Across South America On The Trans-andean Railroad
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE TRANS-ANDEAN RAILROAD-HOW THE TRACK CLIMBS THE ANDES--SNOWSHEDS CUT OUT OF SOLID ROCK, AND OTHER CURIOUS FEATURES OF RAILROAD-BUILDING-GROCERIES ON WHEELS, AND FREIGHT CARS WITH SAILS-A LOOK AT ACONCAGUA, THE HIGHEST OF THE ANDES-SIEGULAR FEATURES OF NATURE ON THE PAMPAS, WHERE IT SOMETIMES RAINS MUD.
ACROSS South America by railroad ; climbing over the Andes on iron tracks ; drawn through the vast pampas of the Argentine by a locomotive; joining the Atlantic and Pacific by an iron band—this is the problem which has long been agitating the Argentine and Chile, and which is now al-most solved.
As it is, the railroad is about completed. There are now less than 40 miles yet to build, and there will soon be an iron track from ocean to ocean. The railroad from Mendoza to Buenos Aires is excellent, although the distance is 654 miles; there is also a fairly good line from Mendoza nearly to the top of the Argentine Andes. I travelled on the western part of the Trans-Andean track from Valparaiso on the Pacific to within a few miles of the Argentine boundary and found it well built. At present trains are running over the Trans-Andean road three times a week, travellers being taken over the unfinished part in a day on mules or in carriages. Even old people and little children can now make the journey without much inconvenience, and during the summer there is plenty of travel. With the stops it now requires but four days to cross South America, and when the last link is joined, the trip from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires will be made in twenty-nine hours.
The Trans-Andean Railroad will be just about as long as from New York to Chicago, and it will reduce the time between Valparaiso and London by fully two weeks. It will get all the travel which now goes from the west coast around the Strait of Magellan to Europe, and Australian passengers will come from Europe to Buenos Aires, thence by way of Valparaiso, where, by a new line of steamers now proposed, they will be carried on to Australia. It takes 37 days to go from the chief ports of Chile to Europe via the Strait of Magellan. It requires about 16 days to steam from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires, while from Buenos Aires to Liverpool is about 20 days more. By the rail-road one will be able to cross the continent in less than two days, thus saving 14 days over the Strait route to the Atlantic ports, and 15 days on the voyage to Europe.
As it is now, the road is profitable in the summer, notwithstanding the enormous cost of transportation between the sections. When it is completed traffic can be carried on throughout the year. At present, during the heavy snowfalls in the Andes, passengers have to wait for days at one side or the other. This will be obviated by snow-sheds which are being cut out of the solid rock, so that the cars can go through whether it snows or not. There are 40 miles of wooden snow-sheds on one of our railroads in the Rockies. Here stone sheds will be cheaper. The Trans-Andean route, however, will not need so many sheds, nor will it have such heavy and long-lasting snows.
Crossing the Andes at this pass is not a greater railroad under-taking than crossing the Rockies. The truth is, the highest point of the road when completed will be about 200 feet lower than Marshall Pass on the Denver and Rio Grande, and less than 500 feet higher than Leadville. The Upsallata Pass, where the road goes over the mountain, is 13,000 feet high, but the tunnel will be only 10,642 feet above the sea. It will be almost a mile lower than the tunnel through Mount Meiggs on the railroad which crosses the Andes back of Lima, Peru, and more than three-quarters of a mile lower than the railroad from the sea up to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian plateau.
The building of the road offers no engineering difficulties which cannot be easily surmounted. The summit will be reached by a rack rail in the centre of the track, the cars being hauled by locomotives on cogged car-wheels, which work in these racks. The track will be about the same as that on Mount Washington or Pike's Peak, or the Righi. This cog line is a narrow gauge, while both the Chilean and the Argentine railroads which connect with it are broad gauge. The cog line is only three feet three inches wide, and transfers will have to be made at both ends of it; in this respect the plan of construction is bad. There should be one gauge from ocean to ocean, so that goods can be taken without transfer from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and vice versa.
The Trans-Andean Railroad is one of the chief scenic routes in the world. Suppose we cross the continent by it, staring at Valparaiso, on the Pacific. The city has 100,000 people, and its houses are as fine as those of any European seaport. They are built in terraces rising in the shape of an amphitheatre around a magnificent bay. There are green trees among them, and the flowers bloom all the year round. We step out of the boat on to stone wharves and are taken in a carriage to a fine two-story stone station. Here there are waiting-rooms for first- and second-class passengers. We ask for our tickets, but are told that it is yet half an hour before the train goes, and that no tickets will be sold until within fifteen minutes of starting-time. We wait, and the agent finally opens the window and gives us our tickets. We try to check our baggage, but are told that nothing is free, and that we must pay express rates on every pound. We get a receipt, however, and then cross over the track to reach the cars. We step down to do this, for the tracks are sunken and the plat-forms are level with the floors of the cars.
