by Dmitri Allicock
The once popular and well known 1897 Demerara Essequibo Railway (DER) once symbolized the Upper Demerara River and served as a corner stone in its development before Bauxite came to dominate. This railroad provided valuable and safe transportation of commuters and cargo between the Essequibo and Demerara rivers. It was Guyana’s first inland railroad.
Hugh Sprostons entry to British Guiana in 1840 saw the dire need for transportation across Guyana’s waterways and hinterlands. He established Steam powered vessels across Guyana and built Guyana’s first dry dock in 1867, where damaged vessels could be repaired and new ones constructed.
Sprostons had steam brigs and other vessels plying the Georgetown route to as far as Lucky spot up the Demerara River since the 1850s. There were also other privately run vessels of that time period.
Access up the mighty Essequibo river was a different matter. Navigation was very dangerous because of the many rapids and waterfalls. Many died by drowning as boats frequently capsized in the torrents of the Essequibo. The Idea was born to construction this railway from Wismar to Rockstone. The calm and navigable Demerara River had the width and depth to allow ocean going vessels up to Wismar and it provided access from Georgetown to this railway with transportation continuing from Rockstone via launches to Tumatumari on the Essequibo.
The Demerara River is obstructed by large rocks that sit in the middle of the river at the Watooka area. These rocks may have influenced the choice of Wismar for the railway terminus.
John Dagleish Paterson of Christianburg lands and Sawmill business was bought by the then British Government in 1894 to set up this Railroad. Sprostons Company LTD then constructed The Demerara Essequibo Railway in the years 1895 to 1897. A loan of $200,000 dollars was given to Sprostons Company LTD by the British Government, to be repaid in twenty years without interest.
This light Railway line as it was referred to, was 18 and ¾ miles long and ran westward from the Wismar Terminus to the Rockstone Terminus. It provided access through Guyana’s primeval forest to the upper Essequibo’s Potaro gold fields, Balata (Bullet wood) trees and endless supply of hardwoods. The demand for Greenheart appeared limitless and British Guiana was the only country that exported this prized hardwood at the time.
The Eastern Terminus was built next to the Wismar Steamer Stelling .
The train tracks ran south along the Demerara River until it reached the area near the current Wismar / Mackenzie Bridge.
The Railway then swung westward through the forest until its destination at the Rockstone Essequibo River Terminus.
The Steamer left Georgetown daily at 8am except on Sunday for Wismar. The Trains departure from Wismar to Rockstone was synchronized to the Steamers arrival fromGeorgetown. On Sunday the Train did not run. At the Rockstone Terminus, one or more Launches with passengers and cargo provided a daily service at departing at 6.30am to Tumatumari on the Essequibo, with Sunday also being the day of rest. At Tumatumari, a launch provided daily transportation to Potaro Landing, taking passengers and cargo.
The 1924 publication from the “British Empire Exhibition Wembley- Guiana ” read, “The Terminus of the Colonial Steamers which ascend the Demerara River daily is at Wismar about 65 miles from the sea: but sailing vessels can be towed for 15 miles further up to load timber supplies of which for many years been obtained and exported from the valuable forest Country through which the river flows. Opposite Wismar is “Mackenzie City” the headquarters of the Demerara Bauxite Co. Ltd. From Wismar a railway runs across to Rockstone on the Essequibo River and small launches runs regularly twice a week to the foot of the Malali rapids on the Demerara about 104 miles from Georgetown where the influence of the tide ends.”
The dawn of 1900 saw this spanking new railroad linking the two rivers, moving people, equipment, timber, cargo of many varieties and most of all hope for a brighter future. Bauxite would later take over as new king. The Demerara Bauxite Company would soon be established with the 1912 land purchased by George Bain Mackenzie. 1917 saw the first mining of bauxite at Akyma and later the construction of the Bauxite plant and housing areas on the eastern shores of the river.
With this Railroad, Wismar became the focus and hub of economic activity overtaking Christianburg as the center of the community. However within two decades, as the bauxite industry developed, the eastern bank of the Demerara River rose eclipsing Wismar. The Mackenzie, or eastern shore of the Demerara River still maintains this level of importance today.
