Saturday, June 21, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 4: The Railroad Museum

An early 20th Century steam engine is displayed at Aguascaliente's Railroad Museum. The engine's nickname was "La Burrita" (the Little Burro). One of the many pleasant surprises during our short stay at Aguascalientes was a morning stroll from the Plaza de la Patria up Calle Francisco Madero to the Railroad Museum. Carole, who is not especially enamoured of mechanical things, was a bit dubious but willing to give it a go. The museum turned out to be a fascinating slice of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It will surely delight railroad aficionados, but there is plenty here to interest even the casual visitor. The museum is located at Parque Tres Centurias, about 10 blocks east of Plaza de la Patria. There was no charge when we visited.  For a Google map showing how to get there, click here.

Bronze statue of Cornelio Cerecero Terán, El Mechanista Elegante (The Elegant Engineer).  He was the last engineer who operated La Burrita which, in turn, was the railroad's last engine powered by steam. La Burrita traveled the rails until 1964 and was much in demand because of her power and reliability. Corneilio Cerecero Terán was famous not only because of his association with La Burrita, but because he was considered exceedingly handsome and well dressed, hence the nickname El Elegante. He is also remembered as a poet. I find it charmingly typical of Mexico that a rough-and-ready railroad engineer would write poetry in his spare time. In the great days of steam railroads, engineers were considered the elite of the working class. They were well-paid and they operated the largest and most complicated machinery of the time, outside of steam ships. The industry itself had transformed Mexico (and a good deal of the rest of the world) and was vital for the transportation of goods and people. Just as a youngster of today might dream of becoming a jet pilot or astronaut, young boys of that day dreamed of riding the rails at the helm of a great steam engine like La Burrita.

A line of boxcars stands beside the old platform. Some of the cars have been transformed into offices for the museum staff. This whole area used to be Aguascalientes' railroad station. The rail sidings, engines and various kinds of cars, baggage buildings, and the passenger station are now all part of the museum. In 1880, President Porfirio Diaz authorised the Bostonian Company to begin construction of a railroad between Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez. The first rails were laid in September 1880 and the line was finished in March of 1882. The first station in the State of Aguascalientes was established at the Hacienda Chicalote, about 14 km (8.7 mi) outside the City of Aguascalientes. The second station was built about 20 m (65.6 ft) from the museum's Passenger Station and was simply a shack built of laminated pasteboard. The land on which it was constructed was, at the time, part of Hacienda Ojocaliente. The old hacienda has since been swallowed up by the city.

The plush traveling car owned by the dictator Porfirio Díaz stands beside the baggage building. Rich and powerful people of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries traveled in cars like this. Owning such a car would be the equivalent to owning a private jet today. They were divided into sumptuous lounges, offices, and bedrooms so that their occupants could travel in the style they felt they deserved. For some reason the Diaz car was not open the day we visited, so I had to content myself with peeking in the windows. The glass reflections prevented any good photos of the interior.

Massive couplings connect one car with another. Looking at this, I recalled the movie "Unstoppable" with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. During the film, the Chris Pine character accidentally gets his foot caught in just such a coupling and barely manages to avoid being run over by the train.  I enjoy trying to figure out how things work, so I puttered around examining the cars while Carole drifted through the rest of the area. In addition to the Railroad Museum, the Parque Tres Centurias contains large, shady gardens full of flowers and fountains. It is called the Three Centuries Park because elements of it reflect the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries.

A colorful caboose sits on a siding. These cars were for the crew and were attached at the end of a train. This one contained sleeping bunks, a pot-belly stove, cupboards for food, and space for off-duty crew to relax.

A hand car stands ready to go with the push of a lever. These little human-powered cars were used by track repair crews and other workers to cover short distances. Pushing down on the seesaw-like lever powers the car. One man could operate the car, but it would be much easier with two men, alternately pushing up and down on either end of the lever. A car just like this played a central role in the 1959 Gary Cooper movie "They Came to Cordura."

A statue of Julio Cerecero Terán stands holding a signal lantern while throwing a rail switch. Julio was El Elegante's brother and served as a member of his crew. A typical steam train had a crew of four, not including people like dining car staff, porters, and concessionaires. In addition to the engineer, they included the fireman who was responsible for operating the boiler that produced the steam. The conductor was in overall charge of the train and, in addition, handled passengers. The brakeman released the handbrakes on the cars, assisted the other crew and the passengers, and monitored the engine and cars. It appears from this statue that Julio may have been a brakeman.

La Burrita

La Burrita and El Mechanista Elegante stand frozen in time. Steam train engines were the technological marvels of their time. In the 21st Century, it is hard to comprehend a machine like this. Today everything seems to be driven by computers of various sizes and controlled by wireless signals sent through the ether, The steam engine above is completely mechanical and is driven by steam, a two hundred-year-old technology. While the stations would have been connected by telegraph, and eventually telephones, there was nothing electronic about this great beast of a machine. It represents the peak and, ironically, the endpoint of steam train technology.

