The Longest Line on the Map

The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas

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About The Book

From the award-winning author of American Canopy, a dazzling account of the world’s longest road, the Pan-American Highway, and the epic quest to link North and South America, a dramatic story of commerce, technology, politics, and the divergent fates of the Americas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Pan-American Highway, monument to a century’s worth of diplomacy and investment, education and engineering, scandal and sweat, is the longest road in the world, passable everywhere save the mythic Darien Gap that straddles Panama and Colombia. The highway’s history, however, has long remained a mystery, a story scattered among government archives, private papers, and fading memories. In contrast to the Panama Canal and its vast literature, the Pan-American Highway—the United States’ other great twentieth-century hemispheric infrastructure project—has become an orphan of the past, effectively erased from the story of the “American Century.”

The Longest Line on the Map uncovers this incredible tale for the first time and weaves it into a tapestry that fascinates, informs, and delights. Rutkow’s narrative forces the reader to take seriously the question: Why couldn’t the Americas have become a single region that “is” and not two near irreconcilable halves that “are”? Whether you’re fascinated by the history of the Americas, or you’ve dreamed of driving around the globe, or you simply love world records and the stories behind them, The Longest Line on the Map is a riveting narrative, a lost epic of hemispheric scale.

Excerpt

The Longest Line on the Map CHAPTER ONE The Magnificent Conception
“Why Not by Rail?”

The swells of the southern Atlantic Ocean pummeled the sailing ship Lord Clarendon, splashing the decks and straining the riggings. Four days earlier, on November 26, 1866, the British-flagged passenger vessel had departed under calm skies from Buenos Aires, destined for New York City, but conditions had soured quickly once the Lord Clarendon veered into the path of an “unusually violent” Argentine pampero, a polar wind blowing off the fertile plains of lower South America. Belowdecks, supine in his bunk, thirty-six-year-old Hinton Rowan Helper, the outgoing US consul to Buenos Aires, contemplated his fate.

Helper tossed and fretted, wracked by what he described as “the torture of seasickness” and “Neptunian nausea.” The physical distress mixed with feelings of impatience and disgust as he wondered how long the Lord Clarendon’s ceaseless rocking might endure and when he might reach the United States. Then, according to Helper, in the midst of the fourth day of punishment, “[at] about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, taxing my mind with redoubled duty to devise a means for others, if not for myself, to travel more pleasantly and expeditiously between far-distant points of our sister continents, the distinct answer to my mental inquiry, a sort of Yankee answer, came like a flash, ‘Why not by rail?’?”1

For an ordinary man, such an outlandish insight might have dissipated, along with the nausea, as soon as the pampero abated. But Helper was anything but ordinary. At the outbreak of the Civil War, shortly before he had departed for Buenos Aires, he was considered “the best known and most widely hated man in America.”2

* * *

Helper’s life had begun unremarkably enough in December 1829. He was the youngest of five children in a middle-class family of mixed English and German origin that had settled in the North Carolina Piedmont. His father had made cabinets and found enough success to afford four slaves but died from the mumps when Helper was barely nine months old. The surviving Helper clan avoided penury through the support of relatives. A teenaged Helper even spent several years at an elite local private school and was developing into what one admirer later described as “a very athletic man, above six feet in height, straight as an arrow, and broad-shouldered as a giant.” At seventeen, he started apprenticing as a store clerk but soon grew restless and, in a moment of desperation, stole $300 from his employer. The theft, which Helper eventually acknowledged and tried to repay, would haunt him for the rest of his life, though his crime likely provided the funds for his first great adventure outside of North Carolina.3

In early 1851, Helper determined to set out for California, a land that the United States had wrested from Mexico three years earlier. A settlement rush had been sweeping California following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, and Helper had found this excitement irresistible. However, like the countless other easterners trying to get west, he faced a transportation dilemma: no developed overland route connected the settled portions of the United States with its new western holdings. One possible solution for Helper was to join a schooner caravan and risk his life crossing any of several continental trails with origins older than the nation. A second option combined ocean travel with shorter overland crossings through the malarial tropical lowlands of Mexico or Central America. The longest, but seemingly least precarious, itinerary involved an unbroken fifteen-thousand-mile ocean voyage around the entirety of South America.

Helper selected this last alternative. His decision appeared wise until midway through the journey, with his ship rounding Cape Horn, when a violent storm struck and, according to Helper, “for seven successive days and nights kept us almost completely submerged.” A weary Helper finally disembarked at his destination in May 1851, nearly four months after his departure.4

Life in the newly settled lands of California, where ethnicities mixed and licentious behavior flourished, differed radically from that of North Carolina. For Helper, who possessed a healthy dose of both southern propriety and racism, moral offense quickly proved easier to find than gold. Moreover, the hard work of prospecting suited his tastes less than the joys of literary pomposity and self-promotion. He returned to North Carolina in 1854, choosing this time to risk an overland crossing in Nicaragua rather than face the potential fury of Cape Horn once more.

Helper arrived home short of funds and soon authored a critique of California, Land of Gold: Reality Versus Fiction. The book sold poorly, but the experience left Helper determined to find success as an author, and soon his focus turned to the defining issue of his age, the “peculiar institution” of slavery, which Helper had recently begun to question. He feared that the forced labor of blacks had both undercut the economic prospects of poor southern whites and impeded the South’s ability to industrialize. The dehumanizing treatment of the actual slaves, however, mattered little to Helper, whose racism equaled that of any plantation master.5

By the spring of 1857, he had drafted a polemic over four hundred pages long built around data drawn from the last national census. The manuscript, titled The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, sought to provide an economic counterweight to the moral case put forth five years earlier in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or, in Helper’s words, “it is all well enough for women to give the fictions of slavery; men should give the facts.” Helper’s approach blended abolitionism with racism and used economic reasoning to discard with the ethical and religious argument against slavery popular in New England. Others had previously discussed some of the economic criticisms that Helper employed, but never so systematically and almost never when the author was a proud southerner. The twenty-seven-year-old Helper, a bona fide son of Dixie, child of a slaveholder, had dared to challenge the central institution of his homeland in print.6

* * *

The northern publishing establishment, worried about offending southern readers, shut out Helper entirely until a minor New York book agent agreed to publish The Impending Crisis for an upfront fee.

When the book finally appeared in the summer of 1857, scandals came as fast as sales. Across the South, rumors spread of people being lynched or imprisoned on mere suspicion of ownership, and the Dixie press pilloried both the book and its author. One writer even managed to discover Helper’s juvenile theft of $300 and painted him as an untrustworthy vagrant.

Soon the fracas over Helper spilled into Congress. The controversy there began when a group of nearly seventy northern Republican congressmen signed a petition of support for the beleaguered Helper. This pro-Helper document predictably enraged many southern legislators, who viewed their colleagues’ action as an unpardonable capitulation to radical sentiments. In late 1859, one of the petition’s signatories, Representative John Sherman of Ohio, lost his leading campaign for House Speaker after southerners disqualified anyone who had endorsed Helper’s work.7

During the subsequent presidential campaign of 1860, an abridged version of Helper’s Impending Crisis flooded hotly contested counties throughout the border states. Election results suggested that Lincoln, whose early views on slavery shared more with Helper than with Harriet Beecher Stowe, did particularly well in areas that saw heavy distribution of this abridgment. By the close of 1860, Helper’s book had sold over 140,000 copies, and his name had become among the best-known and most divisive in the nation.8

For Helper, however, fame brought little success. He earned virtually nothing from The Impending Crisis, and his pariah status left him unemployable throughout the South. He soon appealed directly to Lincoln, seeking a patronage position as reward for his role in the president’s victory. Lincoln balked at first, likely fearing the repercussions of a Helper appointment among southern politicians, but in November 1861, seven months after the shelling of Fort Sumter and the outbreak of the Civil War, Helper received a minor appointment as US consul to Buenos Aires, Argentina, then a city of about a hundred thousand people.9

* * *

Only two US-flagged sailing ships at the time offered passenger service from New York to Buenos Aires. The few easterners who traveled to South America typically detoured first through Europe upon foreign-flagged steamers. The Old World powers—Great Britain especially—controlled commercial and passenger shipping throughout the Western Hemisphere and had created a sort of hub-and-spoke system anchored on the far side of the Atlantic. The patriotic Helper nonetheless insisted that as consul he ought to travel on a US-flagged vessel, even if that meant forgoing the faster and more reliable European steamers.

Helper initially anticipated a sea voyage of approximately two months’ duration, but, as he later explained, “prolonged calms . . . and an immoderate superfluity of kelp in the brine” turned the journey aboard a US-flagged sailing ship into a ninety-eight-day-long nightmare. The ocean had again betrayed him. He finally landed in Argentina on April 12, 1862.10

The inauspicious start to his official tenure nonetheless gave way to one of the happiest times in Helper’s life. The European-inspired architecture and culture of Buenos Aires delighted him, and he began courting an Argentine woman reportedly of “pure Spanish descent,” who had spent five years in the United States and was, according to Helper, “as thoroughly American as if she had been born in the Capitol at Washington.” They married in early 1863.11

Helper’s time in Buenos Aires also convinced him of the enormous potential that Latin American markets held for US manufacturers. He spoke of “an immense demand” and pleaded in dispatches to Washington for the establishment of subsidized steamer service between the New World’s two continents. But these entreaties garnered little response, and the same could be said of his frequent requests for a salary increase, a situation that grew increasingly dire as Helper assumed several thousand dollars in debts. Finally, in late 1866, with the Civil War over, his debts increasing, and his salary demands summarily unmet, he tendered his resignation to the State Department.12

The prospect of a return sea voyage, however, created a new dilemma for Helper. The two US-flagged ships that earlier traveled to Buenos Aires had disappeared, casualties of a Civil War that had wholly disrupted the meager north–south sea trade of the United States. Eventually Helper decided to ride a British-flagged sailing ship named Lord Clarendon, but his oceanic transit turned disastrous for a third time when the pampero struck shortly after his departure from Buenos Aires. This latest misfortune led Helper to imagine his wild alternative, a fantastical vision, a futuristic reverie that seemed ripped from the pages of a Jules Verne novel: a ten-thousand-mile-long hemispheric railway between North and South America.13

Helper’s outlandish insight stemmed not merely from his personal discomfort and fear, but also from his grandiloquent patriotism. The railway’s greatest benefit, in Helper’s view, related to a potential impact on US commerce, on helping his nation to gain market share in Latin America. “From the very first,” Helper later explained, “it has been . . . my object to acquire (because geographically and politically and socially and otherwise it belongs to us) the bulk of that vast and rapidly augmenting business. . . . The time has now come for us to reach out into distant lands, and to open avenues abroad for our merchants and manufacturers.”14

Helper’s railway idea aligned with his earlier diplomatic pleas for increased steamship service, but a railway offered benefits to the United States that steamers could never match: an overland travel corridor impervious to European competition; and access to the southern continent’s great, resource-rich interior. One newspaper later compared this strategy with “the piercing to the centre of the nut at once, extracting the kernel while foreign nations are looking for an opening on the outside.”15

* * *

The broader geopolitical objectives that Helper hoped to advance through his hemispheric railway had a history of their own, one that first gained voice in the United States during the late 1810s. At that time, a dispute was under way among the nation’s leaders over diplomatic recognition for a wave of independence movements that had spread throughout Spain’s colonies in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Those US politicians opposing recognition feared upsetting the Spanish empire or abandoning the nation’s professed commitment to neutrality, while those in favor saw a moral imperative to aid potential democracies. But in the opinion of the liberation movements’ greatest congressional champion, House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, far more than principle stood to be gained.16

Clay saw the potential autonomy of Spain’s New World colonies through the prism of his own nation’s struggle for greatness. When the anti-Spanish agitation had first started to gain international attention around 1810, the United States was already several years into a dispute with England and France over their refusal to let US merchants trade neutrally and safely with all parties. This commercial conflict had sparked a war with England in 1812 that lasted thirty months before the United States emerged victorious. Following this, Clay had become convinced that Spain’s rebellious colonies held the key for the United States to forge a new trading system that could replace the one the War of 1812 had largely dismantled.17

As he explained in an 1820 speech, “It is in our power to create a system of which we shall be the centre, and in which all South America will act with us. . . . Our citizens engaged in foreign trade . . . must take new channels for it, and none so advantageous could be found as those which the trade with South America would afford.” The liberated Spanish territories, in Clay’s view, would allow the United States to transform from an agrarian satellite of England into the manufacturing and commercial hub of the New World.18

The European powers, however, had their own designs for the future of a potentially liberated Spanish empire. Merchants both in England and on the Continent intended to compete aggressively for the Western Hemisphere’s trade and to fold any freed Spanish colonies into a European-centered commercial system. Moreover, the proposed Holy Alliance among the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia seemed disposed to attempt a conquest of any freed Spanish territories during their vulnerable chrysalis from colony to nation.