While we wait for the train let us take a glance at the passengers. Beside me stands a young English girl, with school books under her arm, and there are English and German merchants who are booked for Santiago. There are Chilenos, with big hats and ponchos, who have come in from the country, and Chilean women who have their faces coated with powder, looking all the more ghastly from the black shawls on their heads. There are young priests in black hats and black gowns that reach to their feet. There are Chilean military officers in gay uniforms, and black-eyed boys who are going from school to their homes in the interior.
A bell is rung before the train leaves. We skirt the harbour, pass through the fashionable suburb of Vina del Mar, and come almost at once to the foothills of the Coast Range. We pass oxen ploughing in the fields, dragging wooden ploughs through the furrows by a pole fastened to a yoke on their heads. We go by great vineyards, lemon orchards, and orange groves, and now and then stop at a village or city of flat, one-story houses. We pass over one low ridge after another, rising higher each time, until we come to the great valley in which Santiago, the capital of Chile, lies. We ride over this valley all day and then strike the second range of the Andes, with the highest peak on our hemisphere rising above us. The peak is Aconcagua. It is almost 24,000 feet high, and it touches the sky farther above the sea than any peak outside the Himalayas. The snow on its top is perpetual; the ice upon its sides never melts; while the winds that blow over it, in their everlasting march from ocean to ocean, howl at times like the skrieks of the damned.
We stop over night at Los Andes, a town in the valley of the Aconcagua river. It has about 6,000 people and is surrounded by orchards of apple and peach trees, with rich irrigated gardens lying high up in the mountains. From here the railroad has been extended to Salto del Soldado, where you take mules or stages to go over the pass. The end of the road is about as high as the top of Mount Washington, and from there on, the route is exceedingly steep. The country is wild in the extreme. Much of the mountain region is nothing but a desert of rocks and snow, inhabited only by condors, with here and there a guanaco, resembling a species of wild llama. We cross the Puenta del Inca, a wonderful natural bridge, near which there are hot springs of crystalline water, and enter the Valley of Death, or Cuevas Valley, where are skeletons of mules and oxen, the re-mains of the dead from the droves which to the number of thou-sands are annually driven across the mountains. As you rise to the high elevations you are fortunate if you do not have " soroche," or mountain sickness, and you are glad when you have passed the cumbre or summit, and are on the railway which takes you down to Mendoza, in Argentina.
From Mendoza to Buenos Aires is about as far as from New York to Cleveland. The road is one of the older of the Argentine lines. Its cars are not uncomfortable: they are built somewhat after the Mann boudoir order, with little apartments running through them, reached by an aisle outside. Each apartment has four berths, two upper and two lower. During the daytime the upper berths are put up and you sit on the lower benches facing your follow-passengers. At night the bedding is brought into the cars from the baggage coach, and one's bed is made tip by the porter.
Most of the sleepers have travelling bars on them. Th 2 bar is in the baggage-car. It is furnished with all kinds of liquors, and you can get anything from champagne to cognac and from apollinaris to beer. There is a little stove in the car, on which the porter makes coffee, and brings it to you in the morning be-fore you are out of bed. He charges you about eight cents for a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a little butter, which is quite cheap enough. Most of the other meals are taken at the stations, about thirty minutes being allowed for breakfast or dinner; the violent ringing of a bell announces the starting of the train. The sleeping-cars are more plainly furnished than ours, and the bedding is not so good.
In commenting one day on the lack of fine furniture, an English railroad manager told me that the Argentine companies find that it does not pay to make extravagant cars, for it is difficult to keep them in order. Said he: « You would be surprised at the wanton damage that is done by passengers. Many of the Argentines are born iconoclasts. They use their diamonds to scratch their names on the mirrors and plate-glass windows. 'Some of them get into bed with their boots on, and others are filthy in the extreme. We have to watch things closely or they would be stolen or destroyed. Why, we have had passengers throw blankets out of the windows, merely as a matter of fun, and we have so many such losses that we now take stock at the close of every run."
