Modern history


To the Halls of Montezuma

One of the overlooked chapters of transcontinental railroading is the close relationship between the spreading American network of rails and American promotions for railroads in Mexico. Western railroad promoters saw little reason why the trade and mineral riches of the Southwest should stop at the U.S.-Mexican border. Mexico was an economic magnet just as Santa Fe had been a generation earlier, and the farther south one went, the shorter the distance to the Pacific.

Mexico’s skepticism toward these overtures was based in part on its continuing resentment of the expansionism of President James K. Polk and the Mexican-American War. In the war’s aftermath, some members of Polk’s cabinet wanted to extract much more land from Mexico than the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted—at least the next tier of provinces of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. The Gadsden Purchase belatedly acquired enough of Sonora and Chihuahua to affirm American control of the 32nd parallel route, but that did not stop railroaders from looking farther south.

Another section of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the United States rights to a railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the right to intervene militarily to protect it. The Panama Canal ultimately superseded this railroad project, and the less-than-neighborly provision of the treaty was removed as part of the Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s. Its original inclusion, however, demonstrates just how strongly some in the United States coveted Mexican routes and trade.

Mexico’s first railroad venture was completed in 1873, thirty-six years, numerous false starts, and several civil wars after the first paper charter was granted. Named the Mexican Railway, it ran from Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico and climbed 260 miles up steep grades into the bowl of Mexico City at more than 7,000 feet. The tenure of Benito Juárez as Mexico’s president provided relative stability for the undertaking, and its construction instilled a sense of national pride after recent instabilities. It also encouraged American promoters to lobby the Mexican Congress for their own franchises.1

At the front of the charge—as he had not been at Chickamauga—was ex-general William S. Rosecrans. From 1868 to 1873, American railroading in Mexico was synonymous with his name. Initially U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Rosecrans discussed the Mexican Railway’s progress with Juárez and became convinced that Mexican railroads were “a promising field for American capital.” He enthusiastically advocated construction of American railroads to the U.S.-Mexican border and the extension of two or three lines into central Mexico. After his recall by President Grant—the two were never more than nominal allies, and Grant had in fact relieved Rosecrans after Chickamauga—Rosecrans remained committed to promoting American railroads in Mexico.2

His first effort was to appoint agents to petition the Mexican Congress for a concession for a Mexican version of a transcontinental line, running from Tampico or Tuxpan on the Gulf Coast, north of Mexico City, and westward to the general vicinity of Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast. Branch lines would connect south to Mexico City and north at least as far as Querétaro, perhaps all the way to the Rio Grande.

When an initial concession between Mexico City and Tuxpan was approved in December 1870 after lengthy debate, the only subsidy offered by the Mexican government was a grant of public lands. Unlike the United States, however, government ownership of lands in Mexico was fraught with uncertainty. The central government had lost control of any semblance of a public domain during various revolutions, and any attempt to reassert itself was likely to fuel renewed unrest.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans scoured the United States in search of capital to build the venture if more favorable terms could be negotiated. Among those he approached were many of his Civil War comrades, but he did not make much progress until J. Edgar Thomson suggested that Rosecrans contact William Jackson Palmer. Here was a strange turn of events. The major general who had commanded an army called upon a man seventeen years his junior who had been a young regimental commander assigned to Rosecrans’s headquarters at Chickamauga.

Palmer and Rosecrans met in Denver on Thanksgiving Day 1871. The Tuxpan-to-Pacific line was not of much interest to Palmer, but he seized upon the second phase of a branch line north to Querétaro and ultimately to El Paso, which at that point Palmer intended to make the destination of his one-year-old Denver and Rio Grande.

In the spring of 1872, with the Rio Grande only recently arrived in Colorado Springs and still far from El Paso, Palmer made the first of many trips to Mexico. That Palmer chose to break away from his new Colorado enterprises is a testament to his long-range vision for the Rio Grande and the importance he placed on north-south traffic between the United States and Mexico.

Queen Palmer, who never enjoyed robust health, accompanied her husband as he chose to reconnoiter the western end of the proposed transcontinental line. Along with General Rosecrans, they landed at Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast, and while the gentlemen of the party rode horseback, Queen endured a jarring, monthlong coach ride to Mexico City. The journey provided Palmer firsthand evidence of Mexico’s need for railroads, but it also gave him a taste of the country. On a subsequent reconnaissance north of Mexico City without Queen, he had an encounter with bandits and was grazed in the arm by one of their bullets.

