Nobody might actually believe it, but there really did used to be a Sierra Nevada Tram.
Now that the construction of Granada’s new tramline, the Metropolitano, is well underway, it seems a good time to remember its most illustrious predecessor – the “Tranvia de Sierra Nevada”. From 1925 to 1974 this much-loved little electric train carried goods and passengers from Puente Verde, in the Paseo de la Bomba, to Maitena and (from 1947) on to Charcon and the Barranco de San Juan, reaching an impressive altitude of 1,170m.
The tram was the brainchild of the famous Duque de San Pedro, Julio Quesada (1857-1936), a Spanish Grandee and landowner with a string of medieval titles nearly as long as the tramline and a very 20th century flair for innovative private enterprise. His businesses included sugar factories, luxury hotels, a hydroelectric station and a serpentine factory, but the Sierra Nevada tram was the venture he is best remembered for.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, access to Sierra Nevada involved difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys on foot and on horseback. From the mid-1700’s these magnificent mountains attracted many Spanish and foreign explorers – botanists, geologists, writers, painters and photographers – who brought back fascinating specimens of the unique flora and fauna, and works of art inspired by the formidable peaks of Veleta and Mulhacen.
In 1902 a road was constructed from Huetor Vega to the Llanos de Purche, to facilitate the exploitation of the Purche zinc mines, and Granada’s growing tourist industry was quick to grasp the opportunities this offered. By 1905 the Hotel Washington was offering excursions to the lake of Las Yeguas, and the Duque determined that his new hotel, the Alhambra Palace, would not be outdone: its wealthy and/or titled guests would have the chance to stay in an “Alpine” branch of the hotel high up in “La Suiza Andaluza”, and would be transported there by electric railway! In 1906 the British architect of the Alhambra Palace selected a site in the Maitena valley, above Charcon, for the “Hotel del Duque”, and recommended the building of a railway link from Granada, to benefit both the tourist trade and the economic development of the villages en route.
The next decade saw an outbreak of tranvia madness in Granada, with projects for a tram to the top of Mulhacen (by rail, cog rail, funicular and finally lift!), another by the Duque for a tram from the Alhambra Palace to the top of Veleta, and a Belgian proposal for a train from Granada to Almeria, with a 9.5km tunnel under Veleta, at a cost of 76.8 million pesetas. Not surprisingly, none of these came about, and the Duque finally went back to the original plan.
Construction of the hotel started in 1919, and in May 1920 work began on the railway line. The “Tranvia Ferrocarril Granada-Sierra Nevada” company was founded, along with a hydroelectric company (Maitena/Diechar), and in just under five years the tram and the hotel were inaugurated within a month of each other, in February and March of 1925. The hotel boasted 100 rooms, a had a swimming pool and ice-rink, and the central heating, kitchens, hot water and laundry all ran on electricity, in the best Swiss tradition. The total cost came to 2 million pesetas, mostly paid out of the Duque’s own pocket, while the final cost of the tram was 4,250,000 pesetas, rather more than the original estimate of 1,200,000 pesetas!
In 1925 the tramline reached Guejar Sierra, and by 1928 it had pushed on to Maitena, a short horse-and-carriage drive from the hotel. However, the Duque had badly underestimated costs and over-estimated profits – the hotel failed to attract many guests, and the tramline was never profitable. In 1936, on his deathbed, the Duque left the hotel to the Archbishopric of Granada, and today it remains Church property, being used as a retirement home for priests.
The tranvia struggled on, running up debts every year which the Duque paid off while he lived. In 1931 there was a strike of tram workers, following a wage dispute, which culminated in the State taking over the enterprise. The tram ran all through the war, despite the fact that the front line cut right through the Sierra, and under the administration of the state railway company the annual deficit almost disappeared.
The end of the Civil War saw a renewed interest in exploitation of the mineral and leisure resources of Sierra Nevada, and in repopulation of the mountain villages, such as Dúdar and Quéntar. The tram played a vital role in these projects, and between 1942 and 1945 there was considerable investment inimproving and extending the line. This project initially envisaged the line going as far as the Estrella Mines, with a two-stage cable car connection for skiers and tourists from the railhead up to the ski area below Hoya de La Mora, at 2,500m. This téléférique would be capable of carrying 210 passengers an hour, and the total cost was estimated at 17, 612,561 pesetas. It was approved by the Spanish Cortes in 1951, but never built, and the tramline ended definitively at the Barranco de San Juan, well below the mines (1947). The line now totalled 20.5 km, with 14 tunnels and 21 bridges,and provided a spectacular journey into the Sierra, with its waterfalls, forested hillsides, fearsome precipices and snow-covered peaks.
The heyday of the tranvia was unfortunately short-lived: in the 1960’s trams were being closed down all over Europe, and in the case of the Sierra Nevada tram the construction of the Canales dam, which would inundate part of the tramline, provided a perfect excuse.
The tranvia’s last journey took place on 19 January 1974 (14 years before the inauguration of the dam), and the people of Granada turned out in force to say goodbye to this unusual and emblematic form of mountain transport. One of the carriages was placed in the Paseo de la Bomba as a memento, but was burned down by vandals in 1993. However, for tranvia nostalgics, part of the tram route can be followed between Guejar Sierra and Barranco de San Juan. There is a delightful walk along the old line above the Rio Maitena, linking two excellent restaurants, and you can continue your tramway excursion by road at Charcon, where the old tunnels, station and other railway buildings can still be seen.
El Tranvia de Sierra Nevada, by Manuel Titos Martinez, Ed.Arguval, 1995