Tracks of Change: Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydın Railroad

By Onur İnal

On an October afternoon in 1857, a great crowd gathered at the Caravan Bridge in Izmir to witness an historic moment. Mustafa Pasha, the Governor of Izmir, the müftü, or chief jurist, of Izmir, the Greek and Armenian bishops, the chief rabbi of the Jews, Izmir-Aydın railway company officials, and elegantly dressed men and women were all at present. “Be sure, gentlemen, that my Sovereign will have much joy when he hears that the first railway in Turkey has commenced,” the Pasha expressed his pleasure and added that “the introduction of such improvements will give rise to new riches and prosperity in his empire.”[1]  Using a silver spade, he then proceeded to fill a small mahogany barrow with mortar and emptied it at the designated point. Consuls and other high-ranking officials repeated the procedure. Shots of blank artillery rounds were fired, sheep were sacrificed, and the air resounded with the cheers of the crowd. The foundation stone of the Izmir-Aydın line, the first railroad in Anatolia, and the second in the Ottoman Empire, was laid. The 81-mile-long railroad, after several interruptions due to financial difficulties and technical problems, would finally be completed in July 1866.

Fig. 1. Source: “Commencement of the Smyrna and Aidin Railway,” Illustrated London News 31, no. 885 (31 October 1857): 12.

The construction of a railroad line from Izmir to Aydın represented political, economic, and technological transformations already underway and provided a good opportunity for the deployment of European capital and technology in Ottoman lands. The project symbolized the power of industrial capitalism to exploit agricultural resources and forward them to European markets. The project, however, was not a straight line between the two cities, but a complex undertaking that required an unprecedented degree of mobilization and utilization of not only financial and technical, but also human, animal, and natural resources. It involved the interplay of capitalistic forces, science and technology, human and animal labor, and nature’s cycles and processes.

Scientific knowledge was crucial for the project’s success and it required the use of, for example, statics to calculate the stability and strength of bridges, trestles, and other structures; mathematics to gauge distances, curves, and grades; geology and mineralogy to identify the hardness of the rocks; and thermodynamics to understand the essential features and functioning of steam engines. On the one hand, experts with an ability to apply scientific knowledge in the local context of Western Anatolia were key to the efficient planning and engineering of the Izmir-Aydın line. On the other hand, skilled and unskilled laborers, as well as non-human animals, provided the much-needed muscular energy for the harnessing of natural resources for the benefit of railroad. The cutting and removing of rocks, the moving of earth, the felling of trees, the sawing of lumber, the drilling of wells, the draining and pumping of water, and the hauling of rails, ties, and other materials were all due to the hard work and toil of laborers and animals. (Fig. 2) According to one observer, on different sections of the railroad, about 2,400 workers were employed and there were “few nationalities which [were] not represented.”[2] The company offered wages higher than usual in order to keep the laborers working on railroad construction: Unskilled laborers received 12 to 17 piastres, or two to three shillings, while masons were offered 20 to 25 piastres, or three to four shillings. [3] These men worked hard to open “limeworks, brick and tilefields, quarries, sand and gravel pits,” whereas nomadic lumberjacks were hired for “cutting sleepers and other timber.”[4]

Fig. 2. Construction works near Izmir. Watercolor painting by David Hall McKewan H.M.S in 1860.

Camels and horses carried survey personnel, chainmen, and laborers, but also inspectors’ huts, guards’ boxes, tents, and other prefabricated camp buildings from one location to another. Donkeys, on the other hand, carried “small bulks of materials, requiring no particular care in the transport.”[5] The muscular labor human and non-human inhabitants performed was certainly valuable in the scarcity of water or steam-powered pumps, sawmills, stone crushers, and other tools. The local topographical, hydrological, and meteorological knowledge they provided was no less important for the contractors. The technical and managerial staff of the railway company firmly relied on them, for instance, to find their way through the rough and rocky terrain, to identify the trees to be cut and transported, and to determine the locations of streams and water reserves. The recruitment, training, mobilization, and utilization of local laborers required a complex organizational effort. Aside from the contractors, engineers, and a few other high-ranking officials, their names and stories rarely appear in the pages of history. Having said that, without the energy they provided, steam-powered locomotives could not have crossed the Cayster (Küçük Menderes) and Meander (Büyük Menderes) rivers, as well as several other streams, passed through the tunnels, and ascended the mountains and the hills.

