Tramway to a trade empire

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An engineering marvel: Remnants of the Cochin State Forest Tramway in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Palakkad
An engineering marvel: Remnants of the Cochin State Forest Tramway in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Palakkad

G. Prabhakaran

PALAKKAD: The 49.5-mile Cochin State Forest Tramway laid in 1901 across a portion of the Western Ghats from Parambikulam in Palakkad district to Chalakudy ensured a place for present day Cochin in the world map of trade and commerce.

The tramway, laid between Parambikulam and the plains of Chalakudy, 40 km north of Cochin, now forms a part of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve (PTR). The wildlife sanctuary now plans to conduct an eco-friendly trekking programme for those who wish to explore nature, history and heritage through the lush green forests.

The tramway was built during the reign of Rama Varma ‘Rajarshi’ who ruled the State of Cochin from 1895 to 1914. Teak and rosewood that were brought to Chalakudy were shipped across continents from the Cochin port and was used for ship-building in the U.K and sleepers in many railways across the world. There was even a ‘brand’ called ‘Cochin Teak.’

Conceived by J.C. Kolhoff, first Conservator of Forests, Cochin, the project was implemented by V. Alwar Chetty, a forest officer on special duty. The initial survey and route alignment were done by British officers Haldwell and Floukes. The first tramway engineer who cleared the forests and laid the lines was R.E. Haffield. Orenstein and Koppel of Germany supplied the locomotives, rolling stock and machinery for the tramway. P&W MacLennan of the U.K. supplied the bridges and culverts. K.R. Menon was the last tramway engineer.

The entire length of the tramway was divided into three sections. One started from Chalakudy to Anapantham, covering a distance of 21 miles. The second covered six miles from Kavalai to Pothupara. The third section was from Komalapara up to the last point, Chinnar, now submerged under Parambikulam reservoir, covering a distance of 22.5 miles.

The system worked on rollers and cables with double lines. Empty wagons were rolled up while loaded wagons were pushed down along the other rails. The tramway was inaugurated by the then Governor of Madras Sir Arthur Oliver Villers Russel, 2nd Baron Ampthill, on October 3, 1905.

This engineering marvel was set up to tap the State treasury of Cochin. The money was used to equip Cochin with its modern port. The Wellington Island, roads, bridges and educational institutions of Cochin were funded from the earnings by the tramway. Rama Varma ‘Rajarshi’ wrote in his autobiography: “In October 1903, I made an extensive tour in the Parambikulam and Nelliampathy forests. I followed the alignment adopted for my journey to Parambikulam. The discomfort of the journey was more than compensated by the magnificent scenery. Throughout the route, I saw endless avenues of trees of immense girth and height and of variegated foliage…”

Dr. Salim Ali, who stayed in Parambikulam for long to study its birds, used the tramway route for his research expeditions and has identified more than 100 species of birds along the entire stretch of the tramway. After 50 years of running successfully and creating history by making Cochin a present day commercial harbour, the Cochin State Forest Tramway was abolished in 1951 on the basis of a special finance committee report.




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