Bermuda’s little railway started to die with the old year. At midnight, 1947/1948, the first pike of the Hamilton-Somerset line was ceremoniously removed, and demolition began.
The bells heralding the New Year chimed in with sounds of pick and shovel. As these lines are written, the last train from Somerset ran a month ago, although along the St. George’s branch hours are still punctuated by the familiar little toot—so like that of the fisherman’s conch shell that only cats can tell the difference—and at night the locomotive’s searchlight still sweeps round the curve of Shelly Bay. It is likely that by the time you read this, both horn and light will have passed from actuality to legend.
In its short and chequered career our railway managed to make and break an extraordinary number of records for its size and importance. It will go down in engineering history as the line that cost more per mile than any other ever contrived, including super-luxury railways throughout the world. For its length it had more bridges than any other; in fact 1/10th of track was bridged. It crossed the open sea no fewer than nine times in the twenty-five miles of route from Somerset to St. George’s. And I dare suppose that no other railway has, in its time, been so hotly contested an issue. The railway question was, from the very first, a miniature Dreyfus case. Convictions political, aesthetic, economic, practical, and sentimental met, clashed, and contested every inch of its track. There was no neutrality possible—one was definitely pro or con; feelings ran high and voices rang higher from first to last of its short working span of sixteen years.
Actually, sinister shadows of coming trouble were cast long before the last spike was driven in by Miss Rosemary Grissell, step-daughter of the then Governor, Sir Thomas Astley Cubitt, on October 31, 1931, and Lady Cubitt started the first train from Hamilton to Somersest. (A pretty feature of this grand opening ceremony was the cutting, by H.E, of the ribbon across the new bridge at Somerset, uniting the two islands). As long ago as 1924 a Mr. Cummings had come to Bermuda, surveyed the land, and announced that a railway was the perfect solution to the island’s transport problems. It is a cynical reflection that in those days the railway idea was first mooted as a sure and certain preventative of motorcars in the islands. Well, Mr. Cummings was voted a comfortable retainer as chief engineer of the un-built railway, to be paid annually till the whole track was laid…..and it wasn’t even started till seven years later.
Money for this venture was raised by sporting speculators in England—no canny Bermudian risked more than what he could well afford to lose, and time fully justified this caution.
Having, as becomes a woman, no head whatever for figures, I hesitate to plunge myself and my readers into the deep and troubled waters of the Bermuda Railway finance. But the original sum raised was, I believe 101,000 pounds, which very soon was augmented by 525,000 pounds. Then in 1930 the enterprise was acquired by another company and renamed the Bermuda Railway Investment—a fairly expensive christening at the cost of 225,000 pounds. Finally, when the Motor-car Act was passed in 1945, the last transfer was made. The Bermuda government bought the doomed railway for 115,000 pounds. All in, it is estimated that the project cost over a million pounds—a while we are on the quicksands of statistics, I’d better add that the trains totaled about three million train miles during their service years and carried approximately fourteen million passengers. Do your own sums.
Well, apart from the finance involved, there was the active opposition of Ruskin-followers, shocked to the depths of their aesthetic souls at the idea of these lovely, unspoiled islands being is figured by tracks and trestless, bridges and tunnels, stations and sheds. This point was bitterly contested, and after the pros worn out, there started the delicate and expensive business of appropriating—at a price—the necessary property for the tracks. A local jury was appointed to adjust any questions of valuation, which they did to such good purpose that the company usually preferred to pay the prices asked by landowners rather than send the case up for adjudication.
Even the railway’s most relentless adversaries have never questioned the excellence of the laying of the track. The little trains, whatever other shortcomings they developed ran smoothly as satin over beautifully laid rails and the leveling of the miles over our deeply indented landscape was a triumph. Naturally, an expensive and long-drawn out triumph, for when the engineers were not painfully achieving deep cuttings they were raising lofty trestles, to defeat Bermuda’s ups and downs, or throwing bridges and yet more bridges over the many indentations of our jagged coastline.
