in Latin America

Allen Morrison

The development of rail travel south of the Rio Grande paralleled its development in the United States, Canada and Europe. Latin America's first steam railroads appeared in the 1830s, shortly after their introduction in the north, and horsedrawn urban lines soon followed. The street railway in Mexico City was one of the first in the world, preceded only by lines in New York, New Orleans, Paris and Boston. This webpage surveys the first animal, steam, electric and battery-powered tramways in Latin America.


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Mexico City
Mexico inaugurated its first steam railroad in 1850 and the first horsecar line in its capital on 1 January 1858. This was the first urban tramway in Latin America. The streetcars that carried passengers from the cathedral to the bullring and the suburb of Tacubaya were the same vehicles that had run in New York since the 1840s. No photograph of the Tacubaya line could be found, but the engraving below provides a good idea of the line and shows a New York type car [col. Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City]:


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Chile's first railroad opened in 1851 and the American engineers that built it opened a tramway down the capital's main street on 10 June 1858. The first ten cars, constructed by Eaton Gilbert & Co. in Troy, New York, were the same type as the vehicles in Mexico City. The photograph below of the inauguration was probably the first posed streetcar picture. [The original is lost; the image was copied, with permission of the Academia de la Historia de Chile, from Carlos Peña Otaegui's 1944 book, Santiago de Siglo en Siglo]:


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Cuba's first steam railroad, which opened in 1837, was the first in Latin America. A tramway began freight service in the capital on 3 February 1858 and passenger service on 4 September 1859. The image below, from a stock certificate of the Ferro-Carril Urbano de La Habana, shows a type of car that was constructed by both Eaton Gilbert in Troy and Joseph Bolton in Philadelphia. The drawing may not represent exactly what ran in Havana, but is the only tram illustration from this period that could be found [col. AM]:


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Rio de Janeiro
Brazil's first railroad opened in 1854 and English engineers inaugurated its first tramway on 30 January 1859; the line was christened by Emperor Dom Pedro II on 26 March. The drawing below is said to be the only known illustration of the vehicle, but that must be wrong: this is the type of carriage that ran on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830! Carris de Ferro da Cidade a Tijuca replaced its animals with locomotives in 1862 and created the continent's first steam tram line [col. AM]:

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Inspired by the success of the Santiago line, English bankers and engineers opened a tramway in Chile's chief port on 4 March 1863. The cars were unique in the western hemisphere: they resembled vehicles used in Paris in the 1850s, ran in only one direction, and both driver(s) and passengers sat on the roof. Like the trams in Santiago, they were probably built by Eaton Gilbert in Troy, U.S.A. A local photographer (bless him) took the picture below in 1867. Track gauge was 1676 mm / 66 in [col. AM]:


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Buenos Aires
Argentina's first railroad opened in 1857. Its second railroad company, which began operation in 1862, inaugurated the country's first street railway on 14 July 1863: double-deck trams built by Geo. Starbuck & Co. in Liverpool transported passengers from Retiro station to the center of town. The photograph below is the only known illustration of the vehicles, which were the same type that inaugurated tramways in St. Petersburg and Copenhagen that year and the first line in Geneva in 1862 [col. Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires]:


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The capital of Pernambuco state in northern Brazil had an extensive network of suburban railways powered by small locomotives. Manning Wardle & Co. in Leeds supplied eight locomotives between 1867 and 1870 which were said to be the first in the world designed to run on the street. The passenger cars came from Starbuck in Liverpool. The Brazilian Street Railway inaugurated its first line on 5 January 1867. No early picture of the operation is available, but here is an 1870 builder's photo of one of the engines [Whitcombe Collection, Science Museum, London]:



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Rio de Janeiro
At some time during the 1860s the John Stephenson Co. in New York began supplying trams to Latin America (the exact date is unknowable since most Stephenson records are lost). Twenty Stephenson cars opened the Botanical Garden Rail Road in the Brazilian capital on 9 October 1868. The line was a great success and inspired tramway construction not only throughout Brazil but in other countries (the tramway company in Lisbon, Portugal, was founded in Rio de Janeiro and bought its first cars from Stephenson). Number 15 was from BGRR's initial fleet [col. AM]:


