A green wooden hut at the Kiryat Motzkin train station in northern Israel may not look so special. But it’s being turned into a small museum, celebrating its status as the last surviving building of its type that was constructed on the pre-state’s railroads during the British Mandate era.
“This building is the last vestige, as far as we know, of the wooden structures that the Mandate government built along the railway routes,” said Chen Melling, director of the Israel Railway Museum in Haifa.
He says most of the structural elements in train stations from the Mandate period have been destroyed. “Some of the stations were closed and the buildings replaced. There are several stations with historical remains, like Binyamina and Atlit, but not like this. This station was preserved because it was one of the last to be built, and wood is a material that doesn’t generally survive. There were wooden huts in the original Tel Aviv station, and in Binyamina, Atlit, Kiryat Haim and Ein Harod – where, for example, the station closed in 1938.”
The historical hut had two levels: one cubicle for the cashier; and one cubicle for the signalman. The cashier’s cubicle, which today holds the original safe and cash register, will become an office of sorts for one of the railway directors. The signaling space will become a small museum that will showcase the history of the station.
“We left most of the original parts,” says preservation architect Nili Bar-On, who is in charge of preserving the structure, together with fellow architect Idit Shlomi. “We added to some of the planks, the façade of the building, the floor and the structure, and we replaced what was rotten. The approach was to preserve the maximum amount of original material. Before we took everything apart, every beam was numbered so they would find their proper place during assembly. The only thing we replaced was the roof, which is similar to the original one.”
Kiryat Motzkin was established in 1934, but the route that passed through it was part of the Hejaz railroad (a branch line ran from Damascus to Haifa). Bar-On and Shlomi write that the railroad, which was built between 1911 and 1913, began at the Balad al-Sheikh station (today Tel Hanan).
There was a triple intersection at this station, which forked out to the stations in East Haifa, Dara’a and Acre. The railroad crossed the Kishon River on a bridge that still exists, and from there to Acre, without any intermediate stops.
In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined the Axis powers. During that period, parts of the railroad tracks were removed on many routes – including part of the Jaffa-Jerusalem line – and used for the military railroad built by the Turks under the guidance of the Germans. The tracks from Haifa to Acre were also taken up and service to Acre was discontinued.
The British renewed the track in the 1920s. According to Shlomi and Bar-On, there were three stations on the line in 1927: Acre, Acre Junction and Haifa. In 1929, another station was added, Sabinya, which later became the Kiryat Motzkin station. This station was meant to serve the farm that was started by Ephraim and Sabinya Katz in the area that is today Kiryat Bialik.
Shlomi and Bar-On say the train became the most popular mode of transport for residents of the krayot (the Haifa suburbs) in the 1930s, because most of them were merchants and government workers who worked in Haifa’s lower city. In addition, there was no regular bus service, and the road between Haifa and Acre was poor.
The train would slow down between Kiryat Haim and Kiryat Motzkin, and people could easily board and disembark. The architects note that this “easy” boarding cost one passenger his leg, which was severed by one of the cars.
During World War II, after the capture of Syria and Lebanon by the Allies and transferring these regions into the hands of the Free French forces, British army forces remained in the areas. They required orderly supplies, which led to the building of the Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli railway (the HBT line).
Due to the importance of the line, the British laid a wide-gauge track from Kiryat Motzkin to Beirut and Tripoli, and three tunnels were excavated at Rosh Hanikra, on the Lebanon border. This route made it possible to travel directly from Palestine to Lebanon, northern Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Europe.
Preserving the wooden hut is unusual for Israel Railways. Government decisions regarding preservation orders usually only apply to local governments; organizations such as the Israel Electric Corporation and Israel Railways have no government incentives to carry out preservation. “It’s an area that wasn’t handled properly in the past,” said Melling. “In recent years, due to outside pressures and internal decisions, we’ve tried to turn the ship around and to change direction. We’re implementing a more orderly preservation process and examining the importance of preserving the railroad – which played a significant role in the founding of the state.”
Landscape architect Michal Zussman, who is in charge of the environment and landscaping at Israel Railways, outlined their other plans. “We’re starting a preservation process of the Atlit station building and are about to preserve a structure from the period when the Valley Railway [Rakevet Ha’emek] operated, next to the Israel Railway Museum in the East Haifa train station.”