THE 1897 WISMAR TO ROCKSTONE RAILWAY

THE 1897 WISMAR TO ROCKSTONE RAILWAY

By Dmitri Allicock

The once popular and well known 1897 Demerara to Essequibo railway symbolized Upper Demerara and served as a cornerstone in its development before Bauxite dominated. This railway provided valuable and safe transportation for commuters and cargo between Essequibo and Demerara. It was Guyana’s first inland railroad – The Demerara Essequibo Railway (DER).

Hugh Sprostons entry to British Guiana in 1840 saw a dire need for transportation across Guyana’s waterways and its hinterlands. He established steam-powered vessels across Guyana and built Guyana’s dry dock in 1867, where damaged vessels could be repaired and new ones constructed.

Sprostons had steam brigs or vessels plying the Georgetown route as far as Lucky Spot up the Demerara River since the 1850s. They were also other privately-operated vessels of that period. Access up the mighty Essequibo River was a different matter. Navigation was very dangerous due to the many rapids and waterfalls. Many people drowned as they tried to navigate the torrent Essequibo and boats capsized more often than not. 

The idea was born to construct this railway from Wismar to Rockstone. The calm and navigable Demerara River had the width and depth to allow ocean-going vessels up to Wismar and it provided access from Georgetown to this railway with transportation continuing from Rockstone via launches to Tumatumari. The Demerara River is obstructed by large rocks that sit in the middle of the river at the Watooka area and may have influenced the choice of Wismar for the terminal.

The lands and sawmill business of John Dagleish Paterson of Christianburg, were bought by the then British Government in 1894 to set up this railroad. Sprostons Company LTD then constructed The Wismar to Rockstone Railway from 1895 to 1897. The British Government made a loan of $200,000 interest-free to Sprostons, which was to be repaid in 20 years.

This light railway line, as it was referred to, was 18¾ miles long, and ran west from the Wismar Terminal to the Rockstone Terminal. It provided access through Guyana’s primeval forest to upper Essequibo-Potaro gold fields, Balata {Bullet wood} trees and endless supply of hardwood.  The demand for Greenheart appeared limitless and Guyana was the only country that exported this prized hardwood.

This terminus was built next to the Wismar Steamer Stelling. The train ran south along the Demerara River until it reached the area near the current Wismar/Mackenzie Bridge. The railway then swung westward through the forest until its destination at the Rockstone Essequibo River terminus.

The Steamer left Georgetown daily, except on Sundays, for Wismar at 8 a.m. The train departure from Wismar to Rockstone was synchronized with the steamer’s arrival from Georgetown. The train left daily from Wismar to Rockstone after the Steamer arrived from Georgetown and not before 5.30 p.m. The train did not run on Sundays. At the Rockstone Terminus, one or more launches with passengers and cargo provided a daily service at 6.30 a.m. to Tumatumari, with Sunday also being the day of rest. At Tumatumari, a launch provided daily transportation for passengers and cargo to Potaro Landing.

The 1924 publication from the “British Empire Exhibition Wembley-Guiana” read, “The Terminus of the Colonial Steamers which ascend the Demerara River daily is at Wismar about 65 miles from the sea: but sailing vessels can be towed for 15 miles further up to load timber supplies of which for many years been obtained and exported from the valuable forest Country through which the river flows. Opposite Wismar is “Mackenzie City” the headquarters of the Demerara Bauxite Co. Ltd. From Wismar a railway runs across to Rockstone on the Essequibo River and small launches runs regularly twice a week to the foot of the Malali rapids on the Demerara about 104 miles from Georgetown where the influence of the tide ends.”

The dawn of 1900 saw this spanking new railroad linking the two rivers, moving people, equipment, timber, cargo of many varieties and most of all hope for a brighter future. Bauxite would later take over as the new king. The Demerara Bauxite Company would soon be established with the 1912 land purchased by George Bain Mackenzie. 1917 saw the first mining of bauxite at Akyma and later the construction of the Bauxite plant and housing areas on the eastern shores of the river.

With this railroad, Wismar became the focus and hub of economic activity eclipsing Christianburg as the center of the community. Christianburg never regained its status and Wismar became more prominent.
However, within two decades the eastern bank of the river rose to prominence. As the bauxite industry developed, most administrative buildings, the hospital, and schools were built, and economic activity dominated there.

Mackenzie, or the eastern shore of the Demerara River, remains the prominent community in the area today.
This railroad brought many jobs for the people in the areas. A network of related businesses developed around this industry, and life improved for many of my family members. Many families worked with or around this railroad. My cousin, Manly Binning, worked from 1919 to 1927 as a machinist at the Sprostons Wismar Workshop. One of my grandfathers, Alfred Allicock, used to square timber that was delivered by this train on the Wismar bank of the river. Others travelled to upper Essequibo to work in the timber, balata industry or to mine gold and diamond. The steamer and railway service became an integral part the lives of our family and people of Upper Demerara.