The European political threat troubled Clay as well as many US leaders, including President James Monroe. His administration had started recognizing some of the independence movements in 1822, and the president had no desire to see a fading Spanish empire replaced with rising European powers. Monroe finally addressed this issue directly in a December 1823 speech before Congress. As he explained,

[W]e should consider any attempt on [the part of European powers] to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. . . . [W]e could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing [the former Spanish colonial possessions], or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

This soon-to-be-famous Monroe Doctrine, though practically unenforceable given the nation’s limited naval power, inaugurated a new approach to the hemisphere that diverged from the United States’ general foreign policy of neutrality toward all. The federal government, according to Monroe, would consider any new conquests in the Americas an overt act of aggression against the United States. The nation, at least on paper, now stood as the protector for American independence writ large. However, Monroe’s address left unanswered the question of whether the independent New World nations ought to band together for commercial or other purposes, as Clay had long advocated.19

Clay’s idea for a hemispheric alliance nonetheless resonated with some of the elites leading the anti-Spanish independence movements. As far back as 1815, Simón Bolívar, a South American–born aristocrat who would soon spearhead the liberation movement across much of his home continent, had advocated the convening of an “august assembly” of the New World’s nations during “some happier period of our regeneration.” Over the next decade, the “happier period” that Bolívar awaited seemed to grow closer with each military victory, and in late 1824 the “Great Liberator,” as Bolívar had come to be known, formally called for an international congress at Panama City to “sketch the mark of our relations with the universe.” Bolívar’s proposal at first extended strictly to the former Spanish territories, but pressure from other independence leaders convinced him to invite the United States as well as an observer from Great Britain.20

Bolívar’s begrudging invitation soon provoked a new round of debate in Washington over the nation’s relationship with the rest of the Americas. The staunchest support for attendance came from Clay, who had recently been appointed secretary of state and who saw the conference as a starting point for his US-led hemispheric commercial system. Clay’s antagonists, however, insisted that participation would compromise US neutrality, especially since Spain had yet to concede defeat against some of the liberation movements. Additional hostility emerged from southern congressmen worried about how the slavery question might be handled in Panama. The congressional impasse, which stretched out for several weeks, became “one of the most bitter controversies ever waged” in the estimation of a historian reflecting back from a century’s distance. Clay ultimately prevailed, but his success hardly mattered: one of the US delegates died en route to Panama and the other arrived too late to participate.21

Only eight delegates had actually managed to attend Bolívar’s 1826 Panama Congress, and the solitary treaty of union that this quorum negotiated gained approval nowhere besides Bolívar’s home realm, a sprawling but unstable state known as Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and parts of Brazil, Guyana, and Peru).22 The congress ended up a near-total failure.

In the years that followed, the hope for a true hemispheric alliance dimmed further. The former Spanish colonies, for their part, confronted political instability that hampered any serious attempts at internationalism. By the late 1830s, internal divisions had broken apart both Gran Colombia and the Federal Republic of Central America (present-day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica). In the United States, meanwhile, the all-consuming fight over slavery and the sectionalism that resulted quashed any hopes for overseas leadership.

Clay’s vision for a US-led, New World system to compete against Europe languished as long as the nation remained divided against itself. Perhaps it was appropriate that Hinton Rowan Helper, the same man whose explosive anti-slavery screed helped launch the Civil War, would seek to restore Clay’s long-abandoned dream.23

* * *

Upon Helper’s return from Buenos Aires in early 1867, the sight of a decimated and defeated southern landscape seemed to overwhelm the famed agitator and temporarily superseded any interest he had in promoting a hemispheric railway. He once more turned to his pen, producing a trilogy of racist tracts during the next five years. These books, all commercial failures, contained some of the more grotesque sentiments ever published in the country and represented the leading edge of an intense racism that would sweep the South in the decades after emancipation. The severity of his work also related to an almost pathological need to rebuff charges that The Impending Crisis had contained “pro-negro sentiments.” Helper’s brutal campaign of racist invective, which assuaged few of his critics, summarily eviscerated any prewar legacy as an abolitionist.24

Only at the close of this execrable decade did Helper make his first utterance on the railway. At the time, he was working under contract to resolve a festering dispute between the estate of a deceased US shipping merchant and the Brazilian government. In a typical flare of disproportionate resolve, Helper determined to gain a personal audience with the Brazilian emperor, Dom Pedro II, and thus traveled to Paris, a stop on the monarch’s prolonged European tour. On May 9, 1877, after checking into the stately Hotel du Rhône, Helper penned a lengthy letter requesting an interview. The communication restated the facts of the legal case at length and then, buried in the eleventh paragraph, cryptically noted:

if Brazil will now but do simple justice to my client, that act [will] place me in possession of a fee which . . . I shall expend . . . in perfecting plans [that will] give her back at least one hundred dollars for every dollar she will pay me. This large and feasible scheme of development has been locked exclusively in my own breast ever since 1866.

Helper managed to secure a short audience with Dom Pedro, but the emperor refused to discuss governmental affairs. Undeterred, Helper headed to Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian capital, and petitioned Dom Pedro’s daughter Izabel along with several high-ranking officials, using similarly vague yet bombastic language about his mysterious “feasible scheme.” His machinations and fantastic promises, however, failed to convince anyone in Brazil to reconsider his client’s legal claim.25

The Brazilian episode seemed only to encourage Helper’s railway promotion efforts and to strengthen his convictions. After returning to the United States, he began discussing his project openly for the first time, trying to raise seed money among some of the same men who had supported him before the Civil War. But few expressed any interest. Former New York governor Edwin Dennison Morgan, one of the firmest backers of The Impending Crisis, questioned Helper’s sanity and supposedly declared that “under no circumstance or consideration whatever would I myself ever invest in the endeavor one dollar, or even one dime.”26

The force of Morgan’s denunciation convinced Helper to abandon eastern capital entirely. He turned west and selected as his new base of operations St. Louis, a fast-growing Missouri metropolis of soaring ambition, where overland commerce held more appeal than along the Eastern Seaboard and where Helper’s views on race might prove less of a liability.27

Upon reaching St. Louis in late 1878, Helper deposited $5,000 that he had somehow amassed in the city’s Bank of Commerce. The money was to finance an essay contest in furtherance of his scheme, which he had named “The Three Americas Railway.” To judge this contest, he recruited two local railway men and the city’s school board president, rumored to be “the only man in America who understands Hegel.” Nearly fifty people, including eleven women, submitted essays or poems, most of them panegyrics devoid of substance. Helper hoped that the essays and a subsequent published volume, The Three Americas Railway, would generate sufficient interest to spur initial construction, with the goal of a completed route by 1892, to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s encountering the New World.28

But Helper’s faith in himself as a charismatic promoter in the style of his contemporary P. T. Barnum far exceeded his capacities, at least in the eyes of some in the eastern press establishment. The New York Times labeled his quest “as astonishing as it is inexplicable” and scorned his supporters as “a band of lunatics.” The Baltimore Sun titled its coverage of Helper’s essay contest “Money to Throw Away,” quipping that the submissions “were intended to be written in an elevated style, and it is quite possible that Mr. Helper’s railroad from Alaska to Patagonia is meant to be an elevated railroad.”29

Not everyone, however, dismissed Helper so easily. Words of encouragement arrived from numerous politicians, especially those in landlocked, interior states. Helper’s early supporters included the governors of Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri. Representative James B. Belford of Colorado approved so heartily of the scheme that he presented Congress an unsuccessful resolution calling for 150,000 copies of Helper’s Three Americas Railway to be printed at federal expense. Even John Sherman of Ohio, whose political ambitions had suffered so greatly from his earlier association with Helper, wrote, “No greater enterprise has been suggested during our time; nor does the difficulty seem so great to me.”30

The emergence of these political backers encouraged Helper to transform from promoter to lobbyist. He soon drafted a bill requesting that Congress appoint and fund a three-man commission to visit Latin America, where they could locate support for his railway and gather data on the true scope of hemispheric trade. Representative Belford and Francis Cockrell, the Democratic senator from Helper’s adopted state of Missouri, each agreed to sponsor the legislation. Versions appeared simultaneously before the House and Senate in late April 1882, but both failed.31

Helper’s legislative proxies introduced bills anew at every session, until finally, in early 1884, the Cockrell bill gained a hearing in the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, whose ranks included John Sherman, now a senator. Helper soon wrote an open letter to the Washington Post pleading with Sherman to ensure the bill’s “speedy passage.” Three months later the law gained approval in both the Senate and House, its substance little changed from the original draft. A House report on the final bill—in a moment of staggering credulity that likely stemmed from Helper’s exhaustive propaganda—noted, “While it may be true that a railroad from the United States to the Argentine Republic is of greater magnitude [than the transcontinentals], yet it is believed that the obstacles to its completion are no more formidable than were encountered eighteen or twenty years ago in the construction of our first trans-continental line.”32

Helper had triumphed, but it was a brief-lived victory. The selection of commissioners fell to Republican president Chester A. Arthur, who ignored Helper’s attempts to shape the three-man body. The president’s choices likely owed more to patronage than qualifications, as only one of the commissioners actually understood Spanish. None of the men even knew Helper, a slight that left the railroad promoter’s many friends and supporters “very much puzzled.” Helper had been pushed aside from his own project and would never quite manage to claw his way back. Nonetheless, the famed southern firebrand had started the wheels turning not only for his envisioned railway, but also for a much bigger political movement, one tied to the era’s most powerful statesman.33

The Plumed Knight Rides an Iron Horse

Helper’s legislation had passed in the midst of a shake-up in Republican Party leadership. The party’s nominal head, President Arthur, had owed his position to the assassination of President James A. Garfield and, in consequence, had lacked the broad support of an elected commander in chief. Several rival Republican politicians had been eagerly awaiting the chance to challenge Arthur, and the 1884 Republican National Convention, held in Chicago during early June, had provided them the opportunity. After a few tense days, a fourth round of balloting finally produced a new nominee: James G. Blaine of Maine, silver-tongued, silver-haired, an indomitable force in post-Reconstruction US politics.34

Blaine accepted the nomination in a letter sent from his home in Bar Harbor, Maine. The missive largely featured familiar Republican cant but nonetheless included an unusual declaration, one almost unknown in presidential politics since the days of Henry Clay: “We have not improved our relations with Spanish America as wisely and as persistently as we might have done. For more than a generation the sympathy of those countries has been allowed to drift away from us. We should now make every effort to gain their friendship.” A Blaine victory would quite likely mean a historic shift in hemispheric relations, a reigniting of the program that Clay had envisioned more than sixty years earlier.35

Blaine’s novel pronouncement on Latin America, however, generated little initial attention. Most voters cared less about his policies than about his charisma and his mystique as a master politician. Born in 1830 to a middle-class Pennsylvania family, Blaine had moved to Maine in his early twenties to be closer to his wife’s relatives and their finances, using a perch as the editor of a local paper to launch into politics. His legislative career began with the Whigs, an antebellum party of infrastructure development, elite rule, and increased federal authority, but Blaine soon shifted to the newly formed Republican Party of “free soil, free labor, free men.” The Republicans and Blaine subsequently gained strength in tandem. He became Speaker of the Republican-dominated Congress in 1869, won a Senate seat seven years later, and then developed into a quadrennial contender for the party’s presidential nomination, coming up short in 1876 and 1880.

