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Category: Mexico (Page 1 of 3)

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.

Canada

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.

Nicaragua

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.)

Mexico

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.)

References

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.

Where was Lake Texcoco?

Much of the land occupied by the great metropolis of Mexico City was once underwater. Before modern times, the Valley of Mexico was flooded by Lake Texcoco and adjoining bodies of water. The Aztecs founded their capital city, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the lake in 1325. Two hundred years later, Spanish conquistadors were astonished by the scale of the city and the causeways connecting the islands of the lake to the mainland. The Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán in 1521 and built their new colonial capital, Mexico City, on its ruins. Over the following centuries, engineers built drainage works to control the floods and eventually drain the lake almost completely. (A monument to one of these engineers, Enrico Martínez, stands next to the city’s cathedral.) All that is left of Lake Texcoco now is some marshland near the international airport on the east side of the city. Some canals on the adjoining lake to the south, Xochimilco, have also survived.

Monument to Enrico Martínez, one of the engineers who built drainage works on Lake Texcoco.

Monument to Enrico Martínez, one of the engineers who built drainage works on Lake Texcoco.

Some of the marshy remnants of Lake Texcoco, as seen from a flight out of Benito Juárez International Airport.

Some of the marshy remnants of Lake Texcoco, as seen from a flight out of Benito Juárez International Airport.

One of the surviving canals of Lake Xochimilco, a popular place for boat-rides in southern Mexico City.

One of the surviving canals of Lake Xochimilco, a popular place for boat-rides in southern Mexico City.

Where exactly was Lake Texcoco? When I have visited Mexico City, I have wondered what parts of the city were above-water (islands or lakeshore), and what parts are reclaimed lakebed. I thought that someone must have made a map of the modern-day city with the outline of the erstwhile lake superimposed on it, but I was not able to find one. So I made my own.

For the modern city, I used a 1:250,000 sectional chart that was jointly issued by the governments of the United States and Mexico in 2000. (It is part of the maps collection of the Perry-Castañeda Library of UT–Austin.) This map was a good find because it is big enough to cover the entire basin once flooded by the lakes, but it is detailed enough to include contour lines. For the outline of the lake, I used a map from Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Valley of Mexico ca. 1519.

Map of the Valley of Mexico ca. 1519. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-SA 4.0.)

I initially tried superimposing the lake map directly on the sectional chart, but I was never able to get the geographical points to line up. My second attempt (and this was successful) was to hand-draw the outline of the lake onto the sectional, using surviving Aztec place-names and contour-lines for reference. (I also had to use some guesswork.) Here is the result:

Map of Lake Texcoco and adjoining lakes superimposed over modern-day Mexico City.

Map of Lake Texcoco and adjoining lakes superimposed over modern-day Mexico City.

The map with the lakes labeled.

The map with the lakes labeled.

Some observations from this exercise of historical mapping:

  • A considerable portion of the erstwhile lakebed, including land to the east of the international airport, is still not built-up.
  • The marshes near the airport must have been the lowest part of the lakebed.
  • The western edge of the modern urbanized area, including such Aztec place-names as Chapultepec, Mixcoac, and Coyoacán, was on the western shore of the lake and thus was never underwater—except during floods. (Rule of thumb: places with Aztec names were at least partly above-water.)
  • But much of the city was underwater, including the most modern parts where there are high-rise buildings (Zona Rosa).

Now that I have made this map, I would like to see a detailed view of the territory around Tenochtitlán, which corresponds with the area around the Zócalo. Where exactly were the islands that the city was built on? But making such a map is a project for another time (and possibly another person as well).

Remembering the United States intervention

Except for the Bear Flag Revolt, the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 isn’t much remembered or talked about north of the border. The war is commemorated by no holidays and I know of no major monuments to it. In fact, it is so far removed from our collective memory that I had never even heard about it before my 11th grade American Studies class.

South of the border, it is another story. Even if the events of the United States Intervention (as the war is called in Mexico) are often confused in popular memory with the French Intervention of the 1860s, everybody knows about how the Yankees invaded Mexico and annexed the northern part of the country to the United States. Probably every city in the republic has a street named after the Ninos Héroes (“Boy Heroes,” explained below).

