The Jezreel Valley Railway (known as the Valley Railway) made an incomparable economic and cultural contribution to the northern region in the days of pre-State Israel. Perhaps a more befitting name for it would have been the Train of the Valleys since it passed through the Zevulun, Jezreel, Jordan, and Beit Shean Valleys. From 1905 to 1948, the railway, including its tracks, stations, bridges, and even the train cars themselves, made an undeniable mark on this region while significantly promoting the development of Jewish settlement.
The railway is the subject of stories, legends, jokes, and songs embellished with local color that describe the experiences of Jewish and Arab residents who lived along the tracks and used the train. As the train was very slow, it was possible to walk (or ride a donkey) alongside it as it moved. The train transported agricultural goods from the Jewish settlements to Haifa and elsewhere. Representatives of kibbutzim and various organizations held meetings in the cars as the train was traveling. Passengers also took the train to regional hospitals when they were in need of medical treatment.
The Valley Railway is the first part of the Hejaz railway line; it was built so that Muslim pilgrims could travel to Mecca from Haifa through the Valleys, Damascus, and Medina.
Laying the railway line involved many engineering and logistical challenges resulting from the extreme topography, the passage across the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers from different directions, the harsh climate, and a lack of skilled engineers. The Hejaz railway did not achieve its initial goal, as the line was only built as far as Medina. However, sections of the railway that passed through pre-state Israel, from Haifa to Zemach, had a decisive impact on the development of Haifa and the Jewish settlement in the valleys.
In addition to railway tracks, train stations of different sizes were built at various points along the line: some were a complex of several buildings, and some featured only a small cabin or even just a sign. Bridges were built across rivers. The buildings, bridges, and railroad tracks, along with the stories and legends that emerged, all made the Valley Train an integral part of the physical and cultural landscape of the North.
The inauguration of the Valley Railway was an important event in the history of Eretz Yisrael. The first automobile reached the area in 1908, and until then, available means of transportation consisted mainly of horses, camels, and donkeys, all very slow. The trip from Haifa to Deraa by train took two hours and forty minutes, compared to a day and a half of riding in the summer; in winter, as there were no paved roads, travel was almost impossible. The train was first built to transport Muslim pilgrims to Mecca at certain times of the year, and these passengers did not pay a fare. In the opposite direction, the train began transporting grain from the Hauran to Haifa.
The Valley Railway decreased the importance of the French line from Beirut to Damascus. The choice of Haifa instead of Acre as the first station resulted in the accelerated development of Haifa, which became an industrial and commercial center, and the relative decline of Acre.
Until the First World War, there were no Jewish settlements along the line, with the exception of Kibbutz Merchavia. Two additional important lines were built from Haifa to Acre (1912-13) and to Jenin (1913). The section to Acre prevented the complete decline of this town and promoted Jewish settlement and industry in Haifa Bay. The line to Jenin was eventually meant to reach Jerusalem.
The First World War brought about a revolution in transportation in the region. Cars appeared, and the train played an important role in transporting soldiers and equipment. During this period, additional lines were laid, such as the Afula-Jenin line, which then continued to Beer Sheva and Gaza. In fact, the Valley Railway was part of a railway system that reached London through Turkey and Europe. However, at the end of the war, the railway system was relatively in ruins. The British exploded the bridges on the Yarmouk in the spring of 1918, thus disconnecting the Valley Railway from the rest of the Hejaz Railway. For two years, it operated only as far as Zemach.
But in the years following, the British became invested in the development of a railway system in Eretz Yisrael that would meet modern standards. The Mandate authorities established the Palestine Railways Company in October 1920. The Valley Railway was owned by the Muslim Waqf, as the successor of the Sultan. The Mandate government was a trustee of the owners. The railway company operated the train for the government. As a result, the Valley Railway cars still bore the letters H.R (Hejaz Railways).
The connection to Damascus, and even to Europe (from 1928), was renewed. Syria and Eretz Yisrael (Israel) were under two different mandates; therefore, the station at Zemach was chosen as a customs point. The section between Zemach and Hamat Gader was operated by Syria, which was under the French mandate at the time. Through this point, goods made their way from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt and Europe. The Zemach Station was an important factor in the development of the town of Zemach and the surrounding Jewish settlements.
Syria was a leading trade partner, and the Valley Railroad carried the lion’s share of this trade. Even when roads were paved in the late 1920s, the railway still functioned as a freight carrier, and the frequency of the trains was increased to meet the demand.
As mentioned above, the Valley Railway also led to the development of Haifa. As early as the 1920s, ships docked in the port of Haifa, and factories employing many workers, including large mills, were opened. Wheat came from the Hauran via the Valley Railway. As a result, the Mandate government opened the deep-water port later in the 1930s.
The road from Afula to Beit Shean was paved in 1936, so for many years before that, the railway was the only transportation route that connected Jewish settlements in the area. In the absence of a road system, new Jewish settlements were built in the 1920s and 1930s at various points along the railway line. For example, Kfar Yehezkel, Ein Harod, Kfar Baruch, Kfar Yehoshua, and Afula (which transformed from a sleepy Arab village into a bustling Jewish town).
The train provided Jewish settlers with a sense of security; it was a means of transportation and a place for social interaction. It also facilitated access to medical treatment when necessary. The Valley Railway also transported milk along the Zemach-Haifa route. Following a request on behalf of Degania members, the railway management allocated several cars on the morning train to transport milk from the settlements of the Valley. In addition, the management agreed to change the evening train schedule to allow for the transport of milk immediately after milking. The train also transported agricultural produce from all the northern settlements to Haifa. From Haifa, the goods were transported south to Lod and from there to Jerusalem.
The railway also opened up markets to the east, as products could be transported to Damascus. Furthermore, materials and equipment needed to build Homa and Migdal (Tower and Stockade) settlements were also transported by train. Over time, the management of the railway company agreed to add stations or stopping points near new settlements, further facilitating their growth and development.
The Valley Railway, like many railways in other parts of the world, greatly influenced the lives of the residents who lived along its route. There is tremendous nostalgia associated with the railway, which operated during the time of the early pioneers who, at great personal sacrifice, worked to settle the Land. Many urban legends were woven around the train, and its shortcomings became funny stories about passengers jumping off to pick flowers, taking a bite out of a piece of watermelon, pushing the train uphill, or chopping wood to keep the train running.
Songs were even written about it. Passengers knew all the railway workers, and train rides offered opportunities for Jews and Arabs to interact and for Jewish residents from various settlements to meet one another.
Avraham Herzfeld, a senior official of the Workers’ Union, would hold court in the train car, and settlement secretaries would get on the train to meet with him. When he arrived at Zemach, he would get on the train back to Haifa, and those who hadn’t had the time to talk to him yet would do so on the return trip. The author and historian Mordechai Naor writes in his book “BeHazarah LeRakevet HaEmek” (Back to the Valley Railway) (Dekel Publishing House, 2009) that the Valley Train was loved not only for its few virtues but also because of its many shortcomings.
Its slowness, folklore, and the fact that one could travel on it for a minimal fee or without any payment at all (which affected the quality of service) added to its charm. The Valley Train, despite its austere service, was a space of mass meetings where people from different regions would gather. The residents of the Jordan Valley met their colleagues from the Jezreel Valley, people from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the moshavot would go to bathe in Lake Tiberias waters, and Palmahniks from various kibbutzim would meet, along with Jews and Arabs. The shared experience of trying to outsmart the British officials and the train operators fostered a camaraderie that was only challenged when tensions between Arabs and Jews escalated.
The Jezreel Valley Railway, or the Train of the Valleys, holds a significant place in the history of pre-State Israel. It served as a lifeline for the Jewish settlements, facilitating trade, transportation, and social connections. The railway’s impact on the development of Haifa and the Jewish settlement in the valleys cannot be overstated. Today, while the tracks may have been replaced by modern transportation systems, the legacy of the Valley Railway lives on in the stories, legends, and memories of those who experienced its charm and significance.
Despite its significant contributions, the Jezreel Valley Railway faced challenges and underwent changes over the years. The turbulent period of the First World War brought about a revolution in transportation throughout the region, with the emergence of cars playing a prominent role alongside the train in transporting soldiers and equipment.
During this time, additional lines were laid, including the Afula-Jenin line, which eventually extended to Beer Sheva and Gaza. The Valley Railway became part of a larger railway system that connected London through Turkey and Europe. However, the end of the war left the railway system in ruins, with the British authorities detonating bridges on the Yarmouk in 1918, disconnecting the Valley Railway from the rest of the Hejaz Railway. For the following two years, it operated only as far as Zemach.
In the years that followed, the British Mandate authorities recognized the importance of a modern railway system in Eretz Yisrael and established the Palestine Railways company in October 1920. The Valley Railway, owned by the Muslim Waqf as the successor of the Sultan, became operated by the railway company on behalf of the government. The letters “H.R” (Hejaz Railways) still adorned the Valley Railway cars as a remnant of its past.
The railway’s connection to Damascus and Europe was renewed, and the Zemach Station became a crucial customs point, facilitating trade between Eretz Yisrael and Syria. The Valley Railway played a vital role in transporting goods from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt and Europe via this route. The station at Zemach contributed to the development of the town and the surrounding Jewish settlements, as it served as a gateway for trade and commerce.
While roads were gradually paved in the late 1920s, the railway continued to serve as a vital freight carrier, meeting the demands of the region. Haifa experienced significant development during this time, with ships docking in its port and factories, including large mills, employing many workers. The Valley Railway played a crucial role in transporting wheat from the Hauran to Haifa, further promoting industrial growth.
The Valley Railway also played a critical role in connecting Jewish settlements in the area. Before the construction of a road system, the railway served as the primary transportation route. In the 1920s and 1930s, new Jewish settlements were established at various points along the railway line, including Kfar Yehezkel, Ein Harod, Kfar Baruch, Kfar Yehoshua, and Afula. The train provided a sense of security and facilitated social interaction among settlers. Additionally, it offered access to medical treatment and transportation of agricultural produce, such as milk, to Haifa and markets beyond.
Over time, the Valley Railway became a legendary symbol, deeply intertwined with the lives and experiences of the people in the region. Its charm lay not only in its functional aspects but also in its idiosyncrasies, folklore, and the memories created by its passengers. It brought together people from different valleys, towns, and communities, fostering connections and a shared sense of camaraderie.
Today, the Jezreel Valley Railway holds a significant place in the collective memory of the region. Though the physical remnants may have faded, the stories, legends, and nostalgia associated with the Valley Railway continue to captivate the imagination and serve as a testament to its lasting impact on the economic, cultural, and social fabric of the northern region in the days of pre-State Israel
Read the first two blogs of this series:
אנו רואים חשיבות עליונה בהנגשת אתר האינטרנט שלנו לאנשים עם מוגבלויות, וכך לאפשר לכלל האוכלוסיה להשתמש באתרנו בקלות ובנוחות. באתר זה בוצעו מגוון פעולות להנגשת האתר, הכוללות בין השאר התקנת רכיב נגישות ייעודי.
למרות מאמצנו להנגיש את כלל הדפים באתר באופן מלא, יתכן ויתגלו חלקים באתר שאינם נגישים. במידה ואינם מסוגלים לגלוש באתר באופן אופטימלי, אנה צרו איתנו קשר