HaTahana: ‘The Steam Engine Is Coming!’
The first train to Jerusalem was slow — very slow — but today, the original depot has become a junkyard full of history.
Sir Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land seven different times, often accompanied by his wife Judith. His took his first trip there in 1827; his last visit was 48 years later, at the age of 91. It would have become increasingly difficult to travel from Jaffa port up the Jerusalem hills by carriage as he got older. Perhaps that’s why he became the first to propose a train that would run from the coast to the Holy City.
Others took him up on the idea later on, but it was Jerusalem entrepreneur Yosef Navon who finally got the project moving. However, although he managed to get a franchise from the ruling Turks to build the railroad, Navon ran out of funds before he could finish the project. In the end, he transferred the franchise to a French company – Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements – which completed the tracks in 1892. On the day that the first train reached Jerusalem, newspaper headlines loudly proclaimed: “The steam engine is coming!”
The first trains were agonizingly slow. Indeed, newspapers commented on their pace by joking about passengers who needed a pit stop: they claimed you could jump off and climb back on the train without missing a beat.
During the First World War, the British who conquered Palestine in 1917 took over operation of the train; in the Second World War railroad use was limited to the British army. The historic train from Jaffa to the Holy City of Jerusalem and back stopped running after Israel gained her independence, and the railroad was closed off by the military.
Little by little, the abandoned train station became a storehouse for the Israeli army, which amassed so many weapons and vehicles that the Collection Museum (Museum HaOsef) was opened in the backyard. Slowly but surely, the train station that had been so ceremoniously inaugurated in 1892, and which had transported thousands upon thousands of travelers to and from Jerusalem for over half a century, became a fenced off area of crumbling old buildings.