The Tramways of / Los Tranvías de
(Ferrocarril Ogarrio)

by / por
Allen Morrison

"Nido de Águilas" (Eagles' Nest) – "Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town) – "Circus of the Moon" – "The Incredible City" – are some of the epithets ascribed to this extraordinary place in the Catorce Mountains 150 km north of the city of San Luis Potosí, the capital of San Luis Potosí state. Altitude is about 2,745 m (9,000 ft). The town's population reached 40,000 during its prosperous mining era. It has only a few hundred residents today, when its only industry is tourism.

The name is mysterious. "Catorce" means Fourteen – but fourteen what? And what is "Real de"? In the 18th century that term implied Royal Mine. Most historians think the place was named after 14 Spanish soldiers who died trying to pacify the Indians. Some say it was named after the Indians. Others say it was the 14 prospectors who discovered silver there in 1772. Today, Real de Catorce is the name of the town in the municipality of Catorce, one of 58 municipalities in San Luis Potosí state. Local residents call the place, simply, "Real".

Real de Catorce was founded in 1779. Its silver mines developed rapidly and by the end of the 18th century the town was the center of one of the most productive mining regions in New Spain. Santa Ana Mine, one of its largest establishments, shown below, was owned and developed by the Irízar and De la Maza families from the Basque country of northern Spain [El Directorio Oficial Minero de México, p. 171: see Bibliography]:

During most of the19th century the only access to the town and mining area was by horseback, but in 1891 the 914 mm (3 ft) gauge Ferrocarril de Vanegas, Cedral y Matehuala simplified the journey by building a branch line (with switchback) halfway up the mountain to El Potrero, 8 km north of Real de Catorce [see area map]. Mexican president Porfirio Díaz rode one of its trains in 1895 in order to visit Santa Ana mine, which had recently installed electric lights and other electrical equipment supplied by General Electric Co. of the U.S. (The original mine equipment had come from Arthur Koppel in Germany.) Pedro de la Maza escorted the presidential cavalcade from El Potrero station to Santa Ana and, later, over the mountain to Real de Catorce [see local map].

The mine entrance was decorated with pictures of the presidential family. Note narrow 600 mm (23.6 in) gauge track. (The artist who prepared this graphic misstated the date, which was June 1895, not 1896!) [The Incredible City, p. 19: see Bibliography]:

At the end of the 19th century, according to the Anuario Estadístico of the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas [see Bibliography], Compañía Minera de Santa Ana operated 4.75 km of 600 mm gauge horse-powered railway between its various installations – in addition to 29 km of railway underground. On 22 August 1896 [see below] it acquired a franchise to extend its railway and its tunnel at Dolores mine under the mountain to Real de Catorce, and also build a railway in the other direction down the mountain to El Potrero [see map].

[In addition to 22 August 1896, the date of the contract is variously reported, even on government documents, as 6 December 1895, 30 October 1896, 9 November 1896, et al. See example.]

The franchise specified that motive power could be animal, steam or electric – but the track gauge of the railway must be either 914 mm or 1435 mm, the gauges used by most other Mexican railroads. The Santa Ana company chose 914 mm to match the gauge of the Ferrocarril de Vanegas, Cedral y Matehuala, with which it would connect at El Potrero (and which was absorbed by the Ferrocarril Nacional in 1902). Pedro de la Maza named his railway Ferrocarril Ogarrio, in homage to his birthplace in Ogarrio, near Santander, Spain. Construction began on 23 July 1897 and on 19 July 1900 Santa Ana ordered three passenger cars, one closed model and two open models, from J. G. Brill Co. in Philadelphia. Here is a factory photograph of the closed model [col. Historical Society of Pennsylvania]:

A 1900 Memoria of the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas announced that the dimensions of the tunnel section had been decided. This drawing from a 1904 document shows the result [Plano y Perfil del Ferrocarril Ogarrio: see Bibliography (document courtesy Juan Viladrosa)]:

At the time, the 2.3 km tunnel was the longest railway tunnel in Mexico. According to a 1901 newspaper account the three Brill trams led a procession through the tunnel at the inauguration on 2 April 1901. The photograph below shows the closed tram at the west portal of the tunnel in Real de Catorce – although it is not certain that this picture was taken at the inauguration [Cabrera Ipiña, El Real de Catorce, btw. pp. 104 & 105: see Bibliography]:

The undated photograph below shows one of the open Brill cars [Cabrera Ipiña, El Real de Catorce, btw. pp. 104 & 105]:

Santa Ana imported two more trams from Philadelphia in 1902. Brill documents indicate that "Roberti Yrizai" ordered a 9-foot closed tram and a 4-bench open tram on 29 May 1902. (Entries in the order books are hand-written and sometimes almost illegible.) The line now had five cars – three open and two closed.

Apparently, mine vehicles began running through the tunnel in 1901, but according to a 1903 Memoria the line was not authorized to carry passengers until 24 June 1902. Thereafter, horses pulled both passenger trams and mining vehicles from Real de Catorce through the tunnel to Dolores, El Refugio, Santa Ana and other mines east of the city [see map]. The travel information contained in the following excerpt from the 1909 edition of Terry's Mexico (later editions called Terry's Guide to Mexico: see Bibliography) is based on author Terry's visit in 1905. Terry approached Real de Catorce from a rail line in the valley on the west.

A rare view of the ticket used [col's. Victor M. Nava Muñiz and Renata Torres Nava, courtesy Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:

After rails were extended to San Agustín mine south of the city, the line was 7.3 km long [see map]. The 1903 Memoria confirmed that, honoring the terms of its contract, FC Ogarrio was re-laying its 600 mm gauge track to 914 mm (36 in), and would continue that gauge on the 9 km extension that it was building to El Potrero. A 1907 Memoria stated that the extension to El Potrero had been completed and that the FC Ogarrio now had 15.9 km of 914 mm gauge track. The mountainside route was winding, with a switchback. The climb had to be gradual because it was designed for animal-power.

The photograph below shows activity at the west portal of the tunnel. The rails on the right lead to San Agustín mine [El Directorio Oficial Minero de México, 1908, p. 166]:

Here is a picture of San Agustín mine, south of Real de Catorce [see map]. For some reason, several mines in the area had Moorish-style portals and window frames [col.]:

The next photograph was reproduced in postage stamp size on p. 211 of the October 1922 edition of Ingeniería Internacional, published (oddly) in New York. It was obviously taken much earlier. A Brill tram pauses at Dolores mine, at the east end of Ogarrio Tunnel [see map] [col. AM]:

The photograph below shows the same place some years later, after construction of new buildings at Dolores mine. The words over the arch are "SOCAVÓN DE DOLORES" – even though the tunnel had been renamed Ogarrio [col.]:

Here is the same place today, a century after the mine closed. The appearance of the portal has recently been improved [col. AM]:

As it was laying new track in the tunnel and extending its line to El Potrero [see map], Ferrocarril Ogarrio was also bonding its rails and hanging overhead wire. In his book El Real de Minas de la Purísima Concepción de los Catorce, S.L.P. [see Bibliography] author-historian Rafael Montejano y Aguiñaga wrote that the Ferrocarril Ogarrio was electrified in September 1908. (Another source says August 1908.) The electrification was confirmed in a 1908 article published that year in The Official Mining Directory of Mexico.

The electric locomotive below was allegedly photographed at the inauguration. Its origin is uncertain, but since the Santa Ana company used General Electric equipment in its mines, it seems likely that it would choose G.E. for its rolling stock [col. Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:


A 1910 chart in the American Electric Railway Journal noted that FC Ogarrio ordered a 30 ft. double-truck electric interurban locomotive from General Electric in 1909. That was a year after the inauguration, and the locomotive shown above is smaller. But perhaps G.E. made a variety of locomotives for FC Ogarrio. Later reports say that it operated four electric locomotives. Note on the chart that in 1909 it also acquired six 18 ft. double-truck interurban gondola cars built at the Santa Ana shops [see map]. Compañía Minera de Santa Ana was still in charge.

The Rev. Padre Montejano y Aguiñaga sent the writer the following picture, which he said was the only illustration he knew of an "electric tram" in service in Real de Catorce. The locomotive appears to be backing up to attach a string of trailers. If a reader can explain the creatures on the blurred front of the locomotive, please let this writer know [col. Rafael Montejano Aguiñaga]:

Here is an animal-drawn Brill open tram in approximately the same spot. It is not clear if there is wire overhead [col. M. T. Allison]:

The picture reproduced on the "photo postcard" shown below was taken at the same spot as the three photographs above. It is undated, but judging by the larger trees was taken several years later. Three trail cars await motive power [col. AM]:

FC Ogarrio seems to have had no electric tram cars per se. It had only an assortment of passenger and freight trail cars that were pulled by electric locomotives. It also is said to have operated at least one steam locomotive.