So, in the time the tracks were laid and very grand new rolling-stock ordered from England. A cutting from the Daily Herald of 1931 mentions a new type of “rail automobile” being made in Preston, intended for the projected Bermuda railway. These smokeless petrol-driven passenger coaches were the first we had, and up to the introduction of Diesels, were the very last word. The first Pullman coaches were painted a delicate primrose yellow with white tops, which made it all the more regrettable that no sheds were ready to house them on arrival. Excitement at the arrival of the coaches aboard S.S. Bermudian ran high, and a huge crowd gathered along the Hamilton docks to watch their precarious unloading. The boat had had a rough crossing and while struggling through a hurricane one bogey tore adrift from its moorings and careened about the decks among the other rolling stock, damaging itself and the rest and, of course, quite uncontrollable. Whether anyone considered this an evil portent at the time one doesn’t know. But at least it was not the most auspicious send-off for the new line. Nor was the derisive bray of a Bermudian donkey just as the first coach was unloaded.
Almost as soon as the trains started running, spasmodic sabotage complicated matters still further. It is only by sheer luck and clever judgment of the officials that several nasty accidents were avoided. Fires were mysteriously started along the sheds, obstructions were placed along the tracks. It is thought that some of the damage was engineered by carriage-drivers and owners who saw in the new venture a serious danger to their own livelihood.
Besides the anxiety caused by this deliberate malice, the new railway had to contend with that difficulty attendant on all novel forms of transport, and which must have begun when the first man bestrode the first horse and startled everyone out of their wits. Bermuda was not railway-minded. Nor was her livestock. Horses reared and bolted, cows, and goats tethered within sight or sound of the new monster broke their teathers, ran away and went amok, refused to give milk, and otherwise expressed their disapproval. People living any where near the railway complained long and loud about the noise of wheels and whistles; children rushed from all directions at first sound of any train, and endangered their own lives and the nerves of locomotive drivers by dancing across the lines, crowding too near the carriages, and generally making nuisances of themselves. The local Press published columns of indignant protests and complaints, alongside with passionate vindications from those of the opposite camp. One way and another, the new railway was news with a capital N. Apart from all this, difficulties natural to Bermuda’s peculiar position and status developed. Ticket-collectors had to cope with mathematical problems in three different currencies—the native, the American and the
Canadian. Working out fares from one little station to another meant further headaches, to say nothing of the great issue of Statutory and non Statutory trains. This was an inevitable complication but none the less tiresome for passengers and officials alike. According to its charter, the Bermuda Railway had to justify itself by a steady schedule of so many trains a day. Fares on these ‘Stat’ trains which the company was forced to turn to redress to some extent the dead loss of the ‘Stat’ trains. But this took a lot of explaining to disgruntled tourists who not unnaturally, frequently questioned the demand for a much higher fare on an identical train running on an identical route at different times.
Despite all this and much more, the little railway gradually wormed itself into—if not the affections—at least the toleration, of the islanders. It became a familiar thing, part of the tradition. What helped towards a change of heart was its warm reception by tourists entranced by the fun of rides in such a toy, and the unique beauties revealed along its scenically designed permanent way. Many viewpoints were only to be seen from a railway-carriage window, and this fact also accounted for agitation among public-spirited Bermudians as to certain revelations of slums, dirt, and untidiness along the route. Despite a Free List that seemed to extend to anyone who had every touched his hat to an engine driver, by 1938 the railway actually showed a small profit at the end of the financial year.