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Rio de Janeiro
Two years later BGRR acquired six open trams from Stephenson, which were probably the first crossbench cars in Latin America. This photograph was taken much later but gives an idea of the lightweight model that proliferated in the late 19th century. John Stephenson became the premier tram builder for most cities not only in Latin America but throughout the world [col. AM]:



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The first cable railway in Latin America was no doubt the Serra do Mar Incline, which began hoisting trains up the mountain between Santos and São Paulo in 1867. The first urban, tramway-like funicular was the Gonçalves Inclined Plane in Salvador, capital of Bahia state, Brazil, which opened in 1874. The view on this French postcard is from about 1900, before the structure was remodeled. Inclined plane railways were later built in other cities and many still operate today
[col. AM].

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The tramway company in this Brazilian city introduced Latin America's first battery-powered streetcar on 7 October 1883. Designed by a local engineer named Carlos Basto, Niterói's accumulator car continued operation until at least February 1885, but no other information - and no pictures - could be found. Battery power was tried in other cities but was not very successful for another 30 years; see "1913 Havana", below.


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Nuevo Laredo
The first electric tramway using overhead wire was an international line between this city in Tamaulipas state, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas, U.S.A. Inauguration was 12 March 1890. This was not only the first electric tramway - it was the first electric railway of any kind in Latin America. No photos could be located, but this detail from a bird's-eye view shows the track and a tram with crudely drawn trolley pole. It has just arrived in Mexico after crossing the Rio Grande [Perspective map of the city of Laredo, Texas. Milwaukee: American Publishing Co., 1892]:


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Rio de Janeiro
The first electric tramway wholly in Latin America was built by the Companhia Ferro Carril do Jardim Botânico along approximately the same route that its predecessor, the Botanical Garden Rail Road, had laid in 1868 (q.v.). The photograph shows the inauguration with Brazilian Vice President Floriano Peixoto - third from right - on 8 October 1892. The 3-axle car was built by Stephenson in New York [col. AM]:


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The first rack-and-pinion railroad in Latin America was the Petrópolis line near Rio de Janeiro. The second was the Corcovado line in Rio. The first electric rack railway in the hemisphere - one of the first in the world and surely the least known - was a 1/2 km switchback on Santa Lucía Hill near downtown Santiago, Chile. Track gauge was meter, installation was by AEG of Germany, and inauguration took place on 11 January 1902 [postcard, col. AM]:


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After the city's steam railroads moved to the new Estación Central in 1912, United Railways of Havana inaugurated battery-powered train service along 7 km of the steam route built in 1837. The three double-truck battery cars, built by Federal Storage Battery Co. in New Jersey, began running from Galiano St. to Ciénaga junction on 8 January 1913. This was the first use of battery power in Cuba and its first really successful use in Latin America (see 1883 Niterói, above). In 1914 number 601 was transferred to interurban service between Rincón and San Antonio, where this photograph was taken. Note the battery compartment between the trucks [col. AM]:


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Buenos Aires
The Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company opened Latin America's first rapid transit system on 1 December 1913. The cars on the "tranvía subterráneo" - underground tramway - had both low doors at the ends for boarding from the street and high doors in the middle for loading from platforms in the tunnel. "Subte" line A might also be considered the continent's first "light rail" line. Car S51 in the photo was built by La Brugeoise, Nicaise et Delcuve in Belgium [F. M. Halsey, Investments in Latin America and the B.W.I., Washington, 1918, p. 74]:


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The last tram in Uruguay's capital ran on 14 April 1957. Local rail enthusiasts salvaged English Electric car 595, restrung wire, and inaugurated a heritage tramway along disused track on 15 October 1967. This was the first such line in Latin America and one of the first heritage tramways in the world [Ralph Forty]:


Other "firsts" could be found: the first 4-axle tram, the first electric double-decker, the first gasoline-powered vehicle, etc. But, as demonstrated on this page, precise data are difficult to locate and good illustrations even harder. For more information about the tramways above see the indexes on my webpage about Electric Transport in Latin America and my websites on The Tramways of Bolivia, The Tramways of Brazil, The Tramways of Chile, The Tramways of Colombia, The Tramways of Cuba, The Tramways of Ecuador, The Tramways of Mexico, The Tramways of Peru and The Tramways of Venezuela.



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in Latin America




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