The Isthmus Of Tehuantepec
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHEN President Diaz, in 1905, formally opened the Tehuantepec National Railway, he gave official recognition to one of the most wonderful enterprises that the world has witnessed in-recent years. This railway, a magnificent piece of engineering, runs across the Isthmus of Tehuantepee from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and is now doing on an important scale what it is intended the Panama Canal shall eventually do, to a larger extent, in transporting freight between the two oceans.
From the early days of the Spanish Conquest the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was recognized as an important highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Situated at the extreme southern boundary of Mexico, the Isthmus, with the exception of Panama, is the narrowest neck of land on the American continent. Cortes, it is said, conceived the idea of building a canal across it; but as this was not feasible, a carriage road was constructed by the Spaniards. Engineers in later times recommended this route for a canal in preference to Panama, the distance in a straight line being only one hundred and twenty-five miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
When the Panama project under French management proved a failure, President Diaz, with his customary fore-sight, proposed a railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the idea being to unload vessels on the Atlantic or Pacific side and take the cargoes across the Isthmus for reshipment.
The plan was formally carried out, and the railway was completed in 1894. When opened to traffic, however, it proved to be imperfect, so in 1899 the Mexican government entered into an agreement with the English firm of S. Pearson & Sons, whereby they and the government were to be joint owners of the railway for fifty-one years and to share the net earnings. Although the construction was extremely difficult,! owing to the nature of the country traversed by the line, which included some deep canons, numerous rocky cuttings and miles of swampy land, the work was eventually finished, and the line, which ,is one hundred and ninety miles in length, was opened to traffic. The work was well done, and to-day the railway is one of the best in Mexico and excellently managed. It is also one of the few railways in the world which uses oil for fuel.
Fine harbors have been constructed at the ports of Salina Cruz on the Pacific and Puerto Mexico, formerly called Coatzacoalcos, on the Atlantic coast, large warehouses having also been erected for the storage of freight. At both places the trains run right up to the ships' sides, where there are various modern devices for unloading cargoes quickly and economically and transferring them to the railway cars or vice versa. At Salina Cruz one of the finest dry-docks in the world is being built.
The Tehuantepec route will not only benefit Mexico by building up its ports on the two coasts but is already proving of great importance to international trade. A large amount of traffic which formerly went round Cape Horn or across the Panama Railway is now going via Tehuantepec. Another important fact is that this route is twelve hundred miles shorter between New York and San Francisco than the Panama Canal route. The average freight steamer would require four or five days to cover this distance, the expenses of the vessel for that period and the tolls for passing through the canal representing a far greater outlay than the charges incurred by the Tehuantepec route. It will probably be possible for the average cargo to be unloaded and carried across the Isthmus and reloaded in two days, and considering the amount of labor involved, the charges are reasonably low.
Tehuantepec is not only a much shorter route to the Pacific ports of the United States but to the Orient and Australia as well. American commercial interests are already recognizing this, and are using it extensively for the shipment of freight between the Atlantic and Pacific. A contract has recently been entered into with the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company for the carrying of sugar from Hawaii to New York via Tehuantepec, these great sugar cargoes having formerly gone round Cape Horn. The distance from Hawaii to New York via Tehuantepec is only 5305 miles, while by Cape Horn it is over 12,000.
It is a long journey from Mexico City to Tehuantepec, but it is one that is well worth taking, for the route is through those wonderful "hot lands" bordering the coast, the veritable heart of the tropics. To reach Tehuantepec from the capital, one has to take the Mexican Railway to Cordoba, a distance of one hundred and ninety eight miles, where connection is made with the Vera Cruz and Pacific Railroad, which runs two hundred and two miles to Santa Lucrezia in the extreme southern end of Mexico.
One evening at the beginning of March I started from the capital for Tehuantepec, travelling to Cordoba in a comfortable Pullman sleeping-car, and arriving there early the next morning, with ample time to catch the train for Santa Lucrezia, which left at nine o'clock. This train, which was the most comfortable one that I had thus far seen in Mexico, included Pullman sleeping- and drawing-room cars, and a well-arranged restaurant. In the sleeping compartments the berths were specially designed to. service in the tropics, and were provided with mosquito netting, an important requisite in the insect-infested "hot lands."
The railway journey from Cordoba southward is full of interest, the line running for nearly fifty miles through plantations of sugar-cane, coffee, bananas, oranges, pine-apples and other tropical and semitropical fruits. Then comes a long stretch of fine grazing and agricultural lands, with wide prairies, where can be seen the picturesque Mexican cowboys or vaqueros mounted on swift ponies with heavy saddles and cruel bits, carrying the ever present lasso. There are many villages along the line but no cities. At Tierra Blanca, fifty-seven miles from Cordoba, there is a branch line to Vera Cruz; and at Los Narajos the railway crosses the Papaloapam River, the bridge and its approaches being over a mile long, the largest in Mexico. Passing through a dense jungle for several miles, the line again enters a prairie country, which continues for another fifty miles.