Then came – do you remember?—a little matter of a war. Although Bermuda was blessed with immunity from actual attack, her destiny was profoundly modified by events beyond her small shores. Tourism ceased as at the turning-off of a tap; The Imperial Censorship flooded the islands like a tidal wave; large portions of Bermuda passed into the hands of the U.S Forces, who with characteristics energy started altering and adding to them by the obvious process of scraping up more land from the bottom of the sea. This sudden increase of population reacted immediately upon the railway. Up till then the normal average of passengers a year was about 700,000. In 1942 this jumped, almost overnight, to 1,425,000 and by 1944 overtopped 1,500,000. This at a time, moreover, when any idea of getting additional rolling stock from England was out of the question. The terrific extra load had to be carried by stock already worn in service, and with shortage both of the labour and of spare parts. When the first U.S. troop ships arrived, it was the little railway that transported guns and men to their bases at N.O.B and Kindely Field. 4,000 troops with their equipment safely handled between 10 a.m and 4 p.m. It was the railway which tackled as best it could the problem of transporting base-workers living throughout the islands to and fro from their urgent jobs, morning and evening. It took time , naturally, for the essential heavy motor transport for the bases to arrive and get into action, and until this was under way on roads reconditioned to take it, the railway worked its little wheels hot in what was true war service. The U.S helped enormously in a task tha could otherwise never have been fulfilled. General Strong got an AA1 priority for new equipment, including the first Diesel locomotives. One very hush-hush job that can now be revealed was the transport, in the dead of he night, by the railway of heavy guns for the fortification of the South shore. The secret of this operation was magnificently maintained. So far as I know, not a whisper of it leaked out.
I am deeply indebted for the information in this article to Mr. and Mrs. H.J.Kitchen. Mr. Kitchen came out at the beginning as Chief Engineer. He designed the first coaches, and on the resignation of the General Manager, Mr. Stemp, he carried on with Mr. W.J Curtis with full charge and responsibility right up to the end. His job would have given any man unequipped with his indomitable courage and good humour a headache for life, but Mr. Kitchen not only survives but even laughs at the memories of difficulties and trials. Mrs. Kitchen’s full notebooks and reminiscences have also helped me not a little. The couple have made a large and warm circle of friends in the islands, and Mr. Kitchen’s appointment as Director of Public Transport in Bermuda is a source of great satisfaction among them. It is hoped that he will find the new buses easier to run than his trains. At least he will not, presumably, have to go over every inch of their route on foot twice a week, as he has done with his railway-track, year in year out.
Not being a shareholder, I am frankly heavy-hearted at the railway’s disappearance. It was a friendly institution. When on a skiddy day the train refused to move, crowds of small coloured children would rush out and push sand under the wheels to obtain a grip….When a Bermudian lady, addicted to walking strolled unconcernedly over the Flatts railway-bridge, disregarding the warning toots of an approaching train and extremely indignant when the locomotive driver at last persuaded her to step aside into on or the refuges and allow his train to pass, she protested that nobody and nothing had a right to turn her off a public highway…On the very night when demolition started—New Year’s Eve it will be remembered—Mr. Kitchen was aroused in the small hours by news that somebody’s car, lights and radio full on, was standing empty clean across the tracks at Richmond Road. A revealer had left if there, dimly conscious perhaps that it would come to no harm…And when a Cockney lady’s station was passed as she was in conversation with an Archdeacon, she woke up to the fact and roundly abused the conductors neglenct. ‘Iv’e paid me fare. You just have this train reversed and put me down where I belong.’ This was done, but the unmollified lady scread from the ground for her ‘B—y umbrella,” forgotten in the rack. ‘Beggin’ your pardon, Archdeacon gaiters and sll,’ she added, marching triumphantly homeward…There was also the Bishop on his way to a church meeting at Paget, who remarked that he hadn’t got a pass, though his Archdeacon had a temporary one. On scanning this document, he was delighted to find that it was a permit for railway-travel to ‘Archdeacon’ – and his wife for the time being…’The best, most locally-flavoured tale, though is of the very early days, when a large coloured lady on her first train-ride was asked by the ticket-collector where she wanted to go. “Why, A’, goin t’see my boy Charlie,”she told him. “Where does Charlie live?” asked the conductor. The lady looked thunderstruck. “Why, mean t’say you don’t know where my Charlie live? Why he live right next to Leroy Dill.” “And where does Leroy live?” asked the patient conductor. The lady gasped beamed round the carriage and exclaimed, “Why, man, where you come from? Not know where Leroy Dill live? Why, he’s lived up there for year…” You can’t help loving a railway like that, dividend of no dividend.