The Railroads of the
Compañía Minera de Peñoles

George E. Hoke

This is a short history of the railroads owned and operated by the Peñoles Company in Northern Mexico with special emphasis on the Mapimí Railroad. Railroads were a vital part of the company and its success.

Mining has a long history in Mexico dating back to the conquistadors. The early mines primarily extracted silver from rich deposits that could easily be processed with the crude technology of the times. Development of lead, zinc, and copper had to await the coming of the railroads for transportation of machinery, ores, coal and coke, supplies, and delivery of the refined product.

Peñoles was reported to have been organized in March 1887. It later took over a small operation at Ojuela in the state of Durango. Ojuela was located high on a mountain above the town of Mapimí, about 30 miles north of Torreón. Mapimí was a very old town and the Spaniards discovered mines there as early as 1598. Modern development began in earnest about 1896. (Reference 1)

The company appeared to be well funded and development proceeded rapidly. They first built a 17 mile railroad from the main line of the Mexican Central at Bermejillo to a site just east of the village of Mapimí where a large smelter was constructed, photo #16. The mines at Ojuela about six miles south of Mapimí and considerably higher were accessed by a rack railroad, photos #14 and #15. Later a relatively level three mile branch was built to a mine shaft at América II.

The railroad was built to 30 inch gage, a somewhat unusual gage in North America. German money was coming into the company and this might have influenced the choice of 30 inch, which is almost the same as 75 centimeters, a not uncommon gage in Germany. Rail was 35 pounds to the yard. One might wonder why the line to Mapimí was not built standard gage. Construction across the desert would have cost very little more and the laborious trans-shipment of freight at Bermijillo could have been avoided. Had the company known how rich the mines at Ojuela were I believe they would likely have built more or all the railroads standard gage.

The first five road locomotives, ordered from Baldwin between July 1896 and January 1898 were 0-4-2 wheel arrangement, with outside frames. See photo #1. They had no tender and carried water in a saddle tank over the boiler and coal in a bin behind the cab but on the same frame as the engine. Couplers were link and pin and brakes were hand operated by brakemen riding the cars. Link and pin couplers and hand brakes were outlawed in the United States at about this time. Peñoles never abandoned the link and pin couplers, and as late as 1915 had not put air brakes on the original five road locomotives.

By October 1900 the original road locomotives must have been too small. Over the next few years three or four larger locomotives were ordered. They were outside frame 2-6-2's with a full tender. See photos #2 and #3. They were heavier and with leading and trailing trucks could be run faster without danger of derailing. The first two of this series still had hand brakes but the third was ordered with Westinghouse air brakes. Some time between 1911 and 1913 oil began to be substituted for coal. Oil was cheap in Mexico and it could be unloaded and transferred by pumping. Coal was usually transferred by hand shoveling.

Although these locomotives look very small they were heavier and had larger boilers than some standard gage locomotives Baldwin built in the mid-nineteen twenties for logging companies.

The railroad had an assortment of freight and passenger cars, flats, gondolas, boxcars, third class passenger cars, and most interesting, a "private car". The private car was larger than the third class cars and had clerestory roof and an observation platform about a quarter of the length of the car, maybe more like a veranda. See photo #4. The private car was used both on the main line and to Ojuela. All cars appear to have had eight wheels, two trucks. Car bodies were of wood construction; the frames probably also of wood. Freight cars were of heavy construction as they carried heavy loads for their size, and probably took quite a beating.

The main line from Bermijillo, 15 miles long ran to the smelter where the roundhouse was located. I don't know how the trains were dispatched, whether by telephone or by telegraphed train orders. Photos do show a telegraph or telephone line alongside the tracks. There was at least one siding between the smelter and Bermijillo, at La Zanja about six miles west of Bermijillo. A photo, #6, shows a train there consisting of a small locomotive and three tank cars in front of a square tank mounted on a stone building. It is labeled "Oil fuel at La Zanja, March 15, 1915. La Zanja means the gully or ditch. The tank looks more like a water tank and the area around the tank and the tank cars looks too clean to be carrying oil unless it was recently constructed. Why would oil be stored out in the country?