The contractors, engineers, technicians, miners, workers and other stakeholders of the Izmir-Aydın line, by erecting stations, spanning rivers and streams, placing rails and crossties, and wiring telegraph poles, not only pieced individual components of railroad infrastructure together to move people and goods between the two termini of the line, but also constructed material connections to nature. Millions of cubic meters of soil were excavated to grade the roads, dozens of quarries and coal mines were opened up, and miles of pipes were laid to convey water from springs to reservoirs and tanks. Pine, oak, and fir trees were cut down in large numbers, processed into logs and lumber, and then hewn and sawn into crossties for the rails; into beams, girders, piles, and struts for trestle bridges; and into culverts, palisades, and other railroad infrastructure such as gate houses, warehouses, sheds, workshops, and telegraph poles. The rate of extraction increased as the tracks proceeded into rugged interior, where the slopes were covered with upland forests. Considering a mile of railway track required 2,000 to 2,500 wooden crossties, and repair and replacement of crossties every few years, the Izmir-Aydın railroad consumed large tracts of forests as it extended into the interior. For instance, in the 1880s, contractors requested wood for the calculated 190,000 crossties for the extension of Dinar from Sarayköy, a distance of 81 miles. This required the felling and sawing of approximately 50,000 pine trees.[6] Adding to them an immense number of oaks, juniper, and pitch pine trees for fuelwood, a large area of forests disappeared from the hills facing the railroad line.

Fig. 3 Map of the Ottoman railway from Izmir to Aydın, engraved by J. and C. Walker, 1860. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, GE C-2370.

“From its earthen bed to its iron locomotives and its ties and fuel wood,” Mark Fiege once wrote about the Union Pacific to highlight its deep connections to nature, and added: “the railroad was a powerful system – a massive force – that sucked up raw materials, some of them from environments far away.”[7] The ecological implications of the Izmir-Aydın railroad, likewise, were more far-reaching than it first appears. The contractors transported substantial amounts of raw material, machinery, and rolling stock from Britain because they were not locally available. Similarly, the forests in Western Anatolia were not sufficient to meet the demand for timber on their own, so the railroad infrastructure used great quantities of timber from Romania, Austria, Norway, and the United States.

Fig. 4. Imported timber on the quay of Izmir. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, EI-13 (873).

Coal was the principal imported material for the operation of the Izmir-Aydın railroad. Although underground coal seams were discovered in the vicinity of Söke, Torbalı, and Nazilli along the railroad line, not only the difficulties in working and transporting it, but also “the small difference in the price” rendered it less attractive to the railway company as compared to British coal.[8] The locally available coal in Western Anatolia was prefered by the residents of cities and towns in the interior, who had hitherto relied on charcoal for cooking and heating. British coal, on the other hand, remained as an indispensable ingredient of railroads in Western Anatolia. Almost all of the coal burned in the boilers of locomotives on the Izmir-Aydın line was extracted from the shafts in Cardiff and Newcastle, and shipped to the port of Izmir by coal-powered steamships, from where it was laden on tenders and freighted to coal bunkers along the railroad.[9] The heat generated by the burning of British coal turned the water in a boiler into steam that powered locomotives on rails. In 1864, about 36,000 tons of coal was imported to Izmir from British ports.[10] In less than four decades, the annual consumption of coal in Izmir more than quadrupled, equaling to 150,000 tons, “of which 80,000 tons are taken by steamers, 30,000 tons by railways, and 40,000 tons by the Ottoman Gas Company and other industries.”[11] In 1883, the rolling stock of the Izmir-Aydın line consisted of 19 tender locomotives, 50 passenger carriages, and 380 wagons.[12] In 1896, the number of tender locomotives increased to 33, while passenger cars rose almost threefold and goods wagons and tenders rose almost fourfold, reaching 130 and 1,155 respectively.[13]