Those who admired Blaine displayed unwavering loyalty. Those who opposed him seethed with contempt. In the words of Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts, “There has probably never been a man in our history upon whom so few people looked with indifference. He was born to be loved or hated. Nobody occupied a middle ground as to him.” Blaine’s divisiveness arose, in large part, because beneath his facade of competence, of witty retorts, of prodigious memory, of unflagging industriousness, of beguiling hypochondria, rested a murky layer of corruption and self-dealing that penetrated down to the very bedrock.36

Blaine often transcended the constant charges of corruption through obfuscation, intimidation, or charm. A friend famously described him as a “plumed knight” who threw “his shining lance” at “every maligner of his fair reputation.” Nonetheless, the interminable allegations became impossible to ignore during his 1884 presidential campaign. Shortly after Blaine received his party’s nomination, charges resurfaced that he had once used his influence to secure railroad grants that he later profited from. Blaine, as always, demurred, but a railroad clerk named James Mulligan produced incriminating correspondence upon which Blaine had scrawled, “Burn this letter.” The phrase followed Blaine throughout the 1884 campaign. Roscoe Conkling—a lawyer, former Republican Senate rival, and power broker in New York politics—refused to endorse Blaine’s candidacy, reportedly declaring, “I don’t engage in criminal practice.”37

Scandalous pasts seemed to be a calling card for those closest to Blaine. The Plumed Knight’s top campaign operative and frequent business associate, Stephen B. Elkins, had made his early fortune in New Mexican land grants that many considered among the most brazen acts of graft in the history of the West. After Elkins in the 1884 campaign hierarchy came Richard Kerens of St. Louis, a onetime stagecoach driver who had garnered riches through fraudulent federal postal contracts that Blaine had supposedly helped authorize—when President Arthur tried to investigate these so-called Star Route frauds, Blaine played defense and helped shield Kerens and others from prosecution.38

The besmirched reputations of Blaine and those in his inner circle, however, could not derail his campaign. He performed strongly against Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, a popular New York politician who struggled to contain his own scandal involving a supposed illegitimate child. The election results were so close that the final outcome remained unknown for days, until New York announced that Cleveland had carried the state by less than 0.3 percent. Conkling had been vindicated. Blaine was out.39

Defeated, he retired temporarily from the national spotlight, but his presence still loomed over the Capitol. Many Republican congressmen assumed he would receive the 1888 presidential nomination. And almost in anticipation of this outcome, a movement was building among legislators for closer relations in the hemisphere, following a path that Blaine himself had first plotted seven years prior.40

* * *

Blaine’s devotion to hemispheric unity originated under circumstances almost as hazy as his personal fortune, buried beneath the sediment of subsequent hagiography and self-promotion. A preliminary step seemed to have occurred in the late 1870s, when he enlisted an associate to conduct “a study of the resources, needs, aspirations, [and] possibilities of the southern hemisphere.” Blaine’s concerns at the time paralleled those of both his political hero Henry Clay and his contemporary Hinton Rowan Helper: a desire to strengthen the US economy through increased manufacturing exports, and a recognition that such ends might be accomplished by snatching Latin American trade from Europe. But Blaine, during his Senate tenure, took few steps to facilitate this outcome, aside from occasionally advocating expanded Latin American steamship commerce as a way to compete against Great Britain.41

In many respects, the subject of Latin American relations only impressed itself upon Blaine in early 1881 after newly elected President Garfield, in need of seasoned counsel, appointed him secretary of state. At the time, a long-standing border dispute between Mexico and Guatemala threatened to turn violent, and a debate over valuable nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert, which straddled the borders of Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, had already thrown all three of those nations headlong into the War of the Pacific. The weaker parties in both of these cases, Guatemala and Peru, respectively, had appealed to the United States for aid, and Blaine, out of simple inexperience or naive faith, agreed to provide assistance, only to find himself ensnared in two diplomatic imbroglios. Some in the press would take to calling him “Jingo Jim.”42

Both of the Latin American disputes remained unresolved when, in early July 1881, a crazed office seeker shot Garfield and incompetent doctors effectively condemned the president to a slow and painful death. Vice President Arthur replaced Garfield in the fall of 1881 and soon determined to jettison Blaine, a political rival and constant threat. “And so,” in the words of one Blaine scholar, “in a last and brilliant effort characteristically imaginative and ingenious Blaine placed in his brief record as secretary of state a new and striking proposal that would smooth over if not rub out his past mistakes.”43

The “new and striking proposal” called for a gathering of representatives from all the independent states of the hemisphere for an international conference. Blaine seemed to be grasping for the mantle of Simón Bolívar, but the Plumed Knight’s plan, unlike that of the Great Liberator, placed the United States in a central leadership role. Above all, Blaine sought to combat “the existence or the menace of these wars” that had plagued his tenure as secretary of state. This utopian end, he believed, could be achieved through an agreement requiring that all potential disputes first face mandatory arbitration, a process in which a neutral third party (or parties) listens to both sides and offers a judgment. Arbitration would be the only official item on the conference’s agenda. Blaine’s proposed hemispheric conference offered an internally oriented complement to the half-century-old Monroe Doctrine, which had focused strictly on external threats, and it thus marked the potential start of a new era in US political leadership throughout the New World.44

On Blaine’s urging, President Arthur issued official invitations in December 1881. The president’s support, however, soon eroded for what increasingly seemed like a conference designed to boost the reputation of his presumptive presidential rival. In early 1882, Arthur instructed the State Department to withdraw the invitations on the grounds that Blaine had lacked congressional approval for his conference. Blaine’s effort to salvage his reputation and his time as secretary of state had achieved little but national embarrassment for the moment.45

The matter now shifted to Congress, which could still authorize a conference through legislation. Blaine’s numerous allies there offered a reason for the ousted secretary of state to remain optimistic, and even those outside Blaine’s northern Republican power center, particularly southern Democrats, had begun to view overseas commercial expansion in Latin America as a key to the nation’s economic health. Within days of Arthur’s announcement, Alabama senator John Morgan, a Democrat and ally of Blaine’s, started the campaign for the conference’s reinstatement, though his bill soon died in committee.46

On the same day that Morgan introduced his bill, Helper’s unrelated railroad commission legislation had first appeared. The dual efforts to create an international conference and an intercontinental railroad subsequently reinforced one another. A few failed bills simply combined both initiatives. The mid-1884 approval of Helper’s commission had arisen, in part, because Arthur and his new secretary of state saw the measure as a way to delay Blaine’s conference.47

Blaine’s narrow 1884 presidential loss hampered congressional momentum further, but a recession in the mid-1880s, which some blamed on overproduction and a lack of export markets, increased calls for improved overseas trade with Latin America. These appeals intensified as optimistic reports began to appear from Helper’s commission. By early 1885, the commissioners had concluded that the scope of trade exceeded prior estimates by several hundred million dollars, and all three members of the commission testified on the value of a conference. As one of the commissioners noted, “Every country favored [a commercial convention]. They wanted the United States to take the initiative, however, and call the convention, naming the topics that would be considered.”48

Gradually, the commission’s concerns over commerce and Blaine’s original, limited plan for arbitration merged. When Republican senator William Frye from Blaine’s home state of Maine proposed a revised international conference in 1886, the bill included a greatly expanded agenda: a customs union, direct steamship communication, standardized commercial and legal regulations, common silver currency, and universal arbitration. Frye’s legislation offered a breathtaking combination of proposals that, if somehow enacted, would turn the entire non-European-controlled portion of the hemisphere into one economic federation. The long-departed dream of Henry Clay had finally returned to the fore.

Versions of Frye’s bill surfaced repeatedly, and the conference finally gained approval in 1888, after a six-year struggle, on the eve of a new election.49

* * *

All eyes once more turned to Blaine. For many in his party, he represented the best hope to reclaim the White House from Cleveland and to restore the reign of Republican presidents that had stretched unbroken from 1860 to 1884. However, few knew that their potential savior was suffering the early stages of Bright’s disease (now known as nephritis), a malady that had recently killed former president Arthur. Officially, Blaine averred that he would only accept the nomination if his party insisted upon it.50

Blaine’s conspiratorial cabal of lieutenants, Elkins and Kerens foremost among them, maneuvered to produce this outcome, but at the Republican convention, Senator John Sherman, the same man who had lost the 1859 House speakership over The Impending Crisis, refused to withdraw his candidacy. Sherman’s obstruction forced the Blainites to abandon their cause, and Elkins switched his energies to Benjamin Harrison, a Civil War general, ex-senator, and grandson of a former US president. Harrison soon carried the Republican nomination, though, as one delegate acknowledged, “I think it is only the truth to say that the nomination was . . . made by the friends of Blaine.”51

The news about Harrison’s nomination reached Blaine while he vacationed and convalesced in Scotland with his dear friend Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron. Blaine then watched from afar as his carefully selected replacement triumphed in November, buoyed by a commitment to strong tariffs that would protect domestic manufacturers against European rivals. When the election ended, Harrison, like Garfield before him, appointed Blaine as secretary of state. Once more the presidency had slipped from Blaine’s grasp, but he had returned to diplomacy with the groundwork fully laid for a vastly enlarged hemispheric conference.52

Blaine quickly realized that Harrison, despite owing his presidency to the influence of the Plumed Knight’s men, was neither a puppet nor willing to pay the tab for his secretary of state’s innumerable political debts. However, the new president initially gave Blaine wide latitude when their policies aligned, as with Latin America and the upcoming conference. In January 1889, Harrison wrote Blaine: “I am especially interested in the improvement of our relations with the Central and South American States. We must win their confidence by deserving it. It will not come upon demand.”53

Blaine, operating within the bounds of Harrison’s loose oversight, used the approaching conference in part to repay personal and political favors. Of the ten US delegates selected in the spring of 1889, eight came from the Republican Party, including the presidents of the last two national conventions as well as Blaine’s intimate friend Andrew Carnegie. Of the two Democratic delegates, one spot went to former senator Henry Gassaway Davis of West Virginia, a coal and railway baron whose connections to Blaine were as thick as soured milk and whose company boards invariably included the Plumed Knight himself, the old Star Router Richard Kerens, and Stephen Elkins, who also happened to be Davis’s son-in-law.54,55

While the profound interrelations that the conference delegates shared with the new secretary of state drew little attention, the conspicuous number of businessmen nonetheless worried some members of the Latin American press. They felt that Blaine’s choices were part of an underlying agenda of economic expansion and not merely a reflection of a compromised Gilded Age culture that drew few lines between commerce and politics. José Martí, a Cuban patriot, future revolutionary, and profound literary talent, covered the conference for an Argentine paper and considered the entire enterprise a swindle pushed by a nation “glutted with unsalable merchandise and determined to extend its dominions in America.”56

* * *

The conference finally convened in Washington, DC, during early October 1889 and benefited from a moment of unprecedented peace among the hemisphere’s nations. The countries of South America were, at last, without major international conflicts after having endured several bloody decades that featured both the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) in the Atacama Desert and the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870), in which the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay decimated Paraguay. Mexico, meanwhile, was nearly fifteen years into strongman Porfirio Díaz’s regime of “order and progress,” and the small nations of Central America enjoyed relative calm following the 1885 death of Guatemalan caudillo Justo Rufino Barrios, who had tried unsuccessfully to reunify the isthmus through force. Additionally, several weeks after the 1889 conference began, the Empire of Brazil, the hemisphere’s only independent monarchy, underwent a revolution that birthed a republic.

