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Railroads South America - Over The Andes

( Originally Published 1927 )



TRAVEL in South America goes north and south, generally speaking, and the main highways lie along the two oceans. This is due to the circumstances that most of the population dwell at the seaports and that the most fertile territory is adjacent to the coasts. Down the length of the continent stretches the high barrier of the Andes, dividing east and west by a gigantic ridge ; east of the great Cordillera, in central South America are vast, impenetrable forests and swamps.

West of the mountains is Chile, lying like a ribbon between the Andes and the Pacific, extending for almost three thousand miles from the Peruvian border to Tierra del Fuega, with an average breadth of not more than ninety miles. This country is thirty times as long as it is wide. In the north are deserts where no rain ever falls, in the south the rocky, storm-swept islands that fringe the Strait of Magellan, to the east mountain peaks towering eight thousand feet higher than Mont Blanc. Yet the most of Chile is rich in mineral deposits and arable land, and therefore along the ocean is a line of prosperous cities and thriving seaports.

Due to its peculiar topography the railroads of Chile run longitudinally through the valley between the ocean and the Andes, following trails of great antiquity. From Tacna, near the frontier of Peru on the north, rails extend almost continuously to Puerto Montt at the edge of the Gulf of Reloncavi, a distance of some 1500 miles. To connect with this main artery branch lines, averaging from 30 to 50 miles in length, have been built at thirty points running westward to the Pacific.

Three railroads have climbed from Chile across the Andes. One of these extends from the port of Antofagasta to La Paz in Bolivia, 518 miles; another runs from Arica on the northern seaboard—formerly in Peru—to La Paz, 260 miles ; the third is the great Transandine line that joins Valparaiso on the Pacific with Buenos Aires in Argentina on the Atlantic Ocean and covers 896 miles.

Railroad building began in Chile in 1852, with the construction of a road between the two important settlements of Valparaiso on the coast and Santiago inland ; cities that had formerly only been connected by a primitive cart road. The distance in a straight line was not more than 55 miles, but the mountains near the ocean rose to considerable heights and the track had to be curved; this and other delays, some of them due to revolutionary uprising, prevented completion of the through Valparaiso-Santiago railroad until 1863.

Previous to this, however, a little line had been built from the Chilean copper mining town of Copiapo to the small port of Caldera ; this was opened to traffic in 1852, and was the second oldest railroad in South America, the pioneer road being the Demarara line in British Guiana.

While the Valparaiso-Santiago railroad was being constructed a number of longitudinal roads were in process of building, most of them to serve the mining sections ; some of these were organized by English and American companies and employed English and American engineers, who were more accustomed to railroad-building than the native Chileans. These companies were afterwards taken over by the government of Chile and their lengths of track incorporated in the main trunk system that stretched from north to south.

In 1866 two Chileans, Don José Santos Ossa and Don Francisco Puelma, started out to explore the Atacama Desert in search of nitrates and other mineral salts. They crossed the foot-hills of the Andes and came upon the great wind-swept plateau beyond. Here they found what they considered a very promising prospect, and proceeded to secure from the government of Bolivia the right to exploit five square leagues of the desert and to develop four square leagues for agricultural purposes in the San Mateo Valley, near La Chimba, as the territory around what is now called Antofagasta Bay was then designated. To work this concession the Atacama Desert Exploration Company was formed and the company started to build a highroad, 75 to 90 miles in length, from the seaboard to the nitrate fields.

The company then sought a charter to build a railroad. Meantime valuable minerals were discovered, and so many emigrants pushed over the highroad to the interior that the company, unable to handle the traffic, handed the project over to the Bolivian government. Control of the road was acquired by the Antofagasta and Nitrate Railway Company. Then President Melgarejo of Bolivia, who had granted the original Ossa-Puelma concession, was driven from power and the rights he had granted were annulled by the government in 1872.

After much wrangling a new agreement was reached and work was begun on the railroad, which was to make its seaboard terminal at Antofagasta, 600 miles north of Valparaiso. The tracks had reached as far as Salinas by 1879; then Bolivia and Chile went to war. Chile won and the spoils of victory gave the whole stretch of Bolivia's sea-coast to Chile. As a result the railroad now lay within Chilean territory. Again the road changed hands, and eventually English financiers reorganized it as the Antofagasta (Chile) and Bolivia Railway Company.

With the successful development of this railroad the port of Antofagasta, which had been a small, straggling settlement, blossomed into a large and prosperous city. It was, however, impossible to ac-quire the terminal facilities needed there, and so the railroad company built another seaboard terminus at Mejillones, 37 miles to the north; this port, with its splendid land-locked bay providing protection against the southwest gales, was only brought into use in 1906, but has speedily become one of the most important shipping points on the Pacific side of South America.

