A signal box protecting a rail level crossing on the system at Central Boris Luis Santa Coloma - March 1996. Photo Richard Chandler
All pictures displayed here at present relate to the sugar mills operated by the Ministerio de Azucar (Minaz) which took control of the sugar industry following nationalisation in 1960. More comprehensive notes regarding the pictures taken by Chris Walker appear below the thumbnails display.
To view any full size image and caption details please click the maroon button below each thumbnail
Cuba was Chris Walkers favourite country to visit for railways and steam operation. Chris often said he felt very
privileged to be able to witness steam hard at work in a beautiful landscape when it had disappeared in most other
parts of the world. He first went there in 1981, when he was working in New York, on a trip organised by Cuba expert
Jim Hutzler, with whom he became firm friends. They shared lots of information about Cuba over the next nigh-on thirty
years before Chris's untimely death in August 2010. Chris paid many visits to Cuba; certainly he went there annually from
1987 until 2010, sometimes more than once a year, always on private trips, hiring a car and roaming around, rather than on
organised group tours. In the last few years, he often went with David Ibbotson of Dorridge Travel, another good friend and
someone who shared his enthusiasm for, in particular, railways of Latin America. David had worked in Peru in the 1950s and
taken photos of the railways – which were invaluable when Chris got involved with Trackside Publications, started by Donald
Binns, which published a number of books on Latin American railways, including Chris's own highly acclaimed volume on
"Narrow Gauge Railways Of Cuba". David also organised trips to various Latin American countries, including Cuba, to travel
on and study railways – some of which Chris was able to join in with. Chris became an avid collector of postcards, photographs,
books, paperwork, loco and rolling stock builders' catalogues and other information on overseas railways, but specialised in
Latin America. He was always visiting postcard fairs and couldn't pass a secondhand bookshop without calling in just in case
there was something of interest. He amassed a network of contacts around the world from whom he was able to acquire pictures,
paperwork and information. He also made contact on his visits to Cuba with local historians and museum officials, providing
them with information and photos about their railways and sugar company history, so it was very much a two-way flow. Chris
was always generous in sharing the information he acquired, often going out of his way to ferret out facts from his extensive
archive or contacts when somebody asked a question about some aspect of railways in a far-off country. Not least of his many
achievements concerned an ancient six-coupled saddle tank locomotive built by Manning, Wardle in Leeds, England in 1873, one
of two supplied to work in Cuba on the 30 inch gauge Coliseo – Guamacaro branch of the FC Bahia. One of the locos was still
working in 1959, at Central Mercedita (later Gregorio Arlee Manalich), and named GOMEZ MENA. It was eventually rebuilt to
become a six-coupled diesel loco, in which form we saw it on our early visits, albeit not in use, at Manalich, by then Minaz
mill 207. The diesel incorporated the frames, wheels and cab roof. After befriending some officials at the mill through our
regular visits and discussing the loco, various discarded parts, such as the saddle tank and boiler were discovered in and
around the mill and adjoining village. Gradually the locals brought all this together, while still searching for items such
as the cylinders, and the old Manning, Wardle began to take shape again. It can be revealed that a lot of the restoration
was possible due to Chris supplying regular financial assistance to the people doing the work. The loco then took its place
in Havana at the Christina Museum. So the Manning, Wardle is a real and hopefully lasting legacy of Chris Walker's interest
in and commitment to the railways of Cuba.
I have scanned in some of Chris's own colour prints to give a flavour of the activity we witnessed on our many visits to Cuba and added a few anecdotes about various trials, tribulations, kindnesses and adventures we experienced in those enjoyable years.
cjw0001 - There were a small number of mills west of Havana, some still had steam working when enthusiast visits started. One was Mill 103 E G Lavandero (El Pilar), near Artemisa. Here is loco 1704 in the 1994 season standing at Artemisa FCC station - the mill utilised some main line trackage in the area. The big acopios where cane was collected were in the vicinity of Gunajay. It was relatively straightforward to pace the trains as there was a reasonable dirt road parallel to the railroad tracks. 1704 was a 2-8-0, VIW 2893 of 1919, one of a number of chunky Vulcans supplied to Cuban mills. This one was built for the Abraham Lincoln mill, also located near Artemisa, so it had not moved far.
