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In the days of maxambomba

140 years ago, the country's first urban railroad was inaugurated in Recife.

Recife City Museum collectionThe maxambomba at Ponte d’Uchoa station: progress on tracksRecife City Museum collection

The nickname “Brazilian Venice” has always seemed to fit Recife very well. Cut by the Rivers Capibaribe and Beberibe, this island city, as writer Gilberto Freyre called it, had canoes as its main means of transport of people and of cargo to arrive in Olinda and to reach the settlements that formed on the banks of the rivers. Until the 1860’s, the use of horses and carriages that could traverse the swamp roads was very expensive for the majority of the 75 thousand inhabitants. The population of the capital of the state of Pernambuco was calling for services and improvements like sanitation, drinking water and lighting.

The city was already an important financial and commercial center of the time, with its export potential concentrated on sugarcane and cotton, but it lacked the conditions for giving an impulse to its development. The solution came in the form of an urban railroad, covered by a tiny locomotive that pulled passenger cars. The maxambomba –  a corruption of the English expression machine pump, as it ended up being popularly baptized, was the first system of urban transport on tracks in Brazil, inaugurated in January 1867.

The concession was given in 1863 by the provincial government to the English firm Brazilian Street Railway Company Limited, headquartered in London and made up of Brazilians and British – although in practice the three main management positions belonged to the British. The partners from Pernambuco were the Baron of Livramento, José Bernardo Galvão Alcoforado, and Antônio Luiz dos Santos. “Three single-track lines were opened to places where access was difficult for the inhabitants of Recife: Apipucos, Ramal dos Aflitos and Várzeas”, tells historian José Lins Duarte, the author of a dissertation on the theme, defended at the Federal University of Pernambuco. To construct the railroad, the city was modernized, with the construction of two large iron bridges and infrastructure services.

“To begin with, the railroad was very useful for the local elite, because it used to reach the mill areas.” With time, the mills were taken out of service and the land was subdivided for building houses, which benefited the poorer.  The prices fell for everybody: a carriage could cost a milréis for any distance. The train would charge 400 réis in the second class, and the amounts were differentiated, depending on the destination. The locomotives began with three cars, but went so far as to pull 17 of them. Until 1890, each one would carry 28 persons – afterwards, a new model was developed that doubled the passenger capacity.

The engines were made in the United Kingdom – in all, there were 14 locomotive in Brazil. “Constant repairs had to be made, and the Brazilian mechanical craftsmen, carpenters and boilermakers began to reproduce the parts and to replace the ones that came from abroad”, Duarte says. “In one of their inspection visits, the British praised this work as being of an excellent quality.”

The success of the maxambomba stimulated competition from other urban railroad companies on different routes within Recife and environs and stirred up trade. Before 1867, the stores would close at 6 pm. With the strong sunshine during the greater part of the day, the missies preferred to go shopping later, and commerce started to close at 9 pm, the latest time that the railroad used to operate. With 22 kilometers of tracks and 20 stations, the maxambomba lasted until 1914 – on some branches, it was only pensioned off in 1919. In its place, the electric trams came in.