About 1900 one of the densest railroad networks on earth was operating in the Yucatán Peninsula. Between 1870 and 1920 the area experienced an economic boom based on the production of twine from sisal (oro verde or green gold). The numerous plantations in the area needed a way to move the sisal from the fields to processing centers and from there to ports for export. The plantation owners built a very extensive (4500 km) system of narrow gauge railroad system to move sisal as well as sugar and corn.
The tracks stretched up to 100 km in all directions from Yucatán’s capital, Mérida. Rolling stock and complete sections of track with steel ties were imported mostly from Europe but also from the USA. The small trains were powered by mules, steam engines, electric batteries, and later by gasoline motors. There was no standard design. Several different gauges were in use ranging from 400 to 930 mm (15.7 to 36.6 in).
Foreign competition, the Mexican Revolution, and synthetic fibers brought an end to the sisal boom. Many of the plantations closed in 1930s. Soon small entrepreneurs were providing rail passenger services between the scores of towns in the area. Many families used the small sisal hauling cars as personal transport, powered by a horse or mule. This was far more efficient than animal drawn carts on the rough dirt roads, but required occasional de-railing to allow those going in the opposite direction to pass. Some of the Yucatán’s narrow gauge lines have survived into the 21st century, and some of the former sisal haciendas have reopened as luxury hotels for tourists.
Acknowledgments: Grateful thanks to Allen Morrison, who generously allowed us permission to reproduce his excellent map of Yucatán railways.
Mexico’s transportation systems are the subject of chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!
Yucatán’s main line railway was not linked to the rest of Mexico until about 1950.