But Palmer had already proven himself a steady field general who was not easily turned away. His bigger problem was that Rosecrans was having a difficult time winning suitable modifications of the franchise. Unrealistic time schedules, irrevocable performance bonds, uncertain terrain, and the lack of a cash subsidy all left the venture looking very risky. But one of the biggest problems was an argument over gauge. The Mexican Railway had been built in standard gauge (1.435 meters), and while Palmer could recite his litany of reasons for the narrow gauge, many in Mexico were opposed to mixing gauges because of the problems it posed for a unified national system.

The Palmers left Mexico in May via Veracruz and sailed for New York, leaving Rosecrans to pursue the concessions. Part of their rush was personal. Queen was pregnant and would give birth to their first child, a daughter, later that fall at her father’s home in Flushing, Queens. Palmer was in Colorado at the time attending to railroad and land business, but by December he was back in Mexico City checking on Rosecrans’s progress.3

Juárez was dead by then and had been succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. The new president proved no friend of the narrow gauge, but complicating the negotiations further was the fact that Rosecrans and Palmer no longer had the field to themselves.

Their aggressive competitor was Edward Lee Plumb, another ex-diplomat and former chargé d’affaires of the American legation at Mexico City. Plumb represented a group of American investors backing a line reaching southward, the International Railroad of Texas. It not only proposed to build a main line from Laredo on the Rio Grande to San Blas on the Pacific, with the requisite branch to Mexico City, but to do so in standard gauge. Plumb was convinced that “Mr. Lerdo is taking a deep interest in our project.”

On January 2, 1873, the day after Lerdo officially inaugurated the Mexican Railway between Veracruz and Mexico City, Palmer wrote Queen that despite Rosecrans’s cheery optimism, Lerdo “is opposed to our gauge and wishes the old concession to die.” While Rosecrans fancied himself the consummate and persuasive diplomat, Palmer was slowly coming to a different conclusion. “The General as usual has been constantly led on by his hopes,” Palmer confessed to Queen. “Evidently we should have had someone here all along. If the good old Indian, Juárez, were still in office it would no doubt be very different.”4

Palmer conducted his own round of lobbying but found it frustrating. “This business in Mexico is the most complicated and embarrassed that I have ever been connected with in the civil line,” Palmer told Queen, before recounting that among his visitors had been the German minister to Mexico, who “wanted to know all about this Railway war, which is turning the Halls of the Montezumas upside down.” Palmer claimed the German left “unreservedly for us and the ‘Narrow Gauge,’ ” but the votes were with Lerdo and the Mexican Congress.5

Once more, Palmer left Mexico for a whirlwind of travel to Philadelphia, Colorado, and then back to Flushing for Queen’s birthday before leaving again on April 10, 1873, for his third trip to Mexico within a year. This time the growing friction with Rosecrans boiled over. Finding that Rosecrans had done little but alienate Lerdo’s government with reams of tactless correspondence, Palmer dressed down his former commander for his incompetence.

In a huff, Rosecrans offered his resignation, and Palmer called what may have been his bluff by immediately accepting it. “General Rosecrans, I am happy to say,” Palmer reported to Queen, “left this morning for U.S.A. It is a great relief, as he appeared lately to have lost the power of correct judgment on men and things.” His onetime lieutenant did not see Rosecrans off on the train to Veracruz.

Palmer tried to reverse the fortunes of the narrow gauge, but he soon realized that it was hopeless and returned to the United States. At the end of May 1873, the Mexican Congress finally cancelled Rosecrans’s original concession and awarded a franchise to Plumb’s International Railroad of Texas for a standard gauge line. Plumb’s victory was short lived, however, as the panic of 1873 soon brought most railroad construction to a halt. Palmer turned his attention to saving his Colorado enterprises, but he was far from finished in Mexico.6

The panic of 1873 stalled rail prospects in Mexico, but it did not blind American promoters to potential there. Even before the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe arrived at Deming, William Barstow Strong was hedging his bets against Huntington’s heavy-handed tactics. As early as November 1878, Strong dispatched the trusted Ray Morley to run a survey from Deming to Guaymas, Sonora, on the Gulf of California. It was part of Strong’s multiple front against Huntington and the Southern Pacific. He intended to acquire a share of the California and Pacific trade no matter what stone walls Huntington erected on the Southern Pacific’s main line west of Deming.

By now, Porfirio Díaz was president of Mexico. After running unsuccessfully in prior elections against both Juárez and Lerdo, Díaz used opposition to another four-year term for Lerdo as a rallying cry to come to power in 1876. While Díaz would stand by his own one-term pledge in 1880 and momentarily sit out a term, he would nonetheless be reelected in 1884 and preside over Mexico as its presidential strongman for another twenty-six years.

