This intriguing little ephemeral map depicts the first railway in Venezuela, the Ferrocarril Bolívar (Bolivar Railway), and specifically shows the first leg of which that ran from the port of Tucacas to the famous Aroa Copper Mines, completed in 1877. The railway was constructed and operated by the Bolivar Railway Company, a subsidiary of a British consortium, the New Quebrada Company Limited, which likewise owned the mines. The map was issued around 1880 by the company as a promotional piece to attract British investors, as New Quebrada sought additional capital to both expand its mining operations and, eventually, the railway network.
The map depicts a sizable tract of north-western Venezuela, embracing parts of Falcón, Yaracuy, Lara and Carabobo states, extending from the Caribbean littoral inland as far as Barquisimeto. As noted in the ‘Reference’ (lower left), the completed segment of the railway is marked by a bold orange line, while the Cart Road from La Luz to Barquisimeto (likewise completed by New Quebrada in 1877) is marked by a bold intermittent orange line. The company also operated a steamboat service between the ports of Tucacas and Puerto Cabello, marked by a thin intermittent orange line. Major towns, rivers and mines are marked, while the countryside features annotations referring to ‘Richly Cultivated Land’. The image is one of a progressive, fertile, civilized region, abounding in natural resources, and open to economic development – exactly the message New Quebrada wanted to send to its largely British investors!
While featuring no imprint or date, the map was almost certainty printed in London, around 1880, not long after the first (Tucacas-La Luz) leg of the railway and the La Luz-Barquisimeto Cart Road had been completed in 1877, but before plans were seriously underway to extend the railway form La Luz southwards.
The Aroa Mines & the Ferrocarril Bolívar
The rich copper deposits at Aroa had been mined in a formal manner since 1632. Near the end of the 17th Century, the Aroa mines were controlled by the Cobre Caracas enterprise, owned by the family that would later sire Simón Bolívar (1783 – 1830), the ‘Liberator’ of South America. At the beginning of the 19th Century, Alexander von Humboldt remarked that the mines produced amongst the finest copper on the planet.
During the South American Wars of Independence, Simón Bolívar granted concessions at the Aroa mines to British concerns, in an effort to raise money for the conflict. In 1824, he formally leased the mines to Cornish entrepreneurs. Cornwall had long been a source of copper and tin, and so produced a large number of experienced specialist miners. Over the next century, many Cornish miners emigrated to Aroa, creating an extraordinary little society deep within Venezuela. In 1832, Bolívar’s sisters sold the Aroa mines to Robert Dent, head of the Bolívar Mining Association, a British joint-stock company. The Association’s rights were subsequently taken up by the New Quebrada Company.
While the Aroa mines were highly productive, and copper prices were booming in the mid to late 19th Century, the mines were located amidst rugged country, 145 kilometres from the sea. The technical difficulty of transporting the copper to market was a major drag on profitability.
In 1873, New Quebrada floated bonds, for 31 million Bolivars, to build a railway from Tucacas to the Aroa mines. Mainly British investors purchased the bonds, while German engineers constructed the railway. This first 145 km of the line was completed in February 1877, while a cart road continuing southwards to the major regional centre of Barquisimeto was finished later that year.
Following a promotional campaign, of which the present map was a part, the Company raised funds to extend the Bolivar Railway another 87 kilometres to Barquisimeto, which was completed in 1891. The Aroa mines continued to produce high yields of copper until the Great Depression forced their closure in 1936. The Bolivar Railway is still used to this day, and for much of the last generation has been the only operational passenger line in Venezuela.
A Note on Rarity
The present map is an extremely rare ephemeral piece; we cannot even trace a reference to the map, let alone the locations of any other examples.
References: N / A – Seemingly Unrecorded. Cf. [Re: Bolivar Railway:] Douglas Yarrington, A Coffee Frontier: Land, Society, and Politics in Duaca, Venezuela, 1830–1936 (Pittsburgh, 1997), p. 35.