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Remnants of an intercontinental railway: considered one of the most difficult engineering tasks in the world, the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad continues to inspire awe and admiration 100 years after its completion.

THE BIRTH PANGS OF THE new nation were protracted and painful. For the first seven decades of its existence as an independent republic, from 1830 to the turn of the century, Ecuador struggled to overcome obstacles to nationhood that seemed all but unsolvable at the time. The small country contains within its borders some of the most challenging terrain in all of the Americas, from snow-capped volcanoes that soar to over 20,000 feet above sea level, to craggy Andean mountain ranges and jagged river valleys in the hinterland, to an impenetrable expanse of swampy lowlands along its Pacific coast. These imposing physical features isolated Ecuador's disparate population centers and discouraged economic and political integration. Anarchy racked the land as Liberal and Conservative political factions plotted for control.

The catalyst for the revolutionary change that was needed to wrest the land from its perpetual and enervating morass came in the form of a scheme of epic proportions. The principal figures involved were a cast of larger-than-life personalities, including foreign adventurers and minded Ecuadoran general.

When Ecuadorans year to celebrate the centennial of the fabled Guayaquil-Quito Railway, their focus was on more than the triumph of an engineering marvel. Over time, the planning and construction of the railway has become deeply engrained in the national psyche as an act of political courage that truly transformed Ecuador. It produced, as Ecuadoran historian Byron Castro states, "a transcendental change in the life of the country. That's why it was termed by the Ecuadoran people la obra redentora--the redemptive work."

Beyond its monumental importance to Ecuador, the 288 mile railway represented the first actual on-the-ground project envisioned and promoted by the forerunner of today's Organization of American States.



When the First International Conference of American States convened on October 2, 1889 in Washington, DC for a six month session, 27 delegates from thirteen nations assembled to consider ways to reduce tariffs and promote trade in the Americas. Advocating the construction of a railroad in far away Ecuador was likely the last thing on their minds. "A lot of historians dismiss this conference as a major failure because it didn't produce a customs union," comments John A. Sanbrailo of the Pan American Development Foundation, an OAS-affiliated organization. "The US wouldn't bring down its high protective tariffs, so the concept of a free market died. But what is ignored are all of the other accomplishments, which can be credited to a large degree to the efforts of the US Secretary of State at the time, James Blaine. He saw Latin American markets as being key to the development of the United States, and he believed that what would make that possible was the building of an intercontinental railroad."

The United States had already taken forceful action to establish railroads as the growing country's primary transportation system; the first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, an enthusiastic champion of rail transportation, provided funding so the diplomats could visit US industrial centers. Their means of conveyance was a smoothly functioning railway system, and it made a big impression. In light of the prominence that railways enjoyed at that time, it's not surprising that many historians now consider the conference's most important accomplishment to have been the creation of the Intercontinental Railroad Commission. Enthused by Secretary Blaine's passion for an intercontinental system of rails that would link the US to the most distant points in South America, the commission set the plan in motion by designating the Guayaquil-Quito line as the first segment to be undertaken.

"Imagine Ecuador at that time," says Castro, the author of El ferrocarril ecuatoriano, a recent book on the history of railroads in his country. "The road system was almost nonexistent. They were almost always in a bad state. It made the country an area held captive by immobility, with limited internal commerce." Onto the scene in 1895 came a charismatic figure who was determined to succeed where his predecessors had failed in efforts to modernize and unify the country. As Ecuador's new president, General Eloy Alfaro, the leader of the country's Liberal faction, set in motion a series of political reforms, including initiatives to provide universal public education, impose a separation of church and state, and end the strong regional autonomy that had evolved due to poor internal communications and transportation. The long-envisioned rail link between the country's two largest population centers was at the top of the list.


Ecuador presented a unique situation in the Americas for a proposed rail line. It was quite different from the other pioneering railway projects in the region, from Costa Rica to Chile, which were built to facilitate the exportation of products. Ecuador did not have a major export commodity in the highlands; it was exporting cacao, but that was grown in the coastal region and didn't require rail services.

"I think that he was inspired by what Abraham Lincoln had done with the transcontinental railroad in the United States," Sanbrailo says of Alfaro. "In his thinking, it was more than a railroad; it was a political project. He was going to force together the coast and the sierra of the country. It was, in Alfaro's view, the project that was needed to modernize and redeem the country. The fact that only the Ecuadoran segment of the proposed Intercontinental Railroad got funded at that time was because it took someone with the initiative and dynamism of this great president to take bold action."

The blueprint for Alfaro's plan was based on a survey of the proposed route that had been completed in the early 1890s by Colonel William Shunk, a North American engineer employed by the Intercontinental Railroad Commission to lay the groundwork for railways in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Alfaro commissioned Shunk's Virginia-based son-in-law, Major John Harman, an engineer, and his brother Archer Harman, an entrepreneur, to undertake the project. Begun in 1897 and completed eleven years later, the endeavor tested every precept of civil engineering that had been mastered by Major Harman and his assistants. They undertook their mission with an ingenious mix of new technology--steam shovels and pneumatic drills--and the brute force of calloused hands manning the most rudimentary construction tools.


Some of the most revealing insights into the arduous nature of the terrain and the engineering challenges posed during the construction of the railway's most difficult section are provided in the pages of Railroad in the Sky, a recent book on the history of the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad penned by Elizabeth Harman Brainard and Katharine Robinson Brainard, descendants of the Harman brothers and William Shunk. "Thousands of men dug away at the mountain with picks and shovels," they chronicled, "casting down the dirt and rock that was then loaded into wheelbarrows and hauled away. Behind every shovel and wheelbarrow was a man, working with his bare hands, covered with the dust of the mountain, breathing in the powdered rock and ancient earth."

