The Buenos Aires Underground celebrates its 100th birthday

I grew up in the Western suburbs of Buenos Aires, where I went to school and played field hockey as a teenager. Many of the places I needed to go to were within walking distance except the club, which was a short bus ride away. Going to downtown Buenos Aires, “el Centro,” about 22 kilometres away, was a big adventure and a treat.

Our parents occasionally took my three siblings and me to the Los Angeles movie theatre, which showed Disney films only. The cinema was located in “el Centro,” on Corrientes Avenue. We would drive to Once neighbourhood, park the car and take the A line underground at Plaza Miserere station, usually on a Saturday evening.

Entrance to Piedras station on Avenida de Mayo
Exit only at Piedras station on Avenida de Mayo

We always sat at the front of the first car, next to the driver’s cabin.  We loved the thrill of looking out the front window, the tunnel lights flashing past and the darkness beyond, its musty smell a mixture of metal and grease. It was such an exciting treat for us suburban kids.

Plaza de Mayo station
An old Belgian train at Plaza de Mayo station

Years later, I took the same line to work. It wasn’t so much fun trying to hop on a crowded car during then morning rush hour. At the time, the original wood cars were still in use. I liked them better than modern ones. These elegant Belgian cars harked back to a by-gone era when people followed public transport etiquette to the letter, men wore suits and hats and ladies wore hats and gloves. In January 2013, these Belgian cars –manufactured by Le Brugeoise- were deemed unsafe and replaced by modern ones.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the population of the city of Buenos Aires experienced an enormous growth. Therefore, the number of people riding public transport and driving cars grew exponentially. Something needed to be done to order traffic. Thus, in 1909 the Anglo-Argentine Tramway Company was authorized to build and exploit the first underground line, the A line. Construction began in September, 1911 and the first section was opened in December, 1913.

Old school ticket booth at Plaza de Mayo Station.
Old school ticket booth (boleteria) at Plaza de Mayo Station. See the brown stripe? It identifies the station.

The other lines (B, C, D, E and Premetro) were gradually added throughout the century. The H line is being built right now. The lines fan out from a central point, Plaza de Mayo, like the fingers of a hand, and cover a big area of the city, although not nearly a big enough one to serve the millions that live and work there.

Map of the underground
Map of the underground

What I like about the underground stations is the wall art. The murals were designed by different established artists or based on the work of well-known Argentinean artists. Some murals depict the area the station is in or are related to the name of the station itself, like the portraits of tango legend Carlos Gardel in the eponymous station (B line.) The stations on the A line have beautiful wrought iron railings and period light fixtures. I read somewhere that each station has stripes of a different colour to help illiterate people find the right station.

Happy birthday, Subte*!

*Subte is short for subterráneo (Spanish for underground) and that is how the service is called in Buenos Aires. If you’re trying to find an underground station, ask for the nearest “estación de subte.”

cartel subte
The entrance to the Subte can barely bee seen among the buildings (but it’s there! Look out for the round purple sign)

What the Brits left behind: football

The second installment in this series explores the history of one of the most popular sports in Argentina today: football. It can be said that the railway plays a key role here too since many clubs were founded by railway workers in the late 1800s.

Alexander Watson Hutton (10 June, 1853 – 9 March, 1936) was a Scottish teacher who emigrated to Argentina in 1882. He first taught at St. Andrew’s Scots School and later founded the Buenos Aires English High School in 1884. Hutton believed that sports were an important component of child education and introduce football practice at his school.

In 1893, Hutton created the Argentine Association Football League, the first officially recognized league outside of Britain. In 1898 his school put together a team called Alumni Athletic Club, which won ten league titles until 1911, when it was disbanded.

Alumni 1910 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Up until the demise of the Alumni team, the tournaments were dominated by British players and teams. Gradually, the local population adopted the game and made it the national passion it is today. Hutton’s life was the inspiration for the award-winning 1950 film “Escuela de campeones”. I remember watching this film (decades after its release, mind you).

Film poster

Although Alexander Watson Hutton is considered the father of football in Argentina, he wasn’t the only pioneer. English-born Isaac Newell (Kent, 24 April, 1853 – Rosario, 16 October 1907) was also a teacher who had emigrated to Rosario from England. Like Hutton, Newell also founded a school, the Colegio Comercial Anglicano Argentino, or English High School of Rosario.