At Bermijillo the Mapimí Railroad connected not only with the Mexican Central but also to a little known 26 mile long freight only branch off of the Tlahualilo branch of the Mexican International railroad. The Tlahualilo branch provided an easy one line freight route to Eagle Pass, Texas, and a connection to the Southern Pacific. Peñoles used the Eagle Pass Lumber Company there to handle and trans-ship freight to and from the United States. Did Peñoles own the lumber company?

Peñoles owned and operated the Mapimí Railroad but it considered itself a common carrier and published its schedules in the Railway Official Guide just like any other railroad. Although operated for the convenience of the company they sold passenger tickets to the general public. In those days they didn't need to worry about liability so it was not a big deal! Other railroads owned by Peñoles did not publish their schedules. One reason to become a common carrier and publish schedules might have been railroad passes. It was common for railroads to exchange annual passes as a courtesy. Executives of the short line could travel all over the United States and Mexico on passes. In exchange the presidents of companies like the New York Central were given passes every year and were welcome to ride the Mapimí Railroad any time they pleased!

The Mapimí Railroad listed their schedules in the Official Guide of the Railways published in the United States. Research in issues available to me shows no listing in 1901. By 1910 schedules were published:

Lv. Bermijillo Ar. Mapimí Lv. Mapimí Ar. Bermijillo
8:15 AM   9:45 AM   5:00 AM   6:30 AM
1:15 PM   2:45 PM   10:45 AM   12:15 PM
        8:00 PM   9:30 PM

These trains made reasonable connections with the single northbound and southbound daily Mexican Central train from El Paso to Mexico City. One wonders how the third train to Bermijillo got back to Mapimí? Perhaps it was a mixed train.

Later Official Guides show a variety of listings. The 1916 Guide listed the railroad with no schedule shown due to erratic operation. Few Mexican railroads published schedules during the height of the Revolution. By 1926 there were two trains a day each way. The February 1941 Official Guide in a listing dated July 1939 showed operation suspended. Listings continued at least through July 1947.

It is not known where the line to the América II line split off from the main line. The original small tank type locomotives were probably used on this branch, photo #8. My father in a 1925 letter mentioned going from Ojuela to Mapimí by going down in the mine at Ojuela and through a tunnel to the América II mine shaft and from the surface there by way of "the gas car" to Mapimí. A photo of my Dad showed a little of the gas car. It looked somewhat like a section car but had much larger wheels, maybe about 18" in diameter. Could it have been built in the Mapimí shops?

The branch to Ojuela was about six miles long, the first three miles or so nearly level to "El Cambio" (the change) where the rack portion began for the 1000 foot climb to Ojuela (photos #7 and #9). The rack grade varied between 9 and 13.6 percent (Reference 6). The Abt rack system was utilized, the same type as was used on Pike's Peak, and probably the one that influenced the choice of system (References 6 and 7). See photos #10 and #14. The locomotives ran adhesion to El Cambio where the drive wheels were de-clutched and the rack engaged, although probably much of the time road locomotives were used from Mapimí to El Cambio and the rack locomotives only on the rack section. The rack locomotives were slower and cost more to operate and maintain.

The rack locomotives were two each Baldwin 0-6-2T, delivered December 1896 photo #12, and 2-6-2T, delivered 1898 & 1900 Photo #13, with outside frames and sloping boilers. They were Vauclain compound with inside valve gear and valves (Reference 9). The low pressure cylinder was above the high pressure cylinder. The Vauclain compounds were sort of a fad around the turn of the century and were generally not very successful or well liked. Most US roads soon got rid of them, but the high cost of rebuilding or conversion probably kept Peñoles from making any changes.

A normal train was 18 tons, two empties and one load of supplies going up and three loads totaling 36 tons going down. The locomotive was always on the downhill end of the train so as to prevent run away cars in the event of coupling failure. Four rack locomotives seems like a lot for a six mile railroad but it probably ran day and night. Repairs were sometimes difficult and one or more may have been out of service.

