Tel Esh-Shammam station.
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites has created a visitors center in the restored train station-master's house and waiting room in Kfar Yehoshua of the Jezreel Valley.
For many years the station's attractive stone buildings and water tower, originally named Tel Esh-Shammam, lay abandoned and in ruin. The old railway lines, and the iron wheels of two original wooden wagons left outside the crumbling station, were plundered by metal thieves. Some of the metal was later recovered - albeit waiting to be melted down - in an Acre foundry. Even when derelict, the station generated a strong sense of what had been lost in neglecting the famed Valley Railway, which linked Haifa to Damascus. The line was inaugurated in 1904 and ran through the Jezreel, Beit She'an and Jordan Valleys before joining up with the Hejaz-Damascus line.
Tel Esh-Shammam station was built close to a source of water, imperative for steam engines. Later, Kfar Yehoshua was built there because of that same water source and the railway - and became dependent upon the latter to transport its agricultural produce to Haifa.
The steam trains huffed through the middle of the valley at roughly 25 kilometers an hour - slow enough for passengers to call out news to farmers working the fields along the railway tracks and to pick up local gossip en route to their destination. Nostalgic elderly folks still tell stories of how news of a birth, marriage or death in another corner of the valley would be announced with a shout through an open window as the train made its way through from Tzemah to Haifa. The archives of Jezreel Valley kibbutzim, moshavim and local museums hold a wealth of photographs, articles, songs and poetry - some very romantic - lauding the Valley Railway.
One of the many anecdotes found in Dr. Mordechai Naor's The Valley Railway Line Revisited, a publication of The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites and on sale at the Kfar Yehoshua Visitors Center, tells of a discussion that took place in one of the then-trackside struggling kibbutzim. A general meeting had been called to debate the rather high number of babies being born to the financially strapped community.
During the discussion, one of the members complained about the train's shrill 4:10 morning whistle, which rudely awakened most of the members.
"If we could get the driver to stop blowing the whistle at that unearthly hour, members would sleep until they had to go straight to work!" lamented one kibbutznik.
The Kfar Yehoshua Railway Station and Visitors Center comprises a number of attractive buildings with wooden shutters and arched doorways, and two railway cars - which now function as galleries exhibiting black-and-white photographs from pre- and early-state days.
The first floor of the station's only two-story building consists of the passengers' waiting room and a number of small offices, one of which was the ticket office. The upper floor served as the living quarters for the station master and his family.
The much smaller building next door boasts an entrance lobby and two rooms, the home of the assistant station manager. For a time other railway workers also lived in the building. The kitchen and toilet were in a separate building.
A short film about the Valley Railway is screened in one of these rooms, while artifacts and memorabilia are exhibited in another. One sits on benches made from wooden sleepers, the cracked oak blocks lending authenticity even before the film (which is also available with English narration) begins. The informative, humorous and clever film utilizes photographs, graphics and pop-ups, and is suitable for both adults and children.
The next station along the track is Kiryat Haroshet. A train built for a film set in the 1960s was rescued from obscurity in an Ashdod warehouse and placed proudly alongside the tiny station building, surrounded by a park and play area for children. A short distance down the line, which runs parallel to the Kishon River and the Carmel mountain range, one arrives at the Elroi station, near Kiryat Tivon.
Local railway buffs fought to save that station and eventually did it themselves, renovating the small building and broken wagons rotting in the undergrowth. The restorers - most of whom could remember the train passing through when they were young children - not only gave their time, but also dug deep into their own pockets to fund the project.
Nahum Levy, one of the main forces behind the Elroi restoration, remembers the last train passing through the station in 1951 - when he was six.
Between Kiryat Haroshet and Elroi large areas of landscaped parks, picnic corners and hiking paths have been developed by the local council, Keren Kayemet and other organizations, making a day out along the railway lines both educational and attractive.