HENRY MEIGGS WAS A SCOUNDREL who made good building railroads. When he arrived in Chile in 1855, he was a 44-year-old outcast who had fled San Francisco amid accusations of fraud, but by the time he died 22 years later, this handsome, larger-than-life character had been honored with the unofficial title of “Don Enrique.” By then, he had conquered some of the world’s most difficult railroad terrain—the seemingly impossible slopes of the Andes—for which he also earned the nickname “Yankee Pizarro,” after the Spanish conqueror of the Incas.
In his youth, Meiggs demonstrated a remarkable capacity for hatching imaginative schemes, but he was never entirely honest—if a venture failed, he was not above lying and manipulating others to avoid being exposed. He had an early success in the lumber business, setting up his own company in New York City and relocating to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. After that he went into property and developed land near the Golden Gate, but he soon fell into debt and only avoided bankruptcy by raising cash with illicitly obtained warrants. When his fraud was discovered, he fled to Chile, where his devious reputation preceded him. The only work he could find was overseeing a gang of laborers building the railroads, but he proved to be so efficient that he was soon given charge of entire railroad projects. Two of his predecessors, a New Englander named William Wheelwright and the great Richard Trevithick (see Richard Trevithick), had dreamed of building lines inland from the west coast of South America, but it was Meiggs who finally built them. This achievement had enormous consequences for the region, for it opened up vast deposits of copper, silver, and minerals for exploitation, and made fortunes for Chile and Peru.
To help him with construction, Meiggs engaged engineers who shared his own daring outlook on the fearsome terrain. His first big success came with the laying of a 90-mile (145-km) line from the Pacific coast to San Fernando, which involved bridging the Maipo River, previously a major obstacle separating north and south Chile. On completing the line faster than his contract required, Meiggs successfully bid for the most important route in the country—from Valparaiso, on the west coast, to Santiago (the capital), a mere 55 miles (89km) inland as the crow flies, but in practice 115 miles (185km) due to the mountainous terrain. Wheelwright had begun the route, but after spending a million pesos (or tens of thousands of dollars) only 4 miles (6.5km) had been completed by the time Meiggs took over. To finish the route, the government borrowed money from Barings Bank of London, and Meiggs did a speedy deal with the Minister of the Interior, promising to complete the route in three years for six million pesos—so long as he received an additional half million pesos if he finished early, plus an extra 10,000 pesos for every month gained. Backed by a workforce of 10,000 men, Meiggs completed the line in just two years and three days, a triumph that proved his astonishing capabilities both as a contractor and a negotiator.
Having thus “conquered” Chile, Meiggs moved on to even bigger projects in Peru, a country that was just striking it rich thanks to its enormous deposits of guano, or bird droppings, which made an excellent fertilizer. Understandably, Peruvians wished to use their new-found wealth to build a railroad system that would unify the country, just as the Belgians had done forty years earlier (see Belgium), and as the Canadians (see Canada) and the Italians (see Italy) were doing at the time. For that reason Meiggs was welcomed with open arms—or open palms, in the case of the ruling class, who demanded huge amounts of money in bribes.
Meiggs’s big opportunity came as the result of an episode that was typical of Peru’s dramatic political history. In 1868, Colonel José Balta, the type of buccaneering officer often found in South America at the time, was elected president. Immediately after his election, Peru suffered a devastating earthquake, and Meiggs cannily donated $50,000 to the government, or rather to Balta personally, ostensibly for crisis relief. Balta had already upset the local oligarchy by giving a French company a monopoly on the sale of guano, and now he used money raised by the deal to pay another foreigner—Meiggs—to build Peru’s railroads. And so, in the three years following Balta’s election, Meiggs signed six contracts to build over 1,000 miles (1,600km) of railroads, on terms that were highly favorable to him. The result was that, having had a mere 61 miles (98km) of track in 1861, Peru had 947 miles (1,524km) by 1874, and nearly 2,000 miles (13,200km) by 1879, two years after Meiggs’ death.
Meiggs built two lines in Peru, and both are wonders of the railroad world. The first runs from the southern port of Mollendo to Arequipa, Peru’s second-biggest city, and then up to Lake Titicaca and the mining area of Juliaca. Meiggs estimated that it would cost him 10 million soles to build it (around $300 million today), and then told the government that it would cost 15 million, and proceded to build it for 12 million (and even completed it early). The second line, the Central Peruvian, rises from Callao, the port of Lima, up through the steepest and highest sections of the Andes, following precipitous llama paths to the copper mines of Huancayo and the fabled silver mines of Cerro de Pasco.
Unfortunately, the lines were built at a time of great financial turmoil. As the country’s guano ran out, so the supply of money from the government dried up, and Meiggs was forced to use his own bills of exchange—the so-called “Billetes de Meiggs.” Sadly, too, Meiggs died during construction, but by then he had shown how it was done, and had conquered the steepest slopes. He followed the British idea of zig-zagging railroads uphill (see Going Uphill), but did so on an unprecedented scale. In India, the British lines reached 2,500ft (760m)—Meiggs’s trains scaled mountains over 14,000ft (4,250m) high, and zig-zagged 25 times in a matter of 100 miles (160km).
Being a foreigner, Meiggs was an easy scapegoat for Peru’s economic woes, one journalist even writing that the “the ruin of Peru is the monument [to] Henry Meiggs.” However, he was mostly considered a hero, and one of the country’s highest peaks was soon named after him. His success was due not only to his ability to find the best route for a railroad, but also to his formidable organizational skills and his ability to bring out the best in his workers. One Peruvian journalist described his “railroad army” battling the elements:
The “army” (distributed along the line in eleven camps), consisting of Don Enrique’s engineers and labourers, was attacking the Andes. The scouts went ahead to determine the best and least costly route; the advance guard followed in their tracks, staking out the exact route to be followed; next came the main body, levelling the barriers, making fills and cuts and piercing tunnels; lastly, there was the rear guard, putting down ties and laying rails.
Meiggs was famously generous to his workforce, particularly the rotos—the much-feared, much-despised, Chilean working class. According to James Fawcett, in Railways of the Andes, a typical roto was notorious: “for his hardihood, his skill in the handling of the sharp, curved, disembowelling knife that all his tribe carried, his hatred of any sort of discipline, his love of cane sugar as a beverage and his addiction to gambling.” Meiggs succeeded by treating his workers as men rather than slaves, and he was even more successful with the 5,000 Chinese workers he hired and who were normally treated worse than the rotos. (see rotos). According to one observer, quoted by Fawcett: “some of them were fat, the only fat Chinese in the country! Meiggs fed them well with rice and beef in plenty and a good breakfast of bread and tea before starting the day’s work.”
Toward the end of his life, Meiggs wanted to return to the US, claiming that he had repaid his San Francisco debts, but the governor of San Francisco vetoed a bill that was passed to exonerate him from his offences. In 1977, a century after Meiggs’s death, the California Supreme Court quashed the indictment against him, declaring that he “had gone to a higher court,” but his death was not the end of his family’s influence. His nephew, Minor C. Keith, went on to complete a railroad his uncle had started in Costa Rica. Its major source of income was carrying bananas, and Keith went on to found United Fruit, the colossus that dominated the sale of bananas for a century.