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Taking salt to the sea 1, the FC de la Península Valdéz


On the Valdés Peninsula north-east of Puerto Madryn there are large salt pans lying well below sea level (see photo above). In 1900 Ernesto Piaggio obtained a government concession to build a 76cm. gauge railway from Puerto Piramides to the Salina Grande salt pan, twenty miles (34km.) inland (1). The line opened in June 1901, and was transferred to a salt extracting company, Ferro & Piaggio, owned by Piaggio, the brothers Alejandro and José Ferro and a Señor Munno (or Musso?) two years later. The Ferro brothers owned the largest estancia in the area and even today it is still in the Ferro family. Eventually the business, La Salinera Argentina, reverted to Piaggio y Cia. Ernesto Piaggio also ran ships down the Patagonian coast.

Somewhat puzzlingly, E. Piaggio applied for and was granted a concession to build a railway from the salt pans to an alternative port, San José on the north side of the isthmus, in 1904 (2). There is no evidence that this was ever begun, and it may well have been one of those proposals intended more to apply pressure on a third party than to be actually constructed.

The company had the rights to 15,000ha of the Salina Chica, but it was their 25ha in the Salina Grande which was worked for domestic salt. In the best years they extracted up to 12,000 tons.

The map extract below shows the peninsula, with the railway highlighted in red. This, and a larger scale extract further down the page, are taken from a Chubut land ownership map of the 1920s (3).



A locomotive and train in the salina. Mounds of salt can be seen.



The route
The railway had first to climb out of the salina, before traversing the flat top of the peninsula and finally finding a way down into the hollow in which the small port of Puerto Piramides lies. It terminated at a muelle (jetty) which was built out on a natural rock platform. The terminus also had a workshop and a triangle for turning locos. Overall, the line was 32.357 kms. long.



A 1930 photo, after the closure of the railway but before it was dismantled, looks the other way from the jetty inland (13). There is track visible at low level to the right of the picture, but none on the upper ledge to the left.


In the photo below the line has reached the bottom of the port's bowl and crosses from bottom left to middle right before terminating top left at the muelle (10)


To confuse matters, the Admiralty chart section below (from chart no. 3226, edition of 1931) shows the line climbing northwards from the bay before turning east. This chart acknowledged an Argentine Government plan of 1917 as its source for topographic detail.



Another 1930 photo looks down into the bowl which contains Pto. Piramides from the east (13). The present day track from the town to the east can be seen as a steady gradient climbing the hill on the right of the photo. This may have been the railway route but it is very steep for an adhesion-worked line.




An enlarged extract of the land-ownership map shown earlier is reproduced below. The railway can be seen as a black and white hatched line leaving Pto. Piramides eastwards before turning ESE and running mostly on the south side of the original road to the salina. Two intermediate stations are marked before the line makes a final turn to drop north-eastwards into the depression holding the salt pan. The names Piaggio and Ferro, the railway's main backers, show up clearly as owners of a number of plots of land.



Puerto Piramides bay and basin from the south. The flat-topped nature of the peninsula can be seen. The muelle was at the left (west) end of the bay, and the railway ran from there back across the low ground behind the pueblo before starting its climb eastward.




Tracing the route using Google Earth
Readers who have the Google Earth program can right click (control-click on a Mac) on the following link:

FC salina Pen Valdes on Google

Save the file to your desktop and double-click to decompress it. Open the folder and drag the KMZ file onto Google Earth's Places palette. You will now find that you have placemarks for each of the main locations along the route, and a path to enable you to 'fly through' the route as if in a helicopter. Select this and click on the start button to commence the flight.

Pen. Valdes trackbed A flight along the trackbed from Puerto Piramides to the terminus on the edge of the salina..

Generally the route is clearer without the overlying vector path being checked and visible, but with the appropriate station placemarks checked. Flights or 'tours' in this website are best done with the Google Earth touring preferences set to a camera tilt angle of about 60 degrees, and a camera range of about 300m.

Engines, wagons and a coach
The railway had five locomotives (3):

Wheel arrange-ment

Builder & number

Date built



Krauss 2249


Previously it has been assumed that this loco was bought from an earlier owner as it seemed to predate the Pen. Valdez railway by a decade. In the published O&K builder's lists (5) it is recorded as originally delivered via Arthur Koppel bearing the name 'Colonel Orzabal' but to whom is not known.
However, the hill immediately east of Puerto Piramides, and adjacent to the track from the salina is named 'Cerro Olazabal'. It is at least possible that this was the loco's name, mangled in transcription; that it was delivered directly to this railway, and that the railway therefore dates from much earlier than the date of the official concession.


