This story tells of things past when I was in Asmara. As I traveled over roads and down byways there, time and again I would stumble over large cement boxes in the ground. And I noticed notches on ridges, notches that were in a line from ridge to ridge.
In time I discovered that I had been looking at the remains of an aerial cableway, a tramway. The Italians had built it in the 1930s. These empty boxes and notches turned out to be the remains of another Italian engineering accomplishment in Eritrea. They had built the current road and railroad from Massawa up to Asmara on the edge of the plateau in the early 1900s.
Asmara, the capital and center of all Italian efforts in Eritrea, sat on the edge of a plateau at 7600 feet and only 56 km (35 mi.) by air from the Red Sea. But the railroad and road took more than twice that distance. The first half from Massawa crossed fiercely hot and arid land. The second half negotiated steep mountains with narrow and winding routes.
In 1935 as the Italians began to gear up for their invasion of Ethiopia, they looked for ways to improve their supply efforts. It was not easy getting the amount of materials they wanted up to Asmara and on into the interior from the port of Massawa.
As part of that effort, they considered a tramway from Asmara to Ghinda on the lower edge for the high mountains just above the dry, arid lowlands. They projected that they could double the amount of materials they had been currently transporting from the coast to the interior.
As proof of the feasibility of the project, they pointed to a 40km (25 mi.) three-cable tramway between Granada and the port of Motril in Spain and a similar 60 km (37 mi.) tramway in Indochina. And there was also the 200 km (124mi.) single-cable version in Columbia between Bogota and the sea.
The venture was approved and the general contract given to Ceretti and Tanfani S. A. of Milan. The motors were to be supplied by S. A. Franco Tosi of Lengano. The cables were the responsibility of S. A. Giuseppe & Fratello Redaelli of Milan. Finally all the physical work of digging and building the materials was contracted locally.
They started immediately on the Asmara-Ghinda section. Work progressed quickly even though all materials, including the motors and heavy spools of cable had to be transported to locations that in many cases far removed from existing roads. This first section crossed deep mountain valleys and high ridges. Even so the excavation and construction of the machine and operations buildings, the cable towers, the counter-balance pits, and all the other particulars went so quickly that they were able to test the route in June of 1936.
Where terrain broke men's backs on the first half of the route, the sunburned their hands and spirits on the Ghinda-Massawa half. In many cases the heat kept work to less than five hours a day. this second half was completed in early 1937, the whole project taking only 16 months.
The Route of the Tramway
Beginning in Godaif in the southern area of Asmara the route went east and a bit north to Nefasit with a station half way between in the remote Golei. In order to be fairly near the existing road for maintenance, it turned sharply north at Nefasit and continued on to Massawa in a gentle ark to the east with stations at Enbatkalla, Ghinda, Sabarguma, Dig Dig, Mai Atal, Dogali, and Zaga where it split with one route going south to the munitions dump and the other east to the Campo de Marte.