Plaque fastened to the side of La Burrita's boiler.  She was manufactured in Schenectady, NY in December 1937 by the American Locomotive Company. There were only 12 like her in all of Mexico. Her main route was between Aguascalientes and Irapuato to the south.

The "business end" of the locomotive contains a bell and a cowcatcher.  Stencilled on the front, above the cowcatcher, are the words Seguridad Ante Todo (Safety Before All). The engine stands at least 4 meters (12+ ft) tall and everything about it seems massive. The number on the circular plate of the boiler is 2708 and it became a famous as La Burrita's designation. The brass bell mounted on the top of the boiler assisted, along with the whistle, in signalling and as a warning device.  The protruding cowcatcher at the bottom got its name as a device for protecting the front of the train from cattle that may have wandered onto the tracks, as well as other obstructions.

A cowcatcher, as used during the Revolution. This iconic photo from the Revolution shows four soldiers wearing broad sombreros. They are sitting on the cowcatcher, rifles at the ready. Next to them stands a mechanista, one of Cerecero Terán's predecessors. While this is a posed photograph, it is likely that in some cases soldiers rode in just this position to guard against obstructions or sabotage of the tracks. The soldiers were identified in the photo as followers of General Emiliano Zapata, known as Zapatistas. They carry a variety of weapons. The German Mauser on the left was probably captured from the Federal Army which used them extensively. The Winchester (far right ) was very common early in the war and may have been brought from home when the soldier signed up. Another revolutionary, General Pancho Villa, pioneered the large scale use of the Mexican train system to move troops. Since Aguascalientes was the hub of the national rail network in north-central Mexico, it became a key transit point--and strategic target--for various armies.

La Burrita's huge wheels drove her along the tracks. She was classified as a Hudson 4-6-4. This designation refers to the arrangement and size of the wheels. In front are two axels with 4 small wheels. They are followed by three more axels, seen above, with six big wheels. The big wheels are are attached to the levers which actually drive the train. Behind the big wheels are two more axels with four small wheels. Thus, 4-6-4. The system for designating trains like this was developed by Fredrick Methvan Whyte in the early 20th Century. The 4-6-4 arrangement was introduced in 1911 and continued to be manufactured until the 1940s. A engine using the 4-6-4 arrangement held the world speed record for steam trains in 1936, achieving a blazing 124.5 mph.

A brass train whistle juts forward from the top of the boiler. The whistle is attached to the steam dome, which provides dry steam to the cylinders for locomotion. Whistles were developed very early in steam train history as safety and signalling devices. In 1832, a stationmaster in England suggested some form of audible device after a train collided with a cart crossing the tracks. A local musical instrument maker was commissioned to construct what became known as a "steam trumpet." The whistles were blown as a warning when approaching crossings, and to provide various messages to railroad workers, a little like morse code. The size and construction of various whistles affected their sound, leading to nicknames such as "banshee" and "hooter." They were originally operated by pull cords or levers and could emit different sounds according to the style of the person operating them. Particular engineers could be identified by the way they blew their whistles. Sadly, all that originality disappeared when electronic methods of operation were introduced.

The cab of the engine was the point from which the train was controlled. The engineer and the fireman were stationed here throughout the journey. Early engines were followed by an open car full of wood and later coal. This fuel would be shovelled by the fireman into the mouth of the blazing compartment that heated the water and produced the steam. Later steam engines were fired by fuel oil that was piped into the fire compartment. No doubt the firemen were greatly relieved to avoid all that shovelling. Under the 2708 designation, you can see the notation "211 tons," the weight of the engine.

The Station

The Old Warehouse was where baggage and cargo were assembled for loading. Notice the old push-style baggage carts lined up next to the loading dock. This was one of the very first buildings of Aguascalientes to be built with cement. Although the city had been a way-station for travellers and silver caravans since the 16th Century, railroads put Aguascalientes on the map as never before. It was a natural hub for lines going north to Juarez (and from there into the US), south to Mexico City, east to the ports of Vera Cruz and Tampico on the Gulf, and west to Durango and the Pacific coast ports. Even today, the city enjoys a competitive advantage from its central position, although rail transport doesn't enjoy the monopoly it did in the face of competition from air transport and long-distance trucking.

Covered baggage carts line the edge of the Parque Tres Centurias' gardens. This version is covered against the weather and can be sealed against thieves. Apparently they were meant for baggage that needed to be held for later shipment. Interestingly, after reviewing scores of Google images of old railway carts, I could find none that resembled these.

