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Stanleyville’s railway artefacts

Published: 
Sunday, April 6, 2014
The Stanleyville box is the last surviving signal post of the former Trinidad Government Railway.

A little over a year ago, a motley crew met to comb the southland for remnants of railway history. The all-star lineup included railway historian Glen Beadon, National Trust board member Jalaludin Khan, photographer Wayne Abraham (whose Facebook albums In Search of a Ghost Railway are a valuable heritage resource) and Alook Akong. Al Akong was the real gem of the party since he is one of the last surviving people to have worked on steam engines at the Trinidad Government Railway workshops which is now the PTSC compound near City Gate in Port-of-Spain. A poet and philosopher, Al even put his skills to immense good purpose, building a working model steam locomotive from scratch—an artefact now curated by Mr Beadon. Although we visited many important railway sites that day, the highlight was the Signal Box at Stanleyville. 

 

In 1876, the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) was founded and even so, was NOT the first railway in the island, that honour belonging to the Cipero Tramroad which was laid between the Ste Madeline Estate and the Embacadere at the mouth of the Cipero River in 1847-1849 by William Eccles, a foresighted planter and attorney. Initially a sugarcane haulage line, it expanded to include a passenger service and extended its reach to the village of Savanna Grande (now Princes Town). In 1880, the grandsons of Queen Victoria, Princes Albert and George, (later King George V) travelled on the tramroad and the former recorded in his diary: “We got into two railway trucks with covered roofs to shade us from the sun, and planks arranged crossways for seats, attached to two engines. We proceeded slowly and deliberately on our way, until at a little distance from the town the first truck left the metals, the consequence of which was that everyone embraced his neighbour and wondered for the moment what had happened. By the help of screwjacks, & c, after three-quarters of an hour's delay, the truck was hoisted on to the line again, and on we went along a rough and rather shaky line over a rolling and hummocky country covered with cane for the most part, but broken here and there by watercourses, up to the usine of St Madeleine to which we were carefully piloted by Mr Slade, the superintendent of the works. This line was never intended for passenger traffic, but only for conveying the canes to the mill and the sugar to the shore. Then got on to the trucks again and were run up five miles further to the mission village of Monkey Town (here the Prince makes an error in his records), and is to be called from this day forward Princes Town.”

 

The Tramroad operated as an independent corporate body with its own board of directors until it was assimilated by the TGR in 1915. The TGR had TWO lines to Princes Town thereafter….one from Guaracara Junction in Pointe-a-Pierre, built in 1881 and the other, the old Cipero Tramroad. Throughout the national rail network was a series of tall signal boxes which were linked by telegraph and which boasted crossing gates and a complex system of switches and levers. These were manned by resident operators and were essential in avoiding nasty accidents and planning schedules. Once prominent parts of the landscape, these boxes are now all gone with the exception of a single one in Stanleyville, a settlement which developed along the old tramroad line just outside Ste Madeline. The building is inhabited by a descendant of the original signalman, and boasts an intact, cast-iron signal switch made by Tyer and Co of England in 1913. According to, Glen Beadon, Tyer made all the switching gear for the TGR. 

 

The amazing part of the story of the last signal box at Stanleyville was that when the Trinidad Government Railway was scrapped in 1965-68 and all its apparatus abandoned, this community of very modest economic circumstances cherished its relics. The very rare Tyer switch, which still bears the date of 1913, was knocked over by a truck a few years ago and the villagers, instead of selling it for scrap metal, took action and replaced the switch, cementing it into the ground. The signal box itself is in fair shape considering its age, but needs an almost complete restoration. Soon, it is possible that this last surviving signal box may be no more, a victim of the nonchalance of a people and successive governments who neglect our heritage.