During the First World War, Bulgaria sensed the huge lack of fast transport connections with the periphery of the country. Many Bulgarian lands were nearly detached and this was making them an easy target for the rival states, thirsty for new territories. The problem was particularly serious in the Rhodopes which were almost inaccessible at the time.
This is why in 1915 the government ordered that the valleys of the rivers Yadenitsa, Eli dere (today Chepinska) and Vacha were to be studied and it was to be chosen which one of the is the most suitable for the construction of a railway to the heart of the Rhodope mountain.
In the following 1916 it was decided! A narrow-gauge line was to be built from Saranbey, through the gorge of the river Eli dere, the Chepino Valley, the Avramovo Saddle and along the valley of the river Mesta to Razlog and Nevrokop (today Gotse Delchev). On 25th May 1920 the 19th National Assembly voted and passed a law № 1257 for the construction of a 760 mm-narrow-gauge railway from Saranbey to Ladzhene, Yakoruda, Razlog and Nevrokop.
The question who will design the line immediately arose. The first two engineers, who were invited, immediately quit. The reason: the extremely dangerous and wild gorge of the Eli dere river. Then the young engineer Stoyan Mitov, who had just graduated in Germany, arrived in Bulgaria. It was he who started planning the narrow-gauge line from Trakiya to Pirin.
Construction began in the same year - 1920. Winter came and most of the actual activities were postponed until the spring, so in 1921 workers from the National Labour Service, freshly formed by the government of Alexander Stamboliyski, began the construction works on the first, mostly plane section of the line between the stations Saranbey and Varvara.
In 5 years - until the summer of 1926 - the railroad pierced its way though the gorge and reached the village of Ladzhene. The work was carried out in very difficult conditions, without any technical equipment or machinery. The ten tunnels on this stretch were built though blasts, picks and shovels, in extremely life-threatening conditions.
The view from where the "German bridge" would stand in future towards station Varvara. The 20s of the XX century. Source: Central State Archive
Construction of the narrow-gauge line in the Chepinsko gorge. The area around km 8+200, the 1920s. Source: Central State Archive
Drilling of tunnels № 3-8 in the gorge of the Chepinska river, the 1920s. Source: Central State Archive
The first station building of station Ladzhene-Kamenitza - today station Velingrad, 1926. Source: Central State Archive
Passenger train with engine 503.76 at station Dolene - 1929. Source: At. Shumanov
Station Varvara in 1926. Source: Central State Archive
On the second of August, 1926, exactly at 11 AM, the fist train in the history of the Rhodope Narrow Gauge departed. After Saranbey, the train stopped at station Varvara, stop Banite, station Dorkovo, station Bakardzhiyski han, station Dolene, stop Drenov dol, station Chukata and descended into the last station Ladzhene-Kamenitza. The trip lasted 3 hours and 22 minutes.
In the next year 1927, the next section was opened between the villages of Ladzhene and Chepino-banya, nowadays neighbourhoods of Velindrad.
One more year later the section from Varvara to Pazardzhik was opened. From this moment on, the name of the line was changed with a decree. It was now called "Tatar Pazardzhik - Nevrokop", with a branch Varvara - Saranbey. The decree also stated that Pazardzhik would now be the main terminus for the trains on the line.
9 years later the next section was opened to public - from Chepino-banya to station Yakoruda. It was the hardest one to build. Here - between the stop Sveta Petka and the station Avramovo, the railway climbs five storeys high, passing under itself through 16 tunnels in only 9 kilometers. This one-of-a-kind structure is called "the Eight" because of the shape the route forms. After the station Avramovo, the line makes two spiral descends, also called "Sixes" - covered and an open one. This way the railroad reaches stop Cherna Mesta and then descends along the valley of the river Mesta to the town of Yakoruda. The section was put into operation, however without an official opening.
The unique thing about the section from Velingrad to Avramovo is the fact that the narrow-gauge line Septemvri-Dobrinishte remains the only available public transport for hundreds of locals from the alpine villages around Tsvetino to this day. A big part of the local population there makes a living thanks to the narrow-gauge railway, which remains vital for the area.
On 30th July 1939 the section to the station Belitsa was opened, which makes a total length of the line from Saranbey (Septemvri) of 101 kilometers. The inaugual train was driven by Tsar Boris III himself, the reigning monarch of Bulgaria by that time. This event remains in the memory of the local population - two miracles, a train and a king, at once.
Drilling of tunnel №32 - the longest one on the line, 1930s. Side Avramovo. Source: Central State Archive
A working train for the construction of the railway towards Yakoruda at station Avramovi kolibi (today Avramovo) in 1935. The engine is 1.76 – the first one for the Rhodope Narrow Gauge. Source: D. Deyanov
Station Yakoruda meets the inauguational train for the opening of the section Chepino banya - Belitsa in 1939. Source: At. Shumanov
The section Belitsa - Razlog - Bansko was built during the following 4 years. It was opened on the third of March, 1943.
On 9th December 1945 the 6-kilometer section from Bansko to Dobrinishte was put into operation. It remains the last one to this day. More than 75 years later the line never reached Gotse Delchev as initially planned.
The section Bansko - Dobrinishte was built with the voluntary labour of the residents of Dobrinishte, who wanted the line to reach their village at all costs. Nowadays Dobrinishte is a resort town. The line was planned by Bulgarian engineers and funded mostly by state loans.
One thing is certain - the leading thing were people's desire and passion. Everyone realised how important the train was for them. The railway was living the region up, developing new industrial and touristic centres like Velingrad, Yakoruda, Razlog and Bansko.
Although the line remains only to Dobrinishte, for many years it was the main means of transport for passengers and freight along the river Mesta 40 more kilometres downhill to Gotse Delchev. All supplies for everyday life and the industry in the town was being delivered by the narrow gauge. To Dobrinishte by train and then further by trucks. So, after all, the Small Railway contributed to the development of its initially planned end - the downstream of Mesta.
Station Chepino-banya (today Velingrad-yug) in 1940. Source: At. Shumanov
A railcar in the section Sveta Petka - Avramovi kolibi (today Avramovo), 1950s. Source: State Archive - Pazardzhik
A railcar at station Bansko, 1960s. Source: Petya Peneva
Station Velingrad with a railcar, 1963. Source: State Archive - Pazardzhik
The first train on the narrow-gauge with a diesel engine - 07.01.1966. Source: "Zheleznichar" newspaper
The first train on the narrow-gauge with a diesel engine on 7th January 1966, in the Chepino gorge before the stop Tsepina. As the current passenger cars were not yet delivered by that time, the train consists of railcar trailers. Source: "Zheleznichar" newspaper
The old veteran 10.76 meets the first train with a diesel engine at station Razlog, 07.01.1966. Source: D. Deyanov
Passenger train "Rodopi"at station Avramovi kolibi in 1979. The fifth car is a buffet. Source: At. Shumanov
Part of the consist of the passenger train "Rodopi". Source: At. Shumanov
The head house of Marko Nikolov stop, 1976. Nowadays the building is demolished. Source: Petya Peneva
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