cjw0002 - A big attraction west of Havana was mill 105 A C Sandino (Mercedita) operated by steam locos on a 36 inch gauge system, where there were some fairly fierce grades. This picture from 1998 shows 2-8-0 1404 storming towards the mill in the late afternoon, a time of day when action was virtually guaranteed. One of the acopios is in the background. 1404 was Alco 58746 of 1919, built for the FC de Placetas – Caibarien common carrier line, becoming Cuba Central Railways No 018, then FCUH 768. It later went to Central Frank Pais in eastern Cuba, before heading westwards to Sandino sometime before 1974. Sadly one of locos at Sandino, 1382, ex Cuba Central Railways No.07, suffered a boiler explosion in February 2000; the wreckage of the loco was still visible when we visited the following month.
cjw0003 - Also west of Havana was mill 107 P T Brau (Orozco) which featured a number of relatively small standard gauge locos. 1703, a transfer in the late 1990s from the adjacent Jose Marti mill, was a 2-6-0 Henschel, 18029 of 1920. There were never any 2-8-0s here. German loco builders managed to get a toehold, though not much more, in the Cuba sugar railway market. 1703 is going full tilt back to the mill in the 1998 season, no doubt preparing to storm the particularly steep grade through the mill township up to the mill yard a bit later in its journey.
cjw0004 - There is an interesting 36 inch gauge steam worked passenger carrying railway at Parque Lenin, a large leisure area on the southern outskirts of Havana. Trains in the park are a very popular attraction for Habanistas and operate on a circular route of approximately five kilometres. The locos are all from sugar mills. This one was Minaz 1457, a 2-8-0, BLW 54234 of 1920, which used to work at Central Frank Pais in Holguin province. It was the second No. 3 here; the first went back into sugar mill service at A C Sandino as Minaz 1210 during the 1990s (again it was the second Minaz loco with that number). Locos from Parque Lenin tended to go to Sandino for heavy overhauls. Frank Pais used to have two delightful 4-6-0s which were pretty much the same as one preserved on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina "Tweestsie" Railroad in the USA – it was a crying shame that one did not get sent to Parque Lenin; sadly both got scrapped during the 1990s, though a few enthusiasts did get to see them at the mill, albeit not in use.
cjw0005 - Mill 207 Gregorio A Manalich (Mercedita) was the last big narrow gauge steam mill, 30 inch gauge, with some great action to be had until the end of the 2004 Zafra. The mill was not many miles from Havana either, being situated close to the town of Melena del Sur. In 1948/49 the narrow gauge had 70 kilometres of track, but had been cut back- at a guess - to less than half that extent by the era of enthusiast visits. There were a number of acopios on the line to Pizzaola, which was several kilometres away, and a branch to Jicotea. Often three or four narrow gauge locos were at work, plus a standard gauge steamer sometimes, as there was mixed gauge trackage with a flat crossing where the narrow gauge crossed the FCC line. On a visit in 1990, we were lucky enough to see three loaded trains following each other to the mill, which activity delayed departure to Havana airport for our flight back to the UK and we had a nerve-wracking drive on back country roads, with the navigator (me) praying he didn't get two carloads lost en route to Havana and missing the plane home. But we just managed to arrive at the airport in time. In 2003, there was still plenty of steam activity. One afternoon we saw 1308, 1338 and 1351 on the narrow gauge, with 1402 on the standard gauge, while narrow gauge 1307 was away down the line collecting loads. We also saw narrow gauge locos 1306 and 1365 working during our numerous calls at the mill that year. This picture dates from 2003, when the locos were painted brown – other liveries including blue had been used over the years. Loco 1351 is a 2-8-0, Baldwin 45070/1917, which, until 1994, had been a 36 inch gauge loco, working at Hermanos Ameijeiras in Villa Clara province. After 2004, the narrow gauge was abandoned and rail use cut back to an acopio or two very close to the mill, now standard gauge, albeit usually steam worked in 2005 and 2006. But rather tame compared with the previous narrow gauge glory.