The view below, from 1910, is westward down Calle Lanzagorta. The tunnel is behind the photographer. Note the overhead wires. The rails turning downhill on the left lead to San Agustín mine [see map]. A festive group awaits locomotives to attach the tram cars and take them on an excursion [The Incredible City, p. 16, see Bibliography]:

The close-up view reveals four trams. Track gauge is clearly 914 mm or 3 ft [The Incredible City, p. 16]:

A postcard view of Santa Ana's El Refugio mine, after electrification [see map] [col. AM]:

Alas, the golden age – of Real de Catorce, its mines, and its mysterious railway – was short-lived.

Porfirio Díaz remained Mexico's president for 28 years and helped develop its industry, transportation and commerce. But he suppressed political freedoms and generally ignored the poor, who worked in the mines and plantations and saw their land appropriated by his government. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and lasted ten years. Rebels like Francisco Madero (educated at University of California), Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata finally brought Díaz down – but were all executed. Two million Mexicans lost their lives in the hostilities and the country was in turmoil for a decade.

Most of the mines around Real de Catorce closed and the town's residents fled to seek work in the valley. The FC Ogarrio lost most of its passengers – just as it completed electrification and had purchased new equipment. In addition to the human and economic tolls, the government stopped publishing its Anuarios and Memorias, which had supplied information about Mexico's railroads and tram lines. No one counted or photographed trams for the next 15 years. Not a single good picture has been found of electric operation on the FC Ogarrio.

Fortunately, the McGraw Electric Railway List, published annually in New York, included Mexico in its surveys. This entry from the 1918 edition describes the FC Ogarrio and shows that the famous Irízar and De la Maza families were still involved. It cites system length as 14 mi = 24 km, a high figure not found elsewhere. The "34 cars" must include mining vehicles and the "3-6 g" (3 ft 6 in = 1067 mm gauge) is simply wrong. That gauge was never used anywhere in Mexico [col. AM]:

Mexico's Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas began a new "Estadística de Ferrocarriles y Tranvías" series in the early 1920s. A 13-page detailed survey for the period 1923-1925 unfortunately omits seven states, including San Luis Potosí. But the FC Ogarrio was considered in reports published thereafter. Here are sample statistics for 1926, 1929 and 1934. Since the Ogarrio line was basically rural and ran between towns, EFT considered it a railway and not a tramway. All reports agree that it was 18 km long [see map].

In 1926 the Ogarrio system had four electric tractores (locomotives). The chart shows no motorized electric cars – for either passengers or freight:

In 1929 the line carried 30,655 passengers. The average distance that each passenger traveled was 3.549 km:

The 1934 report – the last that mentioned the Ogarrio line – showed seven passenger trail cars (pulled by either animals or locomotives): two 16-passenger first class cars, and five 25-passenger second class cars. The 1932 report had shown eleven trail cars: four 15-passenger first class and seven 22-passenger second class:

In his history of Real de Catorce published in 1975 [see excerpt], author Rafael Montejano y Aguiñaga claims that the tramway closed "about 1935" and that its luxurious trams were reduced to simple platforms with benches. The extraordinary photograph below, thought to have been taken near El Potrero [see map], shows a simple platform with benches [col's. Renata Torres Nava and Victor M. Nava Muñiz, courtesy Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:

But what happened to the overhead wire? The date of the picture is unknown, and the EFT recorded electric locomotive operation on the FC Ogarrio every year from 1926 through 1934. The picture below shows the same type vehicle, taken at the west portal of the tunnel in Real de Catorce [see map]. Note support cable for the missing trolley wire. Perhaps these views were staged to dramatize the line's closure in 1934, after the wire had been removed. (If only someone had taken pictures that showed the wire in use!) [col's. Renata Torres Nava and Victor M. Nava Muñiz, courtesy Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:

The vehicle in the next photograph might be the remains of one of the Brill cars from 1900 – one of the remolques which EFT claims carried from 15 to 25 passengers! Almost as striking as the vehicle is the pathetic condition of the mule that is trying to pull it [col's. Renata Torres Nava and Victor M. Nava Muñiz, courtesy Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:

The same location on 26 April 1995 [see map] [Foster M. Palmer]:

Not all the Brill trams were reduced to platforms. An open car has survived nearly intact and is displayed today at the Museo Parroquial on Calle Lanzagorta in Real de Catorce [see map]. Its "toastrack" benches have been rearranged to make a semi-closed tram with corridor []:

A recent view of Santa Ana Mine – where it all began [see map]. Is this the same place shown in the postcard view above? [col. Roberto Ruelas-Gómez]:

Night falls on The Incredible City [col. AM]:

Real de Catorce is a very different place today. Tourism rises and falls. The town's spectacular location, the "extranormal" tunnel (there are numerous legends), the abandoned houses and mines, the high altitude – such things are attractive to many. And there are pilgrims. Thousands arrive every October to honor St. Francis de Assisi who they believe is responsible for miracles at Immaculate Conception Church (Parroquia de la Purísima Concepción) on Calle Lanzagorta. Every spring hundreds of Huichol shamanists walk from five states in Mexico to collect peyote and perform religious ceremonies in the nearby Catorce valley.




