Adapted from compilation by Terry Martin
The history of DHR is an integral part of the recent history of the Darjeeling Hills.
When the British bought the area from Sikkim in 1835, there were very few people living in the forests – mostly Lepchas.
The growth of Darjeeling as a health resort, away from the heat of the Plains, and planting of tea gardens in the 1850s / 1860s brought many more people into the area from Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Bengal.
At first it was very difficult to travel to Darjeeling or carry foodstuffs uphill or tea downhill.
The Pankhabari Road from Siliguri to Kurseong and the Old Military Road over the top from Kurseong to Ghum could only be used by porters or pack horses.
Travel to Darjeeling was difficult and even dangerous in the days before the railway. In St Andrew's church in Darjeeling are plaques in memory of Charlotte Countess Canning. A former lay-in-waiting to Queen Victoria and an amateur artist, Charlotte had gone off to Darjeeling in September 1861 to rest and sketch. On her way down from the Hills, she stopped in the Terai to do some more drawing but unfortunately contracted malaria and died soon afterwards.
The Hill Cart Road from Siliguri to Darjeeling via Tindharia and Kurseong was built 1862 – 1869 with an easier gradient for 2 bullocks to pull a cart.
More people were now living in the Darjeeling Hills and even the new bullock carts could not cope with the demand for transport.
Rice was selling for 98 per ton in Siliguri but the cost of carrying it to Darjeeling increased the price to 238 per ton
The main line railway from Calcutta reached Siliguri in 1878 using a direct route through East Bengal (now Bangladesh).
But the cost of extending a normal metre gauge or broad gauge (5 feet 6 inches / 1676mm) railway, with easy gradients, tunnels and viaducts through the mountains to Darjeeling was too high.
Franklin Prestage decided to make a railway to Darjeeling affordable by eliminating the tunnels and viaducts and laying the narrow gauge (2 feet / 610 mm) track at the side of the Hill Cart Road.
Here are the contractor and workers building DHR next to the Hill Cart Road.
Under a contract from the Government of India, the DHR owned both the railway and the 20 feet wide road in the middle of grass verges and embankments totalling about 63 feet (20 metres). Railway workers repaired both the railway tracks and the road surface.
Road users were charged a toll at Sukna for using the road to help pay for cost of repairs and to prevent very heavy vehicles from damaging it.
In 1913 – 1915, the original DHR system was extended with new lines from Siliguri to Gielle Khola near Kalimpong (to carry the important import / export trade between India and Tibet) and from Siliguri to Kishenganj (to carry jute and other agricultural products).
Ropeways for freight connected DHR with remote tea gardens, Darjeeling Bazaar and Kalimpong
DHR has two unusual features to help trains gain height.
The idea for the 'Z' reverses or Zig-Zags, like this one at Gayabari, came from Lily Ramsey – wife of the chief DHR contractor Herbert Ramsey – who remembered the backwards and forwards steps of ballroom dancing.
The other feature is the loops – like this one at Agony Point and the more famous one at Batasia
DHR has 3 birthdays every year!
It opened from Siliguri to Tindharia on 4th March 1880
And extended from Tindharia to Kurseong on 23rd August 1880
And extended from Kurseong to Darjeeling on 3rd July 1881