cjw0006 - South of Guines was Central Osvaldo Sanchez ( Providencia), which had both 30 inch and standard gauge steam. The narrow gauge appeared fairly modest, with a couple of acopios close to the mill. We thought that was it narrow gauge-wise, but one year we discovered there was a somewhat longer narrow gauge branch in a different direction. However in later years, that closed and the close acopios were converted to standard gauge. Here is narrow gauge 1364, a Baldwin 2-8-0, 37822/1912, outside the shed, which housed narrow and standard gauge locos. There seems to have been an outbreak of health and safety with both engines in the picture having railings fixed along the footplate – this also featured at some other mills. Entry to the shed area beyond the zealously guarded security gate was not allowed in earlier visits, and one could often get tantalising glimpses of locos sizzling away, but not moving anywhere. On the other side of the mill, the standard gauge was shunted for years by 1204, a 2-4-2T built by Rogers, 5009/1894, ex FC United Railways of Havana, probably a passenger locos in its early years. Although it shunted outside the mill, trying to take photos was often thwarted by a security policeman in our early visits, so one had to be very circumspect to get the picture. 1364 was subsequently transferred to mill 105 A C Sandino, where it had been regauged to 36 inches by our 2001 visit – but the rest of the loco's overhaul was not completed before the mill closed down, so it never turned a wheel there in use!.
cjw0007 - Mill 211 Ruben Martinez Villena (Rosario) was another with very tight security in the early years of visits. Being in the mill yard, let alone producing a camera, ran the very real risk of arrest by security. So it was remarkable that in 1980, a group, with a very good tour guide, managed to gain entry to the mill and loco shed without an official permit. Said group was amazed and delighted to find one of the very earliest sugar steam locos not only still here, but in working condition, albeit not in steam. Here is that loco, Minaz 1112, Baldwin 4502 of 1878, a dinky 0-4-2T in a picture taken in 1994. By that date, it was very much the mill pet, but still put in a shift of work when required. Minaz was beginning to appreciate the historical importance of its steam fleet, with efforts being made to preserve some locos for the future. Anyway, back to 1980, an air line was used to pump the little Baldwin out of the shed so photos could be taken – by the way it was not then painted up like it is in this portrait – the paint job was due to the loco being exhibited at various places. After that 1980 visit came the security clampdown for quite some years when the yard and shed remained off limits. One year our hire car had a puncture just outside the mill and after some pleading, the tyre was repaired – in the loco shed! But even then we were not allowed to take photos.
cjw0008 - Things were changing fast when this picture was taken in March 2003. It is a classic in its way – a veteran American automobile with a vintage American steam loco in the background. And it is natural, just as it happened – the scene has not been posed for a group of railway tourists as occurred quite a lot in the last years of Minaz steam. The sugar industry was experiencing massive changes: Minaz was no longer the mighty driving force of the Cuban economy; Centrals were closing down, including this one, R M Villena; locos were being dragged off to museums and posed for tourists, the latter now making a huge contribution to Cuba's finances; and diesels which were surplus from other mills were rapidly replacing the remaining steam activity. The loco is 1606, a Vulcan Iron Works 2-6-0, 3143 of 1920, based at the nearby Boris Luis Santa Coloma mill, no.212, to where the cane is headed. 1606 took the load to the flat crossing at El Roble, where a diesel from Boris was waiting to work up the grade to the mill, perched on top of a hill, which always seemed unusual to us. Apparently the track between Villena and El Roble was not suitable to be worked by the diesel. 1606 had been constructed for Boris, formerly San Antonio, and was another engine originally named "GOMEZ MENA" after the rich and powerful family which owned that mill and others in Cuba. In early visits, Boris was also very much off limits for enthusiasts as a zealous security official used to chase off any foreigners who dared to get even close to the mill. So you had to creep in when he wasn't around until attitudes softened. The author of these notes had the pleasure of driving 1606 the day after this photo, from El Roble to Boris, where the loco took fuel, then back with four empty cane cars to El Roble, a very enjoyable experience.