At San Marcos (one hundred and fifty seven miles) the prairie gives place to jungle and swamps, which in turn are replaced by a dense tropical forest, largely unexplored, of giant mahogany, ebony, dyewood and rosewood trees, palms of all varieties, medicinal woods, vines, plants and flowers. It is alive with chattering monkeys, green par-rots and flocks of other gaudily colored birds seen only in the tropics. This is indeed the forest primeval, vast and impenetrable ! Coiling about the tree-trunks like green great snakes are creepers and other parasites, which hang from the boughs and replant themselves in the moist earth. Among these are growing a variety of beautiful orchids, while forming a dense undergrowth is a tangled mass of wonderful ferns and flowering plants. In these dense woods there lurks the fierce jaguar, called by the Mexicans the tigre, and in their sombre depths crawl the python and other tropical snakes.
This district would seem to promise a happy hunting-ground for the sportsman, who could stalk the jaguar and puma or the great river-hog, the tapir, floundering in its marshy haunts, or bring down a good-sized deer or a fierce wild bull; or spear the ever game peccary. Birds — quail and plover on the prairies, pheasants and turkeys in the forest — are there in plenty. But so great are the difficulties of traversing these tropical forests and so terribly unhealthy are they that for the most part they are virgin ground as far as sport is concerned. The Indians alone can enjoy the chase in such solitudes; and for the greater part of the year they live upon the game which is so plentiful and the wild fruits with which the woodlands abound.
From Cordoba to Santa Lucrezia the railway runs through the "hot lands" again. Here are seen the hot-land habitations, constructed of bamboo and light poles and thatched with palm-leaves, affording shade from the sun, but allowing the air to circulate freely; for the only shelter needed is protection from the rains. In this part of the country there are none of the imposing stone buildings found in the temperate regions of Mexico, and there are very few towns of any size. The tropical villages are not unlike those in central Africa. They swarm with naked babies, and boys and girls past childhood almost as simply clad. The population in the hot country is much smaller than that of the temperate zones, though it could easily support an immense number of inhabitants. So wonderfully rich is the soil that all kinds of tropical fruits, coffee, tobacco, the vanilla bean and many drug-producing plants grow luxuriantly. A large number of india rubber plantations have been started of late years, and bid fair to make a great success.
But farming in the hot lands requires a great amount of capital, and to be successful it must be conducted on a big scale, with a large force of laborers. The land can be bought cheaply enough, but that is only the preliminary expense, for it has to be cleared and planted; and as a rule it is only after years of careful cultivation that profit-able returns can be obtained from such things as rubber, coffee and cacao. Conducted by experienced men with sufficient capital, however, coffee and banana culture are proving extremely profitable in Mexico, and some large fortunes are being made. Everything considered, there are few richer countries in the world than these lands in southern Mexico, in the States of Vera Cruz, Campeche and Tabasco. With forests yielding mahogany and numerous other valuable woods, with a prolific soil and a wonderful climate, making it possible in some cases to raise three crops in a single year, these hot lands must have a marvellous future.
The dense forests and numerous swamps of the hot lands would not seem to make this part of Mexico a very inviting place in which to live ; but strange to say, these tropical regions are not so very unhealthful, if a careful system of living is followed. Intemperance in eating and drinking has, of course, to be avoided, and fevers and malaria are certain to result from exposure to rains or the intense heat of the midday sun.
We reached Santa Lucrezia at half-past nine in the evening. It is only a small village, with one wretched hotel. Fortunately, passengers are not obliged to pass a night there but can remain comfortably asleep in the Pullman car.
The day had been baking hot, and even summer clothing seemed unbearable, but at night the air was deliciously cool. Swarms of mosquitoes and other insect pests buzzed outside the car, some managing to find their way inside, but safely behind the mosquito curtains we could ignore them. Poets who rave about the "stilly night" could never have visited the tropics of Mexico. There is no stilly night there. From the neighboring woods came the incessant croaking of frogs and the loud buzzing, whistling and chirping of innumerable insects, — a combined volley of sound not unlike that made by a cotton mill at high pressure. Strangely enough, nearly all these noises cease in the daytime.
