Home >> Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 26 >> Tao Te King to Telegraphy >> Tehuantepec


isthmus, canal, railway, miles, mexico, ship, route, vessels and rail

TEHUANTEPEC, Isthmus of, comprises that section of the Republic of Mexico within the states of Vera Cruz and Oaxaca where the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean approach nearest one another, the distance from the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River, on the east, to the port of Salina Cruz, on the west, being 143% miles. This point is one of the rare instances where a depression exists in that vast chain of mountains which extends from north to south along the western shores of both American continents. At Tarifa, the lowest point of the summit level, the altitude is but 754 feet above the sea. Cortes, searching for a safe harbor for his ships, discovered the Coatzacoalcos River, wide and deep where it empties into the Gulf, and pronounced it the finest in Mexico. Informed of the narrow strip separating the two oceans, the conqueror was evidently impressed and at once grasped the idea of inter-oceanic communication at this point. With prophetic insight and influenced by the enormous advantages which were cer tain to result to the isthmus by the construc tion of a ship canal, Cortes located a vast land grant, presented by his sovereign, in close proximity, and chose for a title 'Marquis of Tehuantepec?' His successors caused super ficial surveys of the route to be made and were convinced that no serious obstacles pre vented building a ship canal and, considering the diminutive proportions of vessels at that period, the enterprise was well within the engi neering capacity of the 16th century. It was proposed. to employ native slave labor in its construcuon. Political and strategic considera tions prevented the Spanish government from ever encouraging the enterprise. When Mexico became independent it was too much engaged in restoring order to give attention to internal improvements and it was not until 1842 that a concession for opening a line of communication by canal or railway, or both, was granted to Don Jose de Garay, a citizen of that country. Accurate surveys were made and a practicable route selected, but, for lack of financial en couragement, the concession was afterward sur rendered. Until 1852 capitalists of the United States betrayed no special interest in the enter prise, but when the permanent development of California and Oregon was assured, the im portance of more rapid communication between the East and West was quickly realized. In that year the Barnard and Williams expedition was dispatched to the isthmus to survey a route for an inter-oceanic railway. These explorers made very careful surveys of the entire route and pronounced the enterprise perfectly fea sible, but were subsequently ordered out of the country, the introduction of American capital not being encouraged by the Mexican govern ment, so soon after the war between the two countries. In 1871 the expedition under Com modore Shufeldt was dispatched to the isth mus by the United States government to make a final survey and finally determine whether a ship canal could be built over the route or not. The result of the survey was a decision

that a ship canal, capacious enough for mod ern vessels, was not practicable owing to in sufficient water supply for the upper levels. This expedition also reported adversely to the lagoons, which indent the western coast and were considered the natural location for a terminal harbor, on account of certain unfa vorable physical conditions there existing. A new location for a terminal was chosen at Sa lina Cruz, a few miles westward of the mouth of Tehuantepec River, where greater depth of water was afforded, as well as more complete shelter from the prevailing winds.

Henceforward all projects for building a ship canal over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec were abandoned, but the Mexican government readily granted concession after concession to parties, mostly Americans, to construct rail ways; but owing to powerful influences every attempt was frustrated and the liberal grants suffered to lapse or were withdrawn.

The Ends Ship Railway.— In 1883 James B. Eads, a distinguished engineer, conceived a plan for the construction of a railway over the isthmus by which vessels of the largest dimen sions could be transported by rail at a speed of 10 miles an hour. The details contemplated the deepening of the Coatzacoalcos River for a dis tance of 20 miles to the town of Minatitlan, which was to be the eastern terminus. The western terminus was to be at Salina Cruz. At these points giant pontoon docks were to be lo cated and three lines of railway of standard gauge connected the two points. As a 'vessel sailed into the pontoons it rested upon a railway carriage, secured from all strain by ingeniously contrived supports. Raised to the level of the tracks the carriage was connected to three pow erful locomotives and with its load carried across the isthmus and deposited into the sea at the other terminal. The length of the rail way was to be 165 miles, with a very substantial roadbed and with not greater than 20-mile curves. Where abrupt curves existed, they were to be avoided by turntables at five different points. Vessels in transit were thus always in a straight line. The plan after being sub jected to much criticism was at last endorsed by the highest engineering authority in the world and would probably have been built but for the death of its projector in 1887. Its cost was estimated at $75,000,000. Mexico granted 1,000,000 acres of public land in its aid. Thus for three and a half centuries every plan conceived for the attainment of communi cation over the isthmus having failed, Mexico determined upon the construction of the rail way as a national work and spent $20,000,000. Finally about 1907 the railway was opened to a length of 192 miles, but the impending opening of the Panama Canal greatly reduced its im portance,