This railroad brought all sort of jobs for the people in the area. A net work of related businesses grew around the railroad and life improved for many family members. Our special cousin Manly Binning worked from 1919 to 1927 as a machinist at the Sprostons Wismar Workshop. One of my Grandfather’s, Alfred Allicock used to square timber delivered by this train, on the Wismar bank of the River. Others travelled to upper Essequibo to work in the timber, balata industry or to mine Gold and Diamond. The Steamer and Railway service became an integral part the lives of our family and people of upper Demerara.
The R.H Carr Steamer commissioned in 1927 continued service long after the railroad was closed. The steamer service came to end shortly after the Linden Soesdyke Highway opened in 1968 and brought to an end over 100 years of Steamer service between upper Demerara and Georgetown.
In 1960, one of the descendants of John Blount of the Three Friends referred to as Miss Blount spoke with the author Zahra Freeth of “Run Softly Demerara” had this to say about the Railroad, “and when Christianburg went down, so Wismar became bright; with the railway to Rockstone, Wismar became the centre of importance on the upper river which only shows that God will always provide,” she added, “as one place closes down another place opens up, and after Wismar it was Mackenzie.” She went on to say “I don’t understand how people can say there is no God, when here we see the bauxite dug out of the ground, bauxite that God put there so that it would bring work and money to the people of Demerara.” A bauxite ship was passing her home at Christianburg at that moment. The ocean going ore ship was only a stone’s throw from the house, and dwarfed the surrounding scene as it passed along the Wismar water-front. Miss Blount added, “And when I see the big ships, I say to myself, there, if you need it, is another proof of the greatness of God.” Miss Blount was in her eighties at the time of the interview and was also one of our family members.
This Railway would continue running well into the Bauxite era until it was closed in the 1940s.
The gold decline in the Potaro fields and the switch to the much cheaper petroleum based rubber were believed to be some of the reasons for its closure. Nothing remains of this historical Railway today. The Wismar Steamer Stelling which was closed in 1968 lies in ruins in 2010. Some rail lines are covered by the now Burnham Drive main road in Wismar.
The Ruins of the steamer R.H Carr is at Skull point located at the Cuyuni and Mazaruni River junction. The nostalgic memories of this particular ship are remembered and bring a particularly sad feeling upon viewing the ruins. Most of upper Demerara residents that included all of our family members used the R.H Carr for transportation to Georgetown. The exceptions were the many speed boats and launches available. The speed boats took only one hour but did not complete the entire journey to the port of Georgetown but stopped short at the Atkinson base where taxi or bus completed the trip.
The R.H Carr took a relaxing 8 hours and held a special bond with all passengers. The slow journey through the meandering Demerara River was punctuated with frequent stops in the middle of the river as passengers got off or into small boats.
It was exciting to see the occasional cow transported. Cattle were pushed out into the river and had to complete the trip to pasture by swimming. For many the R.H. Carr was their only contact with the outside world. The area of Linden is like an oasis surrounding by jungle. Most of the area’s new population who came from Guyana’s coastal communities and the many Caribbean Island had little knowledge of inland Guyana. This was a great opportunity and experience for all to see Guyana’s hinterlands.
This river trip brought many in contact with the soul of Guyana. They were able to see the many settlements, sawmills, sawpits, villages, farms and life alongside the river. They saw the essence and make up of what is Guyana.
I still remember running down the steep steps of the R.H. Carr’s third class as a child to buy gynip and drinking a cold coca cola from D’Aguiar while watching the large propeller of the boat churning up the brown water of the river. We would wave as we passed the people on shore or in boats on the river in a kind of farewell salute to a time of innocence.
There were other businesses that provided employment like logging, balata bleeding, farming and gold mining in the area of Lucky Spot and Kanaimpoo. But their influence was dwarf by the importance of this Railway and the other industries that it supported.
The turn of that century saw the first automobile and the electric bulb take center stage in upper Demerara, however steam power still dominated.
The Demerara Essequibo Railway was essential and a major pillar in upper Demerara’s development. Sprostons Steamers, Railway and Construction Company lead the way as the Demerara Bauxite Company became established.
This notable trend to discard and forget history in Guyana is observed once more as the memories of the Demerara Essequibo Railway and this not so distant and significant chapter of upper Demerara is now lost and gone with the wind for many.
Remembering the past is a vision of the future.
God bless, Dmitri Allicock