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Railroads South America - A Railway In The Air

( Originally Published 1927 )



THE longest aerial railway in the world has been constructed in the Republic of Colombia in South America to serve the coffee trade. The town of Manizales is the centre of the district most favorable to the cultivation of the coffee bean. This town is situated in a valley through which the Cauca River flows between two ranges of the northern Andes, but although this river communicates with the Atlantic Ocean it is not serviceable for transportation. The main highway for commerce from the coast to the interior is the Magdalena River, to the east of the Cauca and flowing between the east-ern and central mountain ranges.

Transportation was a difficult problem to the coffee-growers. The coffee had to be carried by mules over the central Andes by a trail that wound zigzag up and down steep slopes to Mariquita, and thence to Honda on the Magdalena. At Honda the coffee was transferred to canoes for the voyage of 400 miles to the seaboard. Such method of transport was very expensive, and the round-trip frequently took from three weeks to a month.

Presently steamboats were introduced on the Magdalena River, a great improvement in the handling of traffic, although the boats could not go as far south as Honda, on account of rapids and difficult reaches of water. Steamboats made the river journey much more expeditiously and cheaply than canoes, and the coffee interests turned their attention to overcoming the obstacles of the trans-mountain part of the route.

A company was organized in London, the La Do-rada Railway Company, and built a standard gauge railroad from La Dorada, the terminus of the up-river steamboat traffic on the Magdalena River, along the river to Honda and on to Ambalema, where it joined the tracks of the National Railways of the Republic of Colombia. A branch line was also constructed from Honda to Mariquita, a short way inland, which is actually the river end of the cross-country trail to the Cauca Valley and Manizales. The company wanted to carry their railroad on over the mountains, since such a line connecting Manizales and La Dorada would give a tremendous impetus to the settlement of the rich agricultural land between the ranges. The engineers set to work, but speedily discovered that it was impractical to build a surface railway of less than 187 1/2 miles with the requisite grades and curves. Such a road could not be made to pay its way; and the engineers declared that the only commercially practical scheme was to construct an aerial ropeway that should follow the contour of the mountains.

Ropeways had been built in other countries, but none of such a length as the one proposed here and none that crossed such difficult territory. A German firm of contractors made a survey but were blocked by a great vertical cliff that towered above a ravine. Then an English firm took charge; their engineer, James F. Lindsay, arrived in Mariquita in 1913, set out to study the route proposed by the Germans, and decided to adopt a different road for his ropeway.

Meanwhile the district was seething with discontent. The coffee-planters were delighted with the prospect of securing quick and cheap communication with Mariquita, but the arieros, who carried the traffic across the mountains in their ox-trains and mule-trains, considered that the ropeway would put them out of business, with no work for their 10,000 animals. The arieros vowed they would destroy the new line as fast as it was built.

Lindsay the engineer argued with them, declared that the ropeway would create a bigger demand for coffee, suggested that they acquire land, plant coffee fields, and use their animals to carry their produce to the stations along the line. At this juncture the Bishop of Tolima arrived at Mariquita, talked with the engineer and with the arieros, investigated, and agreed with Mr. Lindsay that the ropeway would benefit all classes in the country. The bishop's appeal cleared up the dispute, and the arieroa agreed to help, not hinder, the new project.

The engineer returned to his survey of the mountains, a task that took him through dense forests and up wind-swept, snow-covered peaks. The native guide who went with him lost his way, and the engineer set out a second time accompanied only by his faithful dog. The country was wild and rugged, spurs branched off in all directions from the main ridge, volcanic ash stretched from the base of the mountain El Ruiz, which rose 15,000 feet high. He found a practicable route, however, and in the autumn of 1913 the building of the ropeway started.

The railway was constructed section by section, and as each was completed it was used to move forward the material required for the next section ahead. The line was divided into fifteen sections, and by this method of bringing up material much of the difficulty of hauling supplies over the roads was avoided, which lightened the labor considerably, as the roads in the mountains were either covered with huge boulders or spongy with quagmires. It was no easy task to build that ropeway; in the low altitudes the workmen moved through thick and matted vegetation, on the heights there were tremendous winds ; in some places the road was 12,000 feet high; cold and dense fogs and drenching rains added to the difficulties.

One of the tasks was to prevent the mountain-mass sliding down into the cuts made in the slopes. The engineer had an experience with this at Fresno. He was breakfasting with some of his staff in the outer room of the building where he had his office when a rumbling and then a loud roar was heard. The mountain-side was in motion. Trees and boulders swept past, and then the building began to slide sideways.

The party in the shed gripped their seats and wondered if the building would stop before it reached the edge of the cliff. The shed kept on moving; then it halted and careened over on one side. The engineer and his companions crawled cautiously to the door, managed to get this open, and peered outside. The building had halted a few inches from the cliff and they could look from the door down the steep mountain-side. By a miracle the men were safe.

The towers that carry the cable that makes the ropeway were first built of wood, with a steel tower afterwards constructed within the wooden casing. There were 378 of these towers to support the 45 3/1 miles of ropeway. The cable was of steel; 93 miles of this was used to make the two roads. In the fifteen sections of the line there were eight driving stations ; the carrier was switched from section to section by a length of steel runway and then swung on to the rope at the next section station.

At Mariquita the ropeway makes connection with the surface railroad, which allows the direct transhipment of freight. From Mariquita the ropeway rims on a steady ascent to Fresno, a distance of about 16 miles; thence it descends to Soledad, and then climbs through the main range of the mountains, making a vertical ascent of more than a mile in the course of about ten miles. From the highest point, 12,250 feet, it slopes down on the western side to the terminal station at Manizales. The completed rope-way is only about two miles longer than direct crow-flight between the two towns of Mariquita and Manizales.

The road was completed in 1922, and has given a great impetus to the coffee trade. It is used almost entirely for freight; the journey from Manizales to Mariquita takes about ten hours. Occasionally passengers make the trip, riding on a sort of saddle slung between two carriers suspended from the rope ; once a circus, with fifteen tons of animals, journeyed over the rope route. Thanks to this Dorada Ropeway the country in that mountainous district of Colombia is coming into prosperous cultivation.



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