This Passenger Station was begun in 1910 and finished in 1911. Built in California colonial style, it was the work of G. M. Buzzo, an Italian and cost 130 thousand pesos at the time. The structure was typical of railroad architecture of that era in that it was constructed using prefabricated materials. Notice the decorative designs just under the second story cornice. The front of the station is 52 m (170 ft) long, while the platform is 182 m (597 ft). The building has been beautifully restored, considering its age and the amount of traffic it saw.

The lobby of the Passenger Station contains comfortable benches and an elegant stairway. Displayed around the lobby are old photos and other objects from the glory days, including a collection of steam whistles of various kinds. The offices of the railroad officials were on the second floor. The overall impression is of spaciousness and a functional elegance.

The blackboard sign above announces Arrivals and Departures of Trains. Listed are the numbers of the trains and their routes. On the right, the times of arrivals (llega) and departures (sale) would have been chalked in after "H" for hora (hour). On April 18, 1915, General Pancho Villa arrived at the station with his army, following his defeat by General Álvaro Obregon at the Battle of Celaya. Villa had been badly beaten and was in a hurry to get back to his home base near Chihuahua. However, the army trains got tangled with the civilian ones. Villa was infuriated and summoned Central District Railway Superintendent Catarino Arreola Rochin. The General demanded that the Superintendent straighten out the mess within 24 hours or face the consequences. Maybe it just couldn't be done in that time, or perhaps the Superintendent was sympathetic to Villa's enemies. In any case, it wasn't done. Arreola Rochin was summoned once again before Villa and summarily executed by firing squad. One suspects that, given this incentive, the tangle was rapidly sorted out.

A mural in the Passenger Station shows railroad workers labouring under a Masonic Eye. The triangle with an eye and a half-circle sunburst under it is known as the Masonic Eye, but the symbolism goes back to the Middle Ages. The Masonic Lodges played an important political role in 19th Century Mexico, so it is not surprising that their symbol shows up here. Generally this painting can be interpreted to mean that the Eye of Providence (or of God) watches over the work of the railroad. The people in the painting are engaged in a variety of tasks. They carry loads, operate machinery, and study blueprints. This symbolises the fact that the railroad was a group project that required the skills of many and was not the product of any one person, however high up the scale he may have been.

Statue of a Mexican hero. Jesús Garcia Corona (1883-1907) was a brakeman on the rail line between the mining town of Nacozari, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona.  On November 7, 1907 he was resting at the Nacozari stop when he noticed that some hay piled on the roof of a rail car had been ignited by sparks from the engine's smokestack. This was alarming enough, but Garcia knew that the car was loaded with dynamite. Without a second thought, he leaped into the engine cab and put the train into reverse. He made it six miles out of town before the dynamite exploded. It destroyed the train and killed Garcia but the town and its population were saved. To honour his sacrifice, the town was renamed Nacozari de Garcia, the American Red Cross posthumously gave him the Hero of Humanity award, and a famous song was written about him.  R.I.P. Jesús.

This completes Part 4 of my Aguascalientes series. Even if you aren't a railroad buff, I hope you enjoyed the photos and stories above. If you have any comments, please either leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If it says "no comments" below, it means that no one has yet commented. Just click on that and it will open the Comments page.

If you leave a question on the Comments page, PLEASE include your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi! I really loved the pictures of Aguascalientes you put and I was disappointed that you Havant put any more. My family is from aguascalientes and I showed them your pictures and they had all these stories to tell me about every picture and they asked if you have ever gone to el savinal. Its in this small town called El Salto De lo Salado. From what they tell me its beautiful.

  2. Jim and Carole,
    A cousin just connected me with your blog. I am really enjoying it.
    Of particular interest, is last year’s entry on Aguascalientes Part 4: The Railroad Museum.
    The mechanista you show in the photo of the cowcatcher on engine 739 is my grandfather, Wesley Daniel Brockway. Outside the cropped area that you show, the man with the lighter outfit and his hand on his hip is my great-grandfather, William. My family has had a small version (3.5 x 5) which my grandfather past on. It has be enlarged and copied for years. I have learned that the photo was taken by German photographer, Hugh Brehme and is the same scene, minus my ancestors that is used all over México and SW US.
    Your version of this picture is much clearer than anything we have. Do you by chance have a digitized file of the entire photo which would show my great grandfather? Family lore was that my grandfather was held in involuntary servitude by Pancho Villa to drive his trains. My research agrees with you comment that the revolutionaries on the cowcatcher are Zapatistas, not Villistas, especially since my grandfather appears to have been mostly south of Monterey. Do you have any other information about the why and where of the picture and can you confirm that it was taken by Brehme?
    Thanks for any help.
    Wes Brockway

    1. This was very interesting, I hope to visit this place some day. Cornilio Cerecero or "El Elegante" was my great-grandfather. I know my family will enjoy reading this!☺

    2. Hello, i have the last name Cerecero, i want talk with you about this, He was the father of my GrandFather, i live in Aguascalientes


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim