily – I am not sure which is cor­rect. The dis­tillery closed in 1972 and the equip­ment was moved to the Roseau fac­tory. The es­tate was aban­doned around 1998. I have been un­able to find any re­mains of the for­mer 3’ 9”-gauge rail­way.

Pi­geon Is­land was in use as a for­ti­fied mil­i­tary out­post by the British Navy from 1780 to 1861 when it was aban­doned. From 1941 to 1947 it was leased to the U.S. Navy as a sig­nal post and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sta­tion. Fort Rod­ney was used as a foun­da­tion for the huge wire­less tower erected on top of it, while the old foun­da­tion of No. 2 bat­tery just be­low the fort was used as a base for the pre­fab­ri­cated build­ing hous­ing two gen­er­a­tors, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­tre and quar­ters for the men on duty. Run­ning from this build­ing down to the sea on the east side was an in­clined ca­ble rail­way used for haul­ing up drums of fuel to power the gen­er­a­tors. The build­ing burned down in 1968 but the con­crete pil­lars on which the rail­way track used to lay are present to this day. I be­lieve there was a sim­i­lar rail­way run­ning up the Morne For­tune but I have been un­able to ver­ify this.

Just imag­ine two rail­way loops, one serv­ing the south and one the north. In the­ory we could have two trans­fer sta­tions, one on each side of the Barre de l’Isle, where pas­sen­gers could take a bus over the ridge to the other side be­fore board­ing the next train ser­vice. Of course, the best thing of all would be a com­bined train and road tun­nel un­der the Barre de l’Isle, but that might take a while. Think how much cleaner, more ef­fi­cient and com­fort­able it would be to take the train down and around the is­land.

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