Planes and cars may be the current means of travel, but trains fascinate. In Costa Rica, the history of railroads dates back to l857, when a nine-mile spur line was built to carry coffee between Barranca and the central-Pacific port city of Puntarenas, to the west.
It was the first rail service in Central America and was known as a burrocarril because the cars were pulled by mules traveling at the rapid pace of nine kilometers an hour.
For the next 40 years, spur lines were built to haul coffee, bananas, lumber and other products, but there were no cohesive lines spanning the country. On the Atlantic side, various contracts were registered during the late 1870s for building a line between San José and the Caribbean port city of Limón, but all stopped short of the capital.
The most famous of the railroad magnate sat the time was U.S. citizen Minor Keith, who was given land on the Atlantic slope when government funds ran out, which he used to plant bananas and form the United Fruit Company.
In l890, during the administration of strongman Tomás Guardia, the line was completed and ran from Guardia’s native city of Alajuela, northwest of San José, to Limón. In 1905, this line became the Northern Railway Company. On the Pacific side, various attempts were made to extend rail service from San José to Puntarenas.
Work on this line began in 1897 but went only as far as Orotina before financial troubles paralyzed the country as well as the railway, and it was not until 1910 that the line was completed.
The first steam locomotive, the María Cecilia, built in Pennsylvania and named after the granddaughter of former President Rafael Iglesias, began runs to Orotina in1898. (The María Cecilia and the Gandoca, a spur-line locomotive for hauling lumber, are on display in the side yard of the Pacific Station in San José, Ca. 2, Av. 20/22.) Jobs with the railroads drew immigrants to Costa Rica from Jamaica and the Caribbean islands, the Orient, Panama and the United States.
Within this latter group came Alfred Lingo of Cumberland, Maryland, who signed up through the United Fruit Company’s recruiting office in New Orleans and began work as a roadmaster for the Northern Railway Company around 1905.
His job was supervising maintenance along the right of way. Around 1910, Lingo married Inez Zavaleta of Cartago, and in 1914, their son Alfred was born. Young Lingo grew up in San José and worked briefly on the railroad in the l930s before going to the United States to study engineering at the University of California in Berkeley. But his interest in railroads never waned. Following a long career as an electric-power engineer, Lingo volunteered at railway museums in California.
He returned to Costa Rica for a look at the railroad’s history and brought along several photos and old schedules from the Ferrocarril Eléctrico al Pacífico (Electric Railway to the Pacific), where he once worked. Electric railways were still in the experimental stage in 1926 when the government of Costa Rica decided to buy nine electric locomotives from the A.E.G. Company of Germany, as an alternative to high-priced diesel engines for runs to Puntarenas.
Only Germany and Argentina had electric railways at the time, and it took a while to make the necessary changes hereand prepare the line, including the tunnel at Cambalache, with electric wiring. It was also necessary to train engineers.
The new locomotives had two diamond-shaped pantographs on their roofs, which had to be raised and lowered to connect with the current. Karl Holkemayer of the home company stayed in Costa Rica to supervise the changes, and it was he who started up the first locomotive for its inaugural trip in April 1930.
The public, scared the train might explode, stayed away. In time, these trains became popular for freight and passengers and serviced 31 stops along the 116-kilometerroute.
Best of all were excursions to Puntarenas, then the most popular vacation spot for Central Valley residents. “There were two passenger trains a day pulling five or six first- and second-class cars,” said Lingo, who presented a schedule and copies of photos to the train museum in Río Grande de Atenas, northwest of San José. According to Lingo, there was only one rail line, with trains running in both directions at the same time.
“It was the job of the telegraph operators at the various stations along the way to advise the crew of one train to pull onto a siding and let the other train pass,” Lingo explained. “Schedules were down to the minute, and engineers knew when they would be pulled off the main line. ”But the system sometimes failed, and in 1932 a head on crash occurred in Orotina, severely damaging both locomotives.
“It could have been the telegraph operator’s fault, or maybe the engineer felt he could wait until the next station, ”Lingo speculated. “Nobody ever determined why one train did not stop. ”Investigations did not always follow. Nor were they thorough. Lingo was one of the workers who “cut the two damaged locomotives in half to make one new one.” One of the photos shows him with his co-workers in front of the new engine No. 4 at the Pacific Station’s workshop.
Although the original picture, with the names of all the workers on the back, was displayed in the railroad museum in the old Atlantic Station, it and other historic items of railroading history have disappeared, along with any records of the accident. The electric trains ran until 1995, when the Costa Rican Railroad Institute (INCOFER), which now owned both the Atlantic and Pacific lines, closed freight and passenger service and almost shut down completely, with cars, buses and trucks making the trips faster and cheaper.
The contents of 140 years were scattered, part to private collections, part to museums, and 5,000 linear meters of documents went to the National Archives, making the task of finding information almost impossible. Of the nine original locomotives, four are still around. One is displayed in the yard at INCOFER’s Pacific Station on Av. 20, Ca. 2.
Others are at the railroad museum in Río Grande de Atenas and the Children’s Museum and Parquede Diversiones in San José. The fate of engine No. 4 is unknown. This was originally posted in 2005