Hinterland development: The railway discussion of the earlier twentieth century

Part II

Part I examined the proposal of 1902 made by Mr. M.L. Hill, President of RA&CS with regard to railway development for the hinterland of British Guiana. This instalment will examine some of the responses to Mr. Hill’s proposal and alternative proposals for the Central Trunk line.

By Gwyneth George

Mr. Hill’s proposal for railway development in BG was open to discussion on April 18, 1902. Mr. J.W. Dorman, General Manager of the Demerara Railway Company commented that the Essequibo railway should be looked on as being merely of a temporary nature and though extremely useful at that time, was hardly worth considering in connection with a trunk line. He did not agree that Bartica was a “natural jumping off line” for a trunk railway. If this proposal was considered, he continued, the bulk of the colony’s traffic, including the South American mail and passenger traffic would be brought to Bartica, requiring a mail steamer and cargo boats resulting in great expense to the colony in buoying and lighting the Essequibo River and constructing wharves and store houses. He felt that as a railway engineer with a great amount of knowledge of the territory to be traversed, that a more viable alternative for a proper and natural extension was to continue the West Coast railway up to the East side of the Essequibo River (with a station and steam ferry to Bartica) to the falls where it would cross to the west side and run up past Omai to near Potaro landing. From here, there should be two branches of about 160 miles terminating at the Mazaruni River after running through the centre of the diamond fields. He agreed with Mr. Hill that the first of the branch lines should be run to the diamond fields while the main line should run south to San Joaquim. Running through the proposals was the consideration of the railway services being constructed to take advantage of transport by the main waterways since this had to be considered in designing a railway system for the colony. The suggested motive  power for the railway was electric since power could be obtained from the falls of the various rivers through which the proposed lines would fall.

The questions – however were, will it pay? And if so when? And if not, why should it be made? Railway construction in British Guiana could not be undertaken without liberal government assistance and land or cash guarantee. As was noted in Part I, the only means of financing this scheme was by the offer of liberal concessions in land and mining rights to outside capitalists. As would be seen in the papers relating to the Proposals for Concessions in British Guiana however, the conditions were so stringent that it repelled rather than attracted applicants to the scheme. Some of the more onerous clauses in this proposal had to do with the depositing of a moderate sum as security and forfeiture of concessions  if exploration did not commence within the stipulated period, was abandoned or did not meet expectations. The concessionaires were also required to pay such royalties or export duties on minerals, timber or other natural products. In return, they were given full rights – mineral and agricultural, subject to the laws and taxes of the colony except any rights existing within the selected area at the time and Indian rights. The mining and other regulations of the colony also applied in the selected areas if they were not superseded by anything in the agreement of the concession.

Reverend A. Campbell, whose view was more optimistic, felt that railway development in the colony should be encouraged not only for intercolonial trade but trade with other countries. He posited that the coastline bordering the Atlantic was the nearest landing point for Europeans, and if the proposed railway was constructed, the colony might become the emporium of commerce for South American countries, especially given the prospect of a gigantic scheme to run a railway down the Centre of South America.

According to Mr. G.V. De La Bastide, one respondent to Mr. Hill’s scheme, the question of opening up the hinterland by a main line connecting the Brazilian frontier was so remote that he would not even consider the route it should take. He endorsed Mr. Dorman’s scheme from both an engineering and financial point of view. He however felt that nothing but a cash guarantee would secure the millions necessary for such a gigantic scheme and this was heavily dependent on the wealth of the diamond and gold fields. However, it was unwise to argue that the colony was unable to spend money to make the means of transport to the gold and diamond fields easier to facilitate the development of the industries (gold and diamond in particular) on which the colony depended. For the colony to shrink from this responsibility ‘ then in God’s name let us draw our frontier-line along the sand-reefs which mark the verge of sugar cultivation five miles from tide-mar, and surrender the hinterland to Brazil.’

It would seem that Hill’s grandiose scheme was shelved since in 1913, under the policy of Sir Walter Egerton, Governor, a reconnaissance survey was made from Wismar to the Brazilian border by Mr. Bland of the Nigerian Government Railways. This line was expected to commence from Wismar, but  Mr. Bland stated that it would be a great advantage to have the terminus in Georgetown. However, he pointed out that the disadvantages of this proposal  had to do with the line running parallel to 65 miles of navigable river, the terminal at Georgetown would be costly and would require a great deal of land. From Wismar, the line was to strike inland along the watershed of the Demerara and Essequibo Rivers, very nearly approaching the latter river when opposite the Omai River in the Potaro District. Leaving the Potaro, the proposed line should run due south to the Kurupukari Rapids where it was intended to bridge the Essequibo River. Keeping to the West and South, it should reach the Savannahs just beyond Annai. The line should then proceed to the Ireng River terminating on some high ground a few miles from the junction with the Takutu River, from which point, the river is navigable for a large part of the year to Manaos and to the Amazon.

In response to this proposal, Mr. Buck felt that if Georgetown was being considered as the objective, a more cost effective route would be to commence the main line from Huntley, 35 miles east of Georgetown, utilising the existing line from Georgetown to Huntley. The estimated distance from Huntley  to the Ireng River is 331 miles, 9 miles less than the Ireng River to Georgetown as proposed by Mr. Bland. This route, Mr. Buck felt, would traverse the watershed parting between the Mahaicony and the Abary Creeks, areas of fine rolling Savannahs and the finest cattle land in the colony and would tap important quarry and the bauxite mines. If a third rail were constructed to utilise the existing railway from Georgetown to Rosignol, trains from the hinterland would be able to come to both Rosignol and Georgetown without the passengers and freight having to be discharged. For this to be viable, the Berbice River should be bridged from the north bank of the Canje River, so that any further extension along the East and Corentyne Coasts would not necessitate a costly bridge over the Creek to allow passengers to be landed in Georgetown or Rosignol from anywhere in the interior on the hinterland railway, four or six hours earlier than if Mr. Bland’s line from Wismar was adopted. Shortly after this report was presented, the matter of bridging the Berbice river was considered.

By 1917, Mr. Buck’s scheme had been given great publicity and the author urged the government to re-examine its document on the granting of concessions since a greater expropriation of land may be necessary, no doubt as a means of attracting investors.

By 1919, the railway project had been temporarily shelved. One of the greatest disadvantages of the schemes was the huge expenditure necessary for such a venture. The view was posited that the problem of development of the hinterland did not lie entirely in large railway schemes. It was also noted that while these schemes were beneficial in the vast areas of Canada and the United States, it did not follow that it was suitable for the relatively large, undeveloped colony of British Guiana. This was so in spite of the fact that mechanical rail haulage reached the commercial stage long before mechanical road haulage. The use of light railways was not ruled out altogether, but cost and population were used to justify the use of one system against another.

The rest is history – these grandiose schemes were abandoned altogether and one is left to wonder what would have been the outcome in terms of hinterland development if any of the proposals had been implemented.

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