Near Santa Lucrezia are many plantations of tropical fruits, coffee, cacao and rubber. Some groves of cultivated rubber contain from one hundred thousand to one million trees. Of the fifteen hundred species of rubber plants and trees which exist, very few are found in Mexico. A tree known as castilloa elastica, which is indigenous to the soil, gives the best results and is chiefly grown in the plantations. It begins to yield rubber when six or seven years old, but the growers rarely tap it until it has reached the age of nine or ten.
In extracting the caoutchouc or rubber, one or two V-shaped incisions are cut in the trunk, penetrating the bark, but not so deeply as to reach the wood of the tree, and al-ways leaving behind some of the cambium or growing layer of the stem, so that the wound may rapidly heal and the tree eventually be suitable for tapping again. As soon as the cuts are made, the milk-white latex begins to flow and is caught in a galvanized-iron cup placed at the base of the trunk. As much as half a pint of this fluid may run into the cup, after which the flow ceases. Tree-tapping is usually carried out once a year, either in October, November or December, and each tree usually lasts twenty-five years, producing one pound of rubber per annum when ten years old. The latex, after being collected, is deposited in barrels of water mixed with the juice of a wild vine or convolvulus (ipomcoea bona nox) which hastens coagulation and transforms it into a spongy white mass — the crude rubber of commerce.
Over $25,000,000 has been invested in Mexican rubber plantations, but very few of them have ever yielded satisfactory dividends. In some instances this has been due to incompetent management, coupled with the difficulty of getting the proper kind of labor. Under the most satisfactory conditions, however, it is doubtful whether Mexico will ever be able to compete with Brazil, the Malay Peninsula or Ceylon, or even with Central America as a rubber-producing country.
The growth of Indian corn in these hot lands of Mexico is marvellous, attaining as it does a height of fifteen to eighteen feet, with ears that will mature within sixty days from planting. Similarly, sugar-cane in ten months will have stalks twenty feet high and ten inches in circumference. Bananas make a growth of twenty feet in a few months. There are about twenty varieties, and when properly cultivated, each stalk usually bears from seventy-five to one hundred pounds of fruit. On some plantations, where the plants are set about twelve feet apart, each acre of land will produce from six hundred to nine hundred large bunches a year. Under these favorable conditions, banana-growing is proving wonderfully profitable. The growth of fruit trees is just as wonderful. Peach trees two years old attain a height of twelve feet and bear fruit; oranges bear at four years of age. The soil is rich, indeed practically inexhaustible; the climate is summer all the year round, and the rainfall is from one hundred to two hundred inches per annum. With these advantages, tropical agriculture is certainly destined to become one of the greatest wealth-producers on the American continent.
After spending the night at Santa Lucrezia, our train was switched to the Tehuantepec National Railway the next morning, and went on to Salina Cruz, which was reached in the afternoon. At Rincon Antonio, a small place on the way, which is the highest point on the line, the railway company's general offices, workshops and hospital have been established. The climate here is pleasant and salubrious, the heat being tempered by the winds that are constantly blowing across the isthmus.
The workshops at Rincon Antonio are equipped with the most modern machinery and appliances for every possible repair to the rolling-stock and engines in use on the line. Here, as at Salina Cruz and Puerto Mexico, all the machinery is driven by electricity generated by a steam plant, crude oil being used for fuel. As at all other places where Messrs. Pearson have large works, every care has been taken here to make life as agreeable and homelike as possible for managers and employees. Comfortable modern houses have been erected for the various heads of departments, while the subordinate employees are lodged in excellent staff houses. A club-house has been built and quarters provided for a Catholic chapel and a masonic lodge. Special attention has been given to a pure and abundant water-supply. The general officers of the rail-way and the head men at the ports of Salina Cruz and Puerto Mexico are Englishmen and Americans, the latter being in the majority.
From Santa Lucrezia to the Pacific coast the line is fairly level, passing through a succession of dense forests, among low, rocky hills, across wide swamps and skirting some good grazing lands. The soil here, as in other parts of the Mexican tropics, is wonderfully fertile, and the growth of vegetation is marvellous. This bountiful aspect of nature constitutes, in fact, one of the many difficulties which con-front the managers of the railway. So rapid is the growth of the wild plants along the line that, if left to themselves, they would soon overgrow the track. Laborers have to be constantly employed in cutting down these rapid growths, and the expenditure on this amounts to a large sum in the course of the year.