cjw0009 - Quite a number of photographers spent many hours and days of their Cuban trips located at the lineside on the Central Australia rail system, near Jaguey Grande in Matanzas province. It came to be regarded as a good place to see and photograph hard working standard gauge steam on reasonably lengthy and heavy hauls of up to about 25 – 30 kilometres. Another attraction was that trains crossed the main Havana – Santa Clara six-lane highway on the level several times a day, protected by just one operative waving a red flag to halt the road traffic! This was just about feasible due to the relative lack of traffic on Cuban roads compared with most other countries where such a method of operation would be positively suicidal, with accidents galore. In 1999, Baldwin 2-8-0 1513 pounds across the highway returning to the mill. The paucity of traffic will be noted! Sadly, in a later year, 1513, which had also worked at other mills in the 1980s and 1990s, including Puerto Rico Libre, suffered a boiler explosion, with crew fatalities. As an aside, on one of our earlier visits, when photography at mills was still actively discouraged, we got two punctures while driving along near Australia, so decided to chance our luck by going to the mill and pleading for some assistance in repairing the tyres. We got to see the mill boss, who very kindly arranged for the workshops to mend the punctures. While we were waiting in his office, he told us there had been instructions from above that mills were to be kind to tourists! This was the first inkling we had that attitudes were changing and there was some kind of recognition that enthusiasts could contribute to the tourist economy at a time when Cuba needed all the dollars it could acquire.
cjw0010 - A big ex-main line 2-8-0 waits instructions with a train of empty cane cars in 1989. The loco was working from Central Granma (Carolina) in Matanzas province, mill 304. It is 1812, Baldwin 52488/ 1919, which had been Cuba Railroad no.312 in an earlier existence. Quite a number of ex main line steam locos not surprisingly found their way into the sugar industry when dieselisation of Cuba's public common carrier railways occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. The train is standing on the old main line track – the new one, built with Russian assistance, is alongside and the kilometre post informs that we are 144 kms east of Havana, not far from Jovellanos on the Linea Central Oeste. The road bridge from which this picture was taken is part of the new railway infrastructure, there was just a ground level crossing here in earlier times.
cjw0011 - Mill 306, Cuba Libre (Cuba) near Pedro Betancourt was an efficient steam only operation with generally well-kept largish 2-6-0s on line workings, some of which were some reasonably lengthy. But this photo in 1995 shows a small 2-6-0, 1410, Vulcan 2573 of 1916, which has escaped its usual yard shunting duties, and ventured down the line to pick up fulls from a couple of nearby acopios. Here it is at the furthest one, making up a train and throwing an impressive column of smoke into the atmosphere from its oil burning fire.
cjw0012 - Mill 311 at Esteban Hernandez (Guipuzcoa) had a 30 inch gauge railway, with a unique feature for a Cuban sugar line, a tunnel hewn out of rock. A few visitors in the mid-1980s were lucky enough to see steam working through it, but after about 1987, steam was usurped by diesels and several locos languished on a siding in an increasingly derelict state. Then in 2004, steam was raised again – albeit with the tourist trade in mind. The mill did not resurrect one of its own, but brought in 1242, Baldwin 58791/1925, a neat 2-8-0 which had worked into the early 1990s at Central Humberto Alvarez, a mill only a fairly leisurely bike ride away from the top Cuban tourist resort of Varadero. Some tourists actually hired a bike and made that ride when the mill was in operation. After closure of Humberto a tourist operation was talked about, but nothing happened, the track got ripped up and the mill demolished. Whilst other steam at Humberto was scrapped 1242 ended up on a plinth in Varadero. Then it was rescued; we saw it in 2001 and 2002 under restoration at mill 321 J R Cairo. By 2004, it had been brought to Esteban, seen here sporting the mill's original name on the tender. We were fortunate to be present when the loco was steamed and tested by running to a nearby acopio with empty cane wagons. But once again nothing much seemed to happen after that - the mill was eventually demolished, though I think 1242 is now preserved elsewhere.