Jung 451


Purchased new via Authur Koppel, Berlin. 40hp, 7.4 tonnes. Constructed to 75cm gauge not 76cm (6).

0-6-0T or 0-6-2T?

O & K
3 un-known locos

There is confusion over these three locos. One of them has been quoted as O&K no. 1351 of 1904, but this was an 0-4-0T built to 60cm gauge. The 0-4-0 well tank remains still lying at Puerto Piramide have been attributed to this loco but are more likely to come from Krauss 0-4-0T no 2249 mentioned above. Unidentified O&K six -coupled locos built to 75/76cm gauge for Argentina between 1904 and 1915 include nos. 1280, 1492, & 3205. Since the creditors of the railway on its closure included Messrs Duhncrack und sohn who were O&K agents, it seems likely that they had been the ordering agents for the last locos,

The line possessed three or four stations and was obviously run as a proper passenger-carrying railway, for as well as ten bogie wagons there was a passenger coach. A list dating from 1903 suggests that there were as many as thirty wagons in total, and one furgon (7). 1902 traffic figures quoted in the same report were 2330 tonnes of goods but no passengers.

Conflicting reports tell of rails weighing 3, 5 & 7 Kgs. per metre or 10, 15 and 27 Kgs which sound more likely. The latter figures come from the 1902 Estadística volume which also suggests that 15 kms. had steel sleepers whilst 17.8 kms. had wooden ones. Buildings were reported as being fairly precarious - galpones, houses and police post all being faced with corrugated iron, though that is not unusual in such a dry climate. In 1900 one driver was the father of George Thomas who became the station-master at Trelew (8). Passenger fares are recorded as having been $1m/n single and $1.50 m/n return.

The photo below shows what is probably the Krauss 0-4-0T at the same point as the picture above, just about to start the climb out of Puerto Piramides. The wagons are bogie stock with semi-circular ends. One of them has been converted into a water carrier.



The pictures below show wagons in the salina. Those in the first picture appear very different from those seen above. They seem to have substantial wooden sides. The wagons in the second picture may be the same as those in the previous one but this time the sides have been let down.



A pair of bogie flats, one with semi-circular ends, stand at Pto. Piramides.


The picture below shows the single four-wheeled coach as it was after some years of abandonment in the early 1920s (10). It appears to have had end balconies with a hand brake handle attached to at least one of the end handrails, and a clerestory roof. This is very similar to small carriages supplied by Messrs Koppel to other railways in the first decade of the 20th century.


The 1926 US Dept. of Commerce report (9) suggests the railway went bankrupt in 1916. A webpage on Puerto Piramides suggests that the salt-extracting company got into trouble as early as 1904 and was eventually bought out in 1920 by Alejandro Ferro but that exploitation of the salt had ceased by then, and that the population declined thereafter until tourism began in the 1960s. It is notable that one of the creditors was the firm of Duhncrack und sohn, perhaps not fully paid for their locomotives. A book by one of Señor Ferro's descendents states that the rails were lifted in 1943 (11).

As well as the bare frames of one of the locomotives lying in the village of Puerto Piramides, there are a few relics in the Peninsula Valdes Museum and Visitors' Centre. The pictures below show their collection of wheelsets, sleepers and stencil cut signs.



The trackbed is also visible in specific places, though only where earth works or other features draw attention to it. In a dry climate the track was largely laid directly at ground level. Ninety years since closure mean that the local thorn scrub has had plenty of time to obscure the route, and for much of its length only an observer in an aircraft (or using Google Earth) would be able to identify the location of the rails.




Starting from the ship loading point at the west end of Puerto Piramide, the obvious path for the railway is visible as a ledge which passes behind some of the tourist kiosks and cafés. However, see the 1930 photo above which shows track only at a lower level. There also survives a door hiding a cave in which salt and other cargo was kept.





The railway's route comes out onto the main street and heads eastward along it. There is a café named La Estación but whether this was truly the railway's own station is not clear.