Coal – alongside its use as a key ingredient to fuel boilers that first transformed its chemical energy into the thermal energy of steam and then converted it into the mechanical energy that made engines run – was a major provider for energy for the metalworking industry in Britain. In blast furnaces in Newcastle, Cardiff and Liverpool, large amounts of coal were used for the smelting and working of iron ores into rails, spikes, bolts, nails, and other machinery and equipment that became major components of railroad infrastructure. Rails of fixed length of fifteen feet were cast in foundries in Britain and shipped by coal-powered steamboats to the port of Izmir. From there, they were transferred into cars hauled by steam-powered locomotives and forwarded to construction sites.[14] Thousands of pieces of rail were used for the Izmir-Aydın line, while the chairs, spikes, bolts, and nuts used in the railway numbered in the millions.

No other technological innovation had as great a social, economic, and environmental impact on the Western Anatolian landscape as the railroads built in the second half of the nineteenth century. Steam locomotives fired by wood and coal replaced human and animal power, which had been the only source of energy for thousands of years. The development of railroads was a turning point in the region’s history, as it fueled production and trade, stimulated migration and settlement, and linked Izmir to its hinterland to exploit agricultural resources and forward them to European markets. Tracing the tracks of the railroads in Western Anatolia exposes the close ties between technology, nature, and capital forged by local, imperial, and trans-imperial actors. The railroads’ connection to nature was  defined and conditioned from the beginning by its use of mineral and organic resources. Each stage of railroad construction involved deep connections to nature. Digging the earth, excavating cuts, drilling wells, building beds, laying plates and ties, boring spikes, and hammering nails required both coping with the limitations of the natural environment and benefiting from the opportunities it presented.


[1] “Commencement of the Smyrna and Aidin Railway,” Illustrated London News 31, no. 885 (31 October 1857): 12.

[2] “The First Turkish Railway,” Times (London), Nov. 16, 1858, 7.

[3] “Turkey,” Times (London), Mar. 9, 1858.

[4] Hyde Clarke, The Imperial Ottoman Smyrna & Aidin Railway, Its Position and Prospects (Constantinople [Istanbul]: Koehler Brothers, 1861), 24.

[5] W. Davis Haskoll, Railways in the East and All High Thermometrical Regions (London: Atchley and Co., 1864), 31.

[6] BOA, ŞD 1206/6 (11 Ra 1312 [12 Oktober 1894]).  

[7] Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 242.

[8] “Report by Consul Cumberbatch on the Trade and Commerce of Smyrna – for the Year 1874,” Reports from Her Majesty’s Consuls on the Manufactures, Commerce, &c. of Their Consular Districts, Part IV (London: Harrison and Sons, 1875), 1802-3.

[9] “Possibilities for American Coal in Smyrna,” Consular Reports. Commerce, Manufacture, Etc. vol. 69, no. 260 (May 1902): 42.

[10] Reports Received from Her Majesty’s Secretaries of Embassy and Legation Respecting Coal (London: Harrison and Sons, 1865), 187.

[11] “Possibilities for American Coal in Smyrna,” 43.

[12] J. M. Stoeckel, “Die Verkehrseinrichtungen der Provinz Aidin,” Österreichische Monatsschrift für den Orient (1883): 33.

[13] Stoeckel, 33; “Table V. Ottoman Asiatic Railways Rolling-Stock,” Report by Major Law on Railways in Asiatic Turkey (1896), 23.

[14] Haskoll, 101.

Onur İnal is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vienna. He is a board member and the regional representative for Turkey at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) and the founder of Network for the Study of Environmental History of Turkey (NEHT). His research focuses on the urban and environmental histories of the late Ottoman Empire and early republican Turkey. His academic work has appeared in edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of World History, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of Ottoman Studies, Journal of Urban History, and Environment and History.

Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:

Nurçin İleri, Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey, 13 April 2021

İlkay Yilmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, 11 March 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.

Citation: Onur İnal, Tracks of Change: Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydın Railroad in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.04.2021,



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  1. 3. May 2021

    […] Track of Change : Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydin Railroad, par Onur Inal, sur TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. […]

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