Guyana History: Demerara-Mahaica Railway – South America’s First Railway + video

Edited by Guyanese Online

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway was the first railway system implemented in British Guiana and South America. It was built only twelve years after the first railway was built in England. Planters and proprietors on the East Coast of Guyana sought a cheaper way of transporting their produce to the capital of Georgetown since it was costly to transport their produce by river in schooners and vessels or on unpaved roads. With the approaching emancipation of slaves, they also were in need of new labour and thought of replacing manual labour with machinery and thus the idea of constructing an iron railway was birthed.       

The Demerara Mahaica Railway extended from Georgetown to Rosignol and was built in sections. Throughout its lifespan, the railway provided efficient service especially to passengers, which generated a large part of its revenue. The project of constructing the Demerara-Mahaica Railway had many difficulties, mainly financial which lead to its eventual closure.

What is the Demerara-Mahaica Railway?

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway that operated from Georgetown to East Coast was the first railway in the country and took about eighteen (18) years to complete.The West Coast Railway from Vreed-en-Hoop to Parika, was built shortly after. See link below:

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway provided access to easy transporting of produce and supplies and so persons living in Georgetown would be able to regularly receive products from farms on the East Coast. In addition, the planters would have been able to easily transport products for export e.g sugar, cotton, coffee, molasses and rum.. While the original purpose of the Demerara-Mahaica Railway was to facilitate the transportation of cargo, it became a passenger service railway as well, which accounted for four-fifths of the generated revenue.

Some of the early steam locomotives were named Victoria and Alexandra Alexandra Mosquito, Sandfly and Firefly.

History of the Demerara-Mahaica Railway

On 10th March 1837, a general meeting was held where planters and proprietors decided that a railway system was necessary to substitute mechanical for manual labour, especially as the emancipation of the slaves approached. They decided the East Coast of Demerara proposed feasibility for the construction of a railway and thus through an election, a committee was appointed to oversee the construction. However, it seems due to its cost the idea was abandoned.

A meeting of the General Committee of the Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana, on 10th February 1845, expressed their desire to construct a railway linking Georgetown to  Mahaica.  While most of the original committee members were presents, Hon. H. E. F. Young (Government Secretary) presided. A draft of the proposed railway was later examined by a  sub-Committee and the idea took root. Funds were raised abroad to finance the £150000 project. Two thirds (2/3) of the thirteen shares were awarded to applicants in Europe. A survey of the lands was needed and so Frederick Catherwood, a Consulting Engineer in England, was chosen for the task. He had experience in England’s and North America’s railroads. In April 1846, he submitted a preliminary report and plans were handed to the local Committee. The construction of the Demerara-Mahaica Railway later began by Frederick Catherwood in March 1847.

The Demerara Railway Company purchased a plot of land on the junction of Main and Lamaha Street in Georgetown where the Georgetown terminus was built. In the same year, 1847, a large railway station with workshops, coal sheds and large water tanks were built at the location. Later on, the construction of the other stations began. The steam engines, Mosquito, Sandfly and Firefly were imported around this time.

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway was opened on 3rd November 1848 from Georgetown to Plaisance.

As the construction progressed, cost increased and the government intervened to assure repayment of loans. Around May of 1849, Frederick Catherwood’s contract was brought to an end due to dissatisfaction with his service. Once again the government stepped in and approved a loan of £50,000. Mr. Manifold who previously worked with Catherwood oversaw the construction and in March, October and November 1850 the Demerara-Mahaica Railway was extended to Buxton, Enmore and Belfield respectively.

Due to difficulties in financing the project, it took about two more years to reach Two Friends. By the time it reached there, funding was depleted and the government then funded the rest of the railway to Mahaica. The railway way later extended to reach Clonbrook in 1863 and Helena (Mahaica) in August 1864. Two locomotives arrived in 1859 which was lent to the company. Due to the popularity of the Demerara-Mahaica Railway and the demands of the people, the government granted the line to be built from Mahaica to Rosignol which was constructed from 1897 to 1900. Its terminus was the ferry stelling on the left bank of the Berbice River.

On 1st January 1922, the Demerara-Mahaica Railway was sold to the Colonial Transport Department of the Government of British Guiana which took over management and control.

Route extended to Rosignol, Berbice

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway stretched some ninety-seven point four (97.4) km along the coast from Georgetown to Rosignol in Berbice. The railway was built in sections and so the route traversed was extended over time. The Georgetown Plaisance section was completed in 1848 with a total of two trains operating daily. In 1854, the railway was extended to Belfield and later on to Mahaica in 1864. Around 1897 to 1900, the Demerara-Mahaica Railway was once again extended, this time reaching to Rosignol. Between Georgetown and Rosignol there were four (4) stations.

The lay of the land was relatively flat and easy to build on as there was no additional excavation or tunnels to be done. The depressions were bridged over with masonry and some were replaced by embankments. Three major bridges that the Demerara-Mahaica Railway crossed were over Mahaica, Mahaicony and Abary rivers. There were several stations were the trains made their stops including, Georgetown, Plaisance, Buxton and Rosignol.

The East Coast railway line heavy traffic was in the morning and afternoon when passengers travelled to and from Georgetown. Passengers were mainly workers, school children and products from villages. Between six forty-five and eleven a.m. there were six trains arriving at the terminus. Similar train traffic was required in the afternoon and evening.

In 1948 the railway system in Bermuda was dismantled and sold ‘lock, stock & barrel’ to the government of British Guiana (as the country then was) to rejuvenate the former system. The locomotives (petrol or diesel [just 2]) and coaches were fully restored, the latter being painted dark green. In 1953 the public lines in the colony carried 1,772,954 passengers and 92,769 tonnes of freight. A bold plan to extend the railway south to Brazil was never proceeded with.

The railway closes in the mid-1970’s

The Demerara-Mahaica Railway had its share of financial difficulties from its conception in 1845.  Soon after independence, the then Government of Guyana found it difficult to access more funding for equipment. The high cost of maintaining the railway lines and the cost of upgrading to diesel engines and new carriages became overwhelming and the government decided to close both railway lines.

The original railway route is now the Railway Embankment Road, running parallel to the East Coast Road.

Article References for more information:

GUYANA- SOUTH AMERICA’S FIRST RAILWAY

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Comments

  • wic  On June 26, 2020 at 12:43 am

    Interesting history of the Georgetown/Mahaica railway. However, I seem to recall that the scrapping of the railway had less to do with funding than with politics and putting pressure on certain people who farmed the land. In fact, I seem to recall that Luis Psaila of Psaila Bros.(Syrians who had settled in the old Br. Guiana) wrote an open letter in the Daily Chronicle to PM. Burnham pleading with him not to scrap the railway as among other things, moving freight/passengers by rail was only more costly than by water and much cheaper than by road. Of course, Psaila’s words fell on stony ground. All over the world, railways continue to move people and freight but not Guyana. What a poor decision.

    • Mike Persaud  On June 26, 2020 at 1:05 am

      As a schoolboy, I used to see that chugging train rolling through from Buxton through Annandale on its way to GT. Then it suddenly stopped and, as time passed, the vacant tracks became overran by shrubs and grass.

      I can also recall donkey carts, hire cars and busses rolling through the main road to Georgetown. The mango trees and downs trees laden. Jamoons and tamarind trees. Then the cane fields. Those were the days our youth .

      A bit of nostalgia.

      MP.

  • Leslie Chin  On June 26, 2020 at 2:08 am

    Burnham may have been a good student academically but he was a lousy manager. Among his many bad decisions was dismantling the railways and his *ban um* policies.

    The Chinese are active in Guyana; they built the Marriott Hotel and CJIA. They my be willing to build infrastructure projects like railways, highways and high rise bridges across the Demerara and Berbice Rivers.

    Now that Guyana has oil they may be able to pay for some of these projects. otherwise Guyana will have to cede the projects to China for 99 years as they do elsewhere in the world.

    • LP  On June 26, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      Sadly but true. He was an academic wizard but a political disaster. When politicians put self above nation the people are always the ones to pay the price.

  • mudhead2  On June 26, 2020 at 4:16 am

    I can still remember useing the train on my way to Bartica it was nice seeing the suger plantions wist by happy days

  • Leslie Chin  On June 26, 2020 at 7:17 am

    ://youtu.be/gNE7VPtvfbI

    These are some of the mega projects the Chinese are building/plan to build.

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