(in order of publication)

Mexico. Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas. Memorias. Annual reports, 1891-1917, are good sources of information about mines and railways.

Mexico. Dirección General de Estadística. Anuario Estadístico de la República Mexicana. 1893-1907. Railway data for Santa Ana mine and Ferrocarril Ogarrio.

Mexico. Cámara de Diputados. Diario de los Debates, vol. 1 (1896), pp. 81-90 (22/8/1896) and 842-850 (undated). Disputed contracts of the Ferrocarril del Túnel de Dolores á Catorce. Confusing, but the only records of the franchise that could be found.

Plano y Perfil del F.C. "Ogarrio", Catorce, S.L.P. 1902-1904. A series of blueprint maps used for the construction of the line. Wonderful detail of the route and elevations of each meter of track. [Provided courtesy of Juan Viladrosa]

J. R. Southworth and P. G. Holms. El Directorio Oficial Minero de México/The Official Mining Directory of Mexico. Mexico City, 1908. Superb, illustrated, bilingual survey of Mexican mines. See especially "Compañía Minera de Santa Ana" on pp. 169-172. An online version of this work strangely replaces the latter article with a discussion of German manufacturers! Here is a section of p. 170 scanned from the original paper version.

Plano del Ferrocarril Ogarrio, 1909. Catorce, S.L.P. Map of the new electric railway. North on the left side, not top. Also confusing because the rail roads are shown the same as other roads. Perhaps the original map distinguished them by color.

T. Philip Terry. Terry's Mexico. London and Mexico City, 1909-. Later editions called Terry's Guide to Mexico. The original, 1909, edition is based on the author's visit in 1905. Popular, extremely detailed guidebook series. Early data often repeated in later editions.

Mexico. Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas. Sección de Cartografía y Dibujo. Carta del Ferrocarril de Vanegas, Cedral y Matehuala, 1:80,000. Mexico City, 13/5/1910. Detailed map shows most of the Ogarrio railway – although, oddly, the contour lines do not represent the area's geography! [Provided courtesy of Juan Viladrosa]

McGraw Electric Railway List, August 1918. New York, 1918 [reprinted by Harold E. Cox in 1970]. Item 1321 on p. 206 shows data for Ferrocarril Ogarrio. Data varies for other years, before and after.

Francisco A. Hornelas. "Distrito minero de Catorce" in Ingeniería Internacional (New York), October 1922, pp. 210-213. Nice description of the mines, but only from a geological point of view. Some of the illustrations show trams, but there is no mention of them in the text.

Mexico. Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas. Estadística de Ferrocarriles y Tranvías, 1926-1934. México, 1927-1935. Interesting stats for the Ferrocarril Ogarrio.

Lucy H. Wallace. The Incredible City. Mission (TX), 1965. A superb 116-page illustrated survey of the town's history and folklore. Dozens of (uncredited) photographs, some of which are reproduced on this webpage. Vague references to the "electric tramcar".

Octaviano Cabrera Ipiña. El Real de Catorce. San Luis Potosí, 1973. Good survey of development. The source of two illustrations on this page. The tranvías are mentioned in a poem on p. 105, but there is otherwise no mention of them in the text.

Rafael Montejano y Aguiñaga. El Real de Minas de la Purísima Concepción de los Catorce, S.L.P. San Luis Potosí, 1975. Tramway references, pp. 192-217. Photo of "electric tramway" reproduced on the last (unnumbered) page of the book.

Wikipedia: Real de Catorce. Nice overall description and history. Text available in 14 languages.

Real de Catorce: animated introduction page. A nice series of pages produced locally. Choice of English or Spanish text.

Real de Catorce: tourist information. This page describes and shows the preserved tram.


The author is especially indebted to his Mexican colleagues Roberto Ruelas-Gómez and Juan Viladrosa for the valuable information and rare images that they supplied for this webpage. Without them, the page would probably not have been created.




If you have comments, additional information or photographs that might be added to this page, please write to Allen Morrison! Leo y escribo español.

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