I was surprised to find Salina Cruz so remarkably progressive and up-to-date, with smart new buildings, modern houses and a comfortable hotel. When the railway was first started, the site of the present town was occupied by a squalid Indian village. A new town has since been laid out, in accordance with modern ideas and sanitary principles, the dwellings being erected on higher and more healthy ground. The port is destined to become one of the most important on the Pacific coast, and is an interesting example of the progress that is taking place in this remote part of Mexico. At the back of the town is a range of hills which furnish some protection against the northers which occasionally blow from the Atlantic side of the Isthmus. One of the features of the harbor is a massive stone break-water nearly a mile in length and a dock fifty acres in extent. In former days, owing to the numerous sand-bars and the shallowness of the water., large vessels were unable to enter the port, and there was no protection against the stormy seas which occasionally sweep along the Pacific coast. Ample protection is now afforded by the great breakwater, and as the result of recent improvements the harbor now has a draught of over thirty-five feet at low tide.
Salina Cruz is becoming a very busy place. In the harbor, at the time of my arrival, were two large American steamers discharging cargoes of sugar for transportation across the Isthmus, while an English "tramp" was taking on a quantity of freight which had come across the Atlantic. Three lines of steamers touch at this port, the Kosmos Line (German) running between Hamburg and Pacific coast points of Mexico, Central, South and North America; the Pacific Steam Navigation Company (American) whose vessels call at the principal Mexican Pacific coast ports; and the new Canadian line from Vancouver. By the Kosmos line one can travel from Salina Cruz to various ports in South America, — in Chili, Peru and the Argentine, — and many travellers from the United States who wish to avoid a long sea journey to the Pacific coast of South America are now going by this route.
The wonderful improvements made at Salina Cruz have been repeated on a similar scale at Puerto Mexico on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, where the old town has been thoroughly renovated and put in good sanitary condition. Some pestilential swamps which made the place a hot-bed of yellow fever have been almost entirely filled in, and the terrible scourge is now practically obliterated. The town is situated at the mouth of a river of the same name, which is navigable for seventy miles. Great stone jetties have been constructed in the harbor, insuring an ample depth of water; extensive wharves have been built, and some good business buildings erected. Puerto Mexico is rapidly becoming a place of importance; two lines of steamers are now making regular calls there, and others are arranging to make it a port of entry.
Enormous sums have been expended in rebuilding the Tehuantepec Railway and in carrying out the improvements at the two ports. It is estimated that since the work was begun the sum of 850,000,000 has been expended, and before the harbor works are perfected about $5,000,000 more will have to be disbursed. In addition to this, 810,000,000 has been appropriated by the Mexican government, making a total expenditure on the railway and ports of about $65,000,000.
The opening up of the country, which has resulted from the successful operation of the Tehuantepec Railway, is likely to be followed by further important developments in southern Mexico. In the course of a few years it is quite possible that a line will be built to Tehuantepec from Oaxaca, less than one hundred and fifty miles distant, thus tapping one of the richest parts of the country; an-other line may possibly be built in an easterly direction through the States of Campeche and Yucatan. Merida, the capital of the latter State, is a busy city, with a population of over a hundred thousand, and is only a few miles from Progreso on the Gulf of Mexico, the nearest port to Havana and New York.
One of the great projects of American statesmen has been a Pan-American railway or direct railway route from the United States to the southernmost republics of South America. At various conferences between representatives of the United States and the South American republics this matter has been fully discussed. It is not generally known that the idea is being gradually carried out. At San Geronimo, on the Tehuantepec Railway, there is a branch line called the Pan-American Railroad which runs along the Pacific coast to Tapachula on the borders of Guatemala. This line is to be gradually extended through Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to South America, where it will connect with the lines al-ready in operation there. While at present this is rather a visionary prospect, still the world is moving rapidly, and not so many years hence it may perhaps be possible to take a train in New York for Chili and Peru via Mexico and Central America.
The Pan-American line already built has opened up the rich coffee lands in the State of Chiapas, and is gradually developing several new ports along the Pacific coast. The railway was built by an American company subsidized by the Mexican government. The completion of the line to Guatemala will probably tend to render that little republic more peaceful by bringing it under the civilizing influences of Mexico.
There is fine scenery along the Pan-American Railroad, some of the mountain peaks in that part of the country rising from eight to nine thousand feet. Near Tomala, and some eight miles from the line, are the remains of an ancient city, with temples and fortresses of cut stone, in the midst of an almost impenetrable forest. The whole State of Chiapas, through which the line runs, is filled with these prehistoric relics. Greatest of all the ruins are those of the city of Palenque, its wonderful temples and palaces being overgrown by the luxuriant tropical woodlands. There is an Indian tradition that Palenque covered an area of sixty miles; but the American traveller, J. L. Stephens, proved this to be a ridiculous exaggeration. The city was about two miles round. Several archaeologists who have visited Palenque since Stephens have fully confirmed his estimate.
