The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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June 5, 2010

As mentioned in my previous post, I suddenly found myself in Ecuador, working in Quito. At 9500 ft elevation and just 11 km south of the equator, Quito’s weather tends to be spring-like all year, with assorted mini-climate events like fog and rain off and on. There was some discussion in the office about the railroad, but I was assured there were no longer any steam engines operating into Quito. But there were rail-busses and it seemed worthwhile to ride in one of those if the opportunity arose. It did, and the result is the epistle which follows, except this time I am able to illustrate the letter with the photos I took. By this time I had a cast-off SLR camera my Dad no longer used, so I got much better photos than previously.

Readers note: if you aren’t “into” railroading, you might want to skip the next few pages!

Quito, a 28 de Febrero de 1.979

Dear Everyone~

Those of you receiving this letter through the magic of the Xerox machine will have to forgive my resort once again to this impersonal medium. There is just not time to write out the following narrative more than once. So I take this means of sharing with you all a weekend of high adventure—double meaning intended!

By way of introduction, I have to mention that the weekend 25-6-7 February culminated the month-long “celebration” of Carnival. While the celebration here is not quite the big event that it becomes in Rio or New Orleans, it has its moments and figured largely in the events to be described. It was, after all, the reason behind my 4-day weekend—the only holiday I happened to get during my stay here. So, with others from our team I decided to take the “autoferro” to Guayaquil. Now, the principal ingredient of the Carnival celebration is water: water-filled balloons, squirt-bottles, pans, pails or whatever. So, practically since my first arrival here, one has been liable to a sudden drenching. There is also a local product called carioca, which comes in a pressure-can (the wonders of modern science applied to rowdyism—at a profit!) This stuff appears to be perfumed, sometimes dyed soap-suds. There’s also bags of flour, talcum or other white powder. During this final weekend, just about anyone goes a little loco, and it becomes impossible to remain dry for any length of time.

Anyway, we booked seats on the autoferro, as mentioned. This is a rail-bus, operating over the narrow-gauge railway line of the Ferrocariles Ecuatorianos between Quito and Guayaquil. It makes the down-trip T-Th-S, and the up-trip M-W-F. So we booked the Saturday morning run (90 sucres = $3.60). The 6 AM departure necessitated a very early rise on that day; we fortified ourselves with numerous sandwiches, our cameras, and light luggage, and set off.

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The ticket for my trip

Our autoferro that day was #94, of comparatively recent vintage, and actually quite commodious, with reclining seats and a porta-potty in the rear (having booked in time to get front seats, we were not unduly bothered by the commode). Sunrise occurred shortly after our departure, so we had good views of Cotopoxi (said to be the highest active volcano in the world—though that activity is presently only a few fumaroles: elevation of the peak is 19,300 ft).

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Early morning, ready to depart

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The driver sits beside the engine

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Cotopaxi is a nearly perfect cone

The route, which generally follows that of the Pan-American Highway, takes one through some truly spectacular scenery, and through a number of fairly sizable towns—Latacunga, Ambato—to Riobamba. (Chimborazo, higher than Cotopoxi but not active, was in clouds, but just the base of it was impressive!) The rail also goes through numerous villages, at nearly every one of which our driver would dump a pail of water out his window on anyone he could lure near. We reached Riobamba at noon, pretty much on schedule, & had a brief stop there. Then, from this, the half-way point, we set out once more, climbing out of the valley to Alausi. From here, there is a spectacular descent, on grades as steep as 5-1/2 % at times, and involving one double switch-back, to the town of Sibambe, where a branch line departs for Cuenca. The views down into Sibambe from the top of the switch-backs (called locally the “Devil’s Nose”) are breathtaking, and the line is perched in many places on a rock ledge only very slightly wider than the road-bed itself. Altogether it is a most formidable engineering feat, especially for 1908 when the line was built.

Many details of the trip thus far had reminded me of the White Pass and Yukon RRY in Alaska, except the G&Q is longer. The road-bed is every bit as rough, though the autoferro ironed this out tolerably. Fodor calls the G&Q the “world’s largest roller coaster”, but I think this is not very accurate, and in light of subsequent events soon to be described, I’d dub it “railway to the clouds”. But the autoferro rolled right along—much of the way being down hill— and we descended the devil’s nose without mishap. (Gracias a dios!)

Now, to this point we’d not seen another train of any kind—only a few boxcars spotted here and there. At Sibambe, however, we encounterd a diesel engine, derailed! A crew was endeavoring to re-rail her. And, waiting our arrival on the Cuenca branch were two rather smaller and older autoferros, ready to depart for Cuenca.

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Looking through the windshield at a derailed diesel

Departing Sibambe, the route enters a deep canyon, following the same and going from side to side [of the Rio Chan Chan] over numerous bridges, and continuing on very steep gradients the while. The next town of consequence was Huigra, where we passed the upbound daily “mixto”, in two sections, the first of which was headed by a real, honest-to-goodness steam engine (S&C # 17). Both sections were parked on the high-iron, pitched at an estimated 5%, and had to move up the line to clear our turn-out. Figuring that this engine was but a temporary replacement for the de-railed diesel mentioned earlier, I hopped out of the autoferro with camera at the ready, feeling lucky indeed to get to see this venerable Baldwin in action. Poised for the first photo, I was drenched from behind with a pail of water, and a similar fate overtook our mates. But the steam engine, laboriously & with much slippage, moved up the line, with 4 cars overflowing with people (many on top of the cars); the second section (pulled by a diesel) cleared our path, so we resumed our journey, this time joining others on the luggage-rack of the autoferro (on top) in order to dry out. This we managed to do as we continued our steep descent, the vegetation on the canyon rapidly taking on tropical characteristics. Unfortunately, the weather did the same and it was soon raining, so we got wet all over again, and had to retreat inside the autoferro at the next brief stop.

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Live STEAM! Thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

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Could this train be overloaded?

The rain did not last too long,and it had just stopped when we came to a halt behind a frieght train. Investigating, imagine my delight to find yet another steam engine (No. 45, G&Q) working this train!

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Two steam engines in one day? Wow!

Thanks to a spare roll of film someone else had, I photographed it extensively, and even rode on it a few hundred feet as it pulled up a bit further, to some sort of fracaso ahead. Investigating this we found that yet another section of the up-bound daily mixto, also pulled by another steam engine, had de-railed two cars on a very steep and tight turn. The line being single, no progress in either direction could be made until this difficulty was cleared up.

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The red car spread the rail & sank to the sleepers

The confusion was awesome! Everyone was running back & forth, basically changing trains, which would reverse direction, presumably, so some progress could be made. And a voluble crew was trying to re-rail the cars.

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Changing trains was the only way to make progress

They’d succeeded in getting one back on the track before we discovered that two additional autoferros had been brought up below the trouble spot, so that we eventually re-assorted ourselves and set off down hill once again. The accident described happened to be just a short distance above the town of Bucay, where there was further confusion and re-assorting of passengers, but in due course (now running rather behind schedule, of course) we set forth, running almost at once into an intense tropical storm, replete with spectacular lightning and torrential rains. Not much further along, we encountered a tree fallen across the ROW. This was cleared with difficulty by a crew which appeared mysteriously, partly made up of passengers, who had only a machete to work with. Proceeding past this obstruction eventually, we soon encountered yet another tree. Here, there were at least 6 blown down over the rails. We got past 4 of them before darkness set in and we had to give up. We returned (in reverse) to Bucay, where amid even greater confusion than before some of us discovered a bus headed for Guayaquil, which we embarked and amid the continuing downpour and electrical storm we completed our journey (20 Sucres = 80cts). Arriving in Guayquil about 10, by which time it had stopped raining, we located a hotel and collapsed, feeling that it had been a grand adventure, and more or less planning to see Guayaquil and nearby beach resorts Sunday & Monday; we had airplane tickets for Tuesday afternoon for the return trip.

Sunday dawned typically tropical—overcast, sultry, warm; and we set out to see a bit of the town. It was, of course, shut up tight due both to Sunday and to Carnival. The locals were all off at the beaches themselves, so the town was largely deserted. I quickly concluded that Fodor is right: “Guayquil is not interesting. Ravaged by centuries of earthquakes, fires, termites and pirates, it is only now taking on an air of permanence.” We did take a pleasant boat trip Sunday afternoon. All of you can appreciate, however, that I, seeing that the G&Q operates steam trains regularly quickly changed my itinerary, determining to ride as far as I could back towards Quito behind steam.

Accordingly, I taxied to Durán Monday (across the Guayas River from Guayaquil proper) arriving about 5 AM since I knew nothing of the schedule. I quickly ascertained that the up-bound autoferro was scheduled out at 6:40 (and #94 was waiting in the station, indicating that the line had been cleared. The mixto was scheduled out at 6:45, and it, too was made up in the station. The consist: two boxcars, a mail and baggage car, and two relatively new all-metal chair-cars (class undermined). Scouting around in the still dark yards, I quickly found (following my nose & ears) two steam locomotives (No. 7 & 11, G&Q) sizzling quietly, attended from time to time by a sleepy night stoker.