All of these political developments nonetheless could not prevent the conference from stumbling hopelessly from one minor controversy to another. The prickly atmosphere owed much to the vast cultural distance between the United States and the rest of Latin America. Three hundred years of separated histories had yielded distinct languages, legal systems, religions, racial identities, and elite comportment. As one US delegate lamented, “I don’t understand those people.”57

But politics and economics still lay at the heart of the conference’s tension. The delegates from Argentina, a nation with close ties to several European powers, feared, like Martí, that the entire initiative served as a US power grab, and they sought to assert their own leadership. When Blaine tried to install himself as conference president, a move that many saw as a sign of US commitment, the Argentines tried to block him on procedural grounds, only to abstain from the eventual vote that granted Blaine the title. Meanwhile, the Chileans, whose government Blaine had affronted in 1881 during the War of the Pacific, worked assiduously to water down an arbitration agreement.

Many of the difficulties, however, rested squarely within the United States’ own delegation. The nation’s ten representatives, unlike most of their Latin American counterparts, lacked authority to speak for official national policy and, consequently, produced a cacophony of conflicting opinions.

The possibility loomed large that the conference might be unable to reach a single accord, even as a hortatory message.58

* * *

Helper’s Three Americas Railway idea started out on the margins of the conference it had helped to inspire. Blaine had alluded briefly to the railway in his opening remarks, and a subcommittee had been assigned to the topic of railroad communications, though its agenda lacked any particular reference to a hemispheric route. Helper himself had no official role in the conference, but he nonetheless arrived at one point from St. Louis to plead his case personally. Less expected but perhaps more consequential was the appearance of Colonel H. C. Parsons of Virginia.59

Parsons was a prominent Republican entrepreneur and an intimate associate of both Blaine and Davis. His investments included the land containing the famed Natural Bridge, which once belonged to Thomas Jefferson and was among the most popular eastern tourist attractions of the nineteenth century. Parsons announced to the conference attendees in Washington that he was in the process of forming a corporation with an astounding $100 million in capital to build a railroad through South America and connect the line via steamship to the United States. Parsons’s ambitious plan seemed to resonate with his friend Davis, who, along with Carnegie, represented the United States on the railroad committee.60

Davis undoubtedly had more practical railroad experience than anyone else present on the committee, and his subsequent support for an intercontinental railway project helped to extract a rare moment of consensus from the delegates. By late February 1890, nearly five months into the gathering, the railroad committee had agreed upon a series of resolutions calling for the formation of an Intercontinental Railway Commission, composed of representatives from each nation, to study the hemispheric route further.61

* * *

The official conclusion of the conference, which some in the press had dubbed the “Pan-American Conference,” finally arrived in mid-April 1890. Depending on one’s perspective, the gathering that Blaine helped inspire—and the idea of Pan-Americanism that it now represented—had been either a glorious success or an unmitigated failure.

The Argentines, for their part, criticized the proceedings in all the Buenos Aires papers. In the words of Victor Ernesto Quesada, an Argentine delegate and future president of that nation, “the Yankees are immensely and genuinely proud . . . : criticisms don’t even reach them, because they are all intimately and sincerely convinced of the superiority of their manifest destiny; but lively as they are, they know how to appreciate those that look at them with eyes wide open.”

Matías Romero, the long-serving Mexican foreign minister with close ties to US capital, felt more charitable, writing, “it might appear that the results of the Conference have been disappointing; but . . . its success has been greater than there was any reason to expect.”

Elihu Root, the future US secretary of state under President Theodore Roosevelt, more hopeful still, considered the delegates “the advance guard in the greatest movement since civilization began towards the brotherhood of man and the federation of the world.”

In terms of actual substance, however, the delegates in Washington had managed only three tangible results: a weak arbitration agreement that no government ratified; a commercial bureau for gathering trade information that the US Congress would reluctantly fund; and the formation of the Intercontinental Railway Commission.62

* * *

Blaine and Harrison subsequently nurtured the proposed Intercontinental Railway Commission like it was the lone ember of a once-mighty bonfire. Blaine declared, “No more important recommendation has come from the International American Conference. . . . In no other way could the Government and people of the United States contribute so much to the development and prosperity of our sister Republics and at the same time to the expansion of our commerce.” Harrison, in a message to Congress requesting $65,000 in commission funding, said, “The work contemplated is vast but entirely practicable. . . . I do not hesitate to recommend that Congress make the very moderate appropriation . . . suggested by the conference.” Harrison’s request soon sailed through a Republican-controlled legislature.63

While the official conference resolutions granted each country three spots for engineers, Blaine and Harrison determined to fill the positions for the United States instead with the most prominent railway men in the nation. The first opening went to Alexander Cassatt, the recently retired vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the country’s largest corporation. The aristocratic Cassatt, brother of impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, enjoyed a stellar reputation, having successfully introduced George Westinghouse’s revolutionary air brake throughout the vast Pennsylvania system. Blaine believed that Cassatt “would enlist the confidence & interest of [railroad] men in a remarkable degree.” For the second spot, Harrison recruited George Pullman, the foremost producer of railway passenger cars. The final place, in Blaine’s view, needed to go to a southern Democrat for balance, and former senator Davis lobbied successfully to claim this last US seat on the commission as his own.64

The initial meeting was soon set for late 1890.

Almost exactly twenty-five years after Helper’s flash of insight aboard the Lord Clarendon and ten years after Blaine first announced a hemispheric conference, the dream of an intercontinental railway had finally, improbably, become an official, US-sponsored project.

An Imaginary Red Line

At noon on Thursday, December 4, 1890, fifteen men gathered at the diplomatic reception room of the Department of State for the first meeting of the Intercontinental Railway Commission. Secretary of State Blaine himself called the meeting to order, declaring: “I hope that this [day] is to mark the beginning, the auspicious beginning, of a very great enterprise, that shall draw closer together South America, Central America, and North America; that shall . . . be a benefit to the present generation and the millions yet unborn. I am ready for business, gentlemen.”65

With those hopeful words commenced the career of the Intercontinental Railway Commission, the pioneer organization for international relations in the hemisphere. The dream of the railway had ushered in a new age, before a single rail had been laid, before an official route even existed.66

Blaine’s hopes for an “auspicious beginning” nonetheless clashed with the room’s general air of unreadiness. Aside from the United States, only five of the sixteen nations involved had managed to send delegates in time. The scant attendance owed more to circumstance than to principle, as most Latin American leaders at the time equated railroad building with progress, future prosperity, and the expansion of state control. Political disorganization and the general paucity of local engineers accounted for many of the missing people. The commission’s inaugural meeting lasted just long enough to elect Cassatt as president and adjourn until the following Thursday.67

The laughable participation rate stretched out week after week, leaving the commission effectively hamstrung. A frustrated Davis, professing “no disposition to be discourteous,” finally insisted in late January that “the work should proceed.”68

With Davis now stoking the embers, the commission began to confront its responsibilities using the limited resources available. Their main priorities, according to the Pan-American Conference resolutions, were to “study the possible routes, determine their true length, estimate their respective cost, and compare their reciprocal advantages.” To accomplish these goals, the delegates soon organized subcommittees that could plan a route and could organize three field surveys, the most that the meager budget seemed to allow.69

Cassatt’s efforts during these early weeks focused on locating a principal engineer for the project. The success or failure of the railway, after all, would ultimately rest on the competency of its lead engineer as much as on anything the commission did directly. Soon an ideal candidate emerged in the form of Virgil Bogue, a Union Pacific Railroad engineer who spoke Spanish fluently and had spent several years in Peru building one of the spectacular Andean lines that the commission hoped to incorporate into its grand system. In mid-February, Cassatt excitedly told the other delegates of his plans to hire Bogue, but then the engineer rejected the offer, which left Cassatt scrambling to find a replacement. In panic, the commission quickly settled on sixty-year-old William Shunk, a New York railroad engineer with strong credentials but no firsthand knowledge of Latin America. Upon learning of the selection, Helper dashed off a flurry of ineffective letters protesting this “injudicious appointment” of a man “enfeebled and superannuated and almost totally deaf.”70

* * *

The long-delayed Argentine delegation finally arrived shortly before Shunk joined the commission. Their presence immediately shifted the tenor of commission meetings from cordial to contentious. All three Argentines had engineering backgrounds, a qualification that the original conference resolutions had expressly called for but that few other delegates possessed. This professional distinction only heightened the deep political and cultural divisions that had earlier surfaced at the Pan-American Conference: the wary attitude toward US intentions; the desire to assert leadership; and the admirable, if occasionally slavish, devotion to procedure. Soon the Argentine engineers determined to focus all these concerns on the nature of the railway’s proposed route.71

The history of the route predated the commission by a decade. Several of the essays in Helper’s contest had spoken of potential paths, and Helper himself had addressed the issue in a single paragraph tucked among the four hundred pages of his 1881 Three Americas Railway duodecimo. Helper’s brief description, however, had offered little serious insight, advocating a route “as rectilineal as the straightest street in the most quadrangular city,” a somewhat preposterous suggestion given the strong features of Latin American geography and the limitations of railway design. Several years later a Uruguayan professor had plotted a far more developed, geographically precise route for the South American portion, and this professor’s sketches had informed a hastily drafted 1890 report, which Davis and Carnegie had requested, authored by First Lieutenant George A. Zinn of the US Army Corps of Engineers.72

Zinn, per official instructions, aimed to “unite the principal cities lying in the [route’s] vicinity” and to utilize existing railroads “as far as is possible.” His report, drawn from several dozen books and maps, proceeded country by country and, while little more than a mandarin’s fantasy, outlined several fundamental decisions and obstacles that any future planner would inevitably confront.73

The imagined route presented few apparent challenges in Mexico, where rail lines from the United States already reached Mexico City and where previously conducted surveys pushed almost to the country’s southern edge. From the Mexican border to Guatemala City, a distance of roughly 120 miles, Zinn weighed equally one option that passed through the densely populated Maya highlands and another that crossed the lower-elevation coffee fincas. From Guatemala City southward for nearly 400 miles, the existence or promise of several short-haul rail lines and the appearance of two major geographic features—the 3,000-square-mile Lake Nicaragua and the Gulf of Fonseca, where a deepwater port could be constructed in the Pacific Ocean—dictated a general line through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. South from Nicaragua for the 600 miles that comprised Costa Rica and Panama, Zinn offered little more than the suggestion that “the general line may take either [the Atlantic or Pacific side of the isthmus].”

Upon reaching South America, the landscape widened dramatically, from about 50 miles in the Darien region of southern Panama to over 3,000 miles along the Amazon’s central latitude. Zinn acknowledged that several general routes could succeed but favored a specific approach that cleaved the heart of the Andean plateau, along the far west of the continent. In this way, Zinn speculated, the railroad “would reach throughout its length the most thickly settled portion of the continent; it would reach all its mineral wealth and connect with nearly all the railways so far projected, and besides there are but a few points where great difficulty would be found in the location.”

Geography dictated that the railroad must enter the lower continent in Colombia, a nation divided by three branches of the Andes. These great north–south ranges gradually converged near the southern colonial city of Popayan, about 400 miles south of Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. Zinn advocated a route along the more western of the two interior Andean valleys, a fertile region known as the Cauca. After traversing the Cauca valley, the railroad would enter the convergence zone of Colombia’s three mountain chains, an area labeled “the Knot of the Andes,” which Zinn imagined to be the “one difficult portion of the proposed line.” From this crossing south, a number of rail lines planned or already constructed for mineral extraction helped set a rough path for over 2,000 miles through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, including Lake Titicaca and the lands near the legendary silver mine at Potosí. Finally, Zinn’s line connected with the planned railway network of Argentina, which would cover the last 1,000 miles to Buenos Aires. Several spurs would then provide connections to Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Zinn estimated the total distance between the constructed Mexican and Argentinian lines at 4,900 miles. This distance, according to Zinn, contained within its length 230 usable rail miles and 1,800 more under survey. All that remained, he declared, were “2,870 miles to be located in order to complete the line that will eventually unite the republics of the Western Hemisphere.” Zinn’s pronouncement, however, lacked several vital caveats about which he seemed wholly ignorant or indifferent. For starters, most of the 230 “preexisting” miles of rail used a narrow one-meter gauge instead of a “standard” four-foot-eight-inch gauge, and compatibility would require reconstruction. Furthermore, many of the supposed 1,800 miles of surveyed line were no less imaginary than Zinn’s route. And finally, the total estimated distance of 4,900 miles swelled inexorably without his ridiculous fiction of nearly straight lines connecting all the major cities.74

The Zinn Report, despite its weaknesses, had guided the early work of the Intercontinental Railway Commission’s survey committee. Davis, who represented the United States on this body, had pushed hard to certify a preliminary route as fast as possible and had found support from the Colombian minister who served as committee chairman. Soon the survey committee had produced a map that showed the route as a bright red line, like a hemispheric aorta. In Central America, the line followed Zinn’s coastal option through Guatemala and then the Atlantic side through Costa Rica and Panama. In South America, it corresponded with Zinn’s plan entirely. The survey committee had given copies of this map for comment to all the delegates present.