Also a keen sportsman, Newell decided to introduce football at this school in 1884, when the first football and set of rules came to Argentina. On 3 November, 1903 the Newell’s Old Boys Club was founded for the teachers, students and alumni of the school and as homage to its director and coach. Newell’s (locals pronounce it nyools) is among the top teams in the country today.

Although many football clubs were founded by non-British, it was customary at the time to use English names because the sport had been introduced by the Brits. One example is Boca Juniors, founded in 1905 by Italian immigrants.

Other clubs founded by the British community and still playing in the premier league (In most cases the name was changed to a Spanish one due to varying historical and political circumstances) are:

  • Club Atlético Banfield was founded on 21 January, 1896 by the British settlers of the village of Banfield, 14 miles south of Buenos Aires.
  • Club Ferro Carril Oeste was founded on 28 July, 1904 by 95 railway workers from the Buenos Aires Western Railway.
  • Club Atlético Quilmes was founded in 1887 by J. T. Stevenson as the Quilmes Rovers Club.
  • Club Atlético Rosario Central was founded in Rosario on 24 December, 1889 by English railway workers of the Central Argentine Railway.

What the Brits left behind: the railway

On my recent trip to England I realised that some areas or buildings reminded me of my own country, Argentina. Even my Argentinean friends, who were on holiday in London, too, made similar remarks.

One of the aspects that caught my attention was the architecture of railway stations. Waterloo Station put me in mind of Retiro, one of the three railway termini of Buenos Aires and our local station, Haslemere, looked eerily similar to my home town’s station. I knew that the British had built and operated most railway lines between the 1850s and the 1940s, as this is the kind of thing we learn in history class at school but seeing the similarities really brought it home to me.

I decided to look into the British legacy in Argentina for a new series. The history of the railway is the first installment.

Haedo Station (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Haslemere Station (Surrey, England)

The economic growth of Argentina in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with the laying of the railway lines. Many modern towns and cities began as small settlements around train stations, like my own hometown of Ramos Mejia.

A family photo of Ramos Mejia station in the 1950s

Britain had always been interested in Spanish America in general and Argentina in particular and signed various treaties in the 1850s, which laid the groundwork for massive investment in transport, communications and navigation.

The Western Rail Company was formed in 1855 with mainly local capitals in order to build the first railway line. This line ran from Parque Station (where the Colón Opera House stands today) to Flores, eight miles to the west. This line was officially opened in August 1857 and was subsequently extended. (And it happens to be the line that I took everyday to work.)

Several smaller rail companies (and lines) were created after the Western Rail, like the Northern Railway of Buenos Aires, the Buenos Aires and Ensenada Railway, the East Argentine Railway or the Buenos Aires to Campana Line. These companies were eventually absorbed by bigger British-owned outfits like the Central Argentine Railway Ltd. and the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd. The latter quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

In 1948, President Perón decided to nationalise the seven railway companies operating in Argentina at the time. This was considered a turning point because it was thought to bring about economic independence. All it did was deepen the economic crises from the 1950s onwards by contributing heavily towards the national budget deficits and deteriorate the quality of the rail service and the rolling stock in a downward spiral.

Interesting facts

  • The first engine to pull a train in the country was La Porteña, which is now on display at the Enrique Udaondo Museum of Luján (Buenos Aires). La Porteña was originally built in Leeds to use in the Crimea War. After the war, the engines and carriages were put up for sale around the world and that’s how it ended up in South America.
  • John Allan, the first engine driver of La Porteña, had the sad duty of driving the train that transported the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870-1871 to the cemetery on the western outskirts.
  • The rail companies imported absolutely everything from Britain, from railway terminals to signal boxes. The modern-day La Plata Central Station was originally built for India but news of disturbances and economic problems on the Indian Subcontinent caused the station to be re-routed to Argentina.
La Porteña


Extracts for The Forgotten Colony by Alexander Graham-Yooll, 1981

Wikipedia (various articles)

Photos: my own. See more on Flickr