cjw0013 - Fructuoso Rodriguez was mill 312, located near Limonar in Matanzas province. While pretty active in the earlier years of our annual visits from 1987, the mill was taken out of commission sometime in the 1990s. It had a big 2-8-0, 1849, Baldwin 53693/1920, which seemed to vanish without trace after closure. As far as I am aware there are no reports of 1849's later whereabouts, and if it was scrapped at Fructuoso, it must have been a very quick job, somewhat unusual for Cuba where derelict locos lie around for years. The mill had used 1216, a Rogers 2-4-0 of 1895 for shunting, but was using this 2-6-2T, 1313, Alco 55282 of 1915, on our 1994 visit.
cjw0014 - The aforementioned 2-4-0, Rogers 5036 of 1895, was transferred to CAI Jesus Rabi (Porfueza) sometime after Fructuoso closed. Despite 1216's antiquity, it wasn't the oldest working loco at Rabi; that honour went to 1413, a 2-6-0 built in 1891 by the Cooke Locomotive Works for the Evansville and Terre Haute Railroad in the USA. 1216 originally worked on the United Railways of Havana. In this 2002 picture the loco is dwarfed by the large hopper wagon being shunted but it was a strong little loco, always putting in an energetic performance. Jesus Rabi had not previously had a dedicated yard loco, instead utilising a tender engine. And 1413 was also in use in 2002, remarkable to have two locos built in the 19th century working together in the 21st century!
cjw0015 - Jose Smith Comas, mill 315,(Progreso) situated just outside the town of Cardenas, had the nearest working steam to Varadero after Humberto Alvarez closed. It was a pretty decent place for tourists to see Cuban steam in action, as the three line locos, all 2-6-0s, were normally kept in excellent shape. 1531 seen here and its sister 1530 had been built for this mill by Baldwin in 1925, works numbers 58655 and 58654 respectively. So they had spent their whole lives here and had obviously been very well cared for. The loco is blowing off as it waits to shift some empty cane cars. Given its location the mill was a good choice for a tourist operation and museum which is still there today and well visited by tourists having some time away from the beautiful sandy beaches of Varadero.
cjw0016 - In Matanzas province mill 304 Granma, mentioned earlier, and mill 318 Victoria De Yaguejay (Santa Amalia) were next door to each other. Both had their own loco shed and allocation of engines. Victoria's 1594, a 2-8-0 built by Alco, storms home on a fine evening in 1996 with a train of loaded cane cars. This loco was a bit of an enigma, having apparently come to Minaz from Ferrocarriles Cuba, the main state railway, sometime after the Minaz numbering system was introduced in 1974. The exact construction number and date of the loco seem to have not been recorded, at least by Minaz. If 1594 was on the FCC until the 1970s that would make it one of their very last steam locos – where it worked is not clear to me, although a couple of steamers apparently worked around the port of Santiago De Cuba in the east of the island until about 1974.
cjw0017 - Julio Reyes Cairo (Soledad), mill 321, not far from Jovellanos, was a scruffy place, only really worth visiting for the two German built shunting locos. The one in this picture taken in 1995 is 1123, an 0-6-0T from Borsig, 7619 of 1910. The other was a Henschel 2-4-0T. There were two or three tender engines for some relatively unexciting line work. Another loco, derelict here for a number of years, was however worth a look, that was Minaz 1722, a Baldwin 2-8-0 which started life in 1891 as a Vauclain Compound on the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad in the USA.
cjw0018 - Mill 403 Mal Tiempo (Andreita) near Cruces was a great 30 inch gauge system with some fine action and often had three or four locos in simultaneous use. 13XX series 2-8-0s had arrived in recent years from Centrals where narrow gauge systems were dieselised or replaced by standard gauge and these locos took over from smaller 12XX 2-8-0s. There was some standard gauge at Mal Tiempo as well, but the last steam engines had gone by 1981. Minaz 1321 seen here in 2002 with additional water tender – a feature of Mal Tiempo – was Baldwin 40224/1913, formerly at mill 406, Central Guillermo Moncada (Constancia A) which dieselised during the 1980s.
cjw0019 - Luis Arcos Bergnes (Carmita), mill 405 in Villa Clara province, was north of Santa Clara. In our earlier visits it was not in operation, being closed for refurbishment, though four locos were present. Then one year it burst into life. Here is Baldwin 57403 of 1923, Minaz 1622, in excellent condition, bringing hoppers of finished sugar out of the mill for collection by the FCC in 1997. The mill was again closed in later years. In 2001, we saw 2-8-0 1755 Baldwin 46533/1917 head a train of 12 loaded cane cars plus caboose through the town of Vega Alta on FCC trackage bound for mill 407 Abel Santamaria (Constancia E), while in 2002 loco 1622 worked along the FCC through the town of Camajuani taking loaded cane to mill 411 Jose Maria Perez (Fe).
cjw0020 - Eruption at Espartaco! 2-8-0 1329, Baldwin 52573/1919 was out and about on 19 February 1996. The loco took empties in the morning to the end of the system at San Fernando de Camarones, where it crossed the FCC standard gauge line. It returned early afternoon with fulls and picked up more at Jicotea. The resulting heavy train is seen in this picture. There haD been lineside fires here, perhaps not surprising. 1329 was one of four well-kept Baldwin 2-8-0s at Espartaco ( Hormiguero), all of which had been built for the mill, including 1326, which dated from 1895 and was still in use. The mill was situated at Palmira in Cienfuegos province.
cjw0021 - There were three mills with the unusual gauge of 2 foot 3 and one-half inches, two of which had steam working. The train in this picture came from mill 418 Obdulio Morales (Narcisa) near Yaguajay in Sancti Spiritus province which was adjacent to and connected by the same gauge with mill 448 Simon Bolivar (Vitoria), also steam worked . In the early 1990s, we regularly drove from Caibarien on the road to Yaguajay and were fortunate three years running to find 2-8-0 1420, Baldwin 53847/1920, snoozing ( as was the crew!) under a tree at the Cambao acopio waiting for wagons to be loaded before heading back to the mill. The photo shows 1420 blasting through the village of Seibabo, scattering squealing pigs in the course of its progress, The loco was originally built for 3 foot gauge.
cjw0022 - Mill 428 Marcelo Salado (Reforma) between Remedios and Caibarien had an excellent reputation for keeping locos in good order. There were not only interesting locos but also some very worthwhile action out on the line, much of it being on FCC trackage. It was possible to pace trains heading for the mill from the adjacent highway. Shunting engines in earlier visits were an 0-4-0ST and 0-6-0ST, but by 1996, this large 2-6-2ST, 1343, had arrived. In 1981, 1343 was located at mill 442 Hector Rodriguez (Santa Teresa) where again locos were kept in fine condition – sadly that went diesel soon after and locos were dispersed to other mills. Marcelo Salado is now a museum mill, with probably the best tourist steam activity in Cuba, and deservedly receives many visitors from holiday resorts in the area. It has also accumulated for display a large number of locos from various mills.
cjw0023 - Three foot gauge steam activity was always worth seeking out, none more so than at mill 435, Hermanos Ameijeiras (San Jose) near Zulueta. However, reaction to camera-toting enthusiasts was distinctly hostile in early visits and we were detained for questioning both in 1987 – when a visit to the local police station and checking of passports ensued – and in 1989, by which time the mill boss was more amused than annoyed by our presence – unlike his operative who had detained us – and let us off with a wave of the hand. In 1987 there were five big 2-8-0s here with some heavily loaded trains working, but, as I say, photography had to be very circumspect, with some, but not all, loco crews very hostile to being photographed. By the early 1990s, British Brush Bo-Bo diesels built in the 1960s did most of the line work. In 1996, 1373, Baldwin 58755/1925, is depicted shunting in the yard. By this date, two of the five 2-8-0s mentioned earlier had departed for other mills – 1350 to A C Sandino and 1351 to Gregorio A Manalich, where it was regauged to 2'6" gauge. 1373 also transferred in later years to A C Sandino, along with 1667, leaving just one workable steam loco here,1431.There was also an old 2-6-0 preserved at the mill.
