History: The Crookedest Railroad in Korea

Words by Robert Neff
Photos from the collection of Robert Neff

In the 1890s there was a gold rush in Joseon Korea. True, there had always been gold mining operations scattered throughout the country, but these were mainly small Korean concerns with limited mining ability. It was only after Leigh Smith Hunt, an American, obtained a gold mining concession (Unsan Gold Mines which later became the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company [OCMC]) in present-day North Korea in 1897 that deep and extensive mining operations began. The OCMC was soon joined by a number of other mining concessions of all nationalities including American, German, French, British, and Japanese.

Many of these early mining concessions folded. Some went broke when the gold ran out but others failed for lack of timber. Timber was almost as important as gold. It was used to shore up the tunnels and as fuel for the steam plants that provided electricity needed to operate the crushers and process the raw gold. In the beginning, many of these gold mines were surrounded by small stands of timber but as time passed these reserves were completely exhausted, placing the mines in a rather precarious position.

Photo by Alexander Zvir

Some mines resorted to using oxen teams, but the OCMC did something different – they built their own railroad. Sometime in late 1908 or early 1909, the OCMC ordered an A13-2 steam engine from the Lima Locomotive Works in the United States. Engine No. 2201 was completed on Sunday, July 4th, 1909 – American Independence Day. It was a fitting date for a company like OCMC. Its American owners were so fiercely patriotic that the only day they shut down operations at the mines each year was July 4th.

When the engine arrived in Korea it was renamed “Engine 97” in commemoration of 1897. Logging operations began immediately and became a popular amusement for miners and visitors alike. Fred Donnelly, an American miner at the OCMC, described the mine’s railroad operations in a letter to his brother: “The company has a railroad running to the mountain just to transport cordwood. It is 35 miles in length and one of the most crooked and most picturesque I have ever seen.  There are several inclines where they use cables and there the cars almost go perpendicular. They gave [me] a pass over it and I would not have missed the trip for a month’s pay.”

In 1927, Cynthia G. Zwemer, an American woman traveling through Asia, wrote:
“One of the features of life at the mines is a trip to the timber camp a way up in the mountains from where the timber and cordwood used in the mines are supplied. To carry the wood, little flat cars which have neither seats nor railing, and only a board here and there for a floor, are drawn up and down by cables. You sit on the board and hold on to it for dear life, as the crazy little car is pulled up swiftly, making a blur of everything around you, and making you vow that if you get safely through this rash venture you will be wiser in the future. Four of these cables, each steeper and longer than the last, at an angle of forty-one degrees until you fear you can hold on no longer because of faintness and dizziness when suddenly with a little jerk your car goes over the top from where a little engine pulls a train of the same little cars, but also a little ‘Pullman,’ a sort of covered garden awning affair, the slight swing of the seat of which breaks the jolts and add greatly to the comfort of the scenic ride that is now before you.”

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It isn’t clear what happened to the railroad following its sale to the Japanese in 1939. Most likely, the engine was decommissioned and scrapped, its image only surviving in faded pictures and the hearts of the few surviving miners and their families.

Robert Neff has authored or co-authored several books including Through Western Eyes and The Lives of Westerners in Joseon Korea. He currently writes a twice-weekly column for the Korea Times entitled “Did you know?” as well as a twice-monthly historical column for the Jeju Weekly.


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