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The ‘Danish’ Tachin Railway

A special railway line from Banghkok to Samut Songkram has an unknown Danish background.

On the 10th of June 1906, a fishing boat under sails approached a fishing village called Tachin or Ta Chin at the mouth of a river in the western part of the Gulf of Siam. On a stretcher  lay a badly wounded Captain of the Royal Provincial Gendarmerie, the Dane Frederik Steiner. His uniform was bloody and at least one finger missing. He was immediately attended to by  Mr. H.C. Andersen of the so-called Bangkok-Tachin Railway. As fast as possible, Steiner was sent by train to Bangkok. Here he was admitted to St. Louis Hospital where he miraculously survived and recovered, but with one and a half fingers missing.

Steiner had been on a mission to the jungle in Pranburi district, just south of what is now Hua Hin. Here, murderous gangs of robbers and highwaymen made ordinary travel and commuting almost impossible. Steiner and his men found and trapped a group in the jungle, hiding in and around a smithy. Together with his Siamese trumpeter corporal he entered the smithy itself and they immediately came under attack by two furious women hiding inside armed with jungle knives. Both men were seriously wounded.

Steiner hesitated to counter attack the women; but they were not there for negotiations and Steiner finally had to use his Browning. He then carried his corporal from the hut supported by his unhurt left arm. The corporal also survived. The captain was then carried in a sampan all the way down the narrow Pranburi River, and then from the mouth of the river, where it meets the bay of Siam, sailed to the place called Tachin. The whole journey to Bangkok lasted 36 hours.

After his recovery, Steiner went back to his duties and was throughout the years instrumental in making the Western and Southwestern part of Siam a much more safe and peaceful place. He was later promoted to Colonel.

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Frederik Steiner was married to a British lady, and last year I was asked by a descendant in England whether I knew anything about him. With Erik Seidenfadens book, ‘Det Kongelige Siamesiske Provinsgendarmeri og dets Danske Officerer’ (The Royal Siamese Provincial Gendarmerie and its Danish officers) in hand, that was an easy job and the story above is based on Seidenfaden. That’s where I first heard about Tachin, a railway there and yet another Dane, Mr. H. C. Andersen, Railway-Manager. A town or locality of that name couldn’t be found on any map.

After some digging it came up that Tachin is Chinese, meaning ‘The Chinese Pier’. According to the old sources, Tachin was used as base for the Chinese fleet of junks travelling and trading the bay of Siam. Early in the century the trade and the ships disappeared because of a decline in quality and competition from the West.  However, to this day the International Tide Table uses the name Tachin for their station at the bay. Later the name changed to Mahachai, so called after the canal running inland along the coast. This name is still much in use also on, for example, road signs, so don’t get confused; but the official name of the fishing town today is Samut Sakhon located around 35 kilometers west of Bangkok. In a two storey concrete building with an elevator, at the ferry pier, the Chinese pier, you will find the best seafood restaurant in western Thailand. The owners are also ethnic Chinese, but nevertheless – prices are much cheaper than in Bangkok, but that is another story.

Around the year 1900 there was a real fever among all foreigners in Bangkok – ‘the concession fewer.’ Everybody and his uncle tried to obtain concessions from the Crown. The railroad line to Paknam (Samut Prakan) was one of the first; followed by a tramline in Bangkok; then the Siam Electricity Company with a 50 years monopoly on providing electricity to the fast growing city, The Motorboat Company running up and down the river and major canals, and also mining concessions were given to foreigners, for example H.N. Andersen, and then of course the lucrative teak concessions mainly in the north of Siam.

The three brothers Kinch, Peter (33 years old), who arrived in Bangkok 1886, Frederik (1887) aged 24 and Emanuel (1889) aged 27, were, like Admiral Andreas Richelieu, son’s of a pastor in the village Loejt Kirkeby in Southern Jutland – but not the same. Peter and Andreas were the same age.

They all came to work with H.N. Andersen (later EAC). With Andersen, Peter was co-founder of ‘The Oriental Provision Store’ in 1886. They all had their fall-outs with Andersen later and all subsequently quit.

Together with other businessmen, Emanuel Kinch got a concession in 1901 to establish a railway named Tachin Railway Ltd. It now runs from Wongwian Yai station, near the King Thaksin monument on the Western Bank of the Chao Praya River, the 33.1 kilometers to Tachin, alias Samut Sakhon. The name Tachin Railway was quickly forgotten after the line was extended to Samut Songkhram in 1905-6, and the whole 66.9 kilometer line was called Maeklong Railway Ltd. Emanuel Kinch was Chairman of the Board of Directors when the railway started.

His brother Peter was a civil engineer, at that time with his own construction company in Bangkok. His company then built the complete railway line, and Peter Kinch and his crew did a very good job. When you take the ride today, have a close look at the rails and sleepers, it seems that they have lasted since the first tour, the switches too. The smaller and bigger bridges passing over klongs and streams are made from heavy dimensioned iron; they look as if they can easily last another lifetime or two. The locomotives are newer Japanese models, the carriages too, but if you are an enthusiast you can easily find abandoned passenger carriages dating back to the beginning of last century on deserted side tracks in Samut Sakhon,. Prime quality hardwood is used, so they will also last –except that the vegetation is slowly taking them back to the jungle.

The line to Samut Sakhon is very popular still. If you want to carry on to Samut Songkhram you have to cross the river by ferry and then catch the train on the other side; enjoy the tour!. An exotic railway it is, with even a fresh food market placed directly on the rails and sleepers, with the sun blinds and boxes removed only when a train is set to pass.

Finally a few words about H.C. Andersen, he deserves it. He was Works Manager and in charge of the railway from 1905 to 1930. I really think the man and his Danish wife and three children found a nice and peaceful niche here. Maeklong Railway is not connected to the national rail system. Only one track and no signals at all; when needed they used a radio transmitter. Trains can only pass each other at the stations. There are only 3 or 4 trains on the rails at the same time travelling an average 30 kilometers per hour, so there is no need for more advanced logistics. Furthermore, the line was strongly built and consequently doesn’t give much trouble –the railway of my dreams really. As a legacy, H.C. Andersen found time to create a substantial and professional archive about Danes and Danish activities in Siam, which archive remains useful to this day. When he returned to Denmark in 1930, both he and one of his daughters found employment as professional archivists. So, on that day in June 1906, the Man of War, Captain Steiner, really met the Man of Peace, manager and archivist, H.C. Andersen.

 

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