What Happened to the Railroads of Belize?
Those visitors to Belize who drive the Hummingbird Highway and see the old railway bridges, or who, in some remote backabush, peer under palms to spot a rotting railroad tie or rusting skeleton of a narrow gauge railcar, may, if they have more curiosity than a dead stick, wonder what happened to the railroads of Belize.
What kind of railroads were there in British Honduras? What became of them?
A new book, Railways of the Caribbean, by David Rollinson (Macmillan Caribbean, Oxford, England, 2001, 144 pp., with many historical photographs from the author's collection, 15 pounds) offers a start to answering those questions.
While Rollinson, a curator of the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology in Canada before settling on Nevis, focuses mainly on the current and historical railroads of the islands of the Caribbean, particularly Cuba and Jamaica, he does spend a few pages on the railroads of Belize (formerly British Honduras) and Guyana (formerly British Guiana).
As Rollinson patches together the history, the first rail service in Belize was a privately owned light railroad in Stann Creek District. Constructed by the British Honduras Syndicate, it opened in 1892, connecting Stann Creek Town (now Dangriga) with Melinda, about 5 miles away. Later it was extended to Middlesex. It mainly carried agricultural goods.
This private railroad spurred the construction of Belize's first and only public railroad, the Stann Creek Railway. Construction began in 1907 and continued until 1914. The railroad, a 3 feet 0 inch gauge line, eventually extended 25 miles, from Commerce Bight (a deep water seaport later all but destroyed by a hurricane) to Middlesex. The Stann Creek Railway was important in building banana and other agricultural enterprises in the Stann Creek Valley, and it also carried passengers. However, by 1925 it virtually ceased operations, mainly due to diseases in the banana industry. It had a small resurgence when an American company, the Tidewater Lumber Co., use the railway to transport logs to the coast for shipment to the U.S., and another in the early 1930s, when light passenger cars were introduced and fares were cut, but it closed down in 1937, about the time when a national road building program was begun by the British colonial government. Today, old railroad steel bridges are still in evidence beside the Hummingbird Highway, and indeed a few presently used Hummingbird Highway bridges were originally built for the railroad.
Several other private railroads operated in Belize in the early and mid 19th century. These primarily served the logging industry. A narrow-gauge railroad was built in the mid-1920s by the Mengel Company of Kentucky in the Vaca Falls area. This 15-mile line in the Mountain Pine Ridge ran for the last time in 1952. The Glikston Group of England between 1890 and 1930 built and operated a narrow gauge line between Gallon Jug and Hill Bank in Orange Walk District, a logging line that continued operation, under the auspices of the Belize Estate & Produce Co., until about 1956. According to Rollinson, for a time a diesel-powered passenger car was used on the Gallon Jug-Hill Bank line.
Rollinson mentions several other short railway lines that once existed in Belize, including one near Punta Gorda, one at Monkey River and at least two in Northern Belize. However, the information on these lines, as presented by Rollinson, is sketchy at best.
We must wait for another railfan or railway historian to give us a clearer picture of the short history of steam and diesel in Belize.
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