The Antofagasta and Bolivia is a very interesting railroad. It carries a great volume of traffic, but its gauge from the coast to Uyuni, a distance of 382 miles, is only 2 feet 6 inches, or a little more than half the standard gauge. At Uyuni the gauge is widened to the Bolivian standard of 3 feet 3 % inches. The narrower gauge was adopted by the builders because they thought it would facilitate and lessen the cost of construction through the mountainous country. Fortunately there are no tunnels, except in the section near La Paz, and very few bridges, so that no limit is imposed on the gauge of the rolling-stock of the through road.

This railway travels over one of the highest and most formidable mountain ranges in the world, and some of the country it traverses is almost barren of vegetation, though rich in fertilizing products. The engineers, by the use of sharp curves and steep embankments, were able to avoid gigantic natural obstacles that stood in their way. Their greatest triumph was the bridging of the Loa River by a steel viaduct 800 feet long. Here the rails are carried at a height of 336 feet above the river, which is itself 10,-000 feet above the Pacific, the second greatest height of the railroads of the world, and only a few feet lower than the rails of greatest height, those of the Oroya Railroad of South America.

At Antofagasta the track is almost level with the ocean, but 225 miles inland it is some 2 1/2 miles above the Pacific. The route is a steady climb, across the nitrate country and into a waterless region. This lack of water was for long a serious difficulty, but plentiful mountain streams were discovered 40 miles from the railroad and pipe-lines were laid down over the 195 miles to Antofagasta.

The road reaches its summit at Ascotan, 13,000 feet above sea level, and 225 miles from the coast. Thence it slopes to Cebollar and skirts the largest borax deposit in the world. Crossing the frontier, it traverses the great plateau of Bolivia and bending towards the north over this table-land proceeds to La Paz, its inland terminus.

The most interesting railroad of South America is of course the Transandine, which unites the two oceans by surmounting the backbone of the continent. Chile and Argentina are divided from each other for more than two thousand miles by the Andes, which are so high and so impassable at most points by any but trained mountaineers that there has been but little commercial communication between the people on the opposite sides of the range. The two countries, extending side by side for such a length, are very different from each other in climate, in natural re-sources, in the character of their populations, and this difference is due to the great mountain barrier. In the northern part of the continent the eastern side of the Cordillera is abundantly watered by rain, the western slope an arid desert. In the southern section, however, conditions are reversed; there the prevailing winds are from the west and these winds bring rain from the Pacific that water the western or Chilean side of the Andes but do not carry moisture over to the Argentine slopes. Here therefore Chile was fertile and well populated while the corresponding section of Argentina was unproductive and scantily settled.

Few travellers in early days attempted to cross the range, but in the sixteenth century Mendoza, the Spanish governor of Peru, built a town in the Argentine foothills of the Andes where a river descended from the glaciers of Aconcagua, and this settlement, called Mendoza, gradually attracted a considerable population. Passes were discovered through the mountains and there was some going to and fro. The two countries were jealous of each other, however, and each was more interested in building up its sea-ports and trading with distant lands than in laboring on a mountain road. All the South American nations looked to the sea as the highway for their commerce and for long turned their backs on the great chain of the Andes.

Mendoza's settlement, close in the eastern foot-hills, prospered exceedingly, and it was this fact that presently attracted attention to the needs of the interior part of Argentina. Railroads were being constructed across and through the high Alps in Europe, and if the Alps could be bridged by rails, why not the Andes !

Two Anglo-Chilean brothers, Juan and Mateo Clark, both engineers, planned a cross-mountain railroad, and secured a concession from the Argentine government in 1872 and from the Chilean in 1874. The problems of construction were many and funds were scarce, so the labor was divided into four sections and the work on each was done by a separate company. The government of Chile had already built a branch line from its main longitudinal system east from Llai-Liai towards the Andes as far as Los Andes, 2733 feet above sea level. This road followed the old trail towards Juncal and The Uspallata pass by which travellers and mule-trains had crossed to Mendoza and Buenos Aires, and it was this trail that the Chilean Transandine railroad adopted for the greater part of its course from Los Andes to the frontier in the high mountains. This stretch of track, al-though short in actual distance, presented some of the main difficulties of the entire road and was the last to be finished.

Construction of the road from the frontier to the eastern terminus of Buenos Aires was in charge of three companies : the mountain section from the end of the Chilean line to the town of Mendoza was built by the Argentine Transandine Company; the section from Mendoza to Villa Mercedes by the Argentine Great Western Company; and that from Villa Mercedes to Buenos Aires by a company subsequently called the Buenos Aires and Pacific Company.