In the meantime, plans had commenced to prepare the three field parties for exploration of the projected path.75

* * *

When the Argentine delegation arrived and learned of all that had been done in their absence, they objected to the proposed route immediately, condemning the commission’s work as hasty and capricious. As one Argentine observed, “To adopt a line on the map without any sufficient foundation does not answer any practical purpose. . . . How can [the commission] determine that the surveying parties will follow a line, if it has not been first ascertained whether that line is acceptable topographically and economically and is in accordance with the general interests of the countries to be connected?”76

This question highlighted a central conundrum, one the early meetings had indeed ignored: A survey based on an uninformed route without full consent risked being useless if not harmful, but such a survey seemed the only way to set a route with any precision through lands unknown in places to even their home governments. Many on the commission nonetheless defended the route as the only way forward, imperfect as it was. The Colombian survey committee chair, who led this defensive campaign, further noted that the three field parties would focus on Central America and Colombia, “forced points no matter where the rest of the line should go.” But none of these justifications satisfied the Argentines, whose ultimate consent arrived under a shadow of protest after weeks of debate.77

Their cause lost, the Argentine delegation moved to suspend the commission’s operations temporarily. The other delegates quickly concurred with this motion since the survey parties were already set to depart and plans had previously been made for a Cassatt-led executive committee to handle any ongoing activities.

Before suspending their operations formally, the commissioners took time to thank Cassatt for his leadership and also approved a special resolution applauding Davis’s “constant attention.” Davis, without doubt, had influenced the commission’s work profoundly. He had not only attended meetings religiously and helped designate the railway’s route, but had also recruited several intimates to fill commission ranks. His friend and business partner, the Star Router Richard Kerens, had assumed George Pullman’s spot when the railcar magnate declined to serve, and Davis had installed as commission secretary another of his sons-in-law, forty-five-year-old R. M. G. Brown, a naval officer who had earned fame for his heroics during the great 1889 hurricane that struck the US fleet stationed at Samoa.78

The full commission entered its indefinite hiatus less than five months after its first meeting commenced. The future of the Intercontinental Railway now lay in the field.

“A White Man Ought to Laugh at It”

The survey parties all departed from New York City in mid-April 1891 with plans to spend approximately one year abroad.

Corps One headed to Guatemala with instructions to survey the several possible routes in that country as well as a four-hundred-mile-long stretch southward through Nicaragua. Almost all its members came from within the ranks of the US Army, whose leadership had provided this staffing as a way to offset the commission’s overall budget shortfalls. To oversee the group, the army had designated a veteran surveyor of high rank, though a severe illness struck as he made final preparations, and Corps One ended up beneath the control of an assistant engineer with little survey experience, a thirty-eight-year-old army lieutenant named Montgomery Macomb.79

Corps Two and Three, staffed with civilians, traveled together to Guayaquil, a city on the Ecuadoran coast. They planned to split in opposite directions after arrival at Quito, the Ecuadoran capital. Shunk led Corps Two, which would go north into Colombia, navigate the imposing Knot of the Andes, and continue upward along the Panamanian isthmus to Costa Rica if time permitted. The third team, under the leadership of engineer J. Imbrie Miller, aimed to cover the thousand-mile-long mountainous section from central Ecuador to Cuzco, Peru.

Each team brought along assistant engineers, topographers, draftsmen, rodmen, and one surgeon per squad. More than twenty men were involved in total. The United States had sent exploratory parties abroad before, but nothing approached this operation in terms of overland geographic sweep.80

All three groups and their equipment reached their destinations promptly. Officials in Guatemala received Macomb and his team “very kindly” and reportedly extended “every facility,” including the assignment of four local engineers as assistants. The Ecuadoran government, meanwhile, provided the other two survey teams with official transportation and a military escort to assist with the ten-day inland journey from Guayaquil to Quito. The surveyors entered the Ecuadoran capital in an official procession, while a committee of leading citizens welcomed them and hosted a grand banquet. The country’s president received the surveyors a few days later, offering them free use of his personal carriage and ensuring them that “the asking only was necessary for anything [they] wanted.” The various receptions grew so elaborate and prolonged that Shunk felt some relief when his men finally “detach[ed themselves] from these rather embarrassing and impeding hospitalities.”81

The initial burst of enthusiasm fizzled once the teams left the cities and faced the perilous conditions in the field. Macomb’s team had arrived just as the prolonged Guatemalan rainy season began—a fact that no one on the commission appeared to have foreseen, likely owing to the near absence of Central American delegates—and, consequently, Corps One found fieldwork almost impossible for the first few months. Illnesses of all sorts also incapacitated many of the surveyors. Shunk wrote from his first encampment, “We might name our present station Camp Convalescence.” The toll of foreign disease left Shunk himself nearly bedridden for several months, and a persistent type of malarial fever compelled Miller, the leader of Corps Three, to retire altogether from the survey. Miller’s responsibilities soon passed to assistant engineer William D. Kelley, though problems with the mails left Kelley uncertain of his new status for more than six months.82

The crews, enfeebled, inexperienced, soaked, and almost helpless in the strange environment, depended upon the aid of guides and native communities, but these locals displayed noticeably less excitement than their governmental representatives. The surveyors’ expensive equipment, unknown motivations, lack of language skills, and stockpiles of cash made them easy targets for abuse. One member of Shunk’s team complained, “So soon as we arrive at any considerable place and pay off our peons they fly by night and we find ourselves without help in the morning. They always carry away some trifling article [and the] police can never catch them.” Another of the surveyors explained in a letter, “our approach to a town is the signal for the formation of ‘food trusts’ as it were, to take the stranger in.” His letter concluded, “for general cussedness . . . these people can’t be beat.” The United States’ entrenched and expanding culture of “scientific racism” only exacerbated these conflicts. When native doctors informed Shunk’s surgeon that a certain valley might prove deadly, he asserted, “if one of these abortions can pass through [then] a white man ought to laugh at it.”83

The surveyors’ racial theories of superiority, however, had apparently been explained inadequately to Latin America’s natural landscape, which thwarted the men at every step, far more so than anyone on the commission had seemed to anticipate. Shunk, whose dispatches always displayed literary grace and unflagging optimism, wrote, “The Andine Brotherhood of Mountains did not admit us to fellowship without inductional exercises beforehand.” The route that had seemed so simple as a red streak on a map yielded to a reality that in many places, as Kelley explained, offered “no practicable line,” merely a series of “precipitous mountains” that were “cut deep by gorges.” Even redoubtable Shunk lost his patience, complaining at one point,

What seems fair, green ground, at a distance, proves to be covered with a matted growth of ferns and thorny vines, shoulder deep, the former half green, half grown, dead and stiff, as if beaten out of thin copper. It is worse than the worst Allegheny mountain laurel. . . . Even knee deep it is fully as tiresome to wade through as snow of like depth.

The conditions plagued not only the men but also their hired mules and horses, whose deaths reached such alarming numbers that it would have been fair to wonder if the surveyors had a vendetta against pack animals.84

Due to these setbacks, costs spiraled and progress slowed. All three teams remained mired in their arrival countries as late as Thanksgiving, more than six months after they had disembarked in Latin America.

Shunk only reached Colombia’s imposing Knot of the Andes, the heart of his mission, in early 1892. Difficult conditions there limited actual fieldwork, leaving Shunk to imagine several possibilities without establishing a definite line. His subsequent dispatch suggested that a six-hundred-foot tunnel might provide a suitable passageway through this “most difficult” section, where the headwaters of the continent’s eastbound and westbound rivers divided. He requested that this corridor be named for Helper, whom Shunk considered “the honored Gentleman who first conceived the enterprise, who urged it forward to general acceptance, and who, I hope, may live to be the chief guest at its inauguration to the World’s service.” If Shunk knew of Helper’s prolonged campaign against him for superannuation, he didn’t seem to take offense.85

With the end of the first year’s fieldwork approaching and the survey’s completion nowhere in sight, the fears the Argentines had expressed back in Washington seemed increasingly borne out. Lieutenant Macomb remained encamped in Guatemala, collecting triangulations and other measurements that far exceeded his mandate, either out of fastidiousness or what Shunk simply labeled “enchantment.” Shunk himself had covered only two-thirds of his route, as far as central Colombia, where tropical pests caused a “ceaseless, unwinking, comprehensive and diversified itch” that left him sleepless. Only Kelley’s crew remained close to the original timetable, though they had largely abandoned extensive survey methods—Kelley had resorted to “forced marches” for days on end during the final leg of their journey.86

The Macomb and Shunk teams remained in the field after Kelley completed his route. The survey budget, however, had not been designed to cover such a long expedition, and with each passing week the commission’s coffers shrank further.

* * *

Davis and Cassatt, acting on behalf of the Intercontinental Railway Commission’s executive committee, struggled to resolve this funding crisis from back in the US capital. They faced not only the rising cost of the fieldwork, but also the general resistance of Latin American nations to contribute their promised shares. The terms established during the Pan-American Conference had required each nation to contribute in proportion to its population, $1,000 per million inhabitants. A half dozen nations had honored their commitments, a few twice over, but just as many remained derelict, and Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay had all refused outright with the justification that they already possessed developed national rail networks and would not tax their citizens twice for the cause of railroad communication. Davis at one point suggested to Cassatt that they might cover the shortage personally, but Cassatt replied, “I am not at all prepared to say that I am willing to do that.”87

The matter soon ended up before Congress. The Intercontinental Railway Commission had already received one supplemental round of funding the year prior, but conditions in Washington had turned less favorable in recent months. The Republican Congress that had rubber-stamped the earlier appropriations without debate had lost their House majority in the last election, and the Democrats in the lower chamber, though they had earlier championed the Pan-American Conference, showed decidedly less appetite for the Intercontinental Railway. Even worse, Blaine, the railway’s patron and protector, announced his resignation as secretary of state in June 1892 during the Republican National Convention—the rivalry between the Plumed Knight and the president for the future of their party had made their ongoing partnership untenable as a new election neared.88

The railway appropriation question landed on the floor of Congress shortly after Blaine’s resignation. Congressman James McCreary of Kentucky, a Democrat who had championed both the Pan-American Conference and the previous railway appropriations, led the fight and appealed to national pride. As he explained, “At the start we could have refused to ratify [the railway’s funding bill], but Congress at two different times appropriated money under that contract, and having thereby induced the sister republics to contribute their money, I hold that, as a matter of honor, it is our duty now to make this last appropriation in order to finish the preliminary survey.”89

McCreary’s words sparked a flurry of protest, especially from within his own party, and, for the first time, Congress engaged in a genuine and long-overdue debate on the nature and purpose of the Intercontinental Railway. The first major question concerned the constitutional basis for funding such overseas actions. The opposition pointed to the century-old Jeffersonian policy of “friendly relations towards all” but “entangling alliances with none.” This venerated principle, as several congressmen noted, seemed threatened by the Intercontinental Railway, especially its “permanent neutrality” clause—in their view, the threat to or violation of the railway’s neutrality would force the United States “to send an army to these foreign countries to protect the neutrality of that line of road.” Other representatives raised concerns over the railway’s future ownership, which was generally assumed to rest with a private corporation. In one exchange, two southern congressmen traded barbs that would have fit comfortably on a vaudeville stage:

The road may never be built.

