Riding the Sugarland Express
The past is still on track for train buffs as the steam locomotives of yesteryear chug on.
By KARL ZIMMERMANN
Special To The Times
CIENFUEGOS, Cuba -- Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, under a sunset
sky streaked with orange, the rails stretched off into the distance. Along
narrow-gauge track rattled a train of cars loaded with cane. At its head, two antique steam locomotives, built in 1909 and 1920 in Philadelphia, struggled to keep the
train moving. At its hind end, aboard primitive cabooses and flatcars with seats, 68 Americans held on tight when the cars shuddered as they banged through a switch
leading to an acopio, or reload, where the cane was chopped and transferred from truck to train. There another locomotive panted softly, nudging cars into place to
be filled with short lengths of cane.
Despite sitting on hard seats--or having to stand--and the general lack
of amenities, most of these American passengers were happy to be riding
the rails of Mal
Tiempo, a sugar mill (or central, as they're called in Cuba) in the country's midsection.
So close, so inaccessible, so enigmatic, Cuba has intrigued a generation
of Americans forbidden to travel here. The island's mystique and its attractions
Beaches and resorts. Mojitos, the rum, lime and mint concoctions much favored by Ernest Hemingway that have become the year's hot cocktail stateside. An
accidental museum of American automobiles from the '40s and '50s, most still running well. The earthy, infectious music brought to our attention by the movie "Buena
Vista Social Club."
Add to this predictable list a less likely attraction: steam locomotives.
For Americans who love trains and, in particular, find steam locomotives
charismatic, Cuba has
tantalized for decades as a paradise just out of reach. The nation is like a museum of working American trains. The faithful have known that for the annual zafra, or
sugar harvest, every February, a ragtag armada of locomotives comes to life to haul Cuba's chief product and export from fields to mills--and, to a lesser extent, to
carry refined sugar and molasses to customers, usually through an interchange with the Cuban National Railways (the Ferrocarriles de Cuba, or FCC). About 100
steam locomotives are at work during the harvest--although the number drops each year, despite the resourcefulness of mill mechanics.
Canadian, British and European steam locomotive enthusiasts have for
years been coming to Cuba, and recently more and more U.S. citizens have
here illegally--but with increasing impunity. Because of an embargo enforced by the Treasury Department under the Trading With the Enemy Act, it's not going to
Cuba that is against the law; it's spending money here.
So when Trains Unlimited Tours announced a two-week trip for last March,
one that would be legal and licensed by the Treasury Department as an educational
outreach tour, I was one of 68 train buffs who signed on.
Our group visited 13 mills, including one worked by ancient electric locomotives. Only one was a bust, showing us nothing more than diesels and a cool welcome.
At the rest, we saw 27 steam locomotives, all made in America, of two
gauges--standard (which run on 4-foot, 81/2-inch-wide tracks) and narrow
(with tracks only
2 feet, 6 inches wide). For economy, several of the lines into the fields were built in narrow gauge; lines from the mills interchanging with the national railroads had to
The oldest steam locomotive we saw dated from 1903 and the newest from
1925. The highlights were four mills where we could climb aboard a train
and ride: the
Rafael Freyre, Mal Tiempo, Cuba Libre and Venezuela. (When the mills were nationalized after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, they were renamed, most often for
political or revolutionary heroes or neighboring countries.)
We also spent a few days riding the main lines of the Cuban National
Railway (mainly in chartered American-built diesel rail cars) and a highly
memorable one on the
antique electrified interurban cars (sort of streetcars on steroids) of the former Hershey Cuban Railway, now also part of the national system.
We participants in the "Cuban Rail Historian Tour" who arrived at Havana
after a short charter flight from Miami (operated by Gulfstream International
Continental affiliate) were a diverse group. Most were serious rail fans, though others just liked trains and were taking advantage of an opportunity to visit Cuba. Of
the dozen women, many (though not all) were spouses of those in category one. Although steam locomotives were the primary focus, there was time to enjoy more
mainstream attractions: the beaches, mojitos, classic cars, music and, in my case, some Hemingway shrines.
From the airport, the buses that were our primary mode of transport
whisked us to the Hotel Plaza in Old Havana. The Plaza is a classic example
of the puzzle of
contemporary Cuba. Still a grand hostelry, it opened in 1909, closed in 1985 and reopened in 1991 after a renovation. With a spacious, high-ceilinged lobby and, on
the bedroom floors, broad halls that open onto a central courtyard, the place evoked the writings of Hemingway.
Less than a decade after renovation, however, the spartan guest rooms
were edging into disrepair. After an initial stay at the Plaza we returned
three times; on each
occasion, something was amiss in my room--a dangling shower head, an absent lightbulb. An unadvertised feature of the trip was the chance to get a good look at
pure communism just beginning to be diluted. Shoddiness and sloppiness appeared to be items clearly on the debit side. On the plus side, on my tour I saw little of
the brutal poverty, ill health and malnutrition common in developing nations.
