Charlie O’Malley gives a riveting account of the Buenso Aires to Mendoza railway
In the 1920s, visitors from Buenos Aires to Mendoza were always surprised at how much better the wine tasted in this western province than it did back home in the Capital. Like all wine regions, you could put it down to the “Chianti effect”, where the alluring effect of mountains and vineyards conspired to enchant the visitor and put a spell on their palate. However the real reason is much more mischevious. The wine was railed in huge tanks across the pampas – there then existed a ridiculous law that declared the wine could only be bottled in Buenos Aires. At each stop across the vast plains the locals would help themselves to some free vino, covering up their felony with a splash of wáter.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the railway coming to Mendoza, especially for the wine industry. Just like you can say devaluation kickstarted the recent wine boom in 2002, the steam train opened up a huge market of thirsty Mediterranean immigrants in BA. Suddenly wineries could shift their wine in one day to the capital and they were met with open arms and demijohns. The railway became that last important link between the vineyard and the consumer and some wineries such as Trapiche even had their own railway platforms constructed within the winery. Giol, the biggest winery in the World at the time, constructed a 2km pipeline that carried the wine directly to the railway station in Maipu.
The Buenos Aires – Pacific Railway Company was the original foreign investor. Registered in London in 1882, it instigated a building frenzy that transformed the landscape of Argentina. 47,000 kilometers of track were laid down across the great plains and over the Andes. Extravagant Victorian style railway stations were built in the most unlikely places with every brick, tile and signal box imported from England. The dream was to connect Valparaiso in Chile to Buenos Aires and the first Pacific train rolled into town in 1910. The sprawling network connected Santa fe, Cordoba, San Juan and San Luis and was a boon to regional industries, especially agriculture.
Many of the bridges that connected the towns were designed by one Edward Norton, a 24-year old engineer from England. He soon gave up rivets for grapes and started one of the first wineries in Lujan de Cuyo. Norton is now one of the big ten wineries in Argentina. Norton died in 1944, just as the railway craze was dying in Argentina. With time, trains would be abandoned for trucks and cars and the romance of the railway becane as old fashioned as sepia photographs. World War II broke the Britsh financially and they sold up to Peron in 1949 who nationalised the entire grid, renaming the Pacific Line the very imaginative San Martin line. Years of steady decline set in until Carlos Menem finally bit the bullet in 1990 and closed it down. The ralway company’s office in BA is now a well known shopping center – Galerias Pacifico.