The mine complex at Ojuela was most interesting. The rack railroad terminated in a draw between two mountains, photos #11 and #15. Here were the head works for the mineshafts, boiler and compressor houses, repair shops, a large village for the workers complete with market, and offices, and quarters for the superintendents and the office staff (Reference 4).

Ojuela was most famous for its suspension bridge, photo #15. At 1067 feet long it was the second longest in the world when it was completed; only the Brooklyn Bridge was longer. It is still standing and for years after the mine was abandoned it was still listed in almanacs and bridge books as one of the world's longest bridges. It was built in 1899 by the Roebling Company, the same company that built the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge connected the facilities at Ojuela to other mineshafts across the canyon. The bridge was very narrow and had rails, probably 24 inch mine gage. Mine cars were pulled across the bridge by cable. It was never electrified and the bridge was too light for a steam locomotive. Because of its limber deck and long length the bridge was stabilized against wind loads by numerous guy wires off to each side.

The mine shafts at their deepest were almost 3000 feet deep. At its peak there were about 450 miles of tunnels and drifts, about the same as the distance to El Paso. The mine was interconnected to the mineshaft at América II and much ore was brought up that way after large water pumps were installed to de-water the lower depths of the mine.

The smelter complex at Mapimí was a very large enterprise. By 1910 there were six blast furnaces each capable of smelting 150 tons of ore daily, photo #16.

The mining and smelting at Mapimí was interrupted during part of the Mexican Revolution, particularly late in 1913 and much of 1914. Generally operations continued although sometimes at reduced levels due to problems getting supplies and transporting refined metals. Demand for metals kept prices high all through World War I. After the war demand dropped along with prices of metals and operations at Mapimí and Ojuela began a slow slide to eventual abandonment. About 1920 Peñoles came under American ownership as the American Metal Company, part of the world War I reparations from Germany.

The smelter at Mapimí was shut down about 1921 and the ore from Ojuela went to the newly purchased smelter at Torreón. The power plant was upgraded in 1925 to power the equipment and pumps in the mines and may have operated until 1932 when the mine flooded. About 1946 Peñoles quit all operations at Ojuela and turned the mine over to contract miners. The railroad was probably abandoned in the early 1930's after hauling out the surplus equipment and scrap from the mine and smelter. I was at Mapimí in the spring of 1941 and almost everything at the smelter was gone except the 300 foot tall stack which was about to be dismantled. No railroad tracks, locomotives, or cars were evident. After the mine shut down the locals discovered many beautiful mineral specimens in the mine working and Ojuela has become famous among mineral collectors (Reference 4).

Looking back on photos of the Mapimí Railroad it appears almost toy like. The locomotive are small and the narrow gage cars and track doesn't look capable of hauling much. Look again! Look at the photos of Ojuela and the smelter. Everything you see in the pictures except the adobe bricks in the buildings at the smelter were brought in over the railroad. Some large loads of machinery were hauled. In addition to the mine and smelter materials, all the fuel and food and supplies came in by rail also. Traffic at times must have been very heavy. It took about three narrow gage cars to carry what was delivered in Bermijillo in one boxcar or gondola car. Add two or three passenger trains a day.

Other Peñoles Railroads

Although the Mapimí Railroad was the largest of Peñoles rail operations there were two other major railroads of interest. The best known was an operation at Ávalos in the state of Zacatecas, about 75 miles southwest of Saltillo (Reference 5). It was a two foot gage line built in 1902 that ran nine miles west from Ávalos to a terminal where ore was loaded from an aerial tramway. The tramway came from a mine at Providencia. The interesting fact about this railroad was its engines, two very small 0-4-4-0 compound Mallet type, built in Germany by Orenstein-Koppel in 1908 and 1912, photo #17. They were very long lived locomotives, still in service in the 1960's, and one of them was brought to Colorado where it is still in use on the Cripple Creek and Victor tourist railroad. Now nearly 100 years old, this locomotive is a real tribute to the good care and maintenance by the Peñoles Company. Another point of interest is the circuitous trip the product of the mine to a refinery. The ore or concentrates from the mine were taken by aerial tramway to the terminal where it was loaded in the two foot gage cars. After the nine mile trip to Ávalos, photo #18, it was reloaded on the three foot narrow gage cars of the Coahuila and Zacatecas Railroad for a 64 mile run to Saltillo where it probably was transferred again to standard gage cars for shipment to a smelter or refinery. Labor intensive transportation! I'd like to know more about this railroad. Sometime, possibly in the late 1960's, Trains Magazine had something on the Ávalos operation in conjunction with a small article on the Coahuila & Zacatecas. I've been unable to locate the article.