The Mexican-American War was started by President James K. Polk, an expansionist southerner who was obsessed with the idea of getting control of California. When diplomatic channels failed to yield a Mexican cession of California and New Mexico, Polk sent General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory between Texas and Mexico to pick a fight with Mexico. Once the war was on, American forces invaded and occupied northern Mexico, but the Mexican government did not capitulate as Polk hoped. So Polk sent General Winfield Scott to invade the Mexican heartland at the port of Veracruz. After taking Veracruz, Scott’s forces fought their way up into the central Mexican highlands to Mexico City. With the defeat of forces defending the capital city, the Mexican government capitulated and signed away its claims to California and New Mexico.

Now, 171 years after the end of the war, Mexico City is still thick with monuments and memory of the United States Intervention. On a trip to Mexico City in June, I went in search of sites and memorials of the war, in an attempt to better understand the conflict itself and how it has been remembered in the years since. Not surprisingly, there is no heritage trail, so I had to piece together my own from what I already knew about the war. Here is what I found.

The Pedregal

Mexico City is located in the Valley of Mexico, surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides. General Scott’s forces entered the Valley of Mexico on August 7, 1847 through a 10,000-ft-high pass in the south. Mexico City is now a giant metropolis that sprawls across the valley, but it was much smaller then. Between the pass and the city, one contingent of US forces (led by a certain Captain Robert E. Lee) advanced on the city across a wasteland of lava flows know as El Pedregal (The Rocky Ground).

The Pedregal remained a useless wasteland for a hundred years after the Mexican-American War, when the area was developed as a posh housing development known as Jardínes de Pedregal. Most of the Pedregal is thus locked away in private land, but some of it is taken up by Mexico’s premier university, UNAM. Surviving lava flows in the campus have been incorporated into the landscaping, allowing one to get a sense of the kind of terrain that the American invaders crossed on their way to Mexico City.

Your blogger sitting on a surviving piece of the Pedregal on the UNAM campus. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Your blogger sitting on a surviving piece of the Pedregal on the UNAM campus. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Monument to the Sanpatricios

Not far from UNAM is San Ángel, a colonial city that has been engulfed in Mexico City’s urban sprawl. Some parts of San Ángel retain their colonial character, and one such place is San Jacinto Plaza. The plaza features a monument to one of the more interesting participants in the war, John Riley.

John Riley was an immigrant to the United States from Ireland by way of Canada. Just before the war started in 1846, while serving as a sergeant in the US Army, Riley deserted to Mexico. He would go on to lead the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick’s Battalion), composed largely of other Irish-Catholic deserters fighting against the Americans. The Sanpatricios were defeated at the Battle of Churubusco outside of Mexico City, and many of the deserters were executed in a mass hanging. Riley himself escaped this fate because he had deserted before the outbreak of war, but he was branded with the letter D on his cheek (for deserter).

(Aside: Churubusco is a Mexican-American War site that I missed. The historic battlefield is now home to a museum about interventions in Mexico by the Americans, French, and other foreign powers in the nineteenth century.)

The Sanpatricios were widely reviled in the US Army, particularly by loyal Irish-Americans. Later in the nineteenth century, the War Department refused to acknowledge that they had even existed. But they are remembered fondly in Mexico and Ireland. On opposite sides of the street at San Jacinto Plaza are a commemorative plaque placed in 1959 and a bust of Comandante Riley dedicated in 2010 by the Irish ambassador. (He is also the subject of a mediocre TV movie, One Man’s Hero.)

Monument to Comandante John Riley of the Sanpatricios, erected in 2010.

Monument to Comandante John Riley of the Sanpatricios, erected in 2010.

Plaque honoring the Sanpatricios in San Ángel, placed in 1959.

Plaque honoring the Sanpatricios in San Ángel, placed in 1959.

Molino del Rey

The final thrust into Mexico City began on September 8, 1847 with the Battle of Molino del Rey. The Americans had received intelligence that the Mexicans were recasting church bells at Molino del Rey, a mill outside the city. A force sent to stop this arms production defeated the Mexican defenders, but with heavy casualties. (It turned out that the intelligence had been faulty, and no cannons were being made there.)

The old mill building known as Molino del Rey still stands on the edge of Bosque Chapultepec, the central park of Mexico City. Until last December, Molino del Rey was locked away from the public in the compound of Los Pinos, the official residence of the President of Mexico. But then the newly-inaugurated president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, opened Los Pinos to the public. Molino del Rey was made accessible as well. The general public can’t go inside, because the building is used by the Mexican military, but you can get a good enough view of it from outside.

View of the front side of Molino del Rey. In the foreground is a restored sixteenth-century aqueduct.

View of the front side of Molino del Rey. In the foreground is a restored sixteenth-century aqueduct.

Backside of Molino del Rey.

Backside of Molino del Rey.

Monument to the battle of Molino del Rey, erected 1856 and restored 2014.

Monument to the battle of Molino del Rey, erected 1856 and restored 2014.

Castillo de Chapultepec

The last great battle of the Mexico City campaign took place at Chapultepec Castle, perched on a hilltop not far from Molino del Rey. The castle had been a residence of the Spanish viceroy, and it 1847 it was being used by the Military Academy of Mexico. On September 13, 1847, the American attackers bombarded the castle before using scaling-ladders to reach the summit of the hill. Famously, six teenaged cadets died defending the castle alongside the regular troops. They became known as the Niños Héroes (Boy Heroes), who are commemorated across the country.

Chapultepec Castle is now a terrific history museum, tracing the story of Mexico from Aztec times through about 1920 with the end of the Mexican Revolution. The museum has an excellent collection of artifacts that are attractively displayed. One room of the museum is devoted to the Mexican-American War, complete with a shrine to the Niños Héroes.

Facade of Chapultepec Castle.

Facade of Chapultepec Castle.

This painting on the ceiling of the main hall in Chapultepec Castle portrays Juan Escutia, one of the Niños Héroes, falling to his death with the national flag wrapped around him. Painted by Gabriel Flores.

This painting on the ceiling of the main hall in Chapultepec Castle portrays Juan Escutia, one of the Niños Héroes, falling to his death with the national flag wrapped around him. Painted by Gabriel Flores.

At the foot of the hill below the castle are two monuments to the Niños Héroes, a modest one dedicated in 1881 and a much bigger one at the entrance to the park, which was completed in 1952.

Old Niños Héroes memorial, erected 1881.

Old Niños Héroes memorial, erected 1881. US President Harry S. Truman placed a wreath at this monument in 1947.

Newer Niños Héroes monument, dedicated in 1952.

Newer Niños Héroes monument, dedicated in 1952.

The Zócalo

With the fall of Chapultepec, the way to Mexico City lay open. Not wanting the battle for the city to devolve into house-by-house fighting and looting, General Scott diverted his troops to the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the north. There the Americans set up their headquarters and waited for the Mexican government to surrender, which it did. The Mexican government decamped to the city of Querétaro, and on the morning of September 14, General Scott’s troops paraded in triumph into the Zócalo, the central square of the city. Marines took control of the National Palace and raised the US flag over it (referenced as the “Halls of Montezuma” in the Marine Corps Hymn).

A famous illustration by Carl Nebel depicts Scott’s forces parading on the Zócalo, with the Metropolitan Cathedral and National Palace in the background. The Zócalo looks much the same now as it did in 1847, at least from Nebel’s viewpoint. But with today’s crowds of tourists and noisy automobile traffic, it is hard to imagine the defeated, humiliated city that General Scott and his forces entered.

Illustration by Carl Nebel of American troops parading in the Zócalo.

Illustration by Carl Nebel of American troops parading in the Zócalo. (Source: Wikipedia, public domain.)

Your blogger standing on just about the spot where the white horse is located in Nebel's illustration.

Your blogger standing on just about the spot where the white horse is located in Nebel’s illustration. (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Guadalupe Hidalgo (now Villa de Guadalupe)

The US military would occupy Mexico City for eight months, the first time that American forces ever occupied an enemy capital. The official end of the conflict came with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the Mexican government and American occupiers on February 2, 1848. As part of the treaty, Mexico signed away its claim to the northern 42% of its territory, including California and New Mexico. The bitter defeat would lead to a brutal internal war in Mexico a decade later, the War of the Reform. In the United States, the glut of new territory exacerbated tensions over the question of slavery; these tensions would also lead to a devastating war, the American Civil War of 1861-65.

Guadalupe Hidalgo is now known as Villa de Guadalupe. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in the old Basilica of Guadalupe, built in 1709. Although replaced by a grand modernist building in 1976, the Old Basilica—renovated and now hopefully earthquake-safe—still stands in Villa de Guadalupe.

Your blogger in front of the old Basilica of Guadalupe (on the left with the yellow roof). (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Your blogger in front of the old Basilica of Guadalupe (on the left with the yellow roof). (Photo by Verónica Trinidad Gallegos.)

Old and new Basilicas of Guadalupe, viewed from Cerro Tepeyac.

Old and new Basilicas of Guadalupe, viewed from Cerro Tepeyac.

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