Díaz’s terms of office were very significant to railroad construction in Mexico. After the short tenures and accompanying chaos of past governments, Díaz actively promoted a sense of national unity and relative economic stability. High on his priorities were settling Mexico’s nagging foreign debts and encouraging renewed outside investment in Mexico’s infrastructure. American railroads looking south were the immediate beneficiaries.

William Barstow Strong went to Mexico City in the fall of 1880 and negotiated with Díaz for a charter and subsidy for the proposed Sonora Railway between Deming and Guaymas. He won a ninety-nine-year concession and a promised cash subsidy equivalent to $11,270 per mile. To avoid lengthy shipments via Kansas City or meddling by the Southern Pacific with construction traffic over its line, Strong arranged for the rails and rolling stock for the Sonora Railway to be delivered to Guaymas. He also put Ray Morley in charge of building the line northward from there.

King William, the horse that Morley was supposed to have ridden to death in the race to the Royal Gorge, was with him. “William is looking as well as ever,” Ray reported to Ada. “I took a ride over the work with him yesterday. He seemed to know me as well as ever and rather enjoyed my riding him again.”

During 1881, Morley’s construction progress convinced Huntington that the Santa Fe was serious about intruding upon, if not outright paralleling, portions of his southern line, and Huntington granted the Santa Fe trackage rights between Benson and Deming. That matter resolved, Strong incorporated the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad to bridge the 90-mile gap between Benson and Nogales on the U.S.-Mexican border.

A silver spike was driven at Nogales on October 25, 1882, to complete the 260-mile Sonora Railway section and open a continuous 1,700-mile Santa Fe line from Kansas City to Guaymas. At the time, it was the longest railroad segment in the world under one management, albeit with a portion dependent upon Southern Pacific tracks.

The Sonora Railway did not prove profitable for the Santa Fe—there wasn’t enough internal Mexican trade to support it, and through traffic to the Pacific still gravitated to mighty San Francisco and not lowly Guaymas. Consequently, the line did little to counter or circumvent the head-on fights between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific in California, although it would later figure in them as a bargaining chip.

But Strong’s Boston crowd of backers was not persuaded against Mexico. In February 1880, two and one-half years before the completion of the Sonora Railway, they also incorporated the Mexican Central Railway to build from El Paso south to Mexico City along essentially the same route that had been initially sought by Rosecrans and Palmer. This intended route into Mexico figured heavily in the Santa Fe’s plans when it split its main line south from Albuquerque at Rincon, New Mexico, and headed toward both Deming and El Paso. 7

But the Santa Fe was not alone in its drive toward Mexico City. Despite his many ventures in Colorado, William Jackson Palmer was back in the hunt for a Mexican line. This time employing an agent defter than General Rosecrans had proven, Palmer secured a concession from Díaz to build a narrow gauge from Laredo south through Monterrey, Mexico, to Mexico City, a distance of 840 miles.

The southern half of Palmer’s proposed Mexican National Railway ran roughly 75 miles east of the Mexican Central’s survey, and Palmer received his concession just two days before the Santa Fe–backed Mexican Central started construction north from Mexico City. For a time, it looked as if there could be quite a race between Palmer’s crews and their old nemesis from the Santa Fe, Ray Morley, who had been called upon to work as chief engineer of the Mexican Central.8

To no one’s surprise, there was another well-known name in the contest. Jay Gould also had his hand in Mexico. In December 1880, Gould acquired control of the International Railroad, by then renamed the International and Great Northern, as part of his growing collection of Midwest railroads. Palmer had been counting on the International’s railhead at Laredo as his gateway into Texas. Gould, in turn, wanted Palmer’s Laredo–Mexico City concession outright. The general, who was fighting Gould in Colorado about that time, was not inclined to do business with him on either front.

So, in June 1881, Gould secured a concession from Díaz for yet a third Rio Grande to Mexico City line—this one to run southward from Eagle Pass, Texas. Palmer started construction south from Laredo on his planned route about the same time. Gould attempted to interest Boston investors in his Mexican route, but many of them were already involved with the Santa Fe’s plan for the Mexican Central. Gould made plans to proceed on his own but found himself stretched a little thin given his other interests.9

Meanwhile, Palmer laid track east from Laredo to Corpus Christi, Texas, in an attempt to circumvent Gould’s control of the International and Great Northern and pushed railheads forward at both ends of his line—south from Laredo and north from Mexico City. The Mexican Central was building between El Paso and Mexico City with equal determination.

The truly amazing thing about these Mexican railroad ventures by American promoters is that the most frenzied activity occurred concurrent with a similar burst of construction throughout the American West. The year 1881 was the high-water mark of western railroad construction. The Santa Fe reached Deming and hurried the Atlantic and Pacific west from Albuquerque; the Southern Pacific raced to Sierra Blanca and barely paused before continuing toward New Orleans; the Denver and Rio Grande surmounted Marshall Pass and clawed its way toward Utah; Gould was everywhere from the South Park at Leadville to the Texas and Pacific’s own line to New Orleans.