The other railroad was the Conchos Railway also known as the Ferrocarril Minera de Naica. It ran from Conchos on the Mexican Central, about 75 miles south of Chihuahua 19 miles west to the mines at Naica (Reference 5). Like the Mapimí this railroad was 30 inch gage, but it utilized larger engines. They had three 2-8-2 outside frame Baldwin Mikados. Porter 0-4-4 tank type locomotives were used at the mine. The railroad was built by the Compañía Minera de Conchos about 1902 and they operated it until it was sold to Peñoles in 1920. The railroad may have operated until the end of World War II. There is apparently still some activity at the mine in Naica. I read in Smithsonian Magazine recently about some huge crystals discovered in the mine there.

Peñoles had large smelters in Torreón and Monterrey. The Monterrey operation also included a refinery where pigs of lead from the smelters were purified and the precious metals, gold and silver, were extracted from the lead. Peñoles had an assortment of locomotives at the smelters. Some were narrow gage and some were standard gage for switching inbound supplies and outbound product. Electric locomotives, photo #22, powered by a trolley wire were used extensively around the smelters, especially for hauling molten slag from the blast furnaces to the slag dumps. It was exciting to watch the molten slag being dumped at night.

Peñoles also had a small smelter at Villadama, located between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo. The name of the operating company was "Minerales y Metales. The railroad there was apparently more than just a line at the smelter since photo #19 shows a train out in the country. The line had 30" gage Porter locomotives (Reference 8). The smelter was closed about 1920 but a Brookville 30" gage internal combustion powered locomotive was delivered there in 1937. What was it used for?

The metal and coal mines also had an assortment of locomotives both narrow gage and standard gage. Porter and Whitcomb records show several locomotives delivered to Peñoles, (Reference 8) but without a location. They are included in the attached roster of Peñoles locomotives.

Peñoles on the Mainline

The Mexican railroads played an important part during the Mexican Revolution. All sides utilized the rails for transport of troops and supplies. When one faction controlled an area the opposing faction attempted to deny the opposition transportation by destroying the railroads. Locomotives, cars and bridges were blown up or burned. Rails were torn up and trains derailed. When transportation became so unreliable during 1913 and 1914 most mining companies shut down their operations temporarily. As things settled down the tracks and bridges were patched up but the equipment shortages continued. Most United States railroads either refused to let their cars cross the border or required a bond, all of which added to the equipment shortage in Mexico. It also increased costs and delays when freight had to be transferred to Mexican cars at the border crossing.

Peñoles solved the problem about 1915 by getting permission from the Mexican government to run their own trains on the government owned Mexican National Railways. They ran between mines and smelters and to the United States border. My grandmother's diary has several mentions of "taking the company train to ___". Many of these trips were in a boxcar, photo #20, but there is also mention of riding on top of a car of coal after a derailment.

Running trains on the Mexican National was costly to the company. Extra fuel and water had to be carried and sometimes a crew and materials to repair any damaged track or bridges encountered along the way. However this transportation was critical to company operations and ultimately Peñoles had 35 locomotives in service, mostly used locomotives from the United States. The A.S.&R. Company also had about 35 locomotives. The two companies owned several hundred freight cars (Reference 3).

Peñoles also leased and operated the Mexican Northern Railway for a time. This was a standard gage line built by American interests in 1891 running 125 miles east from Escalón on the Mexican Central to Sierra Mojada, a mining area. I don't know when it was first leased but Peñoles was operating it in 1920. This railroad was completely shut down by the revolution from April 1913 to January 1915 (Reference 2).