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Early morning in Duran, across the Guayas River from Guayaquil

This gave me hope—there were no diesels to be seen—and it was apparent that one of these two would pull the mixto, the other the freight train also made up and ready. And it all began to happen just as I’d figured. The autoferro pulled away on schedule just as No. 11 was backed down to engage the daily mixto. I’d bought my ticket for Riobamba (32 Sucres – $1.24) when the boleteria had opened about 6; but heartened by my earlier images of locomotives festooned with people, I asked the engineer if I might ride on the locomotive, and after telling me “no”, he waved me aboard! The locomotive carried a builder’s plate stating it had been 70% built in Duran (from Baldwin parts) probably about 1925, and rebuilt in Duran in 1955. We pulled out in the early morning half-light about 7 AM, yours truly perched on a tool-box on the tender, in seventh heaven as this old work-horse got under way.


Perched on the tender of No.11

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Getting Engine No. 11 fired up

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No. 11's builder's plate

Due to the fallen tree problem of Saturday, we had not, of course, traversed this portion of the G&Q right-of-way in the autoferro. The line goes many kilometers through the essentially sea-level plain at the base of the Andes. The area is lushly tropical, but very, very wet, & the road bed here is rougher than elsewhere. That the locomotive remained on the track surprised me at times. The loco wasn’t steaming very well—maintaining at best about 90 lbs pressure, so at the first stop the smoke-box was opened for inspection—nothing amiss, however.

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What could the problem be?

So, on starting the engine again, the boiler was very liberally sanded—to the discomfort of myself and those riding atop the first boxcar. This helped, and so did some additional attention at the next stop, so thereafter we maintained nearer 120 lbs.

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Sanding the boiler: the hot sand descends on all

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Examining the fire

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Preparing to grease the motion

Most of the small towns through which the train passes resemble early american frontier towns, with the trains rumbling to a central station right on the main street. There are cars & trucks, of course, since there are roads to these towns as well, but it was apparent that the train is still the life-line of these towns. Produce, mostly fish, was sold directly out of the first boxcar while the train stopped; cases of bottled drinks and cans of milk were also delivered, and newspapers were dropped in bundles in town, & singly at various houses along the way. We passed the downward-bound mixto, also under steam, at Yaguachi; coming into town and seeing another diminutive train in the hole for us was a wonderful sight. And of course, the train was a great target of water balloons, hoses and what-have-you, both in towns & along the way.

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Approaching Yaguachi, with its splendid cathedral

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Down-bound mixto in the hole for us

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Taking water at Naranjito

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Naranjito water tower

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Negotiating the main street of Milagro

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Goods were exchanged and sold at every stop along the way

We proceeded from town to town, the boiler being sanded during start-up at nearly every stop, climbing only a little, reaching 100 ft altitude at mile 31 (Naranjito) and 300 ft at mile 43 (Barranganetal); then commenced a bit steeper climb, passing the area where the trees had been cleared by a chain-saw gang, reaching 975 ft at mile 54, Bucay. The engineer had assured me that his engine would take us to Bucay, but a diesel would take the train from there. I was overjoyed, therefore, to see a second steam engine awaiting us at Bucay. This was a larger Baldwin 2-8-0 [Consolidation] with tiny drive-wheels, dated 1945 (No. 45 again).

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Pulling into Bucay

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Engine 46, seen the day before, awaits us

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The classic photo: No. 11 takes water after a hard run

It was approaching noon (54 miles in 5 hours averages just over 10 mph!) and amid huge festive crowds and hundreds of water balloons, the new engine was hooked to the train, the first boxcars were spotted on a siding, and presently amid much hooting & jollity we got underway. Naturally, yours truly had begged a place on the tender, to be joined there by numerous others with baggage, fruit, boxes of cokes, and all sorts of other paraphernalia, including a motorcycle. The engine got us under way slowly, with considerable tendency to slip due in no small measure to the amount of mud on the tracks (again, also the main street of town) occasioned by the Carnival water sports. But we did get going nicely, headed up the lush and narrow canyon, passing the now-repaired location of the derailment described earlier, without mishap.

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Engine 46 pulls the train up to Bucay Station

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Getting under way on a severe grade and a curve

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Looking back at Bucay

It is 18 miles from Bucay to Huigra; in that distance, the line rises 3025 feet: that is an average gradient of 3.2%, and numerous short parts are much steeper. But the engine was an excellent steamer, maintaining 135 lbs easily under full load, and really pulling well. Except that, as we moved up the canyon & into the clouds, it began to rain.

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It rains in the tropics! Yes, that is a motorcycle on the tender

The slick rails rapidly checked out progress, bringing the train to a complete halt. Most of the 18 miles was won my dint of some very fancy throttling by the engineer, and with help from several supernumeraries throwing dirt on the rails. I have a new appreciation for that old ditty, “The little engine that could…” Sometimes we’d get a little speed, but out-pace the dirt-throwers, then lose traction, halt, & get going again—winning the distance foot by foot.

