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The other Hershey (and its railroad)

Cuban town Camilo Cienfuegos might be one of the least expected places to find remnants of America’s great 20th-century industrial expansion – that is, until you hear its pre-revolutionary name: Hershey.

Hershey is located near Havana, about 3 km from the coast, and home to a large mill complex called Central Hershey. The factory town has its roots in a 1919 decision by the Hershey Chocolate Company to make Cuba it’s preferred sugar supplier:

Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, July 31 1919, Page 2

Newspapers of the area show that numerous sons of Lebanon and Dauphin county were transported to Cuba for helping with the chocolate company’s endeavor.

A May 1922 report in the Harrisburg Evening News followed up the construction boon:

With the completion of the sixty-mile standard gauge railroad, along the northern coast of Cuba, built by M.S. Hershey, the Pennsylvania chocolate king, of the Dauphin County town bearing his name, a new era of industrial prosperity is forecast in the heretofore undeveloped territory, between Matanzas and Havana, where traveling had been impossible except on foot with the ox carts.

Nineteen engines, hundreds of freight cars and some passenger coaches are operating now on this Hershey-built railroad which as started things blooming from one end to the other of the route. Towns are springing up, much building is being done, modern sugar mills have been established and transient workers on sugar plantations are settling permanently on the island. The town of Central Hershey, with its parks, palm groves, athletic fields, wide streets and picturesque homes, is developing so rapidly that it’s beginning to rival Hershey, the home town of the chocolate king.

Fantastic to remember, this was just over twenty years after the battle of San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders fought courageously in their Brooks Brothers’ suits!

Truly, this was a new paradise perceived. Cuba seems to have accepted Hershey with open arms, as he was honored with the greatest honor bestowed by the country, the Grand Cross of the National Order of the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. Hershey notably founded and operated a school for orphans of a 1923 train accident.

Hershey had big plans for the school, including building a model sugar mill and teaching modern agricultural practices.
Milton Hershey (center) in front of his home in Central Rosario, Cuba with a group of unidentified dignitaries. Photo provided by the Milton Hershey School.

Of course Cuba’s history would take a revolutionary turn, but the Cuba plant does not seem to have been afflicted by this movement, possibly due to use of Haitian labor and the technocratic manner in which the town was run (no mayor or city councils).

Milton Hershey (center) at the Central Hershey train station. Photo provided by the Milton Hershey School.

In 1946, the Cuban Atlantic Sugar company acquired Hershey’s Cuban remaining assets, which included 60,000 acres of land, five raw sugar mills, a peanut plant, a henequen plant (its leaves used for rope), 4 electric plants, and 251 miles of railroad track with sufficient locomotives and cars.

The train continues to operate today.

Here’s a video from 1990:

And another from 2014:

The Washington Post visited Hershey in 2015, more than a decade after the sugar mill had finally shut down. The reporter found much of the original buildings in disrepair, finding one 92 year old woman who noted, “Everything has been destroyed, it’s horrible what they have done.”

The Post article also provides a local pronunciation of Hershey (“AIR-shee”). Recent Trip Advisor reviews indicate that Hurricane Irma damaged portions of the track but that limited service has been restored as of this spring.

Have you been lucky enough to visit? What was it like? Would love to hear in the comments!

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