Tracking history

Sections of the old Valley Railway can still be seen between Haifa and Hamat Gader.

Railway 521 (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Railway 521
(photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Trains in various shapes and sizes, including the new light rail in Jerusalem, have started to come back to the forefront of Israeli transportation. They’re fast, cause less pollution than the thousands of cars which clog up the roads every day, and passengers can travel in comfort and relax and read or work as they travel.
Not so long ago trains were a much slower way of getting around but even so played a very important part in people’s lives. One of the most famous lines is the now non-operational Valley Railway (Rakevet Ha’emek), a section of the Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans connecting Damascus to Medina, with a branch to Haifa. The Haifa-Hamat Gader section was opened in 1905 but operated for less than half a century, due to the War of Independence. Although there were plans to restore it afterwards, it never happened.
Sections of these older train tracks can still be seen from Haifa, along the Jezreel Valley, through the Beit She’an Valley and up to Tzemah junction at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret.
The Jezreel Valley is one of the most fertile areas of the country – when managed correctly. The secret is keeping it swamp-free and taking advantage of its rich soil. The Arabs who originally owned the land were not successful at draining the swamps and were happy to sell the “useless” land to the Jews, who quickly set about turning it into fertile cropland. This is why it was named in Hebrew Yizra El – “God will sow.”
When the railway tracks were laid down, it was much easier to transport the crops to Haifa and the rest of the country, and out of Palestine. It was also a means of communication; messages and mail were sent on the same train and news was exchanged at the stations on the way, bringing scattered communities closer together.
The train was slow, but better than transporting the produce by any other means as it arrived at its destination on the same day. Water towers had to be built every 25 kilometers as this was as far as the steam-driven train could travel without needing to take on more water. Inevitably a station and village grew up around the water towers.
1. HAIFA RAILWAY MUSEUM To get a taste of life on the railway in the past century, the best place to start is the Israel Railway Museum at the old Haifa East station.
The main building here was once the Ottoman locomotive shed for the Hejaz Railway and there are several refurbished old coaches on display, including a saloon coach which was used for conveying VIPs such as visiting heads of state, government officials and railway executives.
Also on display is the last steam locomotive used in Israel, as well as an ambulance coach used to transport the wounded from the front during World War I.
A recent addition is a lighthearted film, which you can watch while sitting in one of the old carriages, describing the changeover in Israel from the old steam trains to modern, sleek, diesel-electric trains. A walk over the bridge will bring you to the building that houses all the small memorabilia of the old railway system, from train timetables to tickets, stamps picturing the various trains and signs on the tracks.
2. KFAR YEHOSHUA STATION The second largest station on the Valley Railway was at Kfar Yehoshua. The village was originally called Tel Esh Shammam but was renamed after Yehoshua Hankin, who bought the land from the Arabs. This station comprised several buildings which housed the station master’s family and other permanent station workers, and the water tower.
In the year 2000, the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites started to renovate and restore this station and has now made a visitors’ center out of the old waiting room and station master’s home. The film shown to visitors here is fun, fast paced and gives a great idea of the amount of work that went into setting up the long Hejaz Railroad and the role it played in our history. The film includes pop-ups showing some of the railway’s multicultural connections with the Jews, Arabs, Turks and British, all adding their part to the colorful story.
3. ALROI STATION A bit further along the line you reach Alroi, where the local railway enthusiasts took it upon themselves to renovate the small station building, and colorfully restored wagons now sit on the line in the middle of a delightful park.
4. OLD GESHER Old Gesher, the site of the original Kibbutz Gesher in the Jordan Valley, incorporates an amazing amount of recent Zionist history, including its importance as a station on the Valley Railway. The remains of three bridges can be seen there: a 2000- year-old Roman bridge, a 100-year-old Turkish bridge which was part of the Valley Railway and an 80-year-old bridge built by the British during the Mandate.
Kibbutz Gesher was founded in 1939 to defend this important crossroad. Already in April 1948, before independence had been declared, they were attacked. After the state was declared, realizing how vulnerable they were they evacuated the 50 children by foot, under cover of darkness.
Shiran, a third-generation member of Kibbutz Gesher, told of her grandparents’ ordeal and how they all decided the only way to buy a bit more time before they were overrun by the armies of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria was to blow up the three bridges. By June the battle was over, but the kibbutz had been almost totally destroyed. The only remaining buildings were the dining hall and the underground shelter. Six members were killed in the fierce battles.
Today you can hear the story and see a film of the founding of the kibbutz and what it endured, and visit the museum housed in the underground shelter.
5. NAHARAYIM HYDRO-ELECTRIC MODEL In the 1920s a man of extraordinary vision, Pinhas Rutenberg, decided he was going to set up a hydroelectric plant to supply Israel’s electricity needs.
Despite all the setbacks and derision he met with he succeeded in coming to an agreement with the Jordanian royal family, as he needed to use a section of land which belonged to the Hashemite kingdom: the area where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers meet.
In 1932, after many years of negotiations and building, the plant started operating and it worked perfectly for 16 years, supplying 90 percent of the country’s needs. But in 1948 during the War of Independence it was bombed, and was never operational again.
The members of the kibbutz have built an incredibly clear, vivid model showing exactly how it was built and how it operated with dams, bridges and turbines. An accompanying film also describes the ordeal that Rutenberg went through to see his dream fulfilled.