It was no wonder that the Denver Tribune quoted Alexander Hunt of the Denver and Rio Grande as boasting that the railroad had more men on its payroll than the United States Army. Of the approximately thirty-two thousand total, three or four thousand were at work in New Mexico, five or six thousand in Colorado, three or four thousand in Utah, and nineteen thousand or so in Mexico.10

Palmer’s Mexican National built south from Laredo and slowly climbed over comparatively easy ground to reach Monterrey in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental by September 1882. The standard gauge rails of the Mexican Central made similar progress south from El Paso to Chihuahua. Construction out of the bowl of Mexico City was another matter.

The Mexican National climbed from an elevation of 7,700 feet at Mexico City to 10,000 feet at Salazar, 25 miles to the west, over 4 percent grades. For a time, it seemed as though Palmer’s devotion to the narrow gauge was well founded and that Palmer was winning the race against Ray Morley and the Mexican Central.

But that was not to be. On January 3, 1883, about 200 miles south of Chihuahua, Morley was riding in a carriage with his engineering party as they arrived at their campsite. The driver’s rifle was leaning against the front seat. Morley called the man’s attention to it as unsafe and may have reached to take it from him. Somehow the rifle discharged, and the bullet struck Morley in the heart. He was dead at thirty-six.

One of Morley’s prized possessions was a gold-plated Winchester rifle that William Barstow Strong had given him in appreciation of Morley’s dogged ride from Pueblo to Cañon City to stake the Santa Fe’s claim to the Royal Gorge. Many accounts say that this rifle was involved in the fatal accident and that Morley was showing it to an admirer. The Morley family history claims otherwise, and it seems unlikely that Morley would have had the trophy with him in the field.

Ada was in Chicago when she got the news and hurried to Cimarron for the funeral. She was left with three small children. The tributes flowed across the Santa Fe system and the Southwest. The American Society of Civil Engineers called Ray Morley “one of the most able and active of the men who have been identified with the great works of railroad extension in the Southwest, and probably none had the promise of a brighter future.” The Kansas Pacific, Mule Shoe Curve, Raton Pass, the Royal Gorge, the 35th parallel west from Albuquerque, the line to Guaymas, and the Mexican Central—William Raymond Morley had left his mark on them all.

The Mexican Central went on without Ray Morley and completed its line between El Paso and Mexico City early in 1884. By then, the Mexican National had a gap of about 385 miles yet to be built. And the gap would remain for a long four years. Palmer and his associates had simply taken on too much debt, flung a network far too wide, and failed to account for the lack of local revenues along those sections that were completed. Palmer learned firsthand what one of Jay Gould’s engineers had reported to Gould, “that so far as he could see, there was no business there for a railroad.”11

Palmer suspended interest payments on the construction bonds and fought off receivership for three years until a foreclosure agreement in 1887 resulted in a new entity, the Mexican National Railroad Company. On September 29, 1888, the Mexican National Railroad was finally completed over the 840 miles between Laredo and Mexico City. Palmer remained on the board of directors until 1891, but by then the general had long refocused his main activities back in the mountains of Colorado.

The Mexican Central had better luck. Once again, the seasoned management, solid revenue stream, and deep pockets of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe made the difference. With 1,224 miles of track between El Paso and Mexico City, the Santa Fe system could not compete with through passenger service between Chicago and the Mexican capital. (The Santa Fe–Mexican Central connections via El Paso took 128 hours versus a time of 88 hours from Chicago through St. Louis and Laredo on the Mexican National.) But even then, the real revenues were on the freight side, and as the growing Mexican economy slowly disproved the skepticism of Gould’s engineer, the standard gauge rails of the Mexican Central began to haul more traffic more efficiently than the narrow gauge Mexican National. Compounding the problem of capacity was the difficulty of transferring freight to and from the standard gauge lines on the Texas border.

In the end, the Mexican National learned what Palmer was forced to come to grips with in the Colorado Rockies. On all but the most rugged of branch lines, narrow gauge for railroads in the United States and Mexico was an idea that came and went very quickly. The three-foot rails of the Mexican National lasted little more than twenty years. Between 1901 and 1903, its original track was torn up and relaid with standard gauge rails. About the same time, the Mexican government began to acquire substantial interests in both the Mexican National and the Mexican Central, and by 1908 the roads were among those merged into a new entity, the National Railways of Mexico.12

For the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Mexican Central was never a big moneymaker, but it did extend the road’s continental reach. Even without the Mexican Central, the Santa Fