When Ecuador President General Eloy Alfaro took office in 1895, and announced that a new railway line would be built connecting the coastal city of Guayaquil with the capital, Quito, in the highlands, a fierce opposition arose starring both conservatives and liberals. Many people at that time thought the Andes could not be conquered by rail. Despite protests and discouragement, General Alfaro hired a couple of US contractors and tasked them to build the “most difficult railway in the world.” A partnership between the government and a North American firm was forged leading to the foundation of the Guayaquil and Quito Railway Company, and construction of the historic line began in 1899.
Photo credit: trenecuador.com
Building a railroad in the highlands was not an easy task. Frequent seismic activity, heavy rainfall, jaguars, poisonous snakes, malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever delayed progress. The most technically challenging part of this rail route, however, was a sheer rock face known as the Devil’s Nose, or Nariz del Diablo, that stood between Alausi and Sibambe. To ascend this 800 meter cliff, the engineers carved a series of steep switchbacks that allowed the train to climb at a gradient of 1-in-18 by alternately advancing and reversing up the tracks.
The railroad will rise with a grade of 3.5% along a narrow cornice cut by blasting the wall of the perpendicular rock of the Nose and will extend beyond the bifrucation of the railway. When the train goes beyond the bifrucation, a switchman will jump from the locomotive and raise the lever to change the track; then , the train will continue on its way up to the next narrow cornice, in reverse, until the next switchback. Then, the switchman will change the tracks again, and the train will continue on its way through the cornice, until crossing the Devil’s Nose.
It was said that the Devil’s Nose was damned by the Satan because he didn’t want a railway to be built there. And acts that goes against the Devil’s wishes are paid for in human lives. By the end of construction of the Nariz del Diablo portion of the track, more than 2,000 workers had died from disease, labor, or the climate. Among the casualties were workers brought from the English colonies in the Caribbean, mostly from Jamaica, hundreds of prisoners who were forced to work with promises of freedom, and Major John Harman, the chief engineer of the project himself.
Nevertheless, the completion and the first ascent of Nariz del Diablo in 1902 was one of the most incredible feat of railway engineering at that time.The line continued operating, with interruptions, until 1997 when landslides during El Nino devastated the tracks, effectively shutting down the entire line. Currently, only a 12-km stretch from Alausí to Sibambe is open that take tourists through gorgeous mountain scenery and a thrilling descent over Devil’s Nose