The Tramways of Havana ( part 1)

hb01HAVANA, 30 May (ByAllen Morrison) The Cuban capital had one of the world’s first street railways. The Ferro Carril Urbano de la Habana began construction in 1857 and opened a horsecar line from the railroad station to the docks (Muelles) on February 1858 [see map].hbm1

The first cars carried only freight – baggage and produce from nearby farms – but passenger vehicles were added in 1859. FCU had opened its first passenger line, to Carmelo, on September 1859. Havana was the second city in Latin America to have a streetcar system, preceded only by Mexico City in January 1858.hb02 FCUH built passenger lines to Cerro and Jesús del Monte in 1862 and merged with a coach company to form the Empresa del Ferro-Carril Urbano y Omnibus de La Habana in 1863. By 1865 it was operating 32 passenger cars and 16 freight cars on 17 km of track. FCU also acquired large 8-wheel cars and a half-dozen steam locomotives with which it replaced its horsecars on the Carmelo line in 1873 Streetcars on the other lines continued to be pulled by mules. FCU closed its Muelles (Docks) route because of congestion on the waterfront and built a new line to Castillo del Príncipe in 1882, but otherwise never enlarged its system – despite the fact that the city’s population was approaching 300,000.hb04

In 1897 FCU secured permission to electrify its lines, but the plan was thwarted by Cuba’s conflict with Spain. On 14 December 1898, two days after a treaty was signed in Paris that ended the Cuban-Spanish-American War, FCU sold its railway for 1,472,000 pesos to a syndicate of U.S., Canadian and French capitalists: 71 streetcars, 6 locomotives, 637 horses, 182 mules and 64 km of track. The foreigners gathered in New Jersey and formed the Havana Electric RailwayCompany (HER) on 7 January 1899.hb05

HER began installation of an electric plant at once and on 4 April 1900 (a month after Cuba’s first trolley system opened in Guanabacoa) and ordered 110 single-truck electric . This was one of the largest initial streetcar orders in history, anywhere.hb06

Like Guanabacoa, Havana chose the twin trolley system “because of the frequency of torrential rains . . . protection of the water mains and other underground pipes is secured by the requirement that the company shall employ the double overhead trolley which insulates the electric current from the earth” . The governor also feared that “during periods of dry weather the rails would be covered with finely powdered lime dust . . . [which] would prevent good contact between the car wheels and rails” . During the following decades Guanabacoa and Havana were among the few cities on earth that used twin poles on their trolley cars.hb03

HER inaugurated its first electric line, from its depot in Vedado to San Juan de Dios, on 21 March 1901. In 1902 HER formed a subsidiary, the Insular Railway, which built a suburban line to Marianao in 1903 [see map]. Another unusual aspect of Havana’s trolley system was its elevated line over Calle San Pedro along the docks. The single-track structure between Calles Santa Clara and O’Reilly opened in January 1904. In 1925 HERL&P was acquired by the U.S. holding company Electric Bond & Share, which also acquired railway, light and power operations in Camagüey and Santiago. Havana Electric Railway Company reorganized in Maine in 1926 and regained control of its railway operations in 1928, after which “Ebasco” ran only the power sector.