If you do not propose to build a road, what is the use of making the survey?

I have no doubt it will eventually be built, but I do not propose to build it.

Who proposes to build it?

Nobody, that I know of, just now. Do you propose to build it?

Well, if I did not suppose that it would be built, I certainly would not be willing to enter upon any preliminary survey. . . . And if it is to be done through an organized corporation, is not this appropriation for a preliminary survey simply a step by this Government in aid of that corporation?

All I say is that if there is any corporation now in existence for that purpose, I have no knowledge of it.90

The stream of inquiries and objections generated few compelling counterarguments on the House floor, and the appropriation appeared doomed. But Davis and his son-in-law R. M. G. Brown worked tirelessly behind the scenes—especially in the more supportive, Republican-controlled Senate—to build consensus, promising that this appropriation would be the absolute last. Eventually they found the necessary votes, and the $65,000 appropriation passed in mid-July 1892, with the caveat that “this sum shall be in full of the share of the United States for the expense of said preliminary survey.” An ecstatic, and possibly deranged, Helper declared, “Truth and justice have been fully vindicated. Prudence prevails, and right is still in the ascendant. . . . Jubala! Jubalo! Jubalum! Heighho! Hey! Hem! Bismillah! Cockadoodledoo! Hooplah! Up goes the hat! He laughs best who laughs last. Ha! Ha! Ha!”91

* * *

The new funds kept the long-suffering parties that Shunk and Macomb commanded in the field, where they still needed to tackle more than fifteen hundred miles between southern Guatemala and northern Colombia, a distance greater than their combined total efforts to date. Hundreds of these miles remained practically uninhabited and empty of trails. These stretches promised painfully slow progress, but the surveyors’ pace had to increase lest the stream of money run dry again.

Shunk had already started to favor simple forward progress over actual surveying. His dispatches suggested, with resignation, that tricky passages “be studied by our successors” or “be provisionally ‘constructed’ from authoritative documents.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Macomb, still in Guatemala, refused to expedite his progress until an irate Cassatt cabled him personally in December 1892: “Executive Committee orders discontinuance of triangulation. Confine yourself to preliminary railroad survey.”92

The revised plan, in an effort to approximate coverage of the remaining route, called for Macomb to proceed at all speed over six hundred miles south to San José, Costa Rica, and for Shunk to sail five hundred miles north from Colombia to San José as well and then bushwhack south. The engineering survey was transforming into little more than an elaborate through-hike.

Even as a hike, however, conditions south of Nicaragua stymied the engineers at every turn. As Shunk wrote, “We thought we had seen in South America the worst roads in the world. They were bad enough. . . . [But] the sun in his circuit, visiting planetary and astral worlds innumerable . . . does not see in all the holy heaven a worse thing to be called road than [this].” The two-hundred-mile stretch from San José, Costa Rica, to David in northern Panama required fifty-three days to cross. Along the way, much of Shunk’s equipment sank in a canoe accident and at least five mules died. He and his men were all “half invalid” by the end of the journey, and they avoided tough interior treks for the rest of their passage southeast along Panama and its wild Darien region, doing little more than “rush work” for the final stretches. Macomb’s men fared little better. An assistant who scouted passages in northern Costa Rica lost one mule to a “tiger” (likely a jaguar) and “eked out his supplies by turtle meat,” while the main Macomb party “relied upon iguana” to sustain them in the “uninhabited wilderness.” The two survey corps, depleted and haggard, finally completed their itineraries in April 1893 and headed back home.93

* * *

By the time they all returned, the original enthusiasm seemed to have evaporated altogether. Blaine, the Intercontinental Railway’s most prominent backer, had finally succumbed to Bright’s disease in late January and died while in Washington, where, according to reports, “the surging wave of public interest . . . made his private funeral one of the most impressive of public demonstrations in honor of the dead.” Congress, meanwhile, had soured on the project and seemed more interested in the possibility of constructing an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua, especially as it became clear that France’s much-discussed effort to build a rival canal through Panama had collapsed entirely, bankrupting much of the French populace. Moreover, any possibilities for private funding of the railway had fallen apart with the 1893 depression—Colonel Parsons, the Virginian businessman with the $100 million plan to construct a South American railroad, had made scant progress and would be fatally shot by a half-crazed train conductor in mid-1894.94

Even the members of the commission, with the possible exception of Davis, appeared to be losing interest. Cassatt, though always diligent, paid far more attention to his six-hundred-acre horse farm outside Philadelphia and his prized hackney stallion Comet. And Davis’s son-in-law R. M. G. Brown, who had handled much of the routine survey supervision, would lessen his involvement after receiving an official naval retirement in late 1894.95

Nonetheless, the reports still needed to be published. Cassatt pushed for completion as fast as possible, but Macomb refused to rush his team’s calculations. The endless delays convinced Cassatt to publish the work piecemeal. Volumes on the South American routes appeared in 1895 and 1896, while the commission’s summary report and the work of Macomb only emerged as completed drafts in mid-1898, more than five years after the survey had concluded. By that point, Cassatt had lost all faith, admitting privately to the man who had assumed Brown’s responsibilities, “The fact is we have not only not made a final location, but it can hardly be said that we have made a preliminary one. . . . [We] are not now prepared to say even that in all cases the general route adopted is the best.”96

The long-delayed, completed report finally arrived late in 1898. Its seven folio volumes—four filled with text and three containing 311 maps—weighed a staggering thirty-two pounds in total. The immense size and weight prompted Secretary of State John Hay to caution Cassatt that his department “has no present means of receiving and distributing so great a bulk.” Helper, for his part, assured Cassatt that “the long-lasting and arduous labors . . . have been ably performed, and with absolute and unfaltering fidelity.” Cassatt himself seemed mostly relieved to finally unload the burden of such “unfaltering fidelity,” instructing the commission’s secretary in mid-March 1899, “the office shall be closed and the accounts of the Commission finally audited, and I desire that this shall be done by the first of April.”97

Nearly a decade had passed since the original post–Pan-American Conference mandate in 1890. The early, limited momentum that Davis, Blaine, and Harrison created had been squandered upon the shoals of an ambitious survey with no clear objective. During these same years, in comparison, the Russian Empire had conceptualized, authorized, and half completed the great five-thousand-mile Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. The domestic US press and many politicians, reflecting a major shift in national priorities, showed far less interest in the commission’s final publications than in a one-volume report on the proposed Nicaraguan Canal that appeared almost concurrently.98

Thoughts about Latin America and US power generally were moving away from the iron highways of the land and toward the foam-flecked lanes of the sea. And an unconquerable personality in US politics would steer this new course.

The Rough Ride to Empire

Shortly after midday on July 1, 1898, several months before the release of the long-delayed Intercontinental Railway report, a phalanx of US soldiers amassed in the tropical heat around bullet-strewn lowlands beneath Kettle Hill, a rise along the San Juan Heights near Santiago, Cuba. The ranks included a volunteer cavalry outfit of skilled horsemen drawn mostly from the Southwest, dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Their commander, a barrel-chested, bespectacled, beaver-toothed thirty-nine-year-old named Teddy Roosevelt, rode through the lines, encouraging his men. Finally, in a pitched falsetto, he reportedly screamed, “Gentlemen, the Almighty God and the Just Cause are with you. Gentlemen, Charge!” Hooves pounded the ground like thunder as the men followed Roosevelt up the hill toward a cluster of Spanish troops controlling the high ground.99

When the gunfire and shouting ceased and the smoke cleared, each and every Spaniard had surrendered or died. The Rough Riders and Roosevelt had triumphed, their minor victory part of a decisive battle in the United States’ first major armed conflict since the Civil War.100

The hoofbeats of this new war had first started to clatter in the United States several years earlier in response to a Cuban independence movement. The great sugar-producing Caribbean island, barely ninety miles from the base of Florida, had sought to free itself from the rule of a deflated and limping Spanish empire. In 1895, patriots in the island’s eastern lands had sparked a widespread rebellion that quickly descended into prolonged violence and brutality. The cause of a free Cuba had found sympathy throughout the hemisphere, and, as the months and then years accumulated, some in the United States had begun to demand intervention. Resistance from US isolationists had held this bellicose urge in check until February 1898, when a mysterious explosion sank the USS Maine, a warship stationed in Havana Harbor. Many rushed to blame Spanish agitators, and US war hawks seized the momentum. Two months later Congress formally declared war against Spain. The navy then began a blockade of Cuba, but the conflict quickly escalated beyond Cuba to Spain’s other two remaining imperial island possessions, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.101

The joint efforts of native and US forces repulsed the once-mighty Spanish empire with a swiftness and decisiveness that few fully foresaw. Spain surrendered provisionally in August, barely ten weeks after the conflict began. The New World was finally free, after more than four hundred years, of its oldest European conqueror. And a war that had started with mixed political support in the United States ended with wild enthusiasm at home.

The Rough Riders, upon their return to the United States, rode this wave of enthusiasm as expertly as they had ridden their mounts. Reporters trailed them through the halls of hotels and theaters in New York City as the heroes traded war stories while clad in their pressed khaki uniforms. In the words of journalist Charles M. Pepper, who covered the war from Cuba and then encountered the Rough Riders back home, “Everybody makes room for them. They can collect a crowd wherever they please. . . . They lionized the war. . . . I have no doubt that in a few years the tradition . . . will be that the fighting at Santiago was done by the Rough Riders, while the regular army carried their packs and looked after the mules.” By far the most popular of these dashing, self-mythologizing figures was their leader, Colonel Roosevelt. He became a nationally recognized personality virtually overnight.102

* * *

Roosevelt’s emergence as a war hero and fearless adventurer would have surprised those who knew him during his earliest years of privilege in New York City. As he himself acknowledged, “I was a sickly, delicate boy, suffered much from asthma, and frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where I could breathe.” These physical weaknesses troubled young Roosevelt enormously. He longed to emulate his father, a patrician New Yorker of steadfast resolve and rigid self-control, infallible in his son’s eyes, “the best man I ever knew.” Roosevelt worked tirelessly to overcome his limitations, fortifying himself through rugged activities like boxing, hunting, and horseback riding. But physical strength alone left Roosevelt unsatisfied. In his words, “I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.” By the time he entered Harvard at seventeen, he not only possessed the foundations of a stoutly robust physique but a capacious intellect, a profound knowledge of natural history, a stern moral compass, and an endless well of self-assurance, if not self-righteousness.103

Immediately upon graduation, Roosevelt had developed an interest in politics and joined the Republicans, the only party that “a young man of my bringing up and convictions could join.” Months of dues paying in smoke-filled Republican parlors eventually yielded him a spot as the youngest member of the New York State Legislature, and in 1884 his party even sent their rising star as a delegate to the presidential convention in Chicago. During the convention, Roosevelt aligned himself with the party’s reformist wing, which sought to replace patronage with a merit system, but his faction lost out to the hard-charging, pro-patronage Blainites. Roosevelt reluctantly fell in line, though the subsequent Blaine campaign left him disillusioned. And to this political crisis of faith, fate soon added an all-consuming personal one in the nearly simultaneous deaths of his mother and beloved first wife.104

Following these tragedies, Roosevelt announced his retirement from politics and left New York for a cattle ranch that he had recently purchased near the South Dakota badlands. His life effectively began anew, remolded in the virile image he had first crafted for himself as a boy, “a free and hardy life, with horse and with rifle.” He might have remained out west permanently but for a blizzard that destroyed his stock, and for a chance encounter with a childhood friend from New York whom he would marry in 1886.105

Once more, Roosevelt grabbed hold of the political ladder and began climbing, rung over laborious rung. His first attempted comeback, a bid for New York City mayor as a sort of cowboy reformer, ended in failure. A series of political appointments followed, and Roosevelt built a checkered reputation as a combative crusader, especially during two years as police commissioner of New York City. As he confided to a friend, “This is the last office I shall ever hold. I have offended so many powerful interests and so many powerful politicians that no political preferment in future will be possible for me.” Despite Roosevelt’s histrionics, in 1897 Republican president William McKinley himself offered Roosevelt the post of assistant secretary of the navy, which he accepted.106

* * *

Naval affairs had long captivated Roosevelt. His interest reached back at least to his time at Harvard, when he began working on a history of naval battles in the War of 1812. Roosevelt published the completed book in mid-1882, shortly before his twenty-fourth birthday. The precocious volume, with its anodyne title The Naval War of 1812, earned its wunderkind author widespread acclaim, launching his side career as a writer and historian—his prodigious output would eventually include over ten distinct books and countless essays. Roosevelt’s broader interest in sea power was also influenced by the ideas of his contemporary Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US naval officer who published a transformational book in 1890 on the relationship between sea power and national strength.