cjw0024 - Another narrow gauge steam worked Central was Pepito Tey (Soledad) not too many miles from the city of Cienfuegos and within striking distance of the tourist resort of Rancho Luna. Though this 2'6" gauge system had been truncated, it still had a lot to offer, with steep grades on two short lines operated by a couple of locos which had been constructed for the mill. This photo in early morning light shows an empty wagon movement for an acopio on the cement works branch, headed by one of those original locos, 1358, a 2-8-0 built by Baldwin 42136 of 1915. As this was the year 1998, 1358 had undertaken a lot of campaigns at this mill, number 443 in the Minaz classification. Also still in use were two original Baldwin 2-6-0s, 1164 and 1165, usually found in the shunting yards. There was another short, steep branch plus one about eight kilometres long to Lajitas acopio, so there were often two or three locos in steam.
cjw0025 - Simon Bolivar (Vitoria), mill 448 had some interesting workings, including a steeply graded line up to the village of Jobo Rosado. Nearer to the mill, there was a large storage tank for molasses and this scene shows one of the 2-8-0s, 1363, Baldwin 46768/1917, shunting molasses tankers in 2001. Noteworthy was the yard engine, which was normally a dinky 2-6-0, 1138, Baldwin 33067/1908, built for the common carrier FC Caibarien -Moron. During the years of our visits, the mill's operation was somewhat sporadic, it often seemed to be non-operational – it was closed on our 2001 visit.
cjw0026 - Central George Washington, mill 449, near Santo Domingo, was a big modern affair, which went virtually all diesel in the early-mid 1990s. We were fortunate in the last year of significant steam activity, 1993, to get no less than three loaded trains following each other back to the mill late one afternoon. 1644. ex-Cuban Central 111, was a handsome well groomed Alco 2-8-0, 54366/1913, just about to set off for home, complete with several of the train crew sitting on the tender as usual in Cuba. In 1982 Chris photographed it at Central Hector Rodriguez, which dieselised soon after and the loco was moved to George Washington. I am not aware of 1644 being transferred away from Washington after diesels took over, though several locos from here did see action at other mills in subsequent years.
cjw0027 - Mill 504, Ecuador (Baragua) was another big modern mill, with its own sugar refinery, located in the flat lands around Ciego De Avila. Other Centrals in the vicinity with working steam were mill 503 Orlando Gonzalez Ramirez ( Algodones); 515 Ciro Redondo ( Moron) ; 522 Venezuela (Stewart) ; 505 Carlos Manuel de Cespedes( Cespedes). So there was lots of steam activity within reach of Ciego, possibly 15 – 20 locos could be seen at work on a busy day during the season. However it wasn't always easy to find the action. On one occasion, we were driving along the main highway between Cespedes and Ciego and could see the smoke of a train moving at a respectable pace a relatively short distance away across the flat landscape. We decided to give chase – but it took thirty kilometres of fast driving before we finally caught up with the train heading to Ciro Redondo behind one of its stud of Baldwin 2-8-0s. Ecuador had a well maintained steam fleet. Information in the 1948-49 edition of the Gilmore Cuba Sugar Manual states the mill had 108 km of standard gauge railroad, 3 Vulcan, 1 American and 3 Baldwin steam locos plus 1 small diesel. In the 1990s a couple of locos were transferred here from further east, mill 603, America Libre (America). But this photo shows the mill's engine No. 1, which had spent its whole life here, having come from Vulcan Iron Works, construction number 2449 of 1916. Eighty-five years later, in 2001, it is still doing the work, shunting a rake of tankers in the evening sun. The mill's three chimneys are visible, marking it out as a "Queen Mary" mill in Chris Walker's eyes! While 1564 was in the yard, 2-8-0 1904, Vulcan Iron Works 3102/1920, was out at the acopios and returned with no less than 32 loaded cane wagons – unfortunately it was tender-first, not good for photos. Thus Vulcan locos were still playing a vital role at Ecuador, more than half a century after that Gilmore report. We were surprised on one visit to Ecuador mill to find a loco driver who spoke English – turned out he was originally from Jamaica and had come over to Cuba in the 1950s in search of work, along with fellow Jamaicans. Apparently there had been, and still was, a small community of West Indians here.
