argentine rail history
the british & the argentine railways         a tale of pampas past  

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Short extract from the "Forgotten Colony" by Andrew Graham-Yooll. Published 1981. Click on a book to purchase.

                 Borges station today in the northern suburb of Olivos. Little Sussex on the pampas..... Click for a larger (colour) image.

                    Borges station today in Olivos, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires

The main sections of the extract are:

Click for a larger image!The building of a new Argentina in the second half of the nineteenth century is invariably connected with the laying of the railway lines through the country, most of them by British engineering. After the fall of Rosas in 1852, liberal economic policies were introduced by men who had been forced to flee the country during the dictatorship and, in exile, had been in contact with European ideas and customs.

At hand in every event was a Briton. Britons placed more long-term investment in South America during the nineteenth century than in any other geographic region. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay received the lion's share.' Britain's interest in Spanish America had always been strong. After Lord Ponsonby's intervention in the creation of the state of Uruguay in 1826, his successors, Henry Fox, John Mandeville, William Gore Ouseley, Thomas Hood,. Lord Howden and Henry Southern, all secured advances in Britain's relations with Buenos Aires. Treaties for communications, transport and navigation were signed in the 1850s, paving the way for a mass of investment that began with the railways.

The Western Railway Company

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Click for a larger image!Argentina's first railway was not built by a British concern, however; but the group of shareholders and engineers . included Britons. Daniel Gowland, a Briton, was vice-president of the Western Railway Company, formed in 1855 with a capital of £28,000 to build the railway, from the Parque station, where the Colon Opera House of Buenos Aires stands today, to Flores, running over a distance of eight miles. The railway opened to the public in August 1857, after the society had borrowed another £24,000 from the government to complete work. The company's directors rode on horse alongside the track during the inaugural run, making a show of escorting the passengers, though in reality not sure of the safety of their own machine, which travelled at fifteen miles per hour. On the return to the Parque terminal one of the train's two coaches derailed and, although a minor accident, it caused considerable delay. The railway managers asked passengers not to report the mishap to those waiting at Parque, to avoid undue alarm. The news leaked out the following day; but by then the tales of the successful journey had caused a greater impression.

The tracks into Concordia on the old East Argentine Railway. Click for the full image.The train was pulled by an engine later named La Porteńa, built by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds.' It had been built for war service in Crimea and had a 5 ft 6 in Russian gauge. When the war ended, the engines and carriages were offered for sale around the world.

Daniel Gowland Phillips, the Western Railway Company director, was one of two Gowland brothers, well known in Buenos Aires business circles for their commercial success and power. When Daniel was twelve years old and his brother Thomas nine, their father had taken them to Buenos Aires from England. On arrival, in 1812, their first impression could not have been worse: the body of a man executed for taking part in a conspiracy against the revolutionary government installed in May 1810 had hung in the Plaza Victoria. Daniel and Thomas were among the founders of the Strangers' Club. Daniel Gowland became a director of the Banco Nacional de las Provincias Unidas and throughout his life held many public posts, an achievement which was used in immigration promotion, as proof that Argentina was a land of success for Britons. In his last years, Daniel Gowland was considered something of a patriarch of the British community.

At the time of the first run of La Porteńa, the local Press recorded the fact that Gowland was the only Briton in Buenos Aires to have travelled on a train in Europe. His brother, Thomas Gowland, opened an auctioneer's room and later was the founder of the society of auctioneers; he was also among the founders of the Primitiva de Gas Company. He became the first naturalized foreigner to hold a seat on the City Council. Although this was a demonstration of involvement by expatriates in government and administration, it was not an indication of an interest in local politics. He had taken the seat by invitation from all sides of the council, because of his prominence in commerce.

The first line on which La Porteńa ran was built by a British engineer, William Bragge, also among the founders of the Primitiva de Gas Company (Bragge, a collector of old manuscripts and first editions, died in Birmingham in 1884, after a career that put him among the wealthiest men in the River Plate). John Allan, an Englishman, was the first engine driver. Although he was well known and highly regarded for that first in his life, he would become better known still in 1870 and 1871 as the man in charge of the train which took the victims of a yellow-fever epidemic from the city's hospitals to the cemetery on the western outskirts.

The original Parque to Floresta line was extended with an 1881 loan of £200,000 from Baring Brothers and eventually linked with a new Western Railway, operated by the Buenos Aires Government at first but later sold to a British group. A company acting for Baring offered £7 million, which was rejected, and a month later the Bank of London and River Plate, in representation of an English consortium, paid £8.2 million at a time when the Buenos Aires province treasury was going through a severe financial crisis.

Several small companies followed the creation of the Western Railway. The first was the Northern Railway of Buenos Aires, spanning eighteen miles into the suburbs, followed by the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Railway - the brainchild of a North American, William Wheelwright, who founded the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. Then came the East Argentine Railway which ran from Concordia, in Entre Rios, along the River Uruguay, to Caseros, in the province of Corrientes. The Buenos Aires to Campana Line ran over forty-two miles between the two cities. All were built with British funds by British engineers. The Northern, Ensenada, East Argentine and Campana lines were later absorbed by bigger companies, also British.



The Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway & Central Argentine Railway

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Click for a larger image!Argentina's two biggest railways were the British-built, owned and operated Central Argentine Railway Ltd and the Buenos Ayres Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd, with headquarters in London. They were started at the same time, but the Southern was made in sections, while the Central was planned as a great iron road to open almost four hundred miles of sparsely populated, rich land.

Retiro Station, Buenos Aires. Click for the full image.A decree dated in August 1863 authorized the construction of the Southern, based on a proposal by a group of people that included the already mentioned wealthy Irish merchant Thomas Armstrong and George Drabble, a pioneer in railways and in the frozen meat trade and one-time president of the Bank of London and River Plate who had arrived in Buenos Aires in 1848, Alfred Lumb, Henry Green, John Fair and Henry Harrat, merchants and landowners who were anxious to invest in a promising enterprise and to increase the value of their property by means of the new communications. The initial authorized capital was about £700,000. Lumb had the concession and the support of shareholders among whose names were Thomas Duguid, the Fair family, British Consul Frank Parish - later the Southern's chairman who, with Baring, bought into the Central - and David Robertson. They were all the elite of the British community and as such found no difficulty in selling shares to investors in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. The company quoted on the London stock exchange.

The Standard of 4 August 1865 announced that `The Southern Railway will be open for passenger traffic on Monday, the trains will leave in the morning and return at night - they will go to a station within three leagues of Chascomus', which became the terminal in December of that year. Those were the first eighty miles. Another 500 were added in the next twenty years.

Constitucion station for La Plata. Click for the full image.The Central Argentine was not such an English line in appearance. The concession went to a North American, William Wheelwright, in May 1863. One year later another North American, Allan Campbell, presented the plans for a line running from Rosario to Cordoba over nearly 300 miles. Thomas Armstrong, who had acquired vast landholdings in the territory that the Central was to cross, became one of the railway's principal representatives. The line started with an authorized capital of £1.6 million and was completed in 1870. Extensions to the north followed as well as south to Buenos Aires, by absorption of smaller companies. The names of the Central's shareholders are repeated in company after company as if between them they had much of the country to themselves.




The Trans-Andine Railway

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Tucumán station in 1998. End of the line from Buenos Aires. Originally on the planned route linking Atlantic to the Pacific. Click for a larger imageClick for a larger image!Another small line, built for the government with a contract clause which made it immediately saleable to a private group, was the Andine Railway, running from Villa Maria, in Cordoba, to Mercedes, in San Luis. In January 1887, Bayless Hanna, the United States consul in Buenos Aires, reported that the Andine, operating over 324 miles from Villa Mercedes' and a necessary link in the line from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, Chile, called the Transcontinental Railway, had been sold to a British company, which had outmanoeuvred North American bidders. Two brothers, Mathew and John Clark, had bought it as a condition for continuing work on the international line.

Tucumán station in 1998. End of the line from Buenos Aires. Originally on the planned route linking Atlantic to the Pacific. Click for a larger image
It was just one brief chapter in a forty-year story of the brothers' effort to cut a hole in the Andes. Mathew Clark was sixty-seven when he saw the tunnel go through the Andes, forty years, after he had started work on the idea in 1869. The railway line between both countries was completed in April 1910.




The influence of the railways on the British

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Click for a larger image!Everywhere in Argentina there are reminders of the British engineering pioneers: a bridge, a track, stamped in Birmingham, or the stamp of English builders, or the engineering of British companies, or even in the names of railway stations.

The railways attracted many Britons to Argentina.
Thumbnail railroad map of Argentina, 1870, 1890, 1910. Click for full sizeThey never constituted a wave of immigrants, but made a constant and noticeable trickle. The railways were a secure and stable form of employment as the companies expanded, even though the Emigrants' Information Office, in London, cautioned throughout the 1870s that: "It cannot be too clearly pointed out that this country is not one for British emigrants in speculative search of employment ... The class of British emigrant to which this country is suited is the one who has money to take up a holding and work it. With the rapid development and opening up of the country which is in progress this class of person may sometimes be able to make a good living ..."


The period is one of apparently limitless money and wealthy men. One report, quoted in The Times of 21 March 1870, a survey of the cost of living in foreign cities, said:
An old resident of Buenos Ayres assures Mr Stuart (a member of the British Legation's staff) that twenty years ago £1,000 a year was a good income there, and would maintain a numerous family, but that now a newly-married couple with £1,000 a year would have to study the very strictest economy and perhaps retire altogether from society; but, on the other hand, money is earned with great facility now, and at this day there is an amount of wealth in Buenos Ayres which would then have appeared incredible.

Emergence of a British middle class

By the late 1870s there was a British middle class, comfortable, insular and looked up to by the Criollo population, which Britons looked down on - just as Britons looked down on their closest competitors, the German community, which had the disadvantage of its divisions and periodical disputes.

The Buenos Aires Subte (underground) The last days (Jan 2009) of the original Linea A trains... Click for a larger image.A volume titled Twentieth Century Impressions of Argentina, reviewing the last third of the nineteenth century, assured that `Where the man from England has established himself he has done well'. The same volume said that "The Briton in Argentina is not of Argentina. He always looks forward to returning some day to his northern isles to end his days among the associations of his youth. This is true more of the Englishman than of the Scotsman or Irishman'. The May 1910 Centenary Supplement of the newspaper La Nacion praised the British `who possess in the Republic an influence superior to the rest of foreign nationalities ... No matter to what part of the Republic you direct your view you will find British capital invested there."

Inside one of the last, original Linea A Subte trains. Click for a larger image.The middle-class family became stronger because of the stability of employment; the people who spoke English were a step ahead, because the language associated them with the management. A whole myth became solidly built around the British nature. The aforementioned Twentieth Century Impressions of Argentina said that "there are current sayings which speak for themselves. If a verbal promise is made the native, to seal the contract, usually says palabra de ingles (word of an Englishman), meaning that he will act as an Englishman, whose word is his bond. If an appointment is made, and the hour fixed, it is usual for the natives to say hora de ingles (Englishman's time), meaning that the Englishman's hour, who is always on time, will be observed. If a native has a house to let he prefers a Britisher, and generally without contract or guarantee, knowing that the house will be cared for as if it were his own, and all other conditions fulfilled. The provisions dealers are delighted to deal with Britishers; they say they buy plenty and pay well. This does not mean to say that all English-speaking people maintain the above standards. Many times the natives are deceived."

As the British railways grew, many of their staff were specifically imported and trained for work in different sections of the companies. And as this crowd became larger, rows of English looking terraced or semi-detached houses were built in front of stations on the suburban lines. The houses were often built with bricks imported from Britain and most of the fittings were British-made too. But those were the smaller imports: entire stations - from railway terminals to signal boxes - were also shipped from Britain. In one case, what is today the La Plata central station was intended for India; but was re-routed at the time of shipment on the reception of news of disturbances and economic difficulties on the Indian subcontinent.

British investment in related industries
The growth of the railways naturally attracted commercial houses, funded and supported by trading concerns in London and in all the principal British ports. Insurance brokerages grew to take up most of the market, banking and finance enterprises grew with increased investment, and shipping lines added tonnage to their River Plate services to supply manufactured goods and machinery to the growing country.

The construction of the railways was followed by British participation or ownership in all the public utility companies and public works, such as gas, tramways, water supply, docks, telegraph and, eventually, telephones and a share in electricity supply. The British companies, in banking insurance, land, water, shipping, etc., make a long list. Large family firms grew into small empires and the names of Drysdale, Duggan and Bell are now of historical note in Argentina's landowning and export business. Macadam and Maitland-Heriot were prominent in commerce; David Hogg, of Fife, operated a huge engineering supply company since 1874; James Smart made English tailoring a must in Buenos Aires as from 1888; Cassels was a name for gramophones and vacuum cleaners; Murchison and Whiting & Stevens were established ship-brokers; and a few more made `high society' of their own.

                        Tracks in Buenos Aires, 2009. Click forfull image.

Further links to Argentine railway sites:

Illustrated railway history of Argentina in English

Railway-related Photo  Gallery of Argentina Very good set of sites. Industrial architecture biased

Por los rieles del sud - Historic photos

El Ferrocarril en Internet - Over 2000 pictures of stations showing the (mainly British) 19th century architecture. Move down the page for historic photos of locos, maps, tickets and images from old timetables. (but try and avoid the music!!)

El Ferrocarril en La Pampa - History and present day information about the railways in the State of La Pampa (Argentina); also includes model railroad articles

Patagonia Express - The "Ferrocarril General Roca" in the Argentinian provinces of Chubut and Rio Negro is the only remaining line on the American continent that still uses exclusively steam power

La Trochita - the railroad in Patagonia.

Climbing Though the Clouds in South America Railroad history. The way it was in 1935. A good diversion

"Argentina": Forgotten locomotive, the pride and joy of Perón's Argentina. Article on the construction and discovery in a Tucumán rail shed of the Perόn prestige project to build a high speed steam loco.

You might also like to visit one of these related topic sites on the history of Argentina:


  Enjoyed this extract?
Read the rest of the book in Spanish! " La colonia olvidada " traza la historia compleja e interesante de las comunidades de habla inglesa en la Argentina. A pesar de su escaso número, han tenido un presencia nada desdeñable y mantienen su presencia distintiva en la vida y cultura argentinas.

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    Enjoyed this extract?
Read the rest of the book! The Forgotten Colony by the well known journalist and writer, Andrew Graham Yooll, is a classic reference to the life and institutions of the community in Argentina. The book was first published in London in 1981, and was reprinted ten years later which incorporates new material and corrections.

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In Tucuman station, 1998. Click for larger image

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