Jan 14, 2016

Benito Takes the Train to Omaja

When Benito Prats Respall was a boy, he and his father José Prats Amat (everyone called him Pepe) set off by train to visit Benito’s aunt and Pepe’s sister Primitiva Prats Amat.  She lived in Omaja, which back in the 1920s was a very small crossroad on the main line of the Cuba Railroad in what was then Oriente Province. (Omaja is now in the new Las Tunas Province). 

Just like in the U.S., Cuban railroads were privately built and operated. The Cuba Railroad, built by the Canadian railroad magnate Sir William Van Horne of Canadian transcontinental railroad fame, opened in 1902. The main line ran some 357 miles from Cuba’s esternmost city Santiago de Cuba through Camaguey and on to Santa Clara. The United Railroads of Havana, built earlier with British backing, continued 178 more miles from Santa Clara to Cuba’s capital Havana and other points west.  When it opened, The Cuba Railroad, headquartered in Camaguey, quickly turned that sleepy provincial city into a vibrant commercial center, and its population quadrupled by 1928.  The railroads ended Camaguey’s isolation from the rest of the country, shortening the time to get to Havana from 3 days by steamship to 15 hours by train.

Just like in the U.S. in the 1920s, everyone traveled by train when possible because roads were not well-developed. Benito and his father were not doing anything special by taking the train.

The train they took was the pride of both railroads, but its cars belonged to Camaguey’s Cuba Railroad, they were maintained in Camaguey and staffed by Camagueyans.  It was Train No. 1, the crack express traveling daily almost the length of the island from Havana to Santiago in 24 and a half hours. (It returned as Train No. 2 back to Havana.) A Cuba Railroad locomotive and crew took over from the United of Havana locomotive and crew at Santa Clara, but inside the train, only the conductor changed. It had first and second class coaches and extra-fare Pullman sleeping cars and a parlor car for those who could afford the fare. It also carried a Wells Fargo Express car and a Railroad Post Office car. And it had a buffet car where Pepe and Benito could have had a hot lunch if they were prepared to pay.  I suspect Eduvigis packed them a bag lunch instead.

Folks the world round dressed up when they traveled back then. Pepe would have been dressed in a seersucker suit and tie and a boater hat, Benito in neat pants and an a pressed open-neck shirt. They would have walked a few blocks and taken the electric streetcar to the train station, which on the northern edge of what is now known as Camaguey’s old town.  Train No. 1 arrived from Havana 30 minutes after noon, changed locomotives, and left for Santiago at one o’clock.

Pepe Prats in his trademark white suit
and tie and boater (straw hat).
Omaja was a flag stop for Train No. 1. It was 90 miles from Camaguey and Train No. 1 was scheduled to pass to Omaja around 4:21 that afternoon. A flag stop means that the train only stopped in Omaja when a passenger on board had tickets to that destination, or when the station agent flagged down the train because he had passengers waiting to board. It was not a significant stop. And, to their surprise, the train they were on that day did not stop at Omaja!

Benito says he thinks they slept past the stop. I suspect the conductor forgot to signal the engineer to stop at Omaja. The Cuba Railroad was built and run to North American Class 1 railroad standards (unlike United of Havana*), and before each stop the conductor walks through the coaches lifting the little seat check cards for that stop he tucked into the luggage rack above each seat when he punched the ticket, loudly announcing the next station to make sure passengers were standing at the doors when the train stopped so there would not be any delay. They would not have been left to sleep through their stop if the conductor was doing his job.

So what happened?  Benito says they got off at the next stop and walked back along the tracks to Omaja. It was a hike, he said, and the sun was very hot. The next stop would have been Mir, nine miles away. That certainly is a long walk in the sun, especially for a small boy.

When they got to Omaja her house was easy to find. Benito said it was a small wooden house with a front porch facing the tracks.  The photo below was taken on the front porch, but probably not on this visit.

Primitiva Prats Amat, seated,
with her children
on their front porch in Omaja
This 1912 timetable shows the train leaving Camaguey at 1 pm
and arriving Omaja at 4:21 pm.

So how much did their trip to Omaja cost?  The timetable says that children between 5 and 12 travel for half fare, so the round trip should have cost Pepe around $4.50 for the two of them. That would be $61 in today's dollars. Not a bargain, but not that much, either. 

Tracks of the Cuba Railroad

Calixto, Omaja, Mir and Maceo are shipping points for timber from Omaja the forests, which for mile upon mile extend on both sides of the railway. At Omaja is an energetic colony with a population of 300, Americans for the most part. Citrus fruits are largely planted. Corn is grown profitably. Among the colonists is a group of Finns who understand cabinet-making; from mahogany cut in the vicinity they fashion handsome furniture.
About Omaja
From Cuba and the Cuba Railroad, a 1912 brochure

* Mariana Martínez de Prats, who went to boarding school in Havana for many years, attested to the difference between the two railroads. She took many overnight train rides between Camaguey and Havana. She said after changing engines in Santa Clara at midnight, the train lurched and rocked unmercifully the rest of the way to Havana.