Mahan’s epic study, titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, had struck with the force of a Whitehead torpedo fired at close range when it first appeared. As Mahan alleged in his preface, “Historians generally have been unfamiliar with the conditions of the sea . . . and the profound determining influence of maritime strength upon great issues.” Around the globe, policy makers consumed the lessons of The Influence of Sea Power, and Roosevelt was no exception. He first set forth his thoughts on the subject in a fawning review written for the Atlantic Monthly. In the piece’s conclusion, Roosevelt shifted suddenly from third person to first and issued a prescient exhortation that extended Mahan’s own careful historical analysis to its logical conclusion: “[O]ur greatest need is the need of a fighting-fleet. . . . We need a large navy . . . able to meet those of any other nation. It is not economy—it is niggardly and foolish short-sightedness—to cramp our naval expenditures.”107

Roosevelt brought this attitude to his new role in the Navy Department, where the prospect of war with Spain already loomed. The nation’s fleet, central to any overseas combat, had been growing throughout the previous decade but only “timidly and hesitatingly” as far as Roosevelt was concerned. He soon aligned himself with those in the navy who saw war as inevitable—if not a rationale to boost naval expenditures further—and used “all the power there was in [his] office” to hasten preparations.108

His enthusiasm quickly spilled over the department’s gunwales and into the public sphere, as he openly favored the need to free Cuba. When hostilities commenced, he raced to find a spot at the front. As he explained, “a man ought to be willing to make his words good by his deeds. . . . He should pay with his body.” Fortune, however, felt no need to collect fully on the debt, and Roosevelt escaped his Rough Rider days without serious injury. “There are,” he later wrote, “no four months in my life to which I look back with more pride and satisfaction.”109

* * *

Once hostilities ceased in September, Roosevelt returned to his home state of New York, where his newfound popularity radically transformed the political landscape. The Republican Party machine, though wary of their unpredictable and uncontainable war hero, begrudgingly accepted that he represented their best chance to claim the governorship in the upcoming November election and offered him the nomination. Roosevelt accepted, cruised to victory, and then proceeded to champion a reformist agenda, just as the machine operatives feared.

Top state Republicans soon decided he needed to go, but public affection protected him like the armor of Achilles. It seemed the only way to force him out was to push him higher up, from New York to the national stage. State party leaders thus hatched a plan to make Roosevelt the running mate in President William McKinley’s 1900 reelection bid. Roosevelt, with eyes on the presidency himself, consented to their proposal, and the scheme succeeded despite objections from McKinley’s top adviser, the Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna, who reportedly said with a gasp, “Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the Presidency? . . . What harm can he do as Governor of New York compared to the damage he will do as President if McKinley should die?”110

* * *

The election of 1900 reprised the matchup of four years prior, with McKinley squaring off against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Their last contest had revolved around the future of the gold standard, an almost mystical economic belief system that controversially required a rigid correspondence between the nation’s total money supply and its physical stockpile of gold. Bryan favored a bimetal monetary system that incorporated silver, and he had nearly triumphed in 1896, arguing, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” This impassioned plea still remained important in 1900, but a strong economy and recent gold rushes in both the Canadian Klondike and South Africa diminished its urgency. The election’s second great issue concerned, in Roosevelt’s words, “the need . . . of meeting in manful and straightforward fashion the extraterritorial problems arising from the Spanish War.”111

Victory had left the United States with a moral quandary over the future of Spain’s former possessions Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The chaos of war and centuries of colonial rule had shackled all three island regions with inadequate political infrastructure, but prolonged US control in the name of administration and nation-building risked turning a war of liberation into an act of conquest. McKinley wrestled mightily with this dilemma, especially regarding the far-distant Philippines. As he explained, “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and . . . I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night.” He ultimately decided to maintain control—the Almighty, apparently, favored US expansion. A vote for McKinley meant an explicit endorsement of this decision.

In the end, the contest wasn’t even close, and McKinley returned to the White House with Roosevelt in tow.112

The American body politic had formally and enthusiastically sanctioned a new overseas empire through their decision in the 1900 election. Whether this move marked a break with the past or a logical extension of the nation’s history depended on one’s perspective. The annals of the prior century, after all, were filled with episodes of territorial expansion: Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty, the Louisiana Purchase, the countless takings of Native American lands, Manifest Destiny, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that gave the nation half of Mexico, to name several. The distinction between these precedents and the new empire risked collapsing if pressed too far, but most Americans, cognizant of their own past, believed that they were entering a new imperialist phase after 1900, one meant to be temporary but with no clear end in sight and, of course, with need for an even stronger navy.113

* * *

The new empire, in conjunction with the nation’s seemingly limitless economic expansion, heightened long-standing fears across Latin America concerning US power and influence. Spanish-speaking intellectuals, in particular, promoted an agenda of anti-Americanism. In 1900, the Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó captured this phenomenon in a widely read, rambling essay that used two characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to illustrate his point. Latin Americans, he implied, possessed the creativity and passion of the enslaved but rebellious spirit Ariel, while the United States displayed the crass materialism and utilitarianism of the scarcely mentioned, honorless Caliban.

Rodó’s antipathy toward the United States, however, hardly represented a universal feeling, just as imperialism remained divisive in the United States. As Rodó reluctantly acknowledged, “Admiration for [the United States’] greatness, its strength, is a sentiment that is growing rapidly in the minds of our governing classes, and even more, perhaps, among the multitude, easily impressed with victory or success.”114

McKinley and Roosevelt, like many of their constituents, saw little contradiction between their new Caribbean imperialism—justified as a limited intervention to support a “civilizing mission”—and the goal of closer Latin American relations. McKinley’s administration even took several concrete steps to promote Pan-Americanism. One of these had occurred in late 1899, with the initial ten-year term of the fledgling Commercial Bureau of American Republics set to expire, when the president issued calls for a new Pan-American Conference to be held in the near future. The McKinley administration also offered financial and political support to a proposed world’s fair in Buffalo, New York, oriented around the theme of hemispheric unity, to be called the Pan-American Exposition.115

When this Pan-American Exposition finally opened in the spring of 1901, it proved the major tourist event of the year, with millions arriving to enjoy the innumerable spectacles. McKinley himself visited the exposition in early September and gave a sanguine speech on hemispheric relations. His words echoed Blaine’s earlier idealism and made no mention of Cuba or the Monroe Doctrine. His concluding paragraph asked, “Who can tell the new thoughts that have been awakened, the ambitions fired, and the high achievements that will be wrought through this exposition?” But the answers to these questions would never be known to McKinley, for soon after delivering his speech, while standing before the exposition’s Temple of Music and shaking hands with a throng of admirers, he fell victim to a gunshot that a crazed anarchist fired from point-blank range. Eight days later, the president, like Lincoln and Garfield before him, died while in office from an assassin’s bullet.116

The news of McKinley’s death reached Roosevelt while hiking with his family on Mount Marcy, New York’s highest peak and part of the Adirondack Park. He immediately headed for Buffalo, then swore the oath of office in a makeshift ceremony, and thus became at age forty-two the youngest president in the nation’s history. Upon hearing the news, Mark Hanna reportedly groused, “Now look! That cowboy is President of the United States.”117

Roosevelt, cowboy or not, didn’t want to spook the herd of politicos like Hanna. His new administration, he explained, aimed “to continue, absolutely without variance, the policy of President McKinley, for the peace and prosperity and honor of our beloved Country.” But Roosevelt’s professed intentions could endure only so long. New problems required leadership, arriviste or otherwise, and Roosevelt struggled to restrain himself.118

* * *

One of the first major issues that Roosevelt confronted involved the proposed Central American canal, a potential centerpiece of future naval strategy. The dream of connecting the world’s two great oceans had captured the European imagination soon after Columbus reached the New World, and the upstart United States had joined this conversation in a serious way after gaining control of California and its broad Pacific coastline in 1848. Great Britain, the world’s dominant sea power, had formally recognized the United States’ newfound interest through an 1850 bilateral treaty that forbid either nation from constructing a canal without the other’s express consent. This treaty, however, grew increasingly problematic as the United States’ naval strength increased and Great Britain’s hemispheric interests decreased. Cries to invalidate the treaty had swelled in Washington after the emergence of the new overseas US empire.

In mid-1900, McKinley’s secretary of state John Hay had managed to negotiate a new treaty in which Britain ceded their canal claims if the United States agreed to keep any future project neutral and unfortified. The new treaty, in Hay’s view, marked a masterstroke of diplomacy, but Roosevelt, while New York governor, had aligned himself with the majority of senators who rejected Hay’s efforts for being too weak. As Roosevelt wrote to the naval strategist Mahan, “I do not see why we should dig the canal if we are not to fortify it so as to insure its being used for ourselves and against our foes in time of war.” Roosevelt, upon ascending to the presidency, impressed this view upon Hay, who returned to England and successfully extracted this final concession on fortifications. The new treaty was signed in November 1901, finally clearing a diplomatic path for a US-controlled canal.119

In little more than three years, the circumstances that had once made the Intercontinental Railway the nation’s leading international infrastructure project had all but disappeared. The United States had created an overseas empire and positioned itself diplomatically to command the most important strategic ocean crossing in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. Moreover, the nation’s new president, who championed the canal as part of his overall naval strategy, saw few limits to his executive power, believing that “it was not only [the president’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”120

Against this backdrop arose the Second Pan-American Conference, the first referendum on hemispheric relations in twelve years.

Cannibals, Carnegie, and a Permanent Commission

Most of the plans for the Second Pan-American Conference had been arranged before Roosevelt ascended to the presidency. Hosting duties lay with Mexico, where the long-standing regime of Porfirio Díaz maintained order through force and progress through the investments of US capitalists, especially railroad men. The selection of the five US delegates—half the number from the First Pan-American Conference—had been overseen personally by McKinley, who had favored men with experience in diplomacy and journalism. The only holdover from the first conference—and the only businessman—was Henry Gassaway Davis, whose agenda of Intercontinental Railway promotion conflicted somewhat with the new president’s prioritization of sea power and canal building.121

Roosevelt issued instructions to the delegates in early October 1901, barely two weeks before the second conference’s scheduled opening. His message stressed friendliness more than leadership, reflecting the president’s deeply held skepticism of international law and his belief that the responsible use of power, not treaties, preserved global order. The delegates needed primarily “to disabuse [Latin American] minds of any false impressions, if they exist, regarding the attitude and purpose of the United States.” As long as friendly relations endured, US economic expansion and commercial integration with Latin America could continue unhampered. As Roosevelt’s instructions explained,

[W]e may assume that . . . the volume of our trade with South America will soon grow to large proportions. These means are: Adequate transportation facilities, such as steamship lines, railroads, and an isthmian canal; reciprocal trade relations; participation in the business of banking, and a corps of commercial travelers specially equipped for Latin-American trade. It is not impossible that, following such development, the magnificent conception of an international railroad connecting the United States with the remotest parts of South America may at last be realized.

