Technology, History, and Place

Category: USA (Page 2 of 9)

Railroads between the Atlantic and the Pacific

“The commerce and general prosperity of both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the American continent are so rapidly increasing as to call the attention of the civilized world to the great importance of Inter-Oceanic Railroads, extending without interruption from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

This is the opening line of “American Inter-Oceanic Railroads,” an article from the May 24, 1864 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. In 1864, during the American Civil War, the US government had recently commissioned the building of a transcontinental railroad to connect the Pacific coast states of California and Oregon to the states east of the Rocky Mountains.

The most immediate reason for building the US railroad was to connect the isolated, vulnerable, and valuable state of California, with its gold mines, to the rest of the country. But a longer-term reason, as the Tribune article appreciated, was to create a link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, thus enabling the United States to take part in the trade between the two great oceans. And the United States was not the only player in the game.

There was, in fact, one American interoceanic railroad already in operation by 1864: the Panama Railroad. When it opened in 1855, it crossed the Central American isthmus along a similar route to the future canal. The New York Daily Tribune article described four other railroad projects in some stage of planning that could compete with the United States’ transcontinental railroad; they were located in Nicaragua, the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina, Mexico, and British North America (Canada).

What became of these projects? Let’s take a look.


Construction of the first railway to link British Columbia with eastern Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway, began in 1881 and concluded in 1885. The Tribune article, written two decades earlier, only mentions the prospect of a trans-Canada railway in passing. The author of the article was more concerned about the political implications of railway projects in the republics of Spanish-speaking America.

The Andes

The Transandine Railway, the first railway across the great Andes Mountains of South America opened in 1910, almost fifty years after the New York Daily Tribune article mentioned the possibility of such a project. The rail route, which connected Buenos Aires, Argentina with Valparaíso, Chile, was actually a series of five separate rail lines, three Argentinian and two Chilean. The lines at lower elevation were built in broad gauge (5 ft 6 in), the same standard used in India, while the shorter lines near the summit of the Andes were built in the narrower meter gauge. The Chilean meter-gauge line crossed under the crest of the Andes at 10,969 feet in a three-kilometer tunnel, a remarkable engineering achievement. Although less impressive than the summit tunnel, the approaches on either side were actually harder to construct, especially on the Chilean side.

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

The original Chile-Argentina Transandine Railway closed in 1984.


The Tribune article describes in detail the Nicaragua Railroad, a transoceanic railway across the Central American republic. The article explains that the railway would pass alongside Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua on its route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A British company had contracted to build the railway. As stipulated by the contract, the company had to begin construction within two years of the signing of the contract, and complete construction before an additional seven years had elapsed. The company would receive large land concessions to aid in the construction, and the right to use forest resources from that land.

Although the Tribune characterized the Nicaragua Railroad as the “furthest advanced” among the projects in Spanish-speaking America, it is the only one that was never built. (A proposed canal across Nicaragua, cutting through Lake Nicaragua, also was never built.)

Nicaragua map with Nicaragua Railway

Map of the approximate route of the Nicaragua Railroad (purple), as described in the New York Daily Tribune article. (Source: CIA base map from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaragua_rel_97.jpg.)


In the eyes of the Tribune author, the most important interoceanic railroad project was a proposed line across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. A foreign company had planned to make such a railway as early as 1842, but the Mexican government subsequently reneged on the agreement. According to an article in the Courrier des Etats Unis, Maximilian, the French puppet-emperor of Mexico, planned to recommence work on the railway. The Tribune saw this as a way for Maximilian to shore up support for his regime, thus threatening republicanism across the Americas:

“There is hardly any project by which Maximilian could better inaugurate the series of reforms which are to make the Mexicans forget the loss of their independence, and make a favorable impression, in behalf of the prospects of the Mexican Empire, upon the commercial classes of Europe, than the Tehuantepec Transit.”

The Mexican Liberals who opposed Emperor Maximilian found common cause with the Unionists of the United States, who were fighting to defeat the aristocratic, slaveholding Confederacy. American abolitionists celebrated the defeat of a French invasion force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. (This is the origin of the Cinco de Mayo holiday.) After the defeat of the Confederacy, the Union gave military aid to the Mexican Liberals led by Benito Juárez.

Maximilian never did get to build his railway across Tehuantepec. Juárez defeated and executed him in 1867.

The Tehuantepec Railroad ended up being built a little later in Mexican history, during the Porfiriato (the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz). The railway was specifically built to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, not to carry local traffic. An early incarnation of the railway opened in 1894, but it consisted of different sections of track built at different times and to different standards, so it was not usable for interoceanic service. The Mexican government hired the contracting firm of S. Pearson and Son, Ltd. to overhaul the railway. From 1902 to 1906, Pearson replaced bridges, ties, and track; widened curves; and built new port facilities at Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz (on the Gulf of Mexico) and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca (on the Pacific). The railway reopened in January 1907.

At first, interoceanic traffic boomed across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but in 1914 the Panama Canal opened and ate the Mexican railway’s lunch. Between 1914 and 1919, interoceanic tonnage across the Tehuantepec Railway dropped 99.7%.

Tehuantepec Railroad map

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is 125 miles across at its narrowest point. The highest point on the railway, Chivela Pass, is 735 feet above sea level, which is not very high. The total length of the railway is 192 miles. (Source: Wikimedia, PD-Self.)


Barclay, W.S. “The First Transandine Railway.” The Geographical Journal 36, no. 5 (1910): 553-62.

Glick, Edward B. “The Tehuantepec Railroad: Mexico’s White Elephant.” Pacific Historical Review 22, no. 4 (1953): 373-82.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Dams of the Chattahoochee

As a follow-up to my two previous posts about dams in Alabama, here is a post about dams on another southeastern river, the Chattahoochee.

The Chattahoochee River starts in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia and flows southward along the border of Georgia and Alabama to Florida. There are several dams along the river between Georgia and Alabama. Since the stateline runs along the west side of the river, these dams are technically not in Alabama, which is why I didn’t include them in my gallery of Alabama dams.

My exploration of the Chattahoochee River was not comprehensive, but here are the dams I was able to see, from north to south.

Just north of I-85, the highway between Montgomery and Atlanta, West Point Dam forms a big reservoir on the Chattahoochee. The dam is a US Army Corps of Engineers project. Its construction was authorized in 1962; the lake began filling in 1974 and the power station came online the following year.

As a postwar earthen dam, West Point Dam is not much to look at, but it is more accessible than the Alabama Power dams because it is public property. There is a visitor center on the site, and visitors can take a look at the turbine hall from a viewing gallery. The entire dam is remotely operated from Walter F. George Dam, ninety miles downstream.

West Point Dam powerhouse and spillway

View of the powerhouse and spillway of West Point Dam, with part of the long embankments on either side that form West Point Lake.

West Point Dam and Powerhouse dedication plaque (1975)

Dedication plaque of West Point Dam.

West Point Dam generator hall

Interior view of the generator hall of West Point Dam.

From Valley, Alabama to Columbus, Georgia, the Chattahoochee passes through the Fall Line, where the river descends steeply from the Appalachian piedmont to the coastal plain. Small dams on the river in Valley and Columbus used to divert water into textile mills, before the mills closed.

Langdale Mill in Valley, Alabama

The Langdale Mill in Valley. The dam for the mill is out of sight behind the trees in the background.

Georgia Power, a private electric utility, operates a cluster of dams downstream from Valley. Columbus Electric and Power Company built Bartletts Ferry Dam in 1924-1925, and Georgia Power took it over in 1930. Georgia Power modified the dam after World War II, raising the dikes on either side of the dam and adding a fourth generator and buttresses to the spillways. Another phase of modifications in the eighties added a second powerhouse with two additional generators. As the dam stands now, it looks similar to the Alabama Power dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers.

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Panoramic view of Bartletts Ferry Dam, which forms Lake Harding on the Chattahoochee River.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The next dam downstream is Goat Rock Dam, built in 1912. According to the Georgia Power website, the dam was named after a family of goats that used to cross the river by hopping from rock to rock!

Goat Rock Dam on the Chattahoochee, mostly blocked by trees

Goat Rock Dam, mostly obscured by trees.

Oliver Dam, built in 1959, is visible from the US-80 highway bridge on the north side of Columbus, Georgia.

Oliver Dam partially obscured by trees

Oliver Dam on the Chattahoochee upstream of Columbus.

The number of dams on the Chattahoochee is actually decreasing. In 2012 and 2013, the city of Columbus removed two dams that had diverted water into the city’s textile mills: Eagle & Phenix Dam and City Mills Dam. Since the mills had been closed for some time, the city removed the dams in order to restore whitewater along a stretch of the river. When I visited Columbus in 2013 to check out the progress at Eagle & Phenix, I found that the dam was all gone and whitewater was churning where the dam used to be. The old powerhouse was still there, and some of the ductwork had been left in place. A formerly inaccessible island had been developed into a park. I was gratified to see that some restoration work had been done on the river, but the old industrial heritage hasn’t been removed entirely either.

The old textile dams of Valley are also in their last days. Georgia Power has started to go through the bureaucratic process to remove two small dams, Langdale and Riverview, once their licenses expire in 2023.

Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse in 2011

The powerhouse of Eagle and Phenix Mills, seen in 2011 before the dam was removed.

Little Chattahoochee island before Eagle & Phenix Dam removal

An island adjacent to the Eagle & Phenix Dam, before the dam’s removal.

Little Chattahooche island after removal of Eagle & Phenix Dam

The same site in 2013, after the removal of the dam. The island in the previous picture is now a park.

Eagle & Phenix Mills ductwork

Some preserved ductwork in the Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse.

Whitewater on the Chattahoochee

Whitewater at the former site of the Eagle & Phenix Dam.

Eagle & Phenix Dam remnants

Remnants of the Eagle & Phenix Dam next to the restored stretch of river.

Eagle & Phenix Mills

The former Eagle & Phenix Mills.