The Villa Mercedes-Mendoza section was easy to build and was opened to traffic in 1886. The Buenos Aires-Villa Mercedes link, which crossed the pampas, was ordinary railroad construction, and was completed in 1888. The difficult part was the mountain section west from Mendoza. Farther north, where the Antofagasta line was constructed, the Cordillera forms the western side of a high plateau, but as it continues south to the neighborhood of Mendoza it narrows to a single very high ridge with summits ranging from 18,000 to 23,000 feet above sea level. The Uspallata Pass had been the favorite point at which to cross the Andes, and towards this objective the Argentine builders began to lay their tracks in 1887 up the winding valley from Mendoza to the ridge, while on the other side through a shorter valley the Chilean rails advanced in 1889.

A part of the Argentine line was soon constructed and utilized for traffic. The surmounting of the ridge by rails was more arduous, and the work halted for some time ; travellers completed the transandine journey by crossing the summit on mule back or on foot, as in former times, or in vehicles driven up a steep incline. The old mule road traversed the Cumbre at an altitude of 14,500 feet, and was blocked to all ordinary travel by snow from April to October. The builders of the railroad ultimately solved the problem by driving a tunnel through the top of the Andes and so forming a junction of the Chilean and Argentine lines. This was opened in 1909. This tunnel of the Cumbre is only two and a half miles long, and much shorter than the Alpine tunnels of Mont Cenis, St. Gothard and the Simplon ; but its height, 12,000 feet above sea level, is much greater than that of those tunnels and the scenery along this upper section is of wild magnificence.

On the Chilean side of the tunnel the railroad was protected from snow by a rampart of sheds, but even so the line has freqently been blocked by great drifts and avalanches and sometimes traffic has had to be suspended for three or four months.

Yet in spite of interruption due to storms the Transandine railroad has been of great value ; Chile has been brought into close communication with the markets of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil; Buenos Aires by this route has a much shorter road to the Pacific, Australia and India ; and the distance between the ports of Europe and Valparaiso has been shortened by over 2000 miles in comparison with the former journey through the Strait of Magellan.

The transcontinental trip may commence at the seaport of Valparaiso, from which city the railroad runs through hilly, fertile country to the station of Liai Llai, the junction for Santiago. Proceeding east-ward, the hills grow higher and through intervales the peaks of the range may be seen. The Transandine railroad proper, the Ferro Carril Transandino, starts from the attractive settlement of Los Andes, and here the passengers change to cars of narrower gauge. The grades on the Chilean side are very steep and the valleys very narrow; the railroad builders found that to bore corkscrew tunnels such as those on the St. Gothard line in Switzerland would be too expensive, and therefore made use of the cog-wheel system wherever the incline was too steep for an ordinary locomotive. On the Chilean section the maximum grade is 8 per cent ; on the Argentine, where the rack or cog-wheel system is adopted in some places, the grade does not exceed 6 1/2 per cent. Up through a narrow valley the track winds as it ascends towards the peaks.

At one place, called the Soldier's Leap, the train runs along a rock shelf through a gorge above which the crags almost touch, while a torrent roars at the foot of the cliffs. Above the line of vegetation a barrier imposes itself across the valley. On the western side of this ridge is the little village of Juncal, from which the traveller in pre-railroad days used to start on foot or mule-back to climb the pass. Ahead is a primitive mule-track that zigzags up the summit. Turning at right-angles from its former eastward course, the railroad here heads through a valley to the south, crosses a torrent, shifts to the north and crawls along a narrow shelf. The grade here is very steep; tunnel after tunnel is passed until the train comes out into a wide basin, 2000 feet above Juncal. In the northern end of the hollow is a small lake, the Lago del Inca. This is a barren place, of rock and frozen water, surrounded by majestic peaks.

From the Lago del Inca the railroad makes an-other sweep, ascends another slope and reaches a still higher basin at the foot of a giant ridge. Here, 10,486 feet above the sea, is the mouth of the great tunnel of the Cumbre, and on the summit of the pass stands the bronze statue of the Christ of the Andes, a figure of more than twice life size posed on a pedestal hewn from the rock, and turned to the north so as to bless both countries with its uplifted right hand.

The tunnel of the Cumbre brings the train into Argentina, where the view is of wider valleys and smoother mountain peaks. The track follows a tor-rent that has made a course through the rocks and passes the head of a glen down which comes the sweep of the glaciers of Aconcagua, the highest of the peaks of the Western Hemisphere. Presently the valley opens into the plain of Uspallata, from where the road runs to Mendoza, an oasis in an almost water-less tract. This prosperous town lies on the edge of the pampas, and eastward the foothills of the Andes descend in gentle swells to the level country that stretches for six hundred miles to Buenos Aires.

Mendoza boasts many fine vineyards; to the east across Argentina the track runs without a curve or bridge, through desert, then pasture land, then great wheat fields ; the climate becomes moister and supplies more grass for ranching and in the region near the Atlantic the rainfall makes possible those great tracts of grain which are the pride and wealth of Argentina.



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