The Tramways of
Nuevo Laredo
Allen Morrison

 Mexico had two international streetcar lines which crossed the Río Bravo between Mexico and cities in Texas, USA. (The river is called Rio Grande in Texas.) The first, which opened in 1882 between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, was the first international tramway in the world; it was electrified in 1902. The second, which was built as an electric line, began operation between Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state, and Laredo, Texas, in 1890. It was the world's first international electric tramway and the first electric railway of any kind in Latin America.

Nuevo Laredo is the southern half of the former Mexican city of Laredo, which was divided at the river in 1848 after the Mexican-American War [see map]. It is 228 km north of Monterrey and 1,291 km (by rail) from Mexico City. The 914 mm (3 ft) gauge Ferrocarril Mexicano reached Nuevo Laredo in 1883 and a horsecar line from the railroad station to Plaza Hidalgo opened on 19 November 1886. The Street Railway Gazette [see BIBLIOGRAPHY below] reported 1.58 km of 1280 mm (50.5 in) gauge track in 1888. This undated photograph is the only known view of a streetcar in Nuevo Laredo [Institute of Texan Cultures]:


The Texan city across the river never had a horsecar line. The Laredo Improvement Company was chartered in 1888 to develop public utilities and build a tramway system. Eager to outdo the "one horse town" across the river, L.I.C. contracted the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Co. in New York to build an electric streetcar line and ordered four open and two closed electric trams, all 16 feet long, from J. G. Brill Co. in Philadelphia on 27 May 1889. L.I.C. inaugurated the first trolley system in Texas, 1219 mm (4 ft) gauge, on 27 January 1890. Three months later, on 12 March, a line was extended over a bridge to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico [see map]. No photograph showing an electric streetcar in Nuevo Laredo could be located, but the vehicle and tracks of the "ELECTRIC MOTOR ST. R.R." are visible in this 1892 engraving [see BIBLIOGRAPHY below]: 

The electric line ran 12 blocks south down Av. Guerrero, passing Plaza Hidalgo shown above [the perspective has been foreshortened], then 10 blocks west on Calle Arteaga to the Aduana (Customs House) at Plaza de Mayo - a distance of about 2.5 km [see map]. It was the first electric railway in the Americas south of the United States, preceding the first lines in all other Latin American countries including Brazil (1892), Panama (1893), Trinidad (1895) and Argentina (1897). The pioneer Nuevo Laredo line also opened 10 years before the first electric tramway in Mexico City.

But what happened after that is unclear. The international line was operated by L.I.C. but owned by a Mexican firm called International Bridge and Tramway Co. The electric line presumably replaced the Nuevo Laredo horsecar route, but Mexico's Anuario Estadístico recorded 1.5 km of narrow gauge animal tramway in Nuevo Laredo in the 1890s, and 2.3 km in the early 20th century [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. Mexican surveys never acknowledged the existence of an electric tramway in Nuevo Laredo. A history of the Laredo streetcar system says that the international line closed on 1 October 1900, but the McGraw Electric Railway Directory, published annually in the United States, indicates that operation continued until about 1918. The international bridge burned in 1920 and a new bridge opened in 1922. The postcard below shows track and wire in Nuevo Laredo in 1923 [col. AM]:


The spot above is three blocks north of Plaza Hidalgo and the view is north toward Texas [see map]. The fact that the track is cut off suggests that an electric tramway continued to operate on the Mexican side after international service was interrupted by the fire. But the postcard below [col. AM] shows track on the new bridge constructed in 1922. The view again is north, toward Texas. Does the track stop at the border in the middle of the river? Did international service resume? Was track laid on the bridge but never used?

These questions may forever remain unanswered (see below). Both the 1933 and 1937 editions of the World Survey of Foreign Railways and the Mass Transportation list of 1935 report a 4 ft gauge horsecar system operated by the Compañía de Tranvías de Nuevo Laredo.


BIBLIOGRAPHY (in order of publication)

Information about the Nuevo Laredo tramway is sparse. The author contacted every library, museum, historian and historical society in South Texas and northern Mexico and learned very little. Town histories, transport journals and online surveys say nothing. In addition to the publications listed below, whose data are often contradictory, the author is indebted to Prof. Stan Green of Texas A&M International University in Laredo for general guidance, and to transport historian Harold E. Cox for information about tramcar orders and the corporate history that he found in his archive.

"Mexican Street Railways" in Street Railway Gazette (New York), May 1888, pp. 22. Earliest description of a tramway in Nuevo Laredo.

"Laredo, Tex." in Street Railway Journal (New York), April 1890, p. 193. A brief news item announces the inauguration of the world's first international electric line.

"Perspective map of the city of Laredo, Texas". Milwaukee: American Publishing Co. [1892?]. The only known illustration of the electric tramway in Nuevo Laredo (reproduced above). A paragraph in the margin states: "The two Laredos are connected by two steel bridges across the Rio Grande and the Electric Motor Street Railway."

Mexico. Secretaria de Fomento. Anuario Estadístico, 1893-1907. Yearly tramway data.

Adalberto J. Arguelles. Reseña del estado de Tamaulipas. Ciudad Victoria, 1910. A chapter on railways and tramways notes a 2.3 km animal-powered line in "Laredo de Tamaulipas".

McGraw Electric Railway List or Directory. Published annually in New York c. 1900-1930; 1918 edition reprinted by Harold E. Cox in 1970; 1924 edition reprinted by Wagner Car Co. (n.d.).

U.S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce. World Survey of Foreign Railways. Washington, 1933. Supplement, 1937.

Mass Transportation (Chicago), 1935-1959. Annual lists of operating transport systems.

Ella Devine. "Laredo Electric Railway Company" in Southern Traction Annals (San Antonio), April 1967. Reprint by the Texas Division of the Electric Railroaders' Association of the tramway history published in a Laredo newspaper in 1932.  

Rodolfo González de la Garza. Los Laredos. 2 vols., Nuevo Laredo, 1989. A paragraph on p. 267 of vol. 1 notes the inauguration of the horse tramway in Nuevo Laredo.



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