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Building the Line

Building the Line
The line was built by the Italians during the colonial era as Ferrovie Eritree.  The mark FE is on buildings and equipment today.  It was the first railway to be constructed in East Africa.  Work began from Massawa in 1887.

Copyright 1975, GRAF
This image was captioned (in Italian) "The Station at Massawa about 1888"  in il Ferrovie Coloniali Italiane.
I don't know the occasion, but it is obviously an important event.  It probably is associated with the building of the railway.  (I should note that the picture was scanned from a half-tone made from an electrostatic copy.  It had to pass through many filters. I will attempt some improvements to this picture with time.)

Photo courtesy of Kristina Pålsson

Kristina Pålsson shows the above picture as Figure 1 in her thesis.  It is the only picture, it has been identified as the construction of the line.  On closer examination, the railroad is a Decauville.  If the picture was any better, I might be able to identify the time frame a little better.  However, it is definitely a ditch they are building.  One of the Italian colonial maps of Eritrea in the US Library of Congress shows two water pipe lines coming from wells inland somewhere near Otumlo.  My guess is that is what is being built here.  It is interesting to see the sectional track of the Decauville.

There is an interesting map of Italian Colonial Eritrea which shows the railroad only going as far as Ghinda.

Clicking on the map segment will open the site with the full map.

Photo from Renato Gaudio and Hans van der Splinter and Mebrat Tzehaie
The line was extended from Ghinda to Nefasit in 1910.

Copyright 1975, GRAF
In December of 1911, it reached Asmara.

By 1920, they had reached Keren.  I have a page with a complete timeline about the Railway. Renato has a timetable from this era.

The Italian narrow gauge of 95 cm was chosen to exploit surplus equipment.  This gauge was the most common narrow gauge shown in Italy in the early 60s.  As recently as 1985, Janes showed two operating 95 cm lines in Italy...Strade Ferrate Secondaria Meriodionali SpA near Napoli (Naples) and Ferrovie Nord Milano near Milan.  It was also used esclusively in Italian overseas areas such as Eritrea, Libya and Sardinia.

The rail reached its terminus at Biscia just beyond Agordat in 1932.  The line was 280 km long.  It was envisioned to join the Sudan Railway at Tessenai.  Expansion was halted when Musolini decided to invade neighboring Ethiopia.  The expansion effort went into upgrading the line from Massawa to Asmara to increase the capability to haul military supplies inland. Ferrovie Eritree was vital to the colonial infrastructure.

The construction required significant engineering to traverse the difficult terrain. The gradients between Massawa and Asmara are shown on the line profile.  The highest point is just east of Asmara at 2,394.5 m.  From there, it slopes into Asmara.  There are 65 bridges and 30 tunnels.  The longest tunnel is 320m.  Most were blasted through solid rock.  The crosing at the Obel River near Dogali  is a fourteen arch bridge.  All bridges were stone or concrete arch bridges east of Asmara.  There are viaducts before Nefasit and just after Devil's Doors.  East African Handbook shows Devil's Doors as the highest point of 2,128m.  Devil's Doors is at 110.4 km and the highest point is at 115 km from Massawa.  The handbook goes on to say that the gradient between Mai Atai and Damas is so steep that trains have to be split and hauled up half at a time.

Other Railway in Eritrea

In addition to Ferrovie Eritree, according to  Guide to Eritrea, the Italians built another short line south of Massawa which ran inland to a potash mine from the coast of the Red Sea.  This ran alongside a road from Badda 42 km inland to Adaito according to that guide.  Further information is contained on the page devoted to Decauville.

Before the Italians had this land the British Military had built a broad gauge inland some distance south of Massawa site which discribes a British Military Railway in Eritrea..  Some reports had it that it, too, was a 15 inch gauge, but another article stated it was a seven foot gauge.  Jennie Street has confirmed that it was 5 feet 6 inch gauge.  

This is a segment of an Italian map of Eritrea resident in the US Library of Congress titled "Carta dimostrativa della Colonia Eritrea" from 1896.  It states that the surveying, in part, is from material from (la spedizione inglese nel 1868) the 1868 English Expedition.

A few places have reported the Napier line as being the first railway in Africa.  However, this picture was identified as the first railroad in Africa when I found it.  The title was in German.  So, it could have been one of the German or at that time Prussian colonies..


This is definitely not a picture of that line.  The vegetation is too plentiful for the coast of the Horn of Africa.  A quick look at Google Earth will show green space being few and far between along that path.  It appears to be a military operation unrelated to Napier's.  It does not appear to be broad gauge but rather looks a little narrow.  42" gauge was used in several areas in colonial Africa.

This railway was built in 1867 and 1868 by the Royal Engineers.  A website said it ran inland from Zula to Magdala.  Zula is in the exact location of "Foro" in the Guide.  Magdala is identified as being 300 miles inland from Zula.  The railway was able to reach to within 12 miles of it. From the looks of it, the railroad did not run near that far. I will be importing the map into a Geographic Information System (GIS) and  measure the path length.  I''m trying to learn GIS; don't expect it over night.  I'll have to fix my errors of assumption first.

Magdala was the capital prior to being in Addis Abbaba.  Sir  Robert Napier's forces defeated Emperor Tewodros' forces at Magdala are released a number of hostages.  The ease of Tewodros' defeat lead to assumptions on behalf of the Italians at Adawa which lead to their defeat.

Magdala is identified in Historic Dictionary of Ethiopia and Eritrea as Amba Megdela a sharp sided mesa.


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