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Tehuantepec Interoceanic Ship Railway 1880-1887

James Buchanan Eads was one of the great self taught engineers of the nineteenth century. A budding entrepreneur, Eads soon went into business salvaging vessels wrecked by underwater snags in the muddy Mississippi. Within a few years he had made himself rich and had acquired a formidable knowledge of hydraulics. Eads built the first ironclads built in the United States and played an integral role in winning the "Mighty Mississippi" for the Union and thus cutting the Confederacy in two. He built the first bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

The Panama Canal Congress was held in May 1879, and the attention of the world was directed as never before to an interoceanic transit-way. Eads cenceived the idea of extending the Mississippi river, commercially speaking, into the Pacific Ocean, and of opening up to the eastern coast of Mexico and the States bordering on the Gulf and to the great valley of the Mississippi the rich markets of the Pacific, and at the same time to connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States by the shortest possible route by way of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, where a crossing for ships would effect a saving of 2,000 miles over the Panama route and 1,500 miles over the Nicaragua route.

Tehuantepec is an isthmus of Mexico lying between the Gulfs of Campeche (Campeachy) and Tehuantepec, with the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas on the E., and Vera Cruz and Oaxaca on the W. It includes that part of Mexico lying between the 94th and 96th meridians of W. longitude. It is 125 miles across at its narrowest part from gulf to gulf, or 120 miles to the head of Laguna Superior on the Pacific coast. The Sierra Madre breaks down at this point into a broad, plateau-like ridge, whose elevation, at the highest point reached by the Tehuantepec railway (Chivela Pass) is 735 ft. The northern side of the isthmus is swampy and densely covered with jungle, which has been a greater obstacle to railway construction than the grades in crossing the sierra. The whole region is hot and malarial, except the open elevations where the winds from the Pacific render it comparatively cool and healthful.

Since the days of Cortes, the Tehuantepec isthmus has been considered a favourable route, first for an interoceanic canal, and then for an interoceanic railway. Its proximity to the axis of international trade gives it some advantage over the Panama route, which is counterbalanced by the narrower width of the latter.

When the great cost of a canal across the isthmus compelled engineers and capitalists to give it up as impracticable, James B. Eads proposed to construct a quadruple track ship-railway at Tehuantepec he proposed to build a ship railway for the transportation of ocean vessels over the 140 miles of land that separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean. He at once began the preliminary plans for the work and made a careful study of the subject in the fall and winter of 1879. On March 9th and 13th, 1880, he appeared before the Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Interoeeanic Canals and replied to Count De Lesseps, who was advocating the construction of the Panama Canal. Eads explained in considerable detail his plans for a ship railway and contended that it was entirely practicable.

In November, 1880, he went to Mexico and obtained a valuable concession from the Mexican Government for building a ship railway. He instituted the preliminary surveys by the assistance of that Government and went with the engineering party to the Isthmus on board a Mexican Government vessel which had been placed at his disposal. In 1880 the civil engineer Elmer Lawrence Corthell, long an associate of Eads, made surveys of the mouth of the Costzacoalcos river and of the harbors on the Pacific coast for the proposed interoceanic ship-railway across the isthmus of Tehuuutepee, under the Mexican government's concession. Becoming chief engineer for this important project, he superintended the surveys during the next four years.

In the winter of 1881 he made a proposition to the US Congress to build the railway at his own expense and at his own risk, provided the Government would guarantee a dividend of 6 per cent, for fifteen years after he had, by the actual construction and operation of the railway, proven its practicability. His views of the feasibility of the railway were supported by the professional opinions of a large number of practical experts both in the United States and England, and the Senate and House committees favorably reported the bill, but the Senate failed to take action upon it.

Action having been taken toward constructing a canal by the parties to whom franchises bad been given, the scheme of a railroad across this section was also contemplated. By resolution of the Mexican congress, the contract of the American company was declared void in October 1882, and soon after the Mexican Governtment made an arrangement to have the road built on its own account.

On 28 February 1884 a bill introduced by Senator Vest "to incorporate the Interoceanic Ship Railway Company and for other purposes" sets forth in its preamble that the Government of Mexico has granted to James B. Eads, of St. Louis the rights to construct a ship railway between the two gulfs, capable of having transported over it the largest ships with their cargoes.

Ships would pass from one port to the other (143 miles) in less than twelve hours. The scheme had been declared by Eads, and by other engineers of high repute in Europe and America, to be practicable. His opponents derided it.

He applied, without success, to the United States government for assistance. The Mexican government guaranteed in 1885 one and a quarter million dollars per annum for 15 years. In 1885 Mr. Eads obtained a modification of the concession from Mexico by which that Government guaranteed that one-third of the net revenue should amount to one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($1,250,000) per annum, and granted several other important changes which increased the value of the concession. He then introduced a new bill in Congress, by which, when the ship railway should be entirely completed and put into operation, transporting large ocean vessels, fully laden, the Government guaranteed that two-thirds of the net revenue should amount to two million five hundred thousand dollars ($2,500,000), Mexico having guaranteed the other third. By 11 December 1885 Congress had approved the modified contract with Capt. Eads for a ship railway and the bill had gone to the President for his signature. This bill was favorably reported by the committee of the two Houses before the end of that session, but in the last session of Congress it was deemed advisable to exclude all guarantee clauses and ask for a simple charter.

Eads went to Washington in January 1886, although in very poor health, to secure the passage of the act, confidently believing that it would insure the raising of the capital, in the United States and England, necessary to build the railway. He was not able to remain in Washington, and, by the advice of his physician and friends, sailed for Nassau, Bahamas, where he died in 1887 after a short illness.

In 1885-87 Elmer Lawrence Corthell devoted nearly his entire time to it, studying and writing on its engineering and commercial features, delivering addresses on the subject before numerous learned bodies, and publishing pamphlets which were circulated in every country.

There were also many other projects for an ordinary railway, and several concessions were granted by the Mexican government for this purpose from 1857 to 1882. Finally the Mexican government resolved to undertake the enterprise on its own, and entered into contracts with a prominent Mexican contractor for the work. In 1888 this contract was rescinded, after 67 miles of road had been completed. The next contract failed through the death of the contractor, and the third failed to complete the work within the sum specified (2,700,000). This was in 1893, and 37 miles remained to be built. A fourth contract resulted in the completion of the line from coast to coast in 1894, when it was found that the terminal ports were deficient in facilities and the road too light for heavy traffic. The government then entered into a contract with the London contractors of S. Pearson & Son, Ltd., who had constructed the drainage works of the valley of Mexico and the new port works of Vera Cruz, to rebuild the line and construct terminal ports at Coatzacoalcos, on the Gulf coast, and Salina Cruz, on the Pacific side. The work was done for account of the Mexican government. Work began on 16 December 1899, and was finished to a point where its formal opening for traffic was possible in January 1907.

The railway was 192 miles long, with a branch of 18 miles between Juile and San Juan Evangelista. The minimum depth at low water in both ports is 33 ft., and an extensive system of quays and railway tracks at both terminals affords ample facilities for the expeditious handling of heavy cargoes. The general offices, shops, hospital, &c., are located at Rincon Antonio, at the entrance to the Chivela Pass, where the temperature is cool and healthful conditions prevail.

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