R.H. Carr – 1960 (photo P Llyn-Jones)

The R.H Carr Steamer commissioned in 1927 continued service long after the railroad was closed. The steamer service came to end shortly after the Linden Soesdyke Highway opened in 1968 and brought to an end over 100 years of Steamer service between upper Demerara and Georgetown.
In 1960, one of the descendants of John Blount of the “Three Friends” referred to as Miss Blount spoke with the author Zahra Freeth of Run Softly Demerara and had this to say about the Railroad, “and when Christianburg went down, so Wismar became bright; with the railway to Rockstone, Wismar became the centre of importance on the upper river which only shows that God will always provide,” she added, “as one place closes down another place opens up, and after Wismar it was Mackenzie.”

She went on to say “I don’t understand how people can say there is no God, when here we see the bauxite dug out of the ground, bauxite that God put there so that it would bring work and money to the people of Demerara.” A bauxite ship was passing her home at Christianburg at that moment. The ocean going ore ship was only a stone’s throw from the house, and dwarfed the surrounding scene as it passed along the Wismar waterfront. Miss Blount added, “And when I see the big ships, I say to myself, there, if you need it, is another proof of the greatness of God.” Miss Blount was in her 80s at the time of the interview and was also one of our family members.

This railway would continue running well into the Bauxite era until it was closed in the 1940s. The decline of gold in the Potaro fields and the switch to the much cheaper petroleum based rubber were believed to be some of the reasons for its closure.

Nothing remains of this historical railway today. The Wismar Steamer Stelling, which was closed in 1968, lies in ruins in 2010. Some rail lines are covered by the now Burnham Drive main road at Wismar.

The ruins of the steamer R.H Carr is at Skull point located at the Cuyuni and Mazaruni River junction.

The nostalgia of this special boat brings a particularly sad feeling to see its ruins. Most of Upper Demerara residents that included all of our family members used the R.H Carr for transportation to Georgetown. The exceptions were the many speed boats and launches available. The speed boats took only one hour but did not complete the entire journey to port Georgetown and stopped at the Atkinson base where taxi or bus completed the trip.

The R.H Carr took a relaxing eight hours and passengers seemed to have a special bond with it. The slow journey through the meandering Demerara River was punctuated with frequent stops in the middle of the river as passengers got off or on into small boats for destinations along the river. It was exciting to see the occasional cow transported. Cattle were pushed out into the river and had to complete the trip to pasture by swimming.
For many it was their only contact with the riverain areas. The area of Linden is like an oasis surrounded by jungle. Most of the area’s new population who came from Guyana’s coastal communities and the many Caribbean Island had little knowledge of inland Guyana. This was a great opportunity and experience for all to see Guyana’s hinterlands.

This river trip brought many in contact with the soul of Guyana. They were able to see the many settlements, sawmills, sawpits, villages, farms and life alongside the river. They saw the essence and make up of what is Guyana.
I still remember running down the steep steps of third class as a child to buy gynip and drinking a cold Coca Cola at D’Aguiar while watching the large propeller of the boat churning up the brown water of the river. We would wave as we passed the people on the shores or in boats on the river in a kind of farewell salute to a time of innocence.

Sprostons Construction Company also had an important role in the clearing and laying of the foundation for the Alumina Plant in 1956 for the Demerara Bauxite Company and built the Mackenzie High School in 1959 as two of its last significant influences in the area.

There were other businesses that provided employment like logging, balata bleeding, farming and gold mining in the area of Lucky Spot and Kanaimpoo at but was dwarf by the importance of this railway and the other industries that it supported.
The turn of that century saw the first automobile and the electric bulb take center stage in Upper Demerara. However, steam power still dominated.

This Wismar to Rockstone Railway was essential and a major pillar in Upper Demerara’s development. Sprostons Steamers, Railway and Construction Company led the way as the Demerara Bauxite Company became established.
This notable trend to discard and forget history in Guyana is observed once more as the memories of the Demerara/Essequibo Railway and this not so distant and significant chapter of Upper Demerara is now lost and gone with the wind for many.

