By SALLY MELCHER JARVIS, Correspondent for LancasterOnline.com
The train looked very familiar. It was the same maroon color as former Pennsylvania Railroad cars; Hershey was painted on the side in gold letters.
But this train stood in ankle-high grass outside Havana, Cuba. It was the original train line built by Milton S. Hershey in the 1920s to take workers to his sugar cane factory 70 miles away, and to bring the sugar back to the harbor for export to his chocolate manufacturing plant in Hershey, Pa.
Spurred on by the rising cost of sugar, Hershey decided to establish his own source of sugar. He chose the province of Matanzas because he thought its higher elevation was healthier. He also built a hacienda nearby where it is said that he enjoyed the Cuban cigars.
Hershey brought his idealistic and practical methods to the factory. He wanted his workers to be available to work, so he built neat workers’ cottages with front porches and tile roofs. He paid weekly wages, instead of dismissing workers at the end of the season as had been the practice. Healthy employees work better so he established a clinic as well as a centrally located pharmacy, grocery store and butcher shop, all nicely tiled. The village had a power plant, electricity, sewers and running water. There even was an “amusement park” — a playground with slides and swings. Nearby was Hershey Gardens.
The train’s original 1927 General Electric engine runs today. The train’s seats are still maroon leather, although a little worn. Open windows provide the ventilation.
The train passes fields that no longer grow sugar cane. From time to time, it stops at tiny cement shelters where Cubans are not allowed to board. Tourists take turns in the cab driving the train and, even better, blowing the whistle and ringing the bell.
It stops at the station with the sign “Hershey.” A short ride goes to the village where many of the workers’ cottages, neatly spaced along the tree-lined street, are empty or in bad repair. Some newer bungalows are nicely painted with tidy gardens
The hotel where Hershey stayed to survey the land still has its roof, but the interior is gutted, with remains of the bar visible through the open doors and windows. Young men without jobs lounge about the town center where the grocery store, bakery and bar are closed, their neatly tiled counters visible through the locked doors. The pharmacy is open, with nothing on the shelves.
The old factory is being converted to making pasta and ceramics, according to the guide. A community garden flourishes next to one of the abandoned mills.
The nearby Hershey Gardens is overgrown, with giant philodendron hanging from the trees, a greenish-brown pond for swimming, a charming cascade and rusted, colorful metal seats and tables for picnics under the trees.
The train to Hershey was a train to a ghost town occupied by today’s people.