“I had butterflies in my stomach,” said Yehuda Levanoni on Monday as he stood at the site of the old train station in Tzemach, at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret. After 12 years of research, he has succeeded in proving the theory that has been keeping him, and a few other amateur historians, busy for so long.
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It turns out the railway turntable for the Jezreel Valley railway line built by the Ottomans in 1905 - the round device used for turning around trains, especially the engines, so they could head back in the direction they came from - was buried under the ground, as Levanoni had argued in the face of another, widely accepted theory.
“It was really exciting for me,” said Levanoni, a 71-year-old Rishon Letzion resident who has been researching the railway line, widely known as the Valley Train, for the last several years.
Originally, the Valley Train was a branch line connecting Haifa and the Jezreel Valley to the Hejaz Railway, which traveled from Damascus to Medina. The line also operated under the British Mandate until 1948.
Today, Israel Railways is building a modern rail line along much of the old route.
Levanoni has been burrowing through archives, going out in the field and interviewing people about the incredible transportation project the Ottomans built, after many failed attempts, more than a century ago.
“I’ve already interviewed 1,000 people; I found three people who were born on the train,” he says, calling his interest in the railway “obsessive.” He came up with his underground turntable theory a long time ago, “but except for Yair, no one believed me.”
Levanoni is referring to 68-year-old Yair Mish, a good friend of his who helped him conduct research. Mish is a collector of tools from the beginning of the Jewish resettlement in the Land of Israel, and he goes almost daily to the flea market in Jaffa and makes discoveries that enrich Levanoni’s work.
With the blessings of the Council for Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel, which also provided a tractor to help with the earthworks, Levanoni and Mish arrived at the Tzemach site Sunday to watch as a professional surveyor made measurements and the tractor started digging. Slowly the rock wall of the turntable was uncovered. Then the metal wheel on which the turntable was set was discovered, and then more metal, which Mish says was used to shovel the coal for the steam engine, and a metal stake used to fix the track in place. Levanoni was very excited: “This is a real discovery.”
The Valley Train may have run for only 43 years, but the line from Haifa to Afula, Beit She’an and Tzemach is an integral part of the story of Zionist settlement in the northern valleys.
“It was the main means of transportation, and sometimes the only one,” says Levanoni. “You need to understand, they built this impressive transportation enterprise with hoes. They didn’t have tractors like we have today.”
The turntable is a round platform with railroad tracks, encircled by a round structure of basalt stones. When the locomotive arrived from Haifa in the west, or from the Syrian city of Daraa in the east, the engines were detached from the rest of the train cars and drove onto the turntable. A group of workers would turn it so the locomotive was facing in the opposite direction, toward where it came from, and then the engine was hitched to the cars that came from the opposite direction. There were similar turntable facilities in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem.
“There was a need to switch between engines since the engine that traveled to Daraa needed to be a much stronger locomotive,” said Levanoni. “It needed to climb differences in height of 900 meters - from Tzemach, which is 200 meters below sea level, to Daraa, at an altitude of 700 meters. These altitude differences required the construction of 15 bridges along the way, and seven tunnels were dug. This difficult route needed an especially strong locomotive, while the engine that came from Haifa and returned there had an easier route.”
Tzemach was also the border between two different provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and after World War I it was also a border post between the British Mandate in the Land of Israel and the French Mandate in Syria, which made the ability to switch locomotives there even more important.
In June 1946 Palmah fighters blew up the railway bridge over Yarmuk River, which transformed the station at Tzemach from an international transport hub to a station at the end of the line. At that point, the turntable was used only to turn the locomotive that came from Haifa.
In March 1948 the Valley Train stopped operating completely. Two months later, during the War of Independence, Tzemach was the site of a bloody battle between the Jewish forces of the newly founded state and the Syrian Army, which captured the train stations, as well as the nearby police station, and was stopped only when it reached the gates of nearby Kibbutz Degania.
When the turntable was discovered this week, it was covered with a large amount dirt and garbage from the IDF base that has been on the site for years.
Levanoni held fast to his theory about the turntable’s location even though many other history buffs believed it to be located about 50 meters eastward. Levanoni was troubled because the round object thought to be the turntable was lacking a number of essential parts, such as the central axle on which the huge device turned.
Levanoni examined British maps from 1943 and noticed the facility that was widely thought to be the turntable had actually been a huge underground tank for storing heavy fuel oil that was built in 1942. The roof of the oil tank was at ground level and was round, with the same diameter as the turntable.
Near the large tank, a concrete tower was built. Until now it was assumed that it was used as a water tower for refilling the steam engines. But the British map makes it clear that this tank held heavy fuel oil that was pumped from the underground tank.
Until his theory was proved right, he says, “Everyone thought I was dreaming.”