At the southernmost tip of South America, beyond the Andes, lies the beautiful and colorful city of Ushuaia, regarded by some as the southernmost city of the world. And just beyond the city’s outskirts run a small steam railway originally built to serve the penal colony of Ushuaia. Today, the Southern Fuegian Railway takes tourists along the picturesque Pico Valley, through the thickly-forested Toro gorge and into the stunning national park.
Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, the island where Ushuaia is situated, was one of the last regions in the Americas to get colonized. It was first discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, and it was he who named the islands “Tierra del Fuego”, meaning Land of Fire, from all the fires and smokes he saw rising from the native settlements on the islands. Few Europeans attempted to land, and when they, did they almost wiped the indigenous population off with diseases such as smallpox and measles, against which the natives had no immunity. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the first settlers and missionaries arrived, and the city, as we know it today, began to take shape.
In the late 19th century, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego was turned into a penal colony by the Argentine government to house dangerous criminals. The prison was designed in the panopticon style with the wings radiating out like spokes from a wheel and a central tower from which the wardens observed the inmates. Because of its isolation, escape from the island was nearly impossible and as the years rolled by the poisoners became the unwilling colonist of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. They build the town with timber from the forest around the prison. They also built the railway to server the settlement and transport building materials.
Photo: Colm Linehan/Flickr
The original railway was built with wooden rails over which oxen pulled wagons. In 1909, prison officials upgraded the line to narrow gauge with steel rails and a steam locomotive. The line ran along the shore from the prison to the forestry camp, so that prisoners could bring firewood for heating and cooking as well as timber for building. The train became known as Tren de los Presos, or “Train of the Prisoners”.
The railway was gradually extended further into the forest into more remote areas as wood was exhausted. It followed the valley of the Pipo River into the higher terrain. Constant building allowed expansion of the prison and of the town, with prisoners providing many services and goods.
The prison closed in 1947 and in 1950 a naval base was established in Ushuaia. The city remained cut off from the rest of the world until after the end of the Falkland War in 1982 and the re-establishment of democracy in Argentina. The long-forgotten railway was rebuilt in 500 mm gauge and re-launched as a tourist railway. It was renamed the Southern Fuegian Railway or Tren del Fin del Mundo (the Train of the End of the World). It is the southernmost functioning railway in the world.
Tren del Fin del Mundo takes passengers through the stunning landscape of the Tierra del Fuego national park, past green fields, through thick forest and past rivers. Passengers get the chance to visit the old prison, now housing the main station of the railway, then ride along the old route originally built by prisoners.
Photo: Ksenia Ragozina/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Ceferino Mazzoleni/Flickr
# Shafik Meghji, Exploring an eerie old penal colony in Argentina, https://www.roughguides.com/article/exploring-an-eerie-old-penal-colony-in-argentina/
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Fuegian_Railway