Robaina's plantation

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Hershey in Cuba (one hour from Havana)

               When most people think of Cuba their thoughts usually take them to spectacular beaches, world renowned cigars or maybe mojitos and pina coladas but there's so much more to it than that if you choose to look. One day, like many, I was doing some surfing and reading up on Cuba when I came across an article with some interesting black and white photographs of a place not too far from Havana where an American brought a little piece of the USA to this tropical island. That American was the chocolate king Milton S. Hershey who in the early 1900's set up shop in what later would be called the town of Hershey. Today the actual factory that the town was built around is in ruins, having been shut down along with many others in the country in 2002. What was once one of the most modern mills of it's kind is now a heap of ugly twisted metal. However, the town remains and it's unlike any other in Cuba.
                 Hershey came to Cuba shortly after the last of Cuba's wars for independence from Spain in 1898, after the U.S. military intervention. At the time, Cuba was in bad shape, the wars had devastated her and she needed help. Land was cheap and Hershey took advantage of that by buying up huge tracts of land and building his model town that he named after himself (like the one he built in Pennsylvania, USA). The factory may be in ruins, the Hershey Social Club, golf course and other semblances of capitalism may be gone but the neat rows of houses with their front porches & lawns are still there and lived in. This is what I came to see and it didn't disappoint me. It was a little piece of North America in Cuba, with sidewalks and well paved streets set up on a grid exactly as it would have been if it were several hundred miles to the north. The hotel and many of the larger homes where the American supervisors lived are in ruins due to neglect but the houses where the local workers use to reside are still lived in, some in better shape than others. Hershey built this paradise when sugar prices were going through the roof during World War I. He didn't stop with the construction of the mill and town, he also built everything else that was needed for the benefit of the town's inhabitants (the workers); schools, hospital, subsidized housing, golf course, a ballpark, social club and a movie theater. Hershey wanted to make sure that everyone had everything they needed to live a happy life and therefore be a happy worker.  
                 However, Hershey's greatest technological achievement was his electric train that still runs today (kind of). At the time there was nothing like it in Cuba, 57 miles of track running between Havana and Matanzas and the town of Hershey was right in the middle. The raw cane would be loaded onto the train and sent to the town for processing and then back out again to the ports of Havana and Matanzas for shipping out. The train would also pick up passengers from the dozens of little towns along the way.
                 And so between 1916 to 1946 this is how things went. When Hershey died in 1945 he had nobody to leave his business to so he left most of it to charity. He left instructions to sell off his Cuba holdings in what later proved to be a brilliant stroke of luck. Shortly after Castro took over in 1959 he nationalized this enterprise as well as all the others on the island. Hershey would have have lost everything he built in Cuba but as it stood the Sugar King, Julio Lobo one of Cuba's richest men at the time, was the loser....but that's another story.  
                You won't find Hershey on a map of Cuba, the town was renamed Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary hero. However, I found that everyone still referred to the town as Hershey and the train station just outside the town still reads the same as well. With Russia eventually pulling out of Cuba and sugar prices being low, production at the mill slowed down and finally came to a halt in 2003. The town's reason for existence had vanished and it's deterioration was guaranteed but the bungalows built nearly a century ago still exist with it's residents, some of which have memories of a time that many have forgotten.
                 Although it's a little unreliable and people often say that you'll never reach your destination or at least you won't get there on time (it's always breaking down), the electric train is still running. I don't have a list of the departure times but from what I understand there's a morning (4:45am) and afternoon (12:21pm) departure from the Havana suburb of Casablanca that's across the bay from the city but these times may be incorrect. I didn't have the luxury of time (the train can take 4 hours) so I opted to have someone drive me to Hershey (about a 40 minute drive) after my short visit in Casablanca. The cost for a train ticket is about 3cuc and you can reach Casablanca by taking the ferry from Havana which leaves every 20 minutes for 1cuc one way (about 20 minutes distance). BTW, there are no bathrooms on the train.

Hershey train station

Original Train

Casablanca Station

No comments:

Post a Comment