cjw0028 - Central Carlos Manuel De Cespedes (Cespedes) was east of Ciego and had a line which crossed the main highway to Camaguey a couple of kilometres from the mill. It seems unlikely that the loco depicted here in 1996, 1173, an 0-4-0ST from Baldwin, 42671 of 1915, but carrying Baldwin Extra Order plate 1204/1927, ever travelled over that crossing, being confined to shunting duties at the wagon tippler. Over the years of our visits, security got tighter rather than more lax, with a guarded gate erected, so getting a picture at the centre of mill activity was not easy, and it was best not to hang around if one did succeed in taking a photo of 1173. There were other interesting locos, including a Porter 2-6-0 and a Baldwin 2-6-2. Languishing at the shed was a 4-6-0 from Pittsburgh Loco Co, dating from 1896, but we were too late to see that working, it appeared to have been derelict for some years.
cjw0029 - Another big undertaking near Ciego was the Stewart mill, renamed Venezuela in the 1960s, which had large 2-8-0s for lengthy runs out to the acopios. Again it was not always easy to find trains, they could travel on various lines and be a considerable distance from the mill. In this picture from 1991, the man himself, Chris Walker, is trying to ascertain from the loco driver what route the train will be taking at the next junction. 1743 was a lean 2-8-0 from Baldwin, 53854 of 1920. Its classmate 1742 had a major overhaul in later years, including a capped stack and a lengthened ten-wheel tender. The mill yard was usually shunted by 1657, a neat Alco 4-6-0, 56018 of 1916.
cjw0030 - Standard gauge mills with diesels predominated in eastern Cuba, there was not a great deal of steam activity. Consequently mill 601 Salvador Rosales (Algodonal) in Santiago De Cuba province rarely saw visitors. In 1997, its sole steam loco was 1592, Baldwin 53993 of 1921, inevitably a 2-8-0. But at least it was at work during our brief visit.
cjw0031 - By contrast, mill 635 Rafael Freyre ( Santa Lucia) , only about fifteen minutes drive from the popular tourist resort of Guardalavaca, was narrow gauge, 30 inches, and probably eventually received more visitors than any other Central in Cuba. The attractions were lines running through superb hilly scenery, with trains up to about 25 kilometres from the mill, worked by a fleet of basically identical 2-8-0s built for the mill between 1905 and 1919. Myself and Chris Walker accompanied Jim Hutzler and Wayne Weiss on what we believe was the first enthusiast visit in modern times, in 1987. Jim knew about the mill, but did not know for certain whether it still operated narrow gauge steam, so when we caught our first glimpse of a steam loco in the shape of one of the 2-8-0s, it was a great moment. The next day we set off to go exploring up the line to Altuna on a very rough dirt and boulder strewn road. We soon came to grief by puncturing the fuel tank of our hire car on a large boulder. But we were back after repairs had been effected and spent a day or two discovering the system and the workings. My subsequent report to the World Steam newsletter excited the interest of other enthusiasts and Rafael Freyre became THE mill to visit and photograph in Cuba for several years until its closure. Top railway photographers walked the lines or took lifts on trains to ascertain the best photographic locations. It is probably better recorded than any other railway system in Cuba. The photo here in 1996 is nothing special in terms of location but captures the spirit of Cuban narrow gauge sugar railways – an old American built steam loco with a silvered smokebox blasting away under a plume of black oil smoke with a rake of loaded cane cars, while another load on a spur wait to be attached and transported to the Central for processing. A timeless scene repeated for many years all over Cuba at one hundred and fifty –plus mills during the cane cutting season, which went from about mid-December to mid-May in its entirety, though individual mills probably had slightly shorter seasons, depending on the harvest in any particular year.
Stephen Mourton : 19th May 2014