I Found the First Railway in Mexico but Where the Heck Is El Molino?
I am not a railfan, rail buff, train buff, railway enthusiast, railway buff, trainspotter, ferroequinologist or foamer, but I do love a good train. When I set my upcoming book in 19th century Veracruz, Mexico, I didn’t have any idea of the exact time period. A lot happened in the 19th century, especially in Mexico, but I figured that would sort itself out. SPOILER: it did. The moment I discovered that the first railway in Mexico stoked its first boiler for its inaugural run on September 15, 1850, I knew my story had to begin shortly after. Oh Mildred! If only life and writing were truly that easy.
In order to work this fun tidbit of history into my story, I needed details, but finding anything beyond the basics printed in the English language proved tricky. Not only was the information incomplete, I eventually discovered that at least one of the most important details that bloggers and graduate students have been including in their published works over the last few decades was dead wrong.
Where the heck is El Molino?
Remember earlier when I said that the first leg of the railway went from Veracruz to El Molino? Go look up El Molino, Mexico on Google Maps. I’ll wait. Yup, that’s what some authors found too. There is a suburb of Mexico City called El Molino, but the quick minded of you out there will already have spotted the problem. The distance of the first track was only 11.7 km (11.5 km in some sources — those may be wrong as well). Without looking at a map, you should know that Mexico City is a lot further than 11.7 km from Veracruz.
In fact, El Molino (the burb) is about 420 km (261 mi) from Veracruz. This small logistical incongruity didn’t stop some authors from calling the first destination of the train “El Molino, a suburb of Mexico City.” Someone published that mistake years ago and it’s been parroted so many times that it has become a pseudo-fact. But wait! There’s more!
Some publications simply hedged their bets and identified the location as El Molino, Veracruz. If you search for that, you will get two better sounding candidates but don’t be fooled. They only sound better because they are in the state of Veracruz. The first is a part of Orizaba, which looks great on a map because it’s on the way to Mexico City, so that must be it. Doh! Sorry. It’s 133 km (82.6 mi) from the city of Veracruz. Try again.
Okay, let’s try a possibly better candidate. El Molino, in the northern part of the state of Veracruz, looks better because it shows up on a map as a town, not a neighborhood or suburb. Bingo! But get ready for the sad trombone. It’s 470 km (292 mi) from Veracruz and in the wrong direction for traveling to Mexico City. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, but, hombre, it’s in the boonies.
Fortunately for me, I have an awesome Spanish Tutor. With his encouragement, I dove into Spanish language archives and found that the real El Molino was the name of the station, not a town. It sat near a place called Tejería, which by lucky coincidence was about 11.7 km from the location just outside the old Veracruz walls where they built the terminal.
But, darn it, I’m still frustrated. I couldn’t find why they called it El Molino. The sly trickster side of me suspects that somewhere in the paperwork was a requirement that they reach El Molino (the Mexico City suburb) before anyone got paid. So, after 13 years of trying to reach Mexico City, they built a station where they ran out of track and called it El Molino. If anyone knows the real reason behind calling the first stop El Molino, other than the boring reason that there was a mill nearby, or why they didn’t simply call it Tejería, please leave a comment below. I’d appreciate a source in English or Spanish if you have one. I might even thank you in the book.
Fun facts that are fun because they are facts
The locomotive for the first section of standard 1435 mm track was built in Belgium and christened “La Veracruzana” (destined to be the name of my first yacht). It was expected to maintain a blistering speed of around 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph). The train pulled five cars and the entire trip from one end of the railway to the other took 18 minutes.
The price for the trip varied. If you wanted to keep as much soot out of your hair as possible and sit on something other than a hard bench, you could pay un peso for a covered coach each way. If you didn’t mind riding with the baggage you could pay only dos reales. I have read the distinction between these two arrangements referred to as first class and second class. Personally, I would call riding with the baggage, zero class.
You were allowed to take stuff with you, but like airlines today, you had to pay. If your trunk weighed una arroba o más it would cost you un medio real. An arroba was about 11.34 kg of weight (25 lbs). If you have ever seen the types of trunks people used to drag around with them when traveling, you can see where they expected to make their money. Those trunks without a single petticoat inside likely weighed more than one arroba.
I enjoyed digging through all the resources in both English and Spanish to pull out the tiny details that, hopefully, add a hint of realism to my storytelling. Does it seem crazy to spend hours researching something that takes only a few minutes to work into a story and the reader will pass over in seconds? I don’t think so. Someone out there will appreciate the tiny details. I also think that holding details like this in my head as I write subtly impacts every related part of the story. Just wait until I tell you about chiqueadores.
If you follow me on Twitter (@gregorysherrow) you can find out more about my upcoming book and who knows what else. Choo! Choo!