Beyond the trials posed by undertaking a large scale construction project under such taxing circumstances, the Harmans and their laborers had to deal with other challenges. From the presence of malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, and bubonic plague to the ongoing annoyance of intestinal parasites, workers courted death and debilitating diseases every day they were on the job. Omnipresent cantineros, traveling purveyors of liquor, and camp prostitutes further complicated the daily routine. Nor was the financial side of the project problem free; occasional lapses hi timely payment threatened to bring the work to a sudden halt and the potential for political instability never seemed far away. Thus, it was with a certain sense of urgency that crews tackled the final remaining miles of line needed to reach Chimbacalle, the terminating point on the outskirts of Quito. In the early days of June 1908, crews even worked by moonlight to inch toward completion. The line was officially opened on President Alfaro's birthday, June 25, 1908 when his daughter America drove a golden spike into the last crosstie.

Today, Ecuadorans are increasingly viewing the story of the railway's construction through the prism of history, rediscovering details of their national experience that had been obscured over the years. One prominent Ecuadoran who traces his family's history to the arrival in 1902 of his paternal grandfather to work on the project is Dr. Edwin Johnson-Lopez. As Ecuador's Director of Cultural Affairs for the Ministry of External Relations, he commented on the wave of immigration that brought his grandfather and many others from abroad during an address commemorating the centenary of the line's completion. "We speak of names such as Brennan, Crow, Johnson, Layman, Wray, McBride, Cattani, and Ashton, among others," he said, "that now form a part of our present national onomastic repertoire, who contributed to the design of the characteristics that we individualize as a country."

After 1968, the railroad increasingly showed its age as the elements began to take their toll. Aging rails and ties and antiquated equipment were just part of the slow but steady deterioration that began to render segments of the system increasingly nonfunctional. In 1997 and 1998, torrential rains produced by the El Nino weather system resulted in landslides that proved to be the death knell for some of the line's most vulnerable sections. "Each rainy season brings new headaches," states Dr. John Kirchner, a retired professor of transportation economics from California State University who has coordinated and led excursions on historic railways around the world for over two decades. "Sections in the sierra have mudslides," he adds, "and there are other problems. For example, the mayor of Milagro, in Guayas province, tore up all of the tracks through town. There are bridges in bad shape. There is no shortage of difficulties."


Recognizing the unique historic qualities of the line, the government of President Rafael Correa chose the occasion of its centennial observance to declare the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad a "National Cultural Patrimony" and announce the federal government's intention to undertake the work necessary to restore all of the abandoned and trader-maintained sections. Beginning with only about ten percent of the line in operation, Jorge Eduardo Carrera, the general manager of the Ecuadoran Railroad Enterprise, predicted that double that amount would be up and running by early 2009.

The Ecuadoran government's announcement of plans to fully restore the line has been enthusiastically received by observers such as Kirchner, even if they are guardedly optimistic that the needed repairs will be completed any time soon. "The G&Q was always a popular tourist attraction and a favorite among many titans to see and do in Ecuador," he comments. "When the line was first cut in modern times, during the El Nino disaster, there was a noticeable drop in tourist visitations to Ecuador, and that was largely attributed to the lack of the rail option. One study showed that the railroad was among the top five tourist attractions in the country, ranking right up there with the Galapagos Islands, Quito, Otavalo, and the Avenue of the Volcanoes, which is a great train ride itself."

Although the entire twelve hour journey from Quito to the outskirts of Guayaquil isn't possible today, visitors have several options to enjoy the line's most spectacular segment, from Riobamba to Sibambe through the dreaded Devil's Nose. The government owned Ecuadoran Railroad Enterprise operates a train featuring vintage cars and a Guayaquil-based firm offers trips aboard a one unit autoferro, a bus on train wheels locally called a chiva (goat). Both allow passengers to sit atop the cars to enjoy an even more thrilling experience while chugging along precariously-perched rails. "Riding through the switchbacks of the Devil's Nose," Kirchner observes, "is one of the great sights in railroading to be found anywhere, and riding on the roof, while dangerous, is an attraction that has excited visitors from all over the world."


"The Ecuadoran railway has the capacity to complete the objectives of all kinds of tourism," states historian Byron Castro, "including historic, geographic, scientific, recreational, adventure, and the rest. Every station, town, and city has a lot to tell and demonstrate about the national memory."

On the eve of the upcoming Summit of the Americas, John Sanbrailo marvels at the chain of events that led to today's OAS. The first inter-American gathering in Washington, DC led to creation of the International Union of American Republics which became the Pan American Union twenty years later and then, in 1948, the Organization of American States. "That was really the first Summit of the Americas," he says of the 1889-90 session, "and Eloy Alfaro was one of the earliest Pan-Americanists. He was a brilliant Ecuadoran who had this tremendous vision of how the Americas could be united in a great spirit of hemispheric solidarity. The Guayaquil-Quito Railroad was the first example of inter-American technical assistance, and without Alfaro's leadership and courage, it's doubtful that the 'Railroad in the Sky' would ever have been completed."

A regular contributor to Americas, Mark Holston rode the length of the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad in the early 1970s.
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Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3ECUD
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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