Hinterland development: The railway discussion of the early twentieth century

Part I

By Gwyneth George

Discussions on railway development in British Guiana have always tended to focus on the East and West Coast railways. These instalments are based on the discussions of the period 1902-1917 regarding proposed schemes for railway development in British Guiana for the purpose of penetrating the hinterland.

Mr. E.C. Buck, Engineer in British Guiana , described the hinterland as ‘enveloped in a golden haze of romance conjuring up the thoughts of pleasant vales, lofty mountains, and rolling savannahs, not to mention the golden store of the precious metal after which all men’s souls hanker.” He goes on to say that with universal progress, it was naturally the wish of the colonists to run steel rails into this little known territory and to wake the echoes of the drowsy country with the shriek and pound of the locomotive. The hinterland, he said, has been practically wrapped in a napkin from the time the land was first laid down. Events in the early twentieth century had however shaped out a definite destiny for the hinterland, and tangible schemes for it had been produced. These events that Mr. Buck described had to do with the peril that threatened the sugar industry and the sudden realisation that there was the need to tap the resources of the hinterland. This realisation was awakened by the enormous rapidity with which development had taken place in Canada and the United States following the opening up of lines of communication through virgin countries coupled with what was perceived as the advantage possessed by British Guiana in the form of a stable government which was considered an asset for the tapping of the resources of the hinterland.

In addressing interior communications for British Guiana, Mr. Comber, another Engineer in the colony, questioned the seeming strangulation of this part of the country to the benefit of the coastal fringe. Some, he said, blamed it on sugar, some on the climate, the form of government and  archaic methods of the colonial office; while others, and not a few, put the colony’s backwardness down to what they were pleased to term the inherent laziness, lack of initiative and general inertia of the people of British Guiana. However, whatever the factor, very little had been done to remedy the situation. In reality however, the barriers set up by the big rivers were, in his own words, the great bar to the progress of the colony. The great dilemma of the colony was the bridging of these rivers and Comber posited that it was impossible to carry on an intelligent and connected business when one is separated by rivers over a mile in width, necessitating the use of ferries with all its attendant delays and annoyances. It is interesting to note his view that bridging the Demerara River was a much more difficult matter than that of the Berbice River.

Discussions on railway development in Guyana have always tended to focus on the development of the East Coast Railway which commenced in 1846. What is hardly highlighted is the construction of a light railway from Wismar to Rockstone, through the initiative of Sprostons Ltd., which formed a portage between the Demerara and Essequibo Rivers. This light railway was constructed as a ready means of getting over the difficulty of dangerous falls and rapids in the Essequibo River on the passage between Bartica and the Potaro gold fields. However, while this railway was useful, it was felt that it was at the expense of  Bartica or “well nigh ruining the town of Bartica”, which was destined  by its natural geographical position, to be the jumping-off ground, so to speak, for the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni districts. There was a greater vision of constructing a great central trunk line from Bartica.

The railway discussion of 1902 envisaged railway development in the colony apart from the further development of the East Coast Railway. According to the colonists, the East Coast railway already supplied the wants of the sugar estates on the coast with the extension to Berbice tapping the cattle ranches and farms of Mahaica, Mahaicony and West Coast Berbice. The East Coast line established in 1846 was opened as far as Plaisance in 1848 and extended to Belfield and Mahaica in 1854 and 1864. By the last decade in the nineteenth century, it was extended to Rosignol on the left bank of the Berbice River.

The Corentyne railway between New Amsterdam and Skeldon was fully surveyed but construction was held  in abeyance due to the lack of a comprehensive water supply scheme for the development of the rice industry  of which the Corentyne Coast was well suited for. The programme of railway development also considered a railway from Suddie to Devonshire Castle for the re-development of the Essequibo or Aroabisce Coast through the re-establishment of its many abandoned sugar estates in anticipation of the abolition of the sugar bounties.

However, given the decline of the sugar industry during this period, it was recognised that the hopes of the colony were largely centred on the successful development of its mineral resources and its gold and diamond industries. The discussion of railway development of the colony was therefore logically focused on developing the vast hinterland or terra incognita with the hope of opening up its hidden store houses. This would however require a large influx of population and capital.

In his paper on the possibilities of railway development in British Guiana, Mr. M.L. Hill, President of R.A & C.S, noted that Bartica was accepted as the main entrepot for the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni districts but the problem was the best route of reaching it from Georgetown which remained the capital port of the colony. At that time, the mode of transport used to reach Bartica was the Sprostons direct steamer route of about six hours along the West Coast and up the Essequibo River. In this period, river transportation was considered to be the most convenient and cheapest mode of transportation for the needs of the colony. The alternative proposed by Mr. Hill however, was a possible forty (40) miles extension of the West Coast railway around Parika and up the right bank of the Essequibo to a port opposite Bartica. From here, passengers and goods would be transported by steam ferry, or a wire rope elevated high above the river (this method was widely used in many countries). From Bartica, this proposed central trunk line was to have taken an ascending curve round the back of the Bartica port towards the high land at the back of Kalacoon and thence along  the ridge of the watershed between the Essequibo and Mazaruni Rivers. From here it should have crossed the Potaro River just below the mouth of the Couriebrong close to Potaro Landing, thence in a southerly direction crossing the Siparuni below the mouth of the Takutu, across the Purro-birro and Rupununi Rivers and their tributary streams, tapping the great Rupununi Savannahs until it reached the Brazilian boundary, a total of 420 miles. This was envisaged as the great central Trunk line, with branches right and left as found necessary for the future development of the district. No serious engineering difficulties were envisaged since a 30-mile cart-road had already been established along the route.

The proposal envisaged the construction of this railway in stages-  the first of the branch lines to be constructed starting 30 or 40 miles north of the Potaro, bending round towards the Mazaruni, crossing the Semang and Kamarang Rivers, skirting the Mazaruni mountains and touching the Mazaruni River, clear above the numerous and dangerous falls in the Mazaruni, the length being 90 miles.

Also proposed was another main trunk line, about 140 miles in length, starting from Cartabo Point about 8 miles from Bartica, traversing the watershed between the Cuyuni River on the right and the Mazaruni, Puruni and Cartoonie Rivers on the left, tapping the rich mineral country on either side and reaching on to the Venezuela boundary close by the mouth of Acarabisi River; through which connection might be made with the Barama and Barima districts. In keeping with the economic thought in the colony however, Mr. Hill recognised that the North West district was well watered by the Barama and Barima Rivers and their tributaries and the present steamer route was a more convenient mode (and cheaper!) to the North West district, negating the need for a main central line since it could be serviced by local railways as portages and accommodation lines to special mining centres.

The question of the class of railway, the motive power, surveys of proposed routes and cost were an important part of this discussion. The experience of the different gauges of the East and West Coast railways which did not permit the moving of rolling stock from one railway to another seriously influenced the class of railway to use.  In the absence of detailed surveys, the estimated cost for the Essequibo and Mazaruni trunk lines was a million and a half sterling and half million for the Cuyuni, an expenditure way beyond the means of the colony. The only means of financing this scheme for opening up the interior was by the offer of liberal concessions in land and mining rights to outside capitalists. The document regarding the applications for concessions was accompanied by a map showing a proposed central railway, starting from Bartica and running to the south as far as Takutu, thence branching off to the South-West touching a point close to Fort Joaquin, a shorter way of reaching the Brazilian border than that proposed by Hill.

Mr. Hill’s proposal was open to discussion on April 18, 1902 and this will be discussed in the second instalment.

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