The other day, much to my delight, I saw a toy train pulling tourists and locals alike along the streets of Rodney Bay. My heart leapt and I wanted to climb aboard. Unfortunately it was full. What a great initiative, I thought; what a splendid idea.
Some years ago, quite by chance, I was in St. Kitts inspecting the wonderful work the Taiwanese had been doing to assist their adult education programme and computer-assisted learning, when I came across a similar but more ambitious project: Saint Kitts’ Scenic Railway that takes passengers on a three-hour tour making a 30-mile circle around the island with 18 miles by narrow gauge train and 12 miles on sightseeing buses. Built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane from the island’s sugar plantations to the sugar factory in the capital city of Basseterre, today the “Last Railway in the West Indies” provides visitors with “an unsurpassed opportunity to experience the scenery and culture of the island’s unspoiled countryside”.
For years I have conducted my own studies into the cultural, geographic and historic heritage of our own island and have always been tormented by the nagging thought that there are so many opportunities we have missed. Four sugar mills used railways on the island of Saint Lucia. The central factory in the Cul de Sac Valley, south of Castries, operated 13 miles of track in the mid-1950s with three diesel locos and over 130 steel cane cars. The Roseau factory further south, seven miles from Castries, operated 16 miles of track with three diesel locos and 145 cane cars, again in the mid-1950s. Both the Dennery factory at La Caye in the Mabouya Valley on the island’s windward coast, and Vieux Fort factory at the southern tip of the island, near the international airport built by the U.S. military during WWII, operated extensive systems up and down the Mabouya Valley and across the Vieux Fort Plain. Sadly, in the early 1960s sugar cane cultivation was replaced by the farming of bananas, an industry that collapsed as everyone knows a few years ago and is unlikely to be revived any time soon.
Nothing appears to remain of the central factory. The Roseau factory not far from Jacmel was formerly owned by Geest Industries and later used as the centre for an extensive banana operation. The former 2’ 8”-gauge sugar cane railway was then used to transport bananas from the fields to a central packing shed near the factory, which is now used as a mechanical workshop. The railway used two Motor Rail, one Ruston & Hornsby and one Hibberd diesel locos and was reportedly still in operation in 1988. The factory was taken over by St. Lucia Distillers Ltd. in 1972, a joint venture between Geest Industries and the Barnard family. Today it is owned, I believe, by CLICO and is the island’s only distillery, using molasses imported from Guyana to produce rum.
One of the Motor Rail locos is on display next to the rum tasting shed, which incorporates the pillars from the old gantry crane, while the Ruston was reported stored in a shed a few years ago. Dennery Estate at La Caye Denne belongs, or belonged, to the Barnard family – I am not sure which is correct. The distillery closed in 1972 and the equipment was moved to the Roseau factory. The estate was abandoned around 1998. I have been unable to find any remains of the former 3’ 9”-gauge railway.
Pigeon Island was in use as a fortified military outpost by the British Navy from 1780 to 1861 when it was abandoned. From 1941 to 1947 it was leased to the U.S. Navy as a signal post and communications station. Fort Rodney was used as a foundation for the huge wireless tower erected on top of it, while the old foundation of No. 2 battery just below the fort was used as a base for the prefabricated building housing two generators, the communications centre and quarters for the men on duty. Running from this building down to the sea on the east side was an inclined cable railway used for hauling up drums of fuel to power the generators. The building burned down in 1968 but the concrete pillars on which the railway track used to lay are present to this day. I believe there was a similar railway running up the Morne Fortune but I have been unable to verify this.
Just imagine two railway loops, one serving the south and one the north. In theory we could have two transfer stations, one on each side of the Barre de l’Isle, where passengers could take a bus over the ridge to the other side before boarding the next train service. Of course, the best thing of all would be a combined train and road tunnel under the Barre de l’Isle, but that might take a while.
Think how much cleaner, more efficient and comfortable it would be to take the train down and around the island.