Getting right down to business on our first afternoon, we visited two
mills, both just a short ride from Havana. Amistad con los Pueblos, it
turned out, wasn't milling
that year, but two locomotives were maintained there to work nearby mills. Crews ran them back and forth over about 50 yards of track while our cameras clicked
and camcorders whirred. My heart sank. Was this uninspiring little skit going to be the pattern for the next two weeks?
The second mill, Gregorio Arlee Mañalich, quelled my worry. This
neatly manicured mill property buzzed with activity. A standard-gauge locomotive
(built in 1918
by the Baldwin Locomotive Works) switched covered hopper cars--full of molasses, probably because that's what most mills produce--to interchange with the
FCC. As this trimly painted steamer slipped its wheels, the fireman--called a fogonero--jumped down from the cab and trickled sand from a can onto the rails for
traction. The oil fire flashed in the firebox (all Cuban steam locomotives burn oil), throwing the maquinista--the engineer--into hellish profile.
Meanwhile, three fetching narrow-gauge Baldwins (of about the same era
as their big brother) darted back and forth, shunting cars of cane. From
the balcony of the
operations center where I stood and watched, it all looked like a wonderfully hyperactive model railroad. Like kids in a candy shop, we hardly knew where to point
Cuba is one big island, more than 780 miles long, and our itinerary
had us crisscrossing it by bus more than I would have liked. Bus travel
was not without interest,
however; the two-lane highways were used by nearly every mode of transport: buses, trucks (many with beds packed sardine-like with standing travelers), autos of
many vintages (with '40s and '50s models predominating), bicycles, tractors, horse cars, oxcarts, cane wagons.
From Havana we headed east (with an overnight stay in Morón and
three mill visits) to the coastal resort town of Guardalauaca. Three nights
there allowed the less
steam-obsessed among us to swim in the Hotel Guardalauaca's expansive pool or the ocean and relax, while most of us trekked to nearby Rafael Freyre for two
days of riding on its narrow-gauge railroad.
The chartered rides were leisurely jogs that offered a welcome window
on rural Cuba. With the sweet notes of the steam whistle heralding our
coming, we passed
boys throwing a much-repaired baseball and clusters of townspeople waving from each modest settlement.
We stopped (by prearrangement) at a small traditional tobacco farm with a thatch-roofed drying shed. The host handed out cigars.
Steam fan though I am, I was enchanted by the former Hershey Cuban Railway,
an electric line built--along with mill and company town--in the teens
Hershey, primarily as a source of sugar for his Pennsylvania-based chocolate company. We covered the 57-mile main line between the village of Casablanca (across
the harbor from Havana) and Matanzas, another port city east of Havana. Our transport was a pair of heavyweight interurban cars built around 1920 by the J.G. Brill
Co. Again, this was classic American transportation from 75 years ago: a single-track line, wood trolley poles and kerosene marker lights on the big, rumbling cars
that wandered across an agricultural landscape. It could have been Iowa in the '30s.
Some in our group would have preferred more general sightseeing, but
our travels across the island--to rural areas and small cities, as well
countless glimpses of Cuban life. In the colonial city of Cienfuegos, called the "Pearl of the South," we had time to stroll through Martí Park and admire the splendid
buildings--cathedral, library, art gallery--that line it. But our frequent returns to Havana offered the best chances for tourism off the rails, and I was especially eager to
see Hemingway's old haunts. I visited a perfect little hole-in-the-wall bar and restaurant, La Bodeguita del Medio, where a trio played guitars and a clutch of young
women danced sinuously. Posted on the wall was a Hemingway quote, "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridito," a nearby watering hole. I visited
both, drank both, then dropped in at Room 511 (now a museum) at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway lived and worked at times in the 1930s.
Best of all, a group of us hired a gypsy taxi--a Chevy from the 1940s--to
visit the "Museo Hemingway," his villa on Havana's outskirts. This lovely,
building is virtually untouched from the day he left, with furniture and endless shelves of books intact. But the museum is entirely uninterpreted (in any language), and it
can be viewed only through windows.
Our last whiff of steam came near Morón, on the rails of the
Venezuela mill, where we highballed out into the cane fields aboard four
bright orange cabooses behind
an immaculately maintained locomotive, its smoke box star-studded, its boiler wiped to a high sheen. We returned hauling loads of cane, arriving back at the mill at
dusk. There our buses waited to whisk us back to the Hotel Morón.
But roughly a dozen of us held out, choosing to return aboard the national
railways charter train that had brought us to the mill--a string of Romanian
converted to marginal coaches by the addition of windows and folding bus doors. A few bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling provided just enough light to find and
pop open a last warm beer.
Exhilarating and clamorous, the ride back was not to be missed--cars
slamming and banging, diesel horn wailing insistently. I sat on the steps
with the doors pushed
aside as we surged through the fragrant darkness of cane fields. The air was luxurious, the cool of evening just right after a hot day.
This particular American was still very, very happy.
Karl Zimmermann, author of numerous books about trains, is a freelance writer in Norwood, N.J.