Ferrocarril 3

“LOS ALTOS RAILWAY” The Altenses dream that became a reality

For Christian Díaz


In 1902 two major natural events happened in the City of Los Altos, the eruption of Santa María Volcano(1) and the San Perfecto Earthquake that left the city with severe disasters and human and material losses. 

For that reason, in that city came up with an idea to promote the creation of a mechanical tramway that would promote a powerful source of resources to the region, thinking in connecting the villages and departments of Los Altos region, for everyone to benefit and not only for the city of Quetzaltenango.(2)

However, the idea was so well received by local authorities and by the government that it was proposed to improve the idea of a mechanical tramway to a steam train, considerably increasing the cost but at the same time the upcoming profits. Fortunately, some years passed for the better and it was until March 15, 1911 by means of a solemn Constitutive Minutes that it was decided to further improve the main idea and it was formally agreed to build an unprecedented wonder in the region, an Electrical Railway; the first of Latin America and the second in all of America.   

From this memorable and unforgettable event on March 15 of 1911, another tremendously important project was born in addition to the idea of Los Altos Railway…

In image: The city of Quetzaltenango after San Perfecto Earthquake and the explosion of Santa Maria Volcano in 1902, all its inhabitants did not allow the city to be delayed and doubled their progress and development creating unique projects. (It is also said that the City of Quetzaltenango recovered as no other other city has recovered from a catastrophe of such magnitude, with an unwavering will and strength, in this way, the Railway idea has born).

On March 15th of 1911 in the township of San Felipe, department of Retalhuleu was signed the formal Minutes4 which gave life to the project in the creation of the Electric Railway of Los Altos, that initially would have an approximate travel of 38 kilometers (23.61 miles) from the village of San Felipe to the City of Quetzaltenango and vice versa, but later it would increase the travels to all Southwestern departments creating more centrals and stations. 

That same year, the generation of electrical resources and the general working of the railway decided to build a dam to generate electricity, therefore the “Santa Maria de Jesus”5 dam was built in the township of Zunil, whose turbines were driven by the slopes of the mighty Salama river, producing another powerful source of resources for the region that greatly increased the economy of Quetzaltenango department. 

In image: Photography of the “Santa María de Jesús” dam located in the township of Zunil, department of Quetzaltenango.

On May 29th of 1921 the government through the Legislative Assembly, declared of public utility and fundamental necessity the construction of Los Altos Railway thereby the respective contracts were signed with pioneering German companies(6) of that technology to initiate the construction of the project. 

It is worth mentioning for that at that time, the project was highly innovate because in Europe only few railways of this type existed and Los Altos region envisioned with a project at the level of nations such as Austria, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Hungary.

The construction of the work reached US$ 8.5 millions(7) but it was achieved thanks to the government initial support and furthermore an imposed mandatory tax of 3 pesos on every bottle of liquor consumed throughout the national territory and the proceeds from this would be used in full to the construction of the railway.

There was a contract, there was an energy dam; the construction of the rails was beginning, so everything was getting to take shape and between 1925 and 1927 began the construction of the Santa María de Jesús Railway Tunnel with the aim of serving as way for the Los Altos Railway.(8)

In image: Santa María de Jesús Tunnel through which the Los Altos Railway marched for some time, currently still dark, connects the hot and cold climates of Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu highways, located in the township of Zunil. Photography by: Rodrigo García Valdizan.

(1) From the eruption of Santa Maria Volcano in 1902 the Santiaguito volcano was born and it’s currently active and which caused the inactivation of Santa Maria. 

(2) This is one of the best examples that the capital of Los Altos was never freeloader, centralizing or corrupts because the idea of this magnificent artifact was the mutual progress of the departments of Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu and later sprawled to the rest of Los Altos. 

(3) The National Electric Railway of Los Altos was the second of America, after the Electric Railway of New York City, U.S.A.

(4) Among the personalities who wrote and signed the Minutes were Carlos Velásquez and Tomás Alejos, representatives of the Political Headquarters and Commanders of Arms of Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu respectively. Also, the Mayor of San Felipe township Filadelfo Alfaro, as well as representatives of the Honorable Corporation of Quetzaltenango, such as Alejandro Montes Jr., the General Work Inspector of Los Altos railway and members of the municipalities of San Martín Zapotitlán, San Andrés Villaseca and Pueblo Nuevo, among other political heads of the government. 

(5) Currently, the Santa María de Jesús dam in the township of Zunil, department of Quetzaltenango is still working and continues being an important economic engine for the region.

(6) The German companies contracted for the project were: Allgemeire Elektricitäts Gesellschaft Company (AEG) in charge of everything related to the electrical part of the Railway and the KRUPP Company in charge of the manufacture of the rails. Moreover, Germany had been the first country in the world to create an Electric Railway so Los Altos Railway created a lot of expectations, which were fully met.

(7) In that time the Guatemalan currency and the US dollar were one for one and taking in consideration the current currency depreciation, in that time that amount was even more impressive.  

(8) The Santa María de Jesús Tunnel is located at kilometer 280 from Quetzaltenango to Retalhuleu and connects the roads of the highlands and the coast. It was built by common prisoners and initially had only one lane (for the Railway) but later it was changed for cars and extended to two lanes in 1950. Nowadays is a historical heritage of the township of Zunil.