I think the one thing my husband most appreciates about me is that I am a pretty cheap date. Um… I mean that I have the ability to find immense joy in seemingly simple pleasures and pastimes. You know, like a van ride to the train station in El Fuerte. I managed to secure a window seat for the trip (of course I did) and kept myself entertained watching the world go by.
As we left the hotel, parents were dropping their children off at the school across the street. On mopeds. Like all of their children. At the same time. It was inexplicably fascinating and quite nerve wracking for me. I get a little spooked alone on a bicycle now and then. And here were three elementary aged kiddos, completely relaxed, as they shared the moped seat with dad.
The town was waking up as we made our way to the train station. Vendors pedaled their snack carts into and around the plaza. Tarps were rolled back on the tables where handicrafts and souvenirs were displayed and sold. Men and women, headed to work, crisscrossed the streets in front of us. And slowly, all of the busyness slipped away as we moved away from the center of town and into the countryside en route to the station.
The train was scheduled to arrive at 8:00 am, but… that was not a guarantee. We were there by 7:30, as were many other passengers- – just in case. I used my time to review what I knew about El Chepe so far. Yes, Ruth, ever the teacher, had provided us with a packet of information about the places we would visit on our trip, including the complete history of the railroad in the Copper Canyon. And I am pretty sure I am the only one in the group who read it. That is just the “cheap date” in me!
The railroad was first visualized by Albert Kimsey Owen. It would begin with the development of a harbor in Topolobampo Bay near Los Mochis in Sinaloa. The grand plan was that the railroad would run from the port through northern Mexico and into Kansas, making trade easier between Asia, Europe, and the United States. Part of the plan also included the development of a utopian colony, funded by people who bought stock in a corporation Owen set up. Eventually, Owen became more focused on his colony (and fighting to control his role as its leader). So, Arthur Stilwell joined the cause and carried on Owen’s vision, receiving funding from the government of Porfirio Diaz and U.S. communities and oil companies.
Work began in the 1890’s and continued slowly up until 1910, the start of the Mexican Revolution. Mexico was not able to fulfill its financial obligations as a result. And that pesky Pancho Villa kept attacking the trains. All work ceased. The project languished until the nationalization of the railroads in 1940. The Mexican government spent over a billion pesos between 1940 and 1961, when the line was completed.
The Chihuahua Pacific Railroad (El Chepe) is without a doubt, one of the engineering marvels of the world. The line from Los Mochis to Chihuahua includes 37 bridges, 86 tunnels, and rises 8,000 feet in a 410 mile trip. At one point the track even crosses over itself to gain elevation. And El Chepe is almost as fun to say as Los Mochis!
El Descanso Tunnel is 6,000 feet long. Chinipas Bridge is 335 feet high. The Rio Fuerte Bridge is 1,600 feet long. What was accomplished by the Mexican engineers and railroad workers was a feat beyond the capacity of many developing nations at the time. They were dealing with the Sierra Madre Occidental after all, a mountain range that had baffled engineers during the earlier phases of the project.
I was interrupted from my review by the sounding of the train’s whistle. The next part happened quickly, and it was a little like a free for all, as there were no railroad employees organizing the crowds. We lined up right next to the tracks where we anticipated our assigned car would be once the train stopped. Well, there was a yellow safely line we were supposed to stay behind, kind of like the one they paint on school sidewalks to keep kids out of the way of buses… You know how that goes.
The next part was very similar to the congestion experienced at elevators- -the people waiting to get on crowded the train doors, overwhelming the people trying to get off. The crowding was necessary though. This engineer did not mess around. The loading and unloading was finished in less than five minutes. The engineer blew the whistle twice. That was the signal to move fast and now. Fortunately, having read the background info, I was not one of the folks who was now making a sprint for the railroad cars.
My luck continued. Yep, snagged another window seat! A couple of folks in our group settled in for a nap. Another group headed for the bar. Me? I pulled out my “Authentic Copper Canyon Guide to El Chepe”, a kilometer by kilometer detailed explanation of what I would be seeing between El Fuerte and Bahuichivo, our destination that day. I had five hours of simple pleasures coming my way!