Some years ago the battered frames of one of the locos, and a pair of wagon bogies, were retrieved from their watery grave in the sea. They are now displayed by the side of the main street, Avenida de las Ballenas, where it widens out to form a plaza. However, be warned, these are the most rusty relics ever seen. If they had been constructed of steel rather than iron they would probably not have survived at all. As it is one wagon axle is a modern replacement and most of the wagon wheelsets are not attached to the frames.






The railway must then have diverged left from the main street and take the route up the hillside followed by a modern track. This is very steep for a railway, possibly 1 in 20 at best, but there seems no alternative. At least the uphill trains would have been largely empty. Señor Jorge Waddell of the Fundación Museo Ferroviario in Buenos Aires has speculated that the railway may have used a zigzag to gain height at this end of the line as well as at the salina, but no physical evidence to confirm this has yet been found (12).


Out on the meseta the route is only occasionally visible, as explained above. There are one or two places where it can be identified from the main peninsula road, particularly near the right-angled bend which the road makes east of the town before heading south-east towards Punta Delgada.




These two photos, above and below, were taken from the same point where an embankment is visible south of the road. Looking west (above) shows a shallow cutting, with one iron sleeper still in view. Looking east (below) a low embankment curves slightly as it heads towards the salina.




The route continues to parallel the main road until the final descent into the salina. However the majority cannot be seen from the road and would need investigation on foot.


The trackbed crosses the main road diagonally, roughly at the point where the farm track to 'Los Manantiales' leaves the road. From this point on the route has not been followed yet. If any reader does adventure this far, please remember that this is all private land and that permission should be obtained from 'Los Manantiales' before setting out. Further advice will be gladly given if you contact the authors. Do remember that this is semi-desert and a long way from help, so make your preparations carefully. No maps cover the area in sufficient detail so it would be sensible to carry printed extracts from Google Earth or other hi-res satellite photography source.


The visit in 2011 showed that much of the south side of the salina is currently covered in sand rather than salt. If tthat was always the case it may be that rail tracks ran further out across the flat surface, not merely starting near the edge.




Whilst the actual route down to the salina has not yet been followed, a preliminary reconnaisance in May 2011 did reveal a number of relics, so there may yet be more to find. Above is a skip body lying in a farmyard, whilst below is one of a large number of lengths of rail, in this case serving as a fence-post on the salina itself.

If anyone does explore further, we would very much appreciate any additional information, and any photographs.


1 Date of the concession 10 January 1900, by law no. 3898; date of the contract and of the decree of approval 20 April 1900. Dates quoted in Estadística de los Ferrocarriles en explotación, tomo Xl, año 1902. 1903. Buenos Aires. p228.
2 Reports in The Review of the River Plate July 23 1904 p251, and October 8 1904 p739.
3 Chubut land ownership map, scale 1:500,000, found in the National Archives, Kew, London.
4 Industrial Railways of Argentina (a list of all known locos). revised 1998. Reg Carter. Duplicated, spiral bound. 46 Mill St., Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, KT1 2RF. UK.
5 O. & K. Dampflokomotiven - Lieferverzeichnis 1892-1945. R. Bude, K. Fricke & Dr. M. Murray, 1978. Railroadiana Verlag.
6 Locomotivfabriken, version 3. 2001. A CD-ROM of builders lists and other information by Jens Merte, in German.
7 Estadística de los Ferrocarriles en explotación, tomo Xl, año 1902. 1903. Buenos Aires. p228.
8 Informal interview with Mr. Thomas in 1975.
9 Railways of South America: Part I: Argentina. (William Rodney Long (& George S. Brady?), U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce - Trade Promotion Series No. 32, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 1926.
10 La Patagonia Como La Conocí, by Emilio E. J. Ferro. Published by Marymar, date unknown.

12 Personal conversation, May 2011.
13 Photos reproduced by kind permission of the Comodoro Rivadavia - fotos antiguos Facebook group.


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Cabo Blanco salina

An assortment of industrial railways

Chapter 12

Salt carrying railways


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Peninsula Valdes

Cabo Blanco

On the Neuquén line

Album of photos of the Las Barrancas line


1 History of Cabo Blanco

2 Text by Fransisco Scardin

Home page Central of Chubut FCS to Neuquén FCE broad gauge EFE broad gauge Chiloe Island FCE 75cm gauge Estancia railways Coal  railways Ushuaia old & new The South Atlantic Salt railways Industrial lines Resources