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Located 90km from the capital Asuncion, the town of Sapucai is known for its fascinating railway complex. The town of Sapucai was constructed between 1887 and 1894, and became not just a station on the line, but a place where the steam locomotive trains were repaired and constructed.
The history of the railway in Paraguay goes way back in the mid nineteenth century when the construction of the railway was issued by the government of Carlos Antonio Lopez, who hired British engineers to be in charge. The main aim was to unite surrounding villages and the interior with the capital city in order to facilitate the marketing of natural resources of the country. This railway system was one of the first railway lines to be laid down in the region, and it has also been said that it was on this railway line that the first ever train journey took place in South America. It was on 14th June 1861 that the first train made its journey from the central station in Asuncion.
The railway system in Paraguay consisted primarily of a 376 km main line of standard gauge between the capital Asuncion and Encarnacion, a city located close to the Argentinean border. Since the opening of the railway line in 1861 to its culmination in 1919, the construction was separated into two stages. The first stage corresponded to the period of Lopez before the War of the Triple Alliance, and the second stage during which the administration was passed from the government to private companies. It was during this second stage in 1894 that the railway complex of Sapucai was constructed complete with its station, a workshop, office buildings and warehouses. Engineering technicians from Britain came to Sapucai to work in the workshop, where repairs and assembling of the trains were carried out. To accommodate for the community of British railway engineers, an “English Village (Villa Inglesa)” was built, which was an estate of houses near the railway complex. A school for the children of the British community was also built there, which was the first English-language school in the country.
In the late twentieth century, the railway network of Paraguay came to a slow down and the railway route through Sapucai came to a halt. Many people lost their jobs, and a bustling town which was once full of energy eventually lost its vigor. However, the workshop still remained open despite the huge drop in the number of workers and activity, and continued to manufacture and provide needed parts for the steam locomotive trains that were still running in other parts of the country.
Even till this day the workshop continues its operation, despite the machinery being extremely old and long exceeding its useful life. The role of the workshop continues to hold great importance for the country’s railway system, because the international market no longer has replacement parts for steam locomotive trains, and therefore the country relies on the workshop of Sapucai to produce the needed parts.
Since the beginning of the year 2010, a tourism project to restore the collapsing warehouse of the railway complex of Sapucai has been launched with a special grant from the Japanese Embassy. The project aims to revitalize the local economy of Sapucai through restoring the old warehouse into a museum, which will contain audio-visual, exhibition, crafts and other cultural spaces relating to Sapucai and its history. The restoration work itself started in January 2011, and is scheduled to be completed by middle of the year.
Apart from the railway complex and the English Village, another big attraction in Sapucai is its beautiful landscape. It is surrounded by lush hills and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. It has been said that this abundance in nature was the reason for the decision to construct the railway complex in Sapucai. The natural environment produced plenty of desalinated water and soil rich in humus (for rapid reforestation), which were essential in running a large steam powered workshop. To add to the amazing landscape, there is also a mysterious stone path, “Tape Boli” that runs from one of the hillsides, which was built by a group of Bolivian soldiers taken as prisoners and held captive in Sapucai during the Chaco War in the 1930s.
With so much valuable history and fascinating landmarks, Sapucai possesses a unique charm not found anywhere else in the country.
The railway complex of Sapucai was the most important center for railway maintenance and construction, and for more than a century it was the hub of Paraguayan railways. It is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of railway work place dedicated to the maintenance of steam locomotive trains. It was instrumental in the development of the state during the nineteenth and twentieth century, and has contributed to the social, economic, political, cultural, and technological developments of the area and the country as a whole.
What makes the railway complex and the English Village of Sapucai so unique is that they demonstrate the railway’s interaction with industry and culture. It not only represents the technology of the railway and the place of work, but also the lifestyle and the livelihood of the community that was dedicated to the day-to-day work of the railway.
Criterion (ii): The railway complex and the English Village of Sapucai exhibited an important interchange of human values over its span of time, reflecting the culture of the community which was the leading contributor to the developments of railway technology in the area. The property is an extraordinary example of Paraguayan technological progress, and it was in this very place where people acquired further knowledge and skills to give rise to a new lifestyle and a better social organization. The property also represents the technological and social interchange, in the application of railway technology originally brought in from Britain, displaying an outstanding example of the integration of cultures and human values.
Criterion (iv): As an outstanding example of a technological ensemble, illustrating a significant stage in human history, the property of Sapucai is a symbol both of the technology of railway and as a place of work. The ensemble has been declared a National Heritage of Paraguay and stand as a symbol of historical, cultural and industrial heritage. The railway complex of Sapucai is genuinely outstanding and a unique type of a nineteenth century development. It is the one and only steam locomotive servicing depot in the country, and is one of the few in the world that is still functioning, and has remained complete with its entire infrastructure, including water tower, shed, turntable, and fuelling facilities. Such ensemble is rare and deserves conservation and recognition of its values.
The authenticity of the property is verified by numerous documents and publications. Many of these are kept in the railway complex of Sapucai and also in the main railway museum in Asuncion, where historical railway artifacts, photographs and old railway equipment are also preserved and displayed. An in-depth research on the site has also been conducted in an effort to rescue the cultural and historical legacy left by the British community of Sapucai, as well as to compile its brief history from the inception until today, in recognition of the human group and the cultural community.
The houses of the English Village are more than a century old, but have been well preserved and many of them still house the descendants of the British railway engineers who came to work in the late nineteenth century. The authenticity of the property is unquestionable and this is evident from the air of time warp about the town, with its old houses, buildings and rolling stocks all intact; creating an impression that time has stopped in Sapucai.
The integrity and current state of conservation of the property are assured by the government bodies and the Paraguay Railway Corporation, “Ferrocarriles del Paraguay S.A. (FE.PA.S.A.)”. Railway personnel are constantly on-site to monitor the condition and ensure the upkeep of the place for continued service and posterity. It is this commitment and dedication that enables the workshop to still remain functional today, and continue to serve the railway system of the country.
Regarding the restoration work of the warehouse that is currently taking place, every measure has been taken to ensure that it is carried out correctly and with the utmost care to prevent any alteration to the unique features of the building. The restoration has been approved by the Ministry of Culture and its work and progress are being closely monitored so as to maintain its authenticity and integrity.
The railway complex and the English Village of Sapucai are not comparable to any other properties in Paraguay, but there are a number of similar properties in other parts of the world. The Crewe, Swindon and Doncaster Railway Works in the United Kingdom, and the Eveleigh Workshops in Australia are good examples of similar properties. However, unlike Sapucai, the workshops mentioned are all non-functional or no longer use steam power at present. The workshops originally dealt with steam locomotives, but with a shift in technology, have changed to working with diesel and electric locomotives, while Sapucai has continued, and still continues to work with steam locomotives.
There are no similar industrial sites dedicated to railway systems already inscribed on the World Heritage List, but there are railway properties such as “Semmering Railway” (Austria, 1998), “Mountain Railways of India” (India, 1999, extended in 2005, 2008) and “Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes” (Italy, Switzerland, 2008) featured on the list. However, these properties represent the railway system as a whole, and not specifically the work place of the railway, and are therefore slightly different in context to the property of Sapucai.