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Comments

  • needybad4u  On May 18, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Lovely blog entry, Dmitry Allicock. This is indeed a casting of our history I’ll treasure. I like these lines …’ I still remember running down the steep steps of third class as a child to buy gynip and drinking a cold Coca Cola at D’Aguiar while watching the large propeller of the boat churning up the brown water of the river. We would wave as we passed the people on the shores or in boats on the river in a kind of farewell salute to a time of innocence.’ I have memory of travelling on the TORANI across the Berbice River.
    Thank you for sharing.
    ~Leonard Dabydeen

  • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On May 18, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Thank Leonard,
    Those memories are riveted in my mind and like the railroad our history should be treasured forever.

    • Norman Tewarie  On September 11, 2014 at 10:10 am

      KAIETEUR FALLS⊗

      Oh Kaieteur! with thy gruesome splendour
      When your pure placid waters you pour
      Would you forever continue like this
      In true eternal rainbowed bliss?

      Oh Kaieteur! tucked away so far
      With a height more than spectacular
      So many lovers of Nature you lure
      For more than an eyeful feast for sure

      For if Wonders of the World they seek
      Then your greatness is simply unique
      Many sad, troubled hearts trod your brow
      With ebbed hearts you they gladly allow

      To change their problems to smaller parts
      Becoming oblivious of their trustful hearts
      Knowing how lesser and insignificant we are
      When compared with you the Mighty Kaieteur

      Your waters falling in foamy froth
      Down hundreds of feet of granite earth
      Engulfing spume spattered sprays
      And disappearing in abysmal ways

      The legends for aeons told about you
      Could hardly be anything but true
      For the spines your magnetic chasm thaw
      Have left many minds spellbound in awe

      If time can erase men from this earth
      Your beauty will be of greater worth
      For you standing alone, Oh Kaieteur!
      Would be the handiest work of Nature

      • needybad4u  On September 12, 2014 at 7:04 am

        Enjoy reading your poem, Norman Tewarie. The rhyme, rhythm and rich imagery conjure memories of a place and time so unimaginable…”If time can erase men from this earth/Your beauty will be of greater worth/….Thank you for sharing. God Bless!!

      • Dmitri Allicock  On September 12, 2014 at 7:59 am

        Thanks Albert. History to preserve.

  • Ron Bobb-Semple  On May 18, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Thank you Dmitry for this important History lesson.

  • B.N.SINGH  On May 18, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    MR. ALLICOCK SIR, you should publish a book about all of the stories you have about GUYANA it will be very educational to all. Thank You.

    • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On May 19, 2012 at 12:58 am

      Thank you kindly Mr. Singh,
      So much of Guyana’s history needs attention and documentation.

    • Dean Chandra  On July 16, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      History of Guyana and should become one of our text books to be used country wide in all our schools.

  • Jan  On May 18, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I agree with the comment by B.N. Singh. Publish a book Mr. Allicock. Books with upper Demerara as the location are rare. The Freeth book is difficult to even locate, and Bauxite, Sugar and Mud by Patricia Wendy Dathan is $63 US.

    Write and publish Mr. Allicock.

  • Desiree Irwin  On May 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Mention of the R. H. Carr, brings back a lot of happy memories. We lived up the Demerara river for a few years.

  • ucaptain  On June 15, 2012 at 12:06 am

    I am not a Demerarian but I am intrigued by these stories Dmitri and like others I would like you to preserve these historical stories in a book.

  • linden born  On June 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    These stories can inspire us, if documented and shared with all Guyanese that can bring a new chapter of development in Guyana’s hinterland

    • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On June 18, 2012 at 1:31 am

      You are so right.
      The concept of who were are and what the future may hold, is directly related to history.
      Heritage is vital and a very useful application in creating a brighter future.
      Dmitri

  • Cyril Balkaran  On June 18, 2012 at 1:57 am

    There are many of us who never made a trip up the Demerara river. I went as far as Bartica where my brother in law hails from. Thank you Mr. DImitri for your well researched work on the history in the making 1897-2012.It shows what opening up vast areas of the hinterland can do for both the development of the country and for Communication as a network of railways, waterways and whatever else it took the mighty Sprostons group of developers to engage their entreprenerial spirit in the establishment of Demba and the Aluminia Plant in 1956.The world still needs the high calcined ores of the Bauxite Industry and the failure to expand and secure continuous development in these areas may have also led to the demise of all transportation, railway and shipping. The people of the Coastal Guyana never can imagine what they missed in not visiting the hinterland. There is a lack of enthusiasm among the coastal dwellers whenever the topic of an expedition or 10 day excursions are talked about. There are also the lack of local tourism to push the inward drive from Coast to hinterland. There are also Industrialists like the Toolsie Persaud saw millers, the Fredericks of Quarry fame and the Sankars of the Rice Industry fame who could be likened to the Sprostons group of Company but what are they doing for others who would like to become tourists in the local Tourist Industry. The Sprostons group was given 200,000 tax free incentives for launching the hinterland development program and it was 20 years tax free. Local entrepreneurship must take the lead for discovering Guyana and opening the hinterland in a phased manner or else people like the Charles of UK who claimed to be the first person to complete the first round trip on the Potaro river will do it for us. Keep up the excellent research works on Guyana and I am sure these will find themselves in book form in due course. Congrats Mr Dimitri, let’s continue the multi pronged dialogue. God’s Blessings!

