The distinctive and flavorful “Gros Michel” (“Big Mike”) was the basis for the industry monoculture for over 50 years.

The 1870 voyage of Massachusetts sailor, Lorenzo Dow Baker, to South America set off the modern banana production industry, when during the return leg of the trip, he loaded a small cargo of bananas at Port Antonio, Jamaica and then sold them in New Jersey upon landing back in the USA.   The acceptance of this fruit in North America and the resulting demand for it launched a thriving new business. The banana variety grown around Port Antonio was the “Gros Michel”. This variety was originally from southeast Asia, had been deposited in Martinique and eventually made its way to Jamaica, in 1835, carried by French botanist Jean François Pouyat.  The flavorful “Gros Michel” became the basis for the entire North American business. Production was favored in the humid microclimates, such as the north Jamaican coast and for this reason it found its also way to the humid north eastern cost of Cuba (displacing small scale production of certain locally grown varieties). In Cuba, the Gros Michel became known as the “Johnson”, in recognition of a captain Johnson, on whose ship the stems were imported to Cuba (according to legend) from Martinique.   Due to its strategic location and its humid microclimate, Baracoa soon became the most influential commercial center for bananas in Cuba.

Between the end of the conflict the Cubans refer to as the “little war” (“LA Guerra Chiquita”), in 1880, to the outbreak of the Spanish-American-Cuban war, in 1895, Cuban banana production accelerated. According to Garcia (2007), Cuban exports of banana bunches increased from 966,000 in 1877, to 7,663,500 by 1892.  

Refrigerated steamships, like the Joseph Di Giorgio, plied a route from Baltimore to Baracoa and Jamaica to load bananas and also brought tourists.

Production of large quantities of bananas was interrupted by the Spanish-American-Cuban War in 1898, however by that time in Baracoa there had developed a class of successful fruit growers, merchants and exporters who prospered off the trade in bananas.  The banana trade was accelerated by the advent of refrigerated steamships in the service of the North American banana merchants that plied a route to from the Eastern USA to Baracoa, Jamaica and then back to either Boston, New York or Baltimore, where the fruit was sold at auction.

“El Eleveto”, Baracoa’s engineering marvel

The Yumuri canyon is located approximately 30 kilometers east of Baracoa.

In the area to the east of Baracoa town, bananas were being grown on plantations, some of which were located on the plateau at Sabana and Mandinga, above the canyon of the river Yumuri.       

In order to facilitate the transport of banana bunches from the top of the plateau to the ships that came to load, the Yumuri canyon arial tramway was constructed by Cooper, Hewitt & Co., the parent company of Trenton Iron Company, of Trenton, New Jersey, which licensed the technology developed by Adolf Bleichert & Co., a German engineering firm founded in 1874, in Leipzig, Germany.  

Bleichert had invented a two-rope cable tramway system that was in many respects superior to the American mono-cable system then in use and it rapidly replaced the mono-rope system in many applications, such as mining. The Bleichert system was patented in the USA, in 1888. Shortly thereafter a license agreement between Adolf Bleichert & Co. Leipzig (Germany) and Cooper, Hewitt & Co., New York, N.Y. (USA) appears to have been completed.

Example of a two rope tramway of the Bleichert type (no photos of the actual Yumuri tramway have been located).

Details of the Yumuri tramway published by Trenton Iron Company in 1891 lists this installation as its first completed tramway of its type. The owner is listed as Agustin Soler Y Espalter.  The capacity of the tramway was 300 tons per day, based on a 10 hour day of operation, with 8 horsepower developed. The total length of the line was 12,475 feet with a vertical difference of 600 feet, with the whole of the descent in the first ¾ of a mile.

According to Garcia (2007), the tramway was originally installed in 1883 and was extended ten years later to the site known as Gran Tierra, where a steam engine had the function of driving the individual loads of bunches from above, in a place called La Dolorita, in the La Sabana neighborhood, until reaching sea level, at the collection point, close to the mouth of the river. 

The financing for the tramway was provided by the owners of the haciendas of La Sabana and Yumurí, together with some of the main Baracoa merchants and shipowners. 

For the operation of the cable car, steam engines were installed to facilitate the transfer and descent of the gondolas loaded with bananas from the plantations to the piers, as well as the ascent of people and merchandise, along a trajectory of about ten kilometers. The Great Airway of the Yumurí, would be popularly called El Eleveto, perhaps a corruption extracted from the title of the corporate name that operated the installation: the Soler Elevator and Tramway Company. In 1890 the well-known firm Monés y Compañía would also finance the installation of a second cable tramway, located to the west of the Yumuri canyon, near the site known as Paso Aleman (Garcia 2007).

References (among others) :

“Between war and peace. Cuba in the times of the banana boom (1878-1895)”

Alejandro García, Am. Lat. Hist. Econ., Vol. 15, no. 2, July-December, 2008, pp. 99

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