Martin Dam backside

A gallery of Alabama dams

As I described in my previous post, Alabama has some old and impressive dams. Although I lived within easy driving distance of several of them in graduate school, I knew nothing about them for the first two years that I lived in Alabama. My discovery of these dams at the end of my second year of grad school was a revelation. It changed how I viewed Alabama. It also sparked an enduring interest in dams that influenced my dissertation topic and subsequent research.

After my first encounter with the dams of Alabama, I made it a point to visit as many dams as I could in my remaining two and a half years living in the state. Here is a gallery of my pictures of the dams that I saw, organized by river system.

Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers

The Tallapoosa and Coosa are two rivers in the Piedmont of east-central Alabama. The rivers exit the Piedmont and flow into the flatlands of the Black Belt before joining together near Wetumpka and becoming the Alabama River, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay.

Alabama Power, a private electric utility, built dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa in the early 20th century. I was able to see all of those dams, as well as some newer ones. There are also Army Corps of Engineers lock-and-dams downstream on the Alabama River, but I never got to see any of them.

Lay Dam (1914)

Starting with the Coosa River, which is the western of the two. This is Lay Dam, Alabama Power’s first dam in the Alabama Piedmont. It entered service in 1914. Originally named Lock 12 Dam, it was renamed in honor of the founder of Alabama Power in 1929.

Mitchell Dam

Mitchell Dam, downstream from Lay Dam and completed in 1923.

Jordan Dam

Jordan Dam (1928), the last dam on the Coosa River. It is located at the Fall Line, where the Coosa reaches the flatlands of the Black Belt. This is the most impressive of the Alabama Power dams, in my opinion.

Jordan Dam powerhouse

Jordan Dam powerhouse.

Jordan Dam monument

Art Deco monument at Jordan Dam.

Martin Dam (1926)

The biggest dam on the Tallapoosa is Martin Dam (1926), which impounds the attractive Lake Martin. It is tucked away in a ravine and hard to get a good picture of.

Yates Dam (1928)

Downstream from the Tallapoosa is the smallest dam on the Tallapoosa, Yates Dam. Completed in 1928, it was built on the site of Alabama’s first hydroelectric plant, which was built in 1912. This is a telephoto view from the next dam downstream, Thurlow Dam.

Yates Dam lake

The pretty lake behind Yates Dam.

Thurlow Dam at dusk

Thurlow Dam (1930), at Tallassee on the Fall Line. It is the easiest to see of any of these dams, because a bridge runs right in front of it.

Thurlow Dam panorama

Panoramic view of Thurlow Dam.

Logan Martin Dam

I was able to see two newer dams on the Tallapoosa–Coosa river system. This one is Logan Martin Dam, upstream of Lay Dam on the Coosa. It is named after William Logan Martin (a truly auspicious name!), an attorney-general of Alabama. A road runs across its crest.

Bouldin Dam (1967)

The most unusual dam on Tallapoosa–Coosa is Bouldin Dam (1967). What makes it unusual is that it is built on an artificial canal connected to the Coosa River, rather than the river itself. Although the dam itself is not especially impressive, it has the largest powerhouse of any of the dams on the Tallapoosa–Coosa (225 MW).

Black Warrior River system

On the western side of the state, Alabama Power has three dams on the Black Warrior River system: Smith Dam, Bankhead Dam, and Holt Dam. Once, on the way back from a camping trip in Bankhead National Forest, I tried visiting all three dams, but I was only able to visit Smith Dam. I made it as far as the locked gate for Bankhead Dam, and I missed the turn for Holt Dam entirely and just drove through Tuscaloosa and headed home.

Smith Dam (1961) is located on the Sipsey River, a tributary of the Black Warrior. As a postwar rockfill dam, it has a fairly cyclopean appearance.

Smith Dam (1961) is located on the Sipsey River, a tributary of the Black Warrior. At 300 feet high, it is the tallest dam in Alabama. It is a postwar rockfill dam and has a fairly cyclopean appearance.

Smith Dam powerhouse

Smith Dam powerhouse.

Tennessee River

The Tennessee River makes a giant bend through northern Alabama, and it is dammed three times during its course through the state. I was able to visit two of the dams (Wheeler and Wilson), but I was never able to make it to the third (Guntersville). All three of the dams are owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public utility established in 1933 during the New Deal.

Wilson Dam, between Muscle Shoals and Florence in northwestern Alabama, is the oldest of the three TVA dams in the state. Built in World War I to power a munitions factory, it became part of the TVA when the utility was established by act of Congress. Wheeler Dam, not far upstream, was completed in 1936. Both dams are much larger than the Alabama Power dams to the south. Wheeler Dam is over a mile long and has a powerhouse with a generative capacity of 402 MW.

Wilson Dam

Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River.

Wilson Dam spillway

Detail of the Wilson Dam spillway.

Wilson Dam roadway

Driving across Wilson Dam.

Wheeler Dam pan

Panoramic view of the amazingly long Wheeler Dam.

Wheeler Dam spillways

Detail of the spillways on Wheeler Dam (more modern and less elegant than the Wilson Dam spillways).

Wheeler Dam lock bridge

Bridge over the Wheeler Dam lock.

Wheeler Dam antique crane

An antique crane on display on the southern side of Wheeler Dam. (It made me think of the children’s book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.)



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