The above-mentioned language, buried deep in Roosevelt’s instructions to the delegates, not only laid out the contours of the president’s plan for US economic activity in the hemisphere, but also captured the essence of his attitude toward the Intercontinental Railway. The vision of Helper and Blaine and Davis was indeed a “magnificent conception,” but nonetheless a faraway dream to be realized only, if at all, once a long list of more pressing projects had been successfully implemented.122

Roosevelt’s assessment, however, clashed with the general sentiments of the Mexico conference. What seemed a long-distant fantasy to the US president had been routinely promoted—by boosters and eager governments alike—as the foundation, the trunk line, of a much-desired hemispheric system. Railroads symbolized progress, even if they inevitably relied on foreign investment and tended to produce narrowly channeled economic growth more than broad social development. Encouraging their construction practically constituted a stand-alone ideology for leaders like President Díaz.123

The Mexican delegation’s official report to the second conference argued, “It would be useless and tiring to enumerate the extensive efforts and sacrifices . . . that Mexico has made to carry into practice the dream of an intercontinental railway.” One of Costa Rica’s delegates, noting Mexico’s apparent prosperity, assured that the Intercontinental Railway offered “great benefits” and was “greatly favored.” The project’s popularity even led delegates to push for Davis’s nomination as conference chairman, an honor he refused, partly to respect Roosevelt’s express instructions against displays of leadership.124

* * *

Among this chorus of Intercontinental Railway enthusiasm in Mexico City, one Latin American voice spoke the loudest, that of Colombian delegate General Rafael Reyes. He cut a striking figure with his broad shoulders, wide midsection, regal attire, partly paralyzed left arm, and glorious mustache, which pointed outward several inches like two tiny bloodhounds sensing prey. His legendary exploits in several minor Colombian civil wars had earned him widespread admiration, and his ambition matched his bravery. Many assumed he sought greater political power. His views on leadership and progress shared much with those of Díaz, especially the need to stimulate transportation infrastructure.125

Reyes’s efforts to promote development years earlier in Colombia had already cost him dearly, far more than all his military campaigns combined, and the painful memories left him reticent to even discuss what had occurred. But rumors of a story too incredible to be believed, a journey worthy of Odysseus, swirled through the hallways of the Mexico conference, and finally Reyes—seeking to strengthen consensus for the Intercontinental Railway and impressed by the assemblage of hemispheric plenipotentiaries—agreed to tell his long-guarded story at a banquet in late December.126

The assembled crowd hushed and listened “with profound attention” as Reyes began to recount the remarkable tale of several explorations he’d made a quarter century earlier, into the unsettled heart of South America. His maiden trek commenced near the same Andean Knot that Shunk later surveyed, only Reyes and his small party turned eastward, descending through treacherous vertical drops, into the headwaters of the Putumayo River, which snaked a thousand miles through Colombian territory before joining the Amazon. Along the Putumayo’s wild verdant banks lived warring nomadic tribes, including some that practiced cannibalism. Reyes had worried initially about native hostilities but instead encountered “kindness and generosity” along the Putumayo. The tribes provided steady assistance and even taught Reyes how to “dig a sort of grave” to bury himself at night when insects swarmed so thick that “on clapping the hands together, there remains between them a solid mass of mosquitoes.”127

Reyes navigated the Putumayo successfully and decided to bring his younger brother Nestor along for a follow-up mission, but at that point his good fortune ran short. Nestor lost his way in the forest and wandered into the territory of Putumayo cannibals, who took him captive and devoured his body—as Reyes told the stunned crowd of hemispheric delegates, “We could only recover his bones.” Reyes subsequently lost his older brother Henry to a “malignant fever” while exploring another interior river. The pursuit of progress—of expanding Colombian influence into the unsettled interior—had cost Reyes both his brothers, but thanks to their efforts, as he assured, “we discovered some unknown rivers, we established steam navigation in others, [and] we communicated by means of overland routes the river navigation with the towns of the Andes.”128

The link between these feats of exploration and the proposed Intercontinental Railway existed largely in Reyes’s own progress-obsessed mind. Hundreds of miles or more separated the navigable portions of most Atlantic-oriented rivers from the surveyed rail route. Nonetheless, as Reyes explained toward the end of his talk, “I must call attention . . . to the important fact that the Inter-Continental Railway . . . could easily . . . be connected with the immense system of river communications formed by the Amazon and its tributaries.”129

Reyes implored his audience to lend their support to this vision of continental development. Their advocacy, Reyes seemed to imply, could ensure that his brothers had not died in vain. When Reyes finally concluded his lengthy speech, the crowd broke into a vigorous applause, and Davis, according to reports, “heartily congratulated him and thanked him.”130

* * *

Reyes had provided the pathos, and Davis presented a path forward.

Roosevelt’s warnings about exerting leadership had not ultimately dissuaded Davis from taking charge of the Mexico conference’s committee on the Intercontinental Railway. And Davis, as committee chair, advocated two new initiatives: a second US-led survey of Latin America to focus on the railway’s commercial aspects; and a new five-person permanent commission to reside in Washington. Davis also favored replacing the adjective “intercontinental” with “Pan-American” to better reflect the project’s intimate relationship with the broader political and economic movement.

Davis’s recommendations passed with little debate, and before the Mexico conference concluded in late January 1902, a Permanent Pan-American Railway Committee had been organized under his watchful gaze. Davis assumed the new committee’s chairmanship personally, then added three compliant ministers, from Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. For the final spot, he attached the name of his old colleague from the First Pan-American Conference, Andrew Carnegie.131

Carnegie’s influence, as Davis well knew, had recently increased to incomparable levels. Barely one year earlier, the steel baron had agreed to sell his eponymous company to financier John Pierpont Morgan, a man Carnegie personally disliked but who was among the only people in the world able to meet the nonnegotiable asking price of $400 million. After closing the deal at Carnegie’s home, Morgan reportedly grasped the tycoon’s hand and said, “Mr. Carnegie, I want to congratulate you on being the richest man in the world.” Carnegie had subsequently begun using his fortune to embark on one of the greatest runs of philanthropy the world had ever seen, and the mere mention of his name stirred thoughts of spectacular financial largesse. This mystique of unchecked generosity had induced Davis to incorporate Carnegie into the new commission without even acquiring the philanthropist’s full consent first.132

Davis’s triumph at the conference left him newly energized. He soon secured Carnegie’s involvement and then arranged an audience with Helper, where he supposedly bragged that “Andrew Carnegie was himself able to build the whole road, from one end to the other.” But official support also mattered greatly to Davis, and he petitioned both Roosevelt and Secretary Hay for their endorsements as well. After repeated urgings, Roosevelt relented and requested that Congress appropriate $20,000 for two surveyors to “investigate and report upon the means of extending the commerce of the United States with [Central and South America].”133

For the first time in a decade, the subject of funding for the Pan-American Railway reappeared before Congress. The appropriation request easily passed the Senate, where several of Davis’s allies held key committee positions, but strong resistance emerged once more in the House.

Davis’s lobbying there continued unabated until late in the year, when, at seventy-nine years old, he lost within a six-week span both his spouse of nearly fifty years and his forty-six-year-old daughter, the wife of R. M. G. Brown. The losses devastated Davis, but during his formal period of mourning, he nonetheless alighted upon a solution to the appropriation dilemma. After conferring with Carnegie in January 1903, he presented his plan to his old Senate ally and longtime railway booster Francis Cockrell of Missouri: “If you cannot consistently appropriate the money, Mr. Carnegie and myself feel such deep interest in the subject and in the advantages to be given our country that we will furnish the necessary expenses of the commissioner.” Each man, Davis explained, agreed to contribute a tiny sliver of his vast personal fortune if Congress provided a nominal amount to ensure the air of legitimacy.134

This new proposal, a private subsidy of public internationalism, managed to extract $2,500 from Congress in early March 1903. The resulting contributions of Davis and Carnegie amounted to $3,750 each, for a total of $10,000, half of Roosevelt’s initial request but enough to send one person abroad.135

Carnegie’s seed money also produced a bountiful crop of rumors about the future of the railway. Davis had helped initiate this speculation when he attended a Washington gathering of hemispheric diplomats shortly after the appropriation passed and intimated, according to reports, that Carnegie “might be prepared to take financial interest” in the railway’s construction. Days later, the Washington Post described “the offer of Andrew Carnegie to head a big syndicate of Anglo-American capitalists” to finance the entire project. The gossip surrounding Carnegie’s involvement led Helper—convinced that his Three Americas Railway should be financed strictly through public funds—to complain that “there was perceptibly something . . . that smacked loudly of a trick, if it did not smell strongly of a trust.” According to several papers, J. P. Morgan, the “central figure” in financing this Carnegie syndicate, had conducted a secret meeting on the matter with General Rafael Reyes of Colombia at the Hotel de Inglaterra in Havana, Cuba. This conjecture, however, ignored a more likely explanation for the Reyes-Morgan meeting: the potential funding of a canal in Colombia’s Panama Province, which had displaced Nicaragua as the front-running location—Reyes had fatefully told the local press after his supposedly “secret” meeting, “Whatever the American government may [do], it will do as the agent and in the name of the Colombian republic.”136

The flurry of speculation and excitement surrounding Carnegie’s involvement overshadowed the actual news that another Pan-American Railway survey had been authorized. By some accounts, the survey’s announcement attracted less attention in the United States than in Europe, where merchants feared the possibility of losing trade to a hemispheric rail route.137

The new survey, in stark contrast to the work that Shunk had overseen a decade prior, required little planning. The only preliminary matter of substance was the selection of the sole surveyor. A seventy-three-year-old Hinton Rowan Helper tried to convince Congress to give him this role, but the position, on Davis’s recommendation, went to Charles M. Pepper, the journalist who had followed the Rough Riders and who had later served as one of Davis’s codelegates at the Mexico conference. Once this appointment had been finalized, the State Department issued letters of endorsement to the various countries involved. Pepper then departed in mid-April 1903, barely one month after Congress had first authorized the trip.138

But Pepper, by this point, was not the only one peddling a plan for a hemispheric railway in Latin America. In the far south of Mexico, a small group of US capitalists had recently started construction on a rival Pan-American Railroad. The three-hundred-mile-long line sat at the southern end of a rail network that reached all the way to the United States. For this Mexican project, the promotional activities of men such as Davis and Pepper ultimately mattered less than a rival process of development, one that predated modern Pan-Americanism.

About The Author

Eric Rutkow is an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and the author of The Longest Line on the Map. His first book, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (2012), received the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award for US history and was named one of the top books of the year by Smithsonian magazine. He earned his BA and PhD from Yale and his JD from Harvard.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 8, 2019)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501103902

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Raves and Reviews

“Rutkow offers a richly detailed examination of efforts to build a highway from Alaska to the tip of Argentina… A fresh, well-documented account of U.S.-Latin American relations.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Rutkow’s excellent, thoroughly researched, and unusual look at this complicated mix of infrastructure innovations and international relations will engage a variety of reading tastes.”Booklist

“Everybody loves a shaggy dog story. A good one should be long and implausible but still on the edge of possibility. The chronicle at the heart of Eric Rutkow’s The Longest Line on the Map seems to qualify. The story involves the decades-long attempt to construct thousands of miles of railway—and, later, highway—to ‘link the Americas.’” —The Wall Street Journal

“Rutkow's fascination with the Pan-American highway is evident in this meticulously researched and vividly recounted drama. He combines a historian's eye for detail with a storyteller's skill at bringing to life the dynamic political and social forces that conceived and constructed the international corridor.” —Shelf Awareness, starred review

“A powerful argument against Washington’s growing embrace of isolationist policies at home and abroad. Highly recommended for U.S. and diplomatic historians, geopolitical scholars, and general readers.” —Library Journal, starred review

“Rutkow is a graceful writer with a penchant for well-placed classical allusions… The narrative finds its highest velocity near the end, with a fascinating section on a North Carolina schoolteacher’s efforts to bushwhack his way through the Darien Gap, and Richard Nixon’s stated desire to drive the finished road himself in time for the 1976 bicentennial.New York Times Book Review

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