The Rope Roads Of Chiatura
Published 22 August 2013
In the steep valley town of Chiatura, Georgia, the public transport system is an engineering spectacle -- but it isn't designed for the faint of heart. In the early 20th century, Soviet authorities sought to develop Chiatura into a booming miners' town to ramp up the extraction of manganese, an element used in steel production for its ability to stop rust. Planners built a sanitarium and cultural centers, but public transport within the gorge proved less straightforward. In response to the town’s extreme geography, a network of aerial tramways was built, providing access to almost every corner of Chiatura. Today, while some of the cars have rusted away, 17 of them -- including the Soviet Union's first passenger tramway -- remain in service. Photos by Amos Chapple.
A view of Chiatura, Georgia. The Soviets invested heavily in constructing a "worker's paradise" in the gorge which, in its heyday, produced 60 percent of the world's manganese.
Revaze Achvadze rides a cable car up to his home.
A cable car suspended above Chiatura with a Soviet-era factory in background.
Passengers greet one another inside a tramway station.
A miner smokes a cigarette through the window of the "Peace" tramway which runs from the center of town up to the entrance of one of the manganese mines. The cable cars are owned by the mining company, but are open to the public.
A cable car slides out of Chiatura's central station.
Commuters wait for a cable car in the central tramway station.
A socialist realist painting shows Chiatura's manganese miners.
A mosaic of Lenin and Stalin made of river stones at the entrance to Chiatura's main tramway station. Stalin's relationship with Chiatura dates to his days as a revolutionary fugitive hiding out in the mines above the town.
At the eastern edge of Chiatura, this manganese processing plant next to a mine shaft operates 24 hours a day. Workers access the mine by taking two tramways up and over steep bluffs. The second tramway is visible at top left.
A cable car operator puts on the brakes.
A heavily greased pulley wheel on the "Peace" tramway line. Most tramways in Chiatura have two cars connected to the same cable. An electric motor pulls one car down, using that car's weight to help pull the other up.
This tramway runs 150 meters (492 feet) above the valley floor.
A cable car crosses over the heavily polluted Kvirila River, which runs almost black when the manganese factories are in full use.
An operator pits cherries in the downtime between passengers. Operators usually wait until there are three or four passengers waiting at both stations before ringing the bell and starting the ride.
A telephone inside a cabin of Tramway 25
Tramway 25 was the first passenger tramway in the U.S.S.R., and has run almost continuously since it opened in 1954. If funding comes through, it will be replaced in 2014.
Some of the lines run without a braking system; if the haulage cable snaps, the cabins will roll straight back down the track cable. This happened to a tramway in Tbilisi in 1990, killing 20 people. Right: A discarded piece of track cable. The cables weigh around 26 pounds (12 kilograms) per meter.
A photo of Tramway 25 from the 1950s (left) alongside a current picture. (Photo courtesy of Georgian Manganese Holdings)
Then-and-now pictures of tramways built in the 1960s. In 2008, the hauling rope of this tramway snapped with 12 passengers inside. Chiatura didn't have the equipment needed to rescue the passengers, who were left suspended in a stalled cable car for 12 hours until a rescue team arrived from Tbilisi. The mining company offered the passengers compensation and counseling. (Photo courtesy Georgian Manganese Holdings)