Nevertheless, Argentina is well equipped with railroads. It has more roads than any other of the South American Republics, and it is now building many new lines. There are 11,000 miles of railroad in operation. Three years ago there were not more than 9,000 miles. The roads, moreover, are growing better every year; they are chiefly in the hands of private parties, the government having practically relinquished its idea of controlling them. It is different in Chile, where the roads are also good, although they are not more than one-fifth as extensive—that is in length of lines. The Chilean government seems to be gradually acquiring the old roads and is also building new ones.
There is no place in the world where it is easier to build a railroad than on the Argentine pampas. The land for hundreds of miles is perfectly level and so solid that but little ballast is needed. One of the chief expenses is the ties, for there are no trees on the pampas, and all kinds of lumber must be imported. Many of the ties come down the Paranâ river from Paraguay. The favourite kinds are of quebracho and other hard woods, which are so heavy that a single tie will often weigh 200 pounds. The wood is so hard that spikes cannot be driven into it without first boring holes for them. After the rails are once fixed, it is impossible to draw the spikes out.
Most of the Argentine railroads are in the hands of the English. Some have been built, much like our roads, at heavy capitalization, and with their ups and downs on the stock market. It is safe to say, however, that more than half a billion dollars have been spent in constructing railroads through the Argentines. In 1896 the capital stock of the roads footed up over $510,000,000, and their gross receipts were more than $31,000,000, while the expenses were not more than $16,000,000. This left a profit of $15,000,000 in gold for the year, or about three per cent on the total amount spent in constructing them. The average profits of the better roads were high, while many of the others had deficits, not dividends. Most of the roads are of the English broad gauge, that is wider than any of our roads at home. The steel rails now being used by the Southern Railway weigh 74 pounds to the yard. They are imported from England, whence most of the rolling stock has been brought, although the chief comp mies have now their own shops and are making cars. There are a few Baldwin and Rogers engines in use, but these are chiefly on the government lines.
Italians are the chief workmen on the Argentine railroads. The work is done by contract, one Italian taking a gang and doing his work by the job or by the yard. On a road in Patagonia which I visited I found twenty gangs, each containing ten men, laying tracts; they were given so much per mile. The workmen lived in tents along the railroad, and they were sup-plied with provisions from a provision car. The provision car is an odd feature of railroad building in this part of the world. It is called a provideria; it is, in fact, a little department store on wheels. The car is fitted up with shelves upon which are clothes, tobacco, liquors, groceries, and in short everything that the men can possibly want. It is in charge of a store-keeper, who furnishes goods to railroad men at the lowest possible rates. The company supplies the 'goods and pays all the bills. It keeps about $8o,000 worth of goods in stock, and sells them to its men at a profit of about three per cent. It puts the goods at such prices that the men can buy more cheaply than at the stores. For instance, good Italian wine is sold for about forty cents of Argentine money a quart; this is less than fifteen cents American. Beef costs about four cents a pound, and clothing proportionately cheap. Among the curious things I saw in one of these cars were London jams and Indian Chutney. I also saw olive oil, macaroni, and all kinds of crackers.
I was interested in the track-layers and visited them in their camps. They tell me that a man can live by using the « provideria » on about twenty cents a day, and that their average wages are about $25 gold per month; many of them save $18 a month out of the $25. The men complained that their tents were too small. They were of the A shape and so small that only four cots could be placed in each tent. Five men I found, however, were allotted to a tent, and so one had to sleep on the ground.
One of the chief discomforts of railroad-riding in the Argentines comes from the winds; it blows on the pampas at times with all the force of a Kansas blizzard. I am told that while the road from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was building the cars were sometimes blown off the track, and that it was customary to put sails on the freight trains and allow the wind to push them along over the rails. This, however, I doubt, as I do other tales told here in this land of luxury, laziness, and lying.
I do not doubt, however, the stories as to the dust. There is no land where the dust blows more than in Argentina. Its dust-storms are heavier than our snow-storms; they sometimes stop the cars, filling the grades and cuttings so that a plough is often needed to get through. During a dust-storm a few years ago it took 2,000 men a week to clear the track on one of the roads. Such storms sometimes obscure the sun, and if rain comes while the dust is in the air it brings with it a shower of mud which paints the houses, fences, and everything with a sticky mass. If the rain continues, the wood is scoured clean by the mud, but if not, it is left in a most deplorable condition. I have heard of dust-storms that have filled the floors of the cams, the dust being so fine that it went through the windows and doors, and I know to my sorrow that such a storm will coat your face and clothes in ten minutes and make white man and Indian, African, and Caucasian of the same gray complexion. It will cause your lips to crack and dust your tongue so that you feel as though you had been biting into one of the apples of Sodom and had gotten therefrom a mouthful of ashes.