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published on September 10, 2000

Madeira-Mamoré: Amazon Railway to Hell

by Martin Cooper


Martin Cooper
Mutum-Paraná Bridge
Porto Velho - It was half past eleven in the morning and the sun was getting unbearably hot. Carrol van Olton Denny was 74. The sweat ran down his neck and into the folds of the cheap shirt open at the front. He was lean and moved quickly. His anger was obvious.

“I’m going forward this time. Get out of the way!" and he pulled on the whistle in the cab and the train let out its mournful low note that drifted over the trees and back to the town seven kilometers away.

The engine billowed steam from its pistons, it jerked forward and Denny was thrown forward in the cab onto the regulator valve. He cursed to himself as the steam drifted around him. The pistons turned and his engine strained to move forward, the wheels skidding on the rails. The tender truck full of wood was dragged a meter forward but refused to slide up the metal stays the five men had laid under its wheels. Denny let off the pressure and the engine stopped it juddering strain. The tender was still derailed, stuck at an undignified angle with its front wheels embedded in the sandy red soil. I’d taken a big leap backwards to get out of the way of the train and its tender as it had lunged towards me.

They all started talking at once. Oscar da Silva, the volunteer stationmaster, tried scrambling under the wheels of the tender to retrieve one of the metal stays. He was struggling to fix it into a new position so that Denny could try again to pull the tender back onto the tracks. Wiping foreheads, hands on hips, shouted suggestions, denials and angry words. The sun was taking its toll on the railmen in the jungle.

A small group of passengers were watching the struggle to get the engine and its tender back on the rails. One man suggested that everyone go home and have Sunday lunch and come back when the heat had gone out of the sun.

Denny and Oscar let out disapproving noises and ignored the suggestions. Their anger was directed at the tons of eighty-year-old metal that refused to run as the old men wanted. They continued for over three hours to get the train running again. It had come off the rails at the points at the far end of the line, near the dramatic Santo Antônio waterfalls on the Rio Madeira. It was a substantial walk along the railtrack to get into town again. We set off and left the men to their struggle. It was too hot for us to stand and watch them. The heat of the steam engine and the smell of burning oil added to the sense of frustration felt by us all.

That the Estrada de Ferro Madeira-Mamoré (EFMM) still runs at all is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the dedication of this small band of half a dozen volunteers who manage to organize themselves to run excursions along the short seven kilometers of line every Sunday. They have no tools, no crane, no equipment for repairs and maintenance and nothing but small pieces of metal runners and bare hands when the engine gets derailed like today.

The local government in Rondônia in the northwestern part of Brazil, near the Bolivian border, has all but abandoned its responsibility to maintain and look after this steam railway. That’s why it’s down to the volunteers to collect the ticket money each Sunday and divide it up amongst themselves. If they’re lucky they may have some money spare to buy some more oil or a piece of solder flux to mend a broken water pipe on the train.

The EFMM has been designated as a national heritage site (Patrimônio Histórico) by the Brazilian government. But that hasn’t stopped developers putting forward a plan to convert the main station in the town of Porto Velho into a shopping center. I’d been shown these drawings and I was shocked that anyone could even consider ruining what was a magnificent piece of industrial archaeology.

“Alright, so the train is unreliable and unsafe, the track needs relaying, and a lot of money needs to be spent on restoring and repairing all this rolling stock, but what you have here is an absolute jewel,” I said to the group of local architects, lawyers, shopkeepers and university lecturers who’d gathered around my table at the bar to hear my views about the EFMM.

I felt like an outsider holding up a mirror so that they could see what they really had on their own doorstep.

Having seen the awful plan to virtually destroy this steam railway I’d decided that I’d have to do something to protect this piece of Brazilian and international heritage.

Six thousand men died building this line between 1871 and 1912. That’s a lasting memorial to the North American, English, German, Spanish, French and Chinese who came to the Amazon jungle in the search of highly paid laboring work and ended up being eaten alive by mosquitoes and jungle diseases.

The EFMM had been built to get the Bolivian rubber out of the jungle, past the waterfalls on the Madeira and up to the first navigable part of the Amazon river system. This is 5,000 kilometers inside Brazil, virtually the center of Latin America. In 1908 a Welsh ship full of coal had crossed the Atlantic and docked here in the middle of the jungle to offload its cargo for this town of Porto Velho. A town built by the North Americans included a baseball diamond because they were certain that was the ball game that Brazilians would enjoy most.

That wasn’t the only mistake they made. Within a year of it opening the 366-kilometer EFMM was redundant. Rubber trees were growing successfully in Asia and the Latin American rubber boom had suddenly ended.

This railway line was kept going by an team of British managers until 1931 when they abandoned it and returned to London certain that it wouldn’t make any money for them.

The EFMM has been in the care of the Brazilian authorities ever since. I use the word "care" in its widest sense. Being English I grew up with the thirty-year tradition of what we call the Heritage Steam Railway Industry. There in the UK old fashioned railways, just like this one in Rondônia, are run as lovingly and carefully restored tourist operations which have annual turnovers of £1 million pounds (about R$ 3 million) each year. I knew the same could be done here in Brazil with the right team and the right management.

That’s why I’ve created, with the help of the group of professionals who sat round in the bar drinking cold beer with me, the Associação de Preservação Madeira-Mamoré in Porto Velho. We want to campaign to get from the state governor the concession to run this railway properly, and in the process stop the plans for a shopping center.

And in England I’ve formed the Madeira-Mamoré Railway Society to campaign in Europe for the EFMM.

When our vision is realized we’ll have the greatest little steam railway in the Amazon. That’s when Porto Velho and Rondônia will get on the tourist map and Oscar and Denny will be the proudest men in town. If you’d like to join the campaign to preserve and restore the EFMM send me an e-mail.

(c) 2000 Martin Cooper

Mad Maria, a novel about the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré, by Márcio Souza.

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