"Haiti’s Railroads" by Georges Michel, Ph.D.

Michel is a historian and a journalist. He has written several books, such as Les chemins de fer d’île d’Haïti (1989).

Haiti has its first rail system installed in 1876. It was a horse-drawn tramway system with a 76cm gauge, that was supposed to be coupled with a steam train to the Haitian-Dominican border that was built much later. After this, there were several aborted railroad projects, like the ones that were proposed in 1875 and long discussed, that would have went to St-Marc and Miragoâne, and would have had a metric gauge. There was another under President Louis Lysius Salomon in 1880 that also would have had a metric gauge, but would have went to the border. In 1893, Dr. Nemours Auguste proposed a regional network for the north of the country, of which only one segment was later built.

In 1895 a German company named Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de la Plaine du Cul-de-Sac (PCS) bought the tramway system in Port-au-Prince and pledged to build three regional lines from Port-au-Prince to the border, to Léogâne and to Pétionville with a gauge of 76cm or 30 inches. The line to the border was completed in September 1903. The line to Léogâne was completed in 1910. And the one to Pétionville was partially built but left unfinished. PCS carried sugar cane for the HASCO sugar plant starting in 1918. It ceased all its passenger and freight operations in 1932, when President Sténio Vincent’s government handed it over to HASCO as part of a deal in which HASCO would maintain PCS for its own private use, to carry sugar can from its plantations. It continued to exist, but basically ran as a division of HASCO until its demise in 1992. The Léogâne line was dismantled in 1983. And the line that went to the border and the unfinished Pétionville line were dismantled in 1995 shortly after the second United States invasion. Part of the tracks were stolen by United States servicemen.

Starting in 1906, a line from Gonaïves with a 42 inch gauge 1m067 (which was called a Japanese or South-African gauge) was built as a part of a larger network to Gros-Morne and Hinche. It reached Ennery, 33 kms from Gonaïves, in 1913, before it was dismantled in 1925. Another line from Cap-Haïtien to Grande-Rivière du Nord and Bahon was built starting in 1898. It reached Grande-Rivière (26 km from Cap-Haïtien) in 1905 and Bahon in 1913 (39 km from Cap-Haïtien) It was never extended, contrary to what had once been planned. While it was originally a 30 inch gauge, it was changed to the standard 42 inch used by the Compagnie Nationale des Chemins de Fer d'Haïti. This company, whose contract was promoted by an American tycoon named James P. McDonald and approved by President Antoine Simon's government in 1910, was supposed to build a line from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien, through the interior of the country, via Arcahaie, Montrouis, Saint-Marc, Verrettes, La Chapelle, Mirebalais, Lascahobas, Thomassique, Hinche, Pignon, Savanette, Bahon, Grande-Rivière du Nord and Cap-Haïtien. For this purpose it bought the Gonaïves-Ennery line and the Cap-Haïtien-Bahon line, which had its original gauge altered to 42 inches.

The idea of a Port-au-Prince/Cap-Haïtien railroad was unsuccessfully launched in 1906 by a Haitian businessman from Gonaïves named Roldolphe Gardère who had promoted the Gonaïves-Ennery line. The line to Saint-Marc was completed in 1913 and it reached Verrettes in 1926. Many of its sections were not built. So it eventually never reached its final destination, Cap-Haïtien. The Cap-Haïtien-Bahon line ended its passenger and freight services in 1952 but continued to carry crops especially sisal for the SHADA company until the early nineteen-sixties. The line was dismantled around 1965, its tracks and rolling stock stolen by the Tontons Macoutes. Some of the rails were used as light posts. And some were used to build the tribunes of the present Cap-Haïtien soccer stadium. The Saint-Marc and Verrettes line continued its regular operations up to October 1963 when hurricane Flora destroyed a small section of its track on the shore of the deep-water port in Saint-Marc, damage that could have been easily fixed. Besides passengers, bananas, and all kind of freight, the railroad had contracts to transport flour, cement and bricks to Port-au-Prince from factories that were established along its path. It also served the sisal plantations of SHADA in the Saint-Marc area. Nevertheless, Papa Doc Duvalier decided not to repair the line and to shut down the railroad so that his Tontons Macoutes and other faithful followers could steal 140 kms of track and its rolling stock. Like with the Cap-Haïtien line, the boilers of the steam locomotives were stolen by the Macoutes and used in distilleries and cooking-oil factories. The flour and cement were now transported by truck to Port-au-Prince. And the brick plant of La Baudry was forced to cease operations because trucking was too costly for the heavy bricks to be transported to Port-au-Prince. A small section of the line from Trou-Baguette to Tamarin, very close to Saint-Marc, was kept in operation by SHADA to transport sisal crops to its industrial plant in Montrouis. In 1971 the section of track between Trou-Baguette and Montrouis was closed and once again the tracks were stolen by Duvalierist dignitaries. The final section between Montrouis and Tamarin ran for a few more years carrying sisal. But it stopped its operations when the SHADA plant in Montrouis closed in 1978. The tracks and, this time, all the rolling stock were dismantled and stolen by the Duvalierists in 1979. The Freycinau main station and workshop, which was the most modern of the whole Caribbean region, was completely looted by the Macoutes. And its vast terrain is now occupied by a shantytown at the entrance of Saint-Marc. There were other minor railroad lines in Haïti, too. There was a rail network in the Dauphin sisal plantation in the northeast of Haiti that had a 76cm gauge and light rails of 30lb/yard and served the sisal plants of Phaëton and Dérac. It operated from the 1920s to the late 1980s, but was dismantled in the 1990s. A similar line was functioning to the west of this network, serving the plantations of the sisal plant in Madras. Also, in the late 19th century, there was an elevated 18km railroad line built by a German company to link Bassin-Bleu to the Atlantic port of Port-de-Paix. It was dismantled in the 1930s. And there was also a Decauville railroad that served the eastern third of Tortuga island, carrying freight and passengers. It was dismantled in the 1930s, too. It had a 24 inch /60 cm gauge and used Decauville steam engines and rolling stock. Lastly there was a small Decauville railroad in the Dame-Marie area in the south that served the cocoa plantation of the Simmonds brothers, but also carried passengers and freight in the vicinity. It also used the 24 inch/60 cm gauge. Also in the 1950s there were several other Decauville lines of various lengths on agricultural plantations all over Haiti that used the same 60cm gauge or even a smaller one.