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The mechanista was assisted by his wife (?)

Having spotted other cars here and there, out train was now but 4 coaches; still, it finally became necessary to leave the two newer coaches parked on the track and pull only two cars the last grade into Huigra–even with only the two cars it was slow going indeed. We finally pulled into Huigra about 3 PM—the 18 miles had taken the better part of 3 hours! The rain had abated slightly, and I dried out (nearly) by the heat of the boiler. Our two old coaches were spotted on a siding, and the engine backed down to retrieve the two abandoned cars. I elected to wait in Huigra, watching the water-sports and having a little to eat.

Retrieving the other cars took an hour, making up the train and getting under way again took another half-hour, so it was 5:30 or so before we left Huigra, bound for Sibambe, 4 miles on and 875 ft higher (Ave. 4.1%!!) This was made with somewhat greater ease, as the rain had let up, but it was steeper and not easy; it was approaching 6:30 when we pulled into Sibambe, where the autoferro bound for Cuenca had waited patiently. It departed soon after our arrival, and soon thereafter a diesel (the one we’d seen derailed two days earlier) came down-grade to meet up & take us the rest of the way. I bid the steamer a fond farewell—it had really worked hard—rejoicing in getting to ride steam half the way to Riobamba. The crews switched engines, and apparently inured to my presence, the engineer invited me to join them in the cab of the diesel, so I was to get my first ride on one of those!

Now, out of Sibambe the line ascends the devil’s nose and two huge loops to Alausi, at elevation 8553; the average gradient is 5.4%! It was easy at first, so ascending the double switch-back went smoothly enough, but wow, is it spectacular climbing up; there are several vistas from near the top of the canyon looking down on Sibambe, with the two intervening levels of track, though often it is so steep that you cannot even see where you’ve just been! Wow!!

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Our train has switched back, having come up the rail below

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The brakeman drops off to set the next switch

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We proceed on the upper track

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When we clear that switch, it will be thrown to put us on the way up

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The switchback is complete and we are on the way to Alausi

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We climb ever upward: not the clouds!

But, powerful and smooth as they are, even diesel engines can—and do—lose traction. Moving into very wet clouds, this began happening, and the last 500 feet or so (upwards) into Alausi was once again gained inch by inch, various people including myself assisting in sanding the rails. With darkness falling rapidly, we ascended from Alausi on gentler grades (3% or so) to the high point of this section, 10,626 at Palmira, then began the long descent into Riobamba. This we reached about 10:30 PM.

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Riobamba station

I should mention here that although all the rolling stock of the G&Q is old, one important feature of all of it is extraordinarily maintained: the brakes! A drop of only 5 psi in the train pipe served to lock everything up tight! With 5-1/2% grades to negotiate, it can be readily seen why they pay such attention to this matter!

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The road bed is everywhere in poor condition!

There is not much left to this tale. Riobamba was wet and rather cold; Sangay, the active volcano nearby could not be seen. The town was filled with people on holiday from Guayaquil (hence the three-section mixto of the day before), and there were rooms available only in the chincharerros. I was advised at first there were no buses to Quito until the next day, but as usual this was incorrect, & in fact one departed at mid-night—I almost missed it because it came through 10 minutes EARLY! I was, of course, a sight—my hair was full of sand & cinders, my clothes filthy, but the bus was new, comfortable and fast, making it to Quito in just 3.5 hrs. So, 25 hours after departing my hotel in Guayaquil, I collapsed into bed (after a long, hot shower) in my hotel in Quito.

I should have had the foresight to take a hat & a cushion with me: I have blisters on both nalgas because of the exceedingly hard iron on which I perched them much of the way. But these will heal long before the memories fade of a truly fantastic ride, half of it on steam engines, on the “railway to the clouds”. Water balloons not withstanding, my faith in the basic goodness of people is restored—one could duplicate my experience every day of the week, for the mixtos and the “little engines than can” chug out of Durán every morning. Needless to say, the whole experience was a “high” point in my life, twelve reels of memories to revel in when I hit the old rocking-chair.

Anybody want to come down & do it again with me?



The upshot of this experience was that every following weekend that I could get away, I flew down to Guayaquil on Friday night. I stayed in the unofficial government whore-house (which to my surprise had a good restaurant) because there were always taxis there in the early morning, waiting to take errant gents back to their wives; this made it easy for me to get over to Durán in the early morning to watch the trains being made up, and then to ride one of them up (and often down) the Andes once or twice before returning to Quito. Consequently, I have many other photos to bore you with on a future page or two.



Written by Editor

June 5th, 2010 at 1:52 pm