  • Cyril Balkaran  On June 18, 2012 at 2:17 am

    It is very unfortunate that people everywhere think that Government is the corporation sole for the country’s development and so they argue about this everywhere in and out of the Chambers of Commerce. in and out of the Parliament, on the streets and in the busy market places and you name it. The Government anywhere must and is a facilitator of the industrial and developmental needs of the Country. They make the rules of the facilitation of the business and developments big and small and protect the entrepreneurial spirit of the would be developers. This is not happening in the Country. Great and living legends as Dale Carnigie of the Library Fame, WK Kellogg of the Cornflake Fame of Michigan, USA, Ford and Rockefellers of the USA and Birla and Tata of India depended on their own wisdom and vision as a Corporate citizen to bring a brighter and better day to the lives of millions of workers in their respective fields of endeavours. They parterned with Government to create the world as a better place. We need not reinvent the wheels of progress but the very history is steering us in the eyes and we sometimes fail to even see it. “The lives of great men do remind us that we can make our lives sublime and departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time!” Longfellow once wrote,this encouraging statement.

    • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On June 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm

      Hi Cyril
      The Guyana Then and Now site have some great pictures which accompanied the article.

      1. Guyana Then And Now
      Nov 6, 2011 … It was Guyana’s first inland railroad. Demerara Esequibo Railway Terminus at Wismar c1924 (Photo Armorel Clinton). Hugh Sprostons entry to …
      guyanathenandnow.wordpress.com/ –

  • Albert  On September 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    A really beautiful piece of Guyana history Dmitri. You should do some writing in book form connecting these stories about Guyana history. This should be of considerable educational interest to the Guyanese reading public. Granted that for commercial purposes the Guyana reading market is a small one and to market to other third world readers is a challenge.
    Some years back there was parts of an old train engine in that open area on the Wismar side off the bridge where Burnham drive begin. I think there use to be a sawmill there.
    In the late 50’s I lived with my parents at One Mile Wismar and worked at the construction of the aluminium plant and houses at Retrieve. There was only about three other houses in that small area. Travelled with the RH Carr and small boats constantly in those days to be in Georgetown on the weekends. I still have family in the area but the region has deteriorated considerably in recent times.

  • Philip Odwin  On January 25, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    I wish the same could be done for “Bartica Grove”. I am from Bartica. Used to travel by steamer from Bartica to Parika. Then by train to Vreed en Hoop, crossing the Demerara to Georgetown by ferry, SS Queriman.

    • Dmitri Allicock  On January 25, 2015 at 10:10 pm

      Thanks guys!

  • Marie Gordon  On January 22, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Thank you ever so much Dimitri, for all of your stories and poems and inspirations. May God Bless you and keep you in His loving care. Sincere appreciation.

    • Dmitri Allicock  On January 22, 2016 at 9:51 am

      Thank you Marie

      • Winifred Ibbott  On March 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm

        I am interested in your story about the first railway in Guyana. My Great grandfather, Robert Dodds, from Scotland, (I think) came to British Guiana to build a railway. He was an engineer, and when he lived there he married my great grandmother, Susan Lorimer from plantation Wales. Robert died in a construction accident, I believe. His son, Renny went down in the Titanic.His widow operated a boarding house on the seawall, where there is now a very well known hotel, I believe. Do you know of this family.? Thanks for all the stories. Nance

  • demerwater  On January 23, 2016 at 6:56 am

    The reference to “Bartica Grove” reminds me of a radio skit parodying the fluctuating fortunes of the porknocker. This episode concerned a flush porknocker about to make a telephone call from “B.G. to B.G.” (Bartica Grove to Bookers Garage).
    “Operator, can your telephone line carry weighty words, lengthy distances?”
    He then proceeds to order a taxi to wait, with “engine beating” – until he arrived in Georgetown.

  • Desmond Phillips  On September 3, 2016 at 7:37 am

    My wife’s grandfather, John Dodds, was the son of Robert Dodds and Susan Lorimer. We thought Robert was an engineer on the sugar plantation so thanks for that tidbit. While our main interest is about John Dodds, we would like to know more about Susan and Robert. Please share what you can about your great grandmother

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