Everybody (in Brazil, at least) has heard about the city of Blumenau — because of the local Oktoberfest, or because of the floods, or because the city is very beautiful. But not many people know (even most locals don't know) that trains used to pass by Blumenau.
Actually, the 'Iron Bridge', one of the most distinguished postcards of Blumenau, was once a railroad bridge.
The 'Arch Bridge', another well-known concrete bridge in the city, was also a railroad one, built by EFSC (Estrada de Ferro Santa Catarina, Santa Catarina Railroad).
EFSC started up in 1908; many other Brazilian regions set out to build railroads at that decade. Different from others, EFSC was being planned since the city's foundation in 1850, and most of the railroad's capital was of German origin. The first segment of 70km/44mi from Blumenau to Ibirama was built quite fast.
In terms of Brazil, it was almost a revolution: being able to go 100km/60mi west by rail, while most cities distant from the seashore were connected by narrow trails.
The First World War caused the nationalization of railroad. It continued to exist under government administration, and continued to increase in length, in a slower pace. It managed to reach Trombudo Central at west, and Itajaí port at east, almost 200km/120mi apart from each other.
EFSC nurtured bold (but perfectly attainable) plans to connect with the almighty Itararé-Uruguai rail at midwest, as well as to reach the city of Rio Negro (another important railroad yard) at north. Unfortunately, those objectives were never achieved. EFSC remained an isolated railroad and faded away until deactivation in 1971 and total eradication in 1981.
EFSC collaborated a lot to the development of this region (known by locals as "Itajaí Valley"). In spite of that, and in spite of the relatively recent eradication, the railroad was erased fast from the landscape and from people's memories. Even in aerial photos (e.g. Google Maps) the railroad remains are elusive. I think that this happened because the railroad closely followed the Itajaí-Açu right margin, and this river's margins are the most valuable areas of this region (in spite of the periodic floods). Either the land was occupied, or reused for roads, like the BR-470 highway (the main road in this region).
Another important factor is how RFFSA (the state-owned enterprise that used to control all Brazilian railroads until the 1990s) handled the remains of the railroad: it sold everything it could as scrap, including some beautiful iron bridges. The bridges that remain in place were simply anti-economical to be dismantled and sold as scrap. In one case, an overzealous cop told the scrap dealer to get lost, and the bridge was saved just in time .
In spite of this, many bridges and other artworks can be found easily, it is just a matter of driving by the right margin of the river, and keep the eyes open. By and large, the railroad was built nearer the river than current roads are, but in some segments the street actually reused the railway's domain.
This pattern repeats with the BR-470 highway when it is in the right side of the river (the highway crosses the river a number of times).
I did not drive through Blumenau's downtown in the first pass, but the other parts of the city are beautiful as well: clean and organized. The city is really awesome. Most other cities in the region are equally atractive.
The landscape of Itajaí Valley is familiar to me since I was a child, since we went to visit relatives in Ibirama. Interestingly enough, nobody ever talked about the railroad by then. As said before, people forgot the EFSC railroad very fast.
The uniform development of the cities in Itajaí Valley corroborates my old thesis that transport is the key to economic development, and this has been a problem in Brazil since forever and continues to be our biggest problem as of today. Funny is, Blumenau's founding fathers could see that as early as 1850, while a lot of Brazilians can't see that even today.
It is obvious that BR-470 highway filled the void left by the railroad, and most people must have felt that it was a good exchange — in the first moment. After many decades, the saturation of the highway and the realisation of the high costs of road-based transportation (not only economical, but social and impacts on quality of life) have made people wonder why the hell the railroad was let go.
This change of collective mind reflects in the current spike of interest about the EFSC railroad.
Considering that all cities in the area are closely attached to the river, and the railroad followed the river, reusing such a railway for mass passenger transit would be a huge success. If they had just taken care to preserve the right-of-way...
The EFSC railroad was never taken good care of by RFFSA. It never got a diesel locomotive, for example. Using steam engines exclusively was a sure way to make it unprofitable.
But, in the first half of the 20th century, EFSC's future looked rosy. The track was built with relatively good technical parameters (much better than other Brazilian railroads), with many bridges, trestles and tunnels. The optimism about the future also directed some engineering decisions that look awkward today.
One example: from the Subida station (5km/3mi before Ibirama), there were two tracks that went uphill: the "high line" went to Rio do Sul and the "low line" went to Ibirama. The tracks went in parallel by 7km/4mi, in different altitudes. The justification was that a separate "high line" could have a more gentle overall gradient (1,5% instead of 2%). This consideration only makes sense if huge traffic was expected in the future. Maybe when the railroad connected with the rest of Brazilian rail network (which never happened).
With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that extending the "low line" branch, going north from Ibirama to Rio Negro, would have been better, since Rio Negro became the most important yard nearby since the 1960s.
Another example: the bridges and the tunnel in downtown Blumenau. This is the only segment where the railway detached from the right margin of the river. Such artworks were built when the tracks were extended from Blumenau to Itajaí. The justification was to avoid the cost of expensive expropriations along the river, which was a developed urban area already. Some people say that the chief engineer was headstrong, others say that he got a kickback.
Nowadays, the bridges and the tunnel are still in use, as automobile streets, and all these artworks are distinguished beacons of Blumenau. If good looks are a hint of virtue, perhaps the engineer was right, after all.
When EFSC was shut down, the "low line" between Subida and Ibirama was converted to a narrow dirt road, in the margin opposite to BR-470 highway (that lies in the left margin in this area). Part of this road still exists but it is a dead end, since the Salto Pilão hydroelectric plant now owns part of this land.