Not only did other mining companies run their own trains, but an American promoter Howard T. Oliver started running freight trains from the border to Mexico City in 1915. He was very successful and by 1921 he had 18 locomotives and was running five trains a week from the border well into the interior. In 1921 there were 49 companies running their own trains on Mexican tracks hauling much of the freight in Mexico. Private trains were quoted as shipping in ten days the same distance that required one to three months by government run trains.

The success of the private trains was too much for President Obregón and he confiscated Oliver's operation soon after. I don't know when the mining companies ceased operating on government tracks but Peñoles kept some of their locomotives in reserve until World War II. I remember seeing several locomotives in a shed in Monterrey in the spring of 1941. A photograph (#14) of a small Mogul at Villadama about 1916 or 1917 may be the only extant photo of this fleet of engines. Also of interest in this photo is the freight car belonging to a Mexican construction company.

The Peñoles Private Car

My father (George E. Hoke, Sr.) related a story to me that he had heard while he was working at Mapimí or Monterrey in the 1920's about a private car the company owned:

We had all kinds of railroads. We had a private car on Standard Gauge too, a very beautiful car bought from some executive in the United States. We bought it used and it was available to the management people. My Dad [the author's grandfather C. C. Hoke] eventually had a job that entitled him to use the private car if he wanted it. But he never did. If there was a group of people going some place he would go along, but the General Manager used it, the Traffic Manager and our, some of our very top people would. When people came down from New York, we'd send the car up to the border, even up to San Antonio so they could come into Mexico.

Many years ago when they bought the car it was delivered to the company probably in Laredo, Texas there was this black man on the car. He'd been with this car ever since it was built for the previous owners. If the car was out of service of for a week or a month and the railroad car was on a siding someplace he'd stay in the car and take care of it, guard it with his life you know. He was in this car and he declined to leave it. He says you can't take this car without me. I belong to this car. (It was probably the only home he had). They fought with the immigration and so forth and they finally got him cleared into Mexico. After all the years the company owned that car in Mexico this colored chap, porter, stayed right with it until they sold it to some big, some hacienda in Mexico. He went with it.

As is common in stories like this more questions are raised than answered. How did the colored man fare in Mexico? Did he learn Spanish? How long did he stay? To me there is another facet to the story. I wonder if the company, or at least one executive wasn't a little bit kind hearted. Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part. Standard procedure in Texas in those days would have been to call the sheriff and throw the black man out on the street.

Ownership of the private car was not a status thing. Many of Peñoles mines and smelters were located on branch lines that did not have Pullman sleeper or parlor cars, or dining cars. During periods of unrest such services were unreliable or not even available on mainline trains. Peñoles probably used their own locomotives to haul the private car especially when regular service was disrupted.

This mini-history is short on information about the employees and management of the Peñoles railroads. Around the turn of the century (1900) the company was considered German owned. Management and engineers included citizens from many countries, European and American. Some of the early managers and engineers at Mapimí and Ojuela included Santiago Minguin (German but with a Spanish sounding name) who was responsible for the design of the suspension bridge, Charles Reidt (American) who was responsible for the railroad and later mine manager, and Kuno B. Heberlein (Swiss) who later managed the mine and smelter. Many of the Germans left the company after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. The train crews and maintenance workers were Mexican but most of management above foreman were European or North American.

It has been difficult to get much information on Peñoles railroads. Not much has been written. I recently came across a book Railroads of Mexico by Fred W. Powell published in Boston in 1921 (Reference 2). I had hoped to get more information on the privately owned railroads and the short lines of northern Mexico. When I came to his chapter "Minor Lines" here is what he wrote:

Not only is there little available information about these small railroads, but such information as we have is generally conflicting. Their concessions, of course, are matters of official record, but one who would attempt to prepare a complete and accurate statement as to the identity of their builders, the history of their construction, their cost, capitalization, investment returns, or even their mileage, would soon find that his efforts might well be directed to more important and productive fields of research.