Before leaving the Isthmus, I visited the city of Tehuantepec, a short trip by railway from Salina Cruz. It is a queer, straggling, ramshackle sort of place, with a population of some twenty thousand. Although it is always hot and sunny there, the heat is generally tempered by a good breeze blowing from the Pacific. It rains but seldom. Most of the low, one-story buildings in the town show the effects of earthquakes, which are not infrequent. As in all the Mexican tropical lands, none of the buildings have the solid, imposing appearance of those to be seen in the temperate zones.
Until the railway was opened, Tehuantepec was shut off from the outside world, strangers seldom going there. For this reason many quaint customs and costumes still survive, unaltered by the prosaic march of progress. The natives belong to the Zapotec tribe of Indians, and are remarkably clean. Groups of them are constantly bathing in the broad river which runs through the town, and they do not seem to share the strong antipathy for soap found elsewhere among Mexican Indians. The clothing of both sexes is generally immaculate. These Indians are very closely akin to the cleanly Mayas of Yucatan, and are believed by some authorities to be one of the remnants of the Mayan race which probably once held all Mexico before the wild, fighting tribes of Aztec type broke in from the north, driving them southward to Yucatan and Guatemala.
Nothing else betrays so quickly the social condition of a race as the status of its womankind. The difference between the Zapotec women and their uncomely, unkempt sisters of northern Mexico is almost the difference between savagery and civilization. A Tehuantepec woman is a being who has rights and can enforce them. In the market-place women conduct most of the business, as in France, while the poor, henpecked men keep in the background. The women usually hold the family purse, and it is even impossible for a man to get credit unless his wife vouches for him. They are not only shrewder and brighter but more intelligent than the men, whose position is manifestly inferior. Under these circumstances, Tehuantepec would be a blissful abiding place for the suffragettes.
Of the docility of the men I saw a most amusing instance during my visit. I stopped in the market-place to buy some fruit at one of the stands, which was presided over by a buxom young woman with keen dark eyes. She was gossiping energetically with a neighbor, while her husband was seated near by placidly smoking a cigarette. Catching sight of me, the comely Zapoteca called out sharply, " Pedro, Pedro, attend to the senor." Pedro, a big, burly fellow, came forward rather sheepishly and supplied my wants, while his wife kept an Argus eye on him. He was about to pocket the money I handed to him, but Mrs. Pedro was ready for the emergency. "Pedro," she remarked severely, "I want that cash," and the lamblike Pedro surrendered it without a word of protest. He noticed my amused expression, however, and when his better half was not looking, returned a covert smile which seemed to say, "I'm only doing this for fun; I'm not really henpecked."
The Zapotec women are famous for their beauty, cleanliness and their devotion to their homes. They are copper-colored, with smooth, coarse black hair, small brown eyes, aquiline features and fine white teeth, the face being characterized by a gentle, pleasant expression. They are rather short, well-proportioned and possess a natural grace of carriage, probably because of their habit of bearing loads on their heads. Besides being the housekeepers, they weave cloth, mats, baskets and hammocks. Their costume is very quaint and attractive. They wear a little jacket with extremely short sleeves, sometimes richly embroidered and cut rather low at the neck; then comes a short upper skirt, generally of soft linen or cotton material, and from the knees downward a second skirt of embroidery or thick lace starched very stiffly. The jacket and upper skirt are generally some shade of red or blue. They have a peculiar head-dress of coarse lace, which is arranged in several ways. On festive occasions they wind it round their necks so that it spreads out something like a sixteenth-century ruff ; while for church wear it is worn somewhat in the fashion of a French fishwife's cap.
The wealthy ladies of Tehuantepec do not wear diamonds, but adorn themselves with necklaces of gold coins, usually the large five, ten or twenty dollar gold pieces of the United States. English, French and German coins are sometimes worn, but are not considered so fashionable. The women save all their money to buy these gold pieces, which, when worn by them, present a rather beautiful appearance. Their wealth and social standing are indicated by the amount of gold they wear, and some members of the Tehuantepec smart set are said to possess necklaces worth fifteen hundred dollars and more. Even when arrayed in all this finery, very few of the Tehuantepec women ever wear shoes, most of the poor going barefooted and the better class finding sandals more comfortable.
These gentle, orderly Zapotecs might well serve as models for Mexicans farther north. They live quiet, peaceful lives, enjoying the simplest diversions, their clean, temperate habits producing the health, happiness and longevity which characterize them. Quarrels are rare, and murder is unknown. They are extremely kind to animals, and the burro or ox which serves the Zapotec is treated as a pet. Bull or cock fights are not held because public opinion is strongly against cruelty in any form. These people are passionately fond of music, and the concerts of their local band would do credit to any city.