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Trans-Isthmus Railway: third time a charm?

24 November 2018

Narrow, windy, and flat, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was always a contender for the shortest, and fastest, transit route between the Atlantic and Pacific.  Going back to Hernan Cortés, dreamers and schemers considered the possibility of digging a canal.  Technically impossible until the 19th century (the Suez Canal is a few meters longer than the 193 Km route across Tehuantepec usually considered), unloading ships in Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf coast, and reloading in Salina Cruz on the Pacific side (or vice-versa) was often a cost-effective alternative to sailing down the entire coast and “rounding the Horn”. And much safer than a passage across the narrower Straits of Darien in today’s Panama. Flat as it is, it’s also one of the windier places in the world. More on that in a minute.

After the acquisition (ok, theft) of California by the United States, contact between the Atlantic facing states and the new states in the west became a issue both for commercial interests and for the government. At their own expense, the United States built a rough log-paved road across the Isthmus, but with Mexico torn between Conservatives and Reformers in the 1850s, U.S. interests often found themselves subject to two competing Mexican governments with different customs regulations, and different shipping rates. With the Reformers gaining the upper hand, but with an empty treasury, they struck a deal with the United States.

The Ocampo-McLain Treaty of 1859 is often cited by partisans of the conservatives as “proof” that the Juarez Administration was willing to “sell out” Mexican sovereignty. However, there was nothing particularly unusual about the treaty, a 19th century free trade agreement of sorts. In return for building and maintaining a railroad across the Isthmus, and a regular yearly payment, the United States would be able to trans-ship cargo from US ports on one ocean bound for US ports on the other, without paying Mexican customs duties in the process. Misrepresented as giving the United States extra-territorial rights within the region, the treaty did specify that U.S. commercial law applied to those U.S. shipments. The only really controversial item was that under the treaty terms, U.S. military personnel and equipment could cross the Isthmus. The devil is in the details… perhaps… but it became a moot issue when the American Civil War broke out, and the treaty was never ratified.

While the American Civil War was largely found over the question of slavery, it has to be remembered that what brought the conflict to a head was the question of expanding slavery into new territories in the west. And, in that war, as a strategic advantage, the free labor northern states… with their railroads and better shipping capabilities… always had the upper hand. The lesson was clear to the victorious northerners: transportation was vital to the nation’s security. With completion of a transcontinental railroad in 1868, a mere nine years after the Ocampo-McLane Treaty was negotiated, the Trans-Isthmus railroad project seemed to be forgotten.

Except by James Eads. A self-taught engineer, Eads had made his name as one of the great engineers of all time working out how to build a bridge across the Mississippi River and working out better engines for river boats. Eads recognized the growing importance of the central United States, where the Mississippi was a vital transport network. And where did the Mississipi flow? Into the Gulf of Mexico, of course. And from the Gulf, where was the best place to ship both to the U.S. west, and to the burgeoning Asian and Pacific market? The Isthmus, of course.

Eads’ proposal was as fantastical as it was daring. Dry dock facilities and hydraulic lifts had been around for some time, and the trick was just to make them large enough to lift entire ships and set them on specially build rail cars… four tracks wide, to be pulled across the Isthmus, and and floated off the specially designed cars back into the ocean on the other side. It was feasible, and with the United States government no longer interested, Eads turned to Porfirio Díaz (a native of the region) and outside investors. Although it soon became clear that neither Coatzacoalcos (then known as Puerto México) nor Salina Cruz had the right dry dock facilities, and the ports would need massive investments in new infrastructure, Eads raised the money to begin laying tracks in 1885. And died suddenly in 1887, and the foreign investors were reluctant to put more money into the project. Porfirio eventually turned to a British-Mexican company,S. Pearson & Son, Ltd. (who had built the drainage system for the Valle de México) which more modestly finished a multi-track railway across the Isthmus… with a siding to the home of Juana Catalina Romero… a native Zapotec, and Porfirio’s first girlfriend back in the day when she was a simple cigarette girl and he a lonely young soldier.

Doña Cata, as she was known, was one of the very few natives of the region to profit from what became.. until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 an extremely profitable enterprise. A savvy business woman from a matriarchal culture, while the romance with Porfirio went by the wayside, she remained his friend and unofficial political adviser on Isthmus affairs. She had invested her modest earnings selling cigarettes in groceries, then in farms, tobacco plantations and mines. And the railroad, making her one of the wealthiest women of her era (and probably the wealthiest person in Mexico). In the capital, and during her regular trips to Europe, she dressed in the finest and latest Paris fashions, but at home, her only concession to her status was to wear diamond necklaces when going about in traditional Zapotec clothing.

Miguel Covarrubias drew some Isthmeños… waiting for their ship to come in, perhaps, back in the 1940s. It still hasn’t.

Doña Cata died in 1915, a year after the Panama Canal opened. While remembered for her generous contributions to Zapotec cultural preservation, and while the railroad still runs, nothing much has been done to improve the economic standing of the native people of the region then or since. Various projects over the last several years… a gas duct from the oil region on the east coast to Salina Cruz, and… remember the wind?…

In Eads day, it wasn’t understood that mosquitos were the carriers of tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria, but it was known that windy places were healthier.  In our day, windy places are also seen as a great please to build wind-powered generators… and a plethoria generators built mostly by Spanish corporate interests were built in the Calderón Administration, local rights be damned, running  roughshod over indigenous communities.  The foreign corporations simply ignored the local population as the reaped the financial harvest (and good press) of providing “green energy” sent elsewhere.

That the local people have never profited… not from the U.S. build road, not from the railroad, not from the wind farms, has the Isthmus’ people largely opposed to the second question on this weekend’s “consulta” (informal referendum on the incoming adminstration’s big ticket spending programs). That question asks is the government should build a new railroad… one that will take the containers on the ships built today, much too large to pass through the Panama Canal, across the Isthmus, just as the did in the old days, though not the ships themselves, as Eads proposed.



México Decide.

Celis, Gilberto.  “Del Istmo de Tehuantepec y AMLO, pecador siete veces siete, justo“, Indice Politico, 23 November 2018.

The Maritime Heritage Project: Mexico.  “Cental America Interocean Ship Railway” (2017).

Tehuantepec Interoceanic Ship Railway 1880-1887,


3 Comments leave one →
  1. historiadeturismo permalink
    24 November 2018 7:15 am

    So interesting… I ould like to read more about this. Any suggestions of books in Spanish or English? Joanna vdG

  2. roberb7 permalink
    24 November 2018 9:31 am

    One related fact; there has also been a serious dry canal project for NIcaragua. A New York engineering firm did a study sanctioned by the Nicaraguan government in 2000. Unfortunately, the project got dropped in favour of a very ill-advised canal project.

  3. norm permalink
    28 November 2018 3:43 pm,30.11,441
    The above shows surface winds, 90% of the time, it shows wind across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

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