That is what Powell wrote about events that had happened in the previous thirty years. Here we are some eighty years later. Now I don't feel badly about not learning more about these railroads!

My father who passed away at age 98 in October 2000 was probably one of the last to have had any personal experience around Mapimí and Ojuela before 1925.

Peñoles Rosters

Click here to view motive power rosters of the various Peñoles railroads.


1. Marvin D. Bernstein, The Mexican Mining Industry, 1890-1950 (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1964). A comprehensive history of mining in Mexico including some on Peñoles, little or nothing on railroads.

2. Fred Wilbur Powell, The Railroads of Mexico, (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1921).

3. Howard T. Oliver, How I Ran My Own Trains in Mexico (Railroad Magazine, November 1937)

4. Thomas P. Moore and Peter K. M. Megaw, The Ojuela Mine (Mineralogical Record Sept, Oct 2003, Volume 34 #5) An excellent history of the mine at Ojuela with many references, little on railroads.

5. Gerald M. Best, Mexican Narrow Gauge (Howell-North Books, Berkeley, California 1968 & 1971)

6. Author unknown, A Heavy Grade. (Locomotive Engineering Magazine April 1900) A short article on the rack railroad and its locomotives.

7. Walter Hefti, Zahnradbahnen der Welt, (Birkhauser 1971, ISBN 3764305509) Data and dimensions of the rack and the locomotives as originally published in 1903 in Glasers Annalen, a German railway technical magazine. Information provided by Eljas Polho in Finland.

8. Bob Lemuth, Compendium of Locomotives From Minor Builders-Mexico ( ). Rosters of Porter, Whitcomb, and Brookville.

9. Specification For Engine, Baldwin Locomotive Works, various years. (De Golyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas Texas).


Photo #1 Baldwin 0-4-2 road locomotive

Photo #2 Baldwin 2-6-2 road locomotive

Photo #3 2-6-2 Road locomotive at Mapimí with soldiers

Photo #4 Mapimí RR coaches and private car

Photo #5 American Car and Foundry builders photo of early passenger car.

Photo #6 0-4-2 tank type locomotive.

Photo #7 Rack locomotive and 0-4-2 locomotive at El Cambio

Photo #8 Ore train on branch to América II mineshaft.

Photo #9 El Cambio, rack railroad to Ojuela in left background

Photo #10 Rack road and alternative motive power

Photo #11 Rack locomotive and train at Ojuela

Photo #12 Baldwin 0-6-2 rack locomotive December 1896

Photo #13 Baldwin 2-6-2 Rack locomotive January 1898

Photo #14 Rack railroad grade from Ojuela

Photo #15 Ojuela and suspension bridge

Photo #16 Smelter at Mapimí 1910

Photo #17 German mallet at Ávalos 1960's.

Photo #18 Location unknown but probably on Ávalos line

Photo #19 Porter locomotive, location unknown, probably Minerales y Metales line.

Photo #20 Boxcar "Pullman".

Photo #21 Peñoles 2-6-0 at Villadama about 1916

Photo #22 Baldwin-Westinghouse electric for use at smelter, (trolley pole missing) 1903

Photo #23 1909 pass signed by Kuno B. Heberlein

About the photos:

Photos #2, #3, #4, #8, #10, #11, #14, #15, #16, #18, #19, #20 and #21 came from my grandfather C. C. Hoke's albums of family photos and construction photos. He worked at Mapimí from 1907-1920 and was later chief mechanical and electrical engineer for the company. Many of these photos were enlarged from small snapshots.

Photos #1 and #6 were taken by A. B. Carstens, a company executive.

Photo #5 came from James Hickey's American Car and Foundry builders photos,

Photo #7 and #9 came from the De Golyer Library at Southern Methodist University.

Photos #12, #13, and #22 came from the Broadbelt Collection of Baldwin builders photos.

Photo #17 came from Harold Vollrath.

Photo #23 copy of pass in possession of author.

© 2006 George E. Hoke

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