The Railway of L’Entre Deux Mers was constructed in stages between 1860 and 1899. It opened up a passage through the Dropt valley creating a link between Bordeaux and the towns, and villages in the heart of L’Entre Deux Mers, as far as Eymet, across the west border in Lot et Garonne department. Initially it was built specifically to carry stone to Bordeaux, but soon functioned to transport goods, and passengers, typically three times a day. The railway crossed multiple roads, and at each, a barrier was essential for safety. To operate the barrier, a ‘Garde de Barrière’ (gatekeeper) was needed.
The position of a Gatekeeper was reserved for women, usually wives of railworkers. They were employed to stay at the crossing, open and close the gates, record passage of road traffic, and remain alert to safety irregularities. They were able to earn one of three categories of salary, depending on the workload of their particular crossing. With this employment, they were able to live in a house, next to the crossing, built specifically for the purpose, with their family.
Although small, with two rooms on the ground floor, and two upstairs, these houses were well built using stone, in the classical style. The corners of the building, the windows and doors were dressed with cut stone blocks. A fireplace was situated in the centre of the house. A narrow, steep staircase leaned against a side wall. The kitchen was simple, but held a sink, and water tap, while the toilets were outside.
This gift of a home, came at a price. The gatekeeper was required to be on site, ready to work, seven days a week with no time off, or holidays. She could not be absent. Over decades this changed as workers rights brought the eight hour working day .
During the early years, the gates were left closed, and opened when road traffic required it. The heavy gates had rollers that she pushed manually to open and close, and its tracks needed to be greased regularly. Fortunately this was later replaced with a winch system that raised and lowered the gates. Each time, she would have to log details, date, hour and type of vehicle. Pedestrians were able to pass freely through a side gate, and she would not concern herself with them. A light needed to be lit in the evenings for late trains.
As the little house was situated next to the crossing, her children might often have played alongside the railway, causing anxiety each time a train was due. Up until 1955, trains were steam engined, and many a child who grew up in this environment was suitably impressed for life by the noise of the steam engine, and its iron wheels against the rails. Sometimes, if mother was tired, an elder child might have taken a task.
As road transport grew, and rail became unfashionable, the line was gradually closed. From 1953 the Railway of L’Entre Deux Mers was no longer in use. By 1982, across France, the women of the railways disappeared as automated gate control came into use.
The little houses of the ‘Garde de Barrière’ are homes still, but for private owners who enjoy their connection to the era of the iron horse.