Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hillbank Rail History

Recently, we scouted a new location for my camera trap since the Hillbank Road is being re-opened. We were following an overgrown track, formerly a railroad line used to haul mahogany to the Hillbank logging camp headquarters during the old days. It had been probably 10 years or more since we'd been that far east on the property. Amazing to imagine the rail road line here, an area that is now back to bush.

For Belize history buffs, the Belize Archives in Belmopan is well worth a visit. We found several reprints from the Gliksten Journal, a publication of the logging company that formerly owned the Gallon Jug property and the adjacent Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area. One article quotes former logging manager Austin Felix ( b. 1886, d. 1975) as follows:

"The next milestone in the history of the logging was in 1922, when the Company bought some steel ... lengths of railway line ... We built our railroad first of all from Hillbank to the west, then north ... This was 16 miles from Hillbank. There were 200 men working on the railroad all the time, and although the country seems flat in this region, it was by no means flat enough to put a railroad through without a lot of cutting out of hills and filling in of swamps. It was all done by hand. .. The logging still went on while the steel was being laid..." And, he notes, the steel was salvaged from the Stann Creek railroad.

The cuts and swamps were certainly apparent to us as we walked and we marveled at the hand labor that went into cutting through the limestone banks. Then " 1929," Austin Felix continues, "it was decided to log in another direction entirely and all the railroad steel was taken up and re-laid due west of Hillbank..." Imagine the hard labor in tropical heat!

Besides being a pleasant walk on a nice day, it was fascinating to look for signs from "the old days" and imagine life in the chicle and logging camps. We saw tapir tracks, deer tracks and jaguar tracks which bodes well for the camera trap. Below is a map dating back to 1965 highlighting the railroad line between Gallon Jug and Hillbank before it was ultimately pulled up. All that is left are a few landmarks, like the bridge (above), and a couple steam engines that have been reclaimed by the bush.

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