Likewise, many interesting remains of the railroad are now difficult to access, since portions of the uphill terrain are also owned by Salto Pilão (near the water intake site — the water conduits and generators are all underground). Other properties also restrict access to the river margin. Still, many photos can be found in Google Earth. (The right-of-way of the defunct railroad still belongs to the federal government.)
One of the compensations paid by Salto Pilão plant to the community was the rebuild of a 3km/2mi section of the "high line". It is now a tourist attraction known as "Bromeliad Railroad" that operates a steam train every month.
The dream of railroad preservacionists is to rebuild the tracks up to Rio do Sul (a grand total of 28km/17mi) but it wasn't possible yet. Part of the "born again" raiload, as well as the locomotive depot, is within Salto Pilão's premises; access is forbidden except in that day of month when the steamer is running. On the other hand, the village of Subida ("Uphill") has many interesting artworks and access is easy, either by road or by walking the railway.
Before the reactivation of this short railroad section, a typical "adventure" was to walk the old railway bed, going to abandoned tunnels and passing over decaying bridges. There is still a number of abandoned artworks to visit, for people that like a challenge and are not afraid of bats.
Still in Subida, we can see two bridges that overpass a river: one (built in iron and decaying) for the 'low line' and the other (in stone and with tracks) for the 'high line'. This redundancy of expensive artworks really makes people scratch their heads, as I mentioned before people are still discussing the twin-line approach.
I close the text with a video, where I drive over two of the EFSC bridges: first one in Ibirama, second one in Blumenau. And another video made from inside the Bromeliad train.
In a second visit to the area, in 2015, I explored the final segments between Subida up to the endpoint at Agrolândia.
Most of the abandoned big iron bridges at Subida can't be easily spot these days because they are inside the area of Salto Pilão plant, but thanks to Google Earth I found at least one that is easily accessible:
This area is a maze of dirt roads. Get a map, GPS and take note of waypoints with the help of Google Earth!
The bridge above can support a car and part of the right-of way is an open road that allows access to visit other bridges. I learnt about that locally, but I did not have the exact coordinates of nearby bridges and had no idea about the distance, so I didn't go to these other sites, this time.
The landscape that used to be seen from the train must have been very beautiful. It is understandable why many folks dream about restoring the whole uphill segment of the railroad, as a tourist attraction:
The idea of extending the Subida trip (currently, 2 miles) up to Matador station (municipality of Rio do Sul) is still on the table. The first efforts of the preservationists actually began at Matador side. There is even 1/3 mile of track laid, in order to reclaim the right-of-way; and there are some restored cars at the station. It must be the shortest railroad in the world! (Or the biggest model railroad :)
As mentioned before, the Salto Pilão plant bankrolled the implementation of the tracks that pass through the plant's territory, which is at the other extreme of the intended span. The pragmatic decision was to implement the tourist train at Subida. This decision left the Matador station isolated, with its stretch of tracks and its cars. (But not forever, we trust!)
From Rio do Sul and beyond, the old EFSC stations tend to be better preserved, or at least they haven't been demolished. Downtown Rio do Sul, one of such buildings serves as bus station. The right-of-way is now a major avenue of the city, and the beautiful bridge over Itajaí do Sul river dresses the city:
In Trombudo Central, the administration is doing its job, expropriating and protecting the railroad buildings. Even the right-of-way is clean in long stretches, perhaps because this region is not as densely populated, so the pressure for squatting the right-of-way is not as strong.
Even the EFSC bridges, abandonded or not, become "modern" as we get near the high endpoint of the railroad. Being newer bridges, they are made of concrete and "skinny", they don't have the huge bulk that older bridges have, showing how much the engineering techniques evolved in just half of a century.
All EFSC bridges, even the iron bridge at Blumenau, shine in one particular aspect: they are built very high, and have withstood countless floods that regularly happen in these areas. Even though the railroad followed the river, the engineers did their homework and took the historical flood records into account, while many recent works like roads or buildings are based on more optimistic forecasts, and are affected by floods.
At Trombudo Central's countryside, different from what's happened in other places, the right-of-way of the railroad has not been converted to public road; some segments here and there are employed as entrance roads for some farms.
Interestingly, in this area all the "crossroads" are marked by small signs. I don't know if these signs are for trekking, or if there is some intention of actually using the right-of-way for something. The fact is, the right-of-way has not been squatted. Tracks could be laid on it tomorrow, if it were the case.
The last station of the railroad, São João, was in operation for mere three months; heavy rain obliterated some embankments right after the inauguration, and there was no budget to fix anything. One of these embarkments can be seen in the picture below:
Below, the São João station, that is in a sorry state, but at least it stands up. Actually, it had already been in worse shape, surrounded by trees and bushes. When I took the picture below, the terrain around the station was clean and the right-of-way was labeled with signs as well:
The railroad went on 1 or 2 miles beyond this station, to southwest. Interestingly, the surroundings of São João station are devoid of houses or businesses; the economic development stuck to the "lowlands" along the neary river. The railway sought the hills because it needed to gain altitude, in order to connect with the brand-new Tronco Sul railroad. It was just 30 miles short. If the tracks had made it, the fate of EFSC could have been different.
 GIESBRECHT, Ralph M. EFSC page in 'Railroad Stations' site. Opened in 30/09/2013.
 WITTMANN, Angelina C. R. The railroad at Itajaí Valley (master's dissertation). UFSC, 2008.
 AMAVI.ORG.BR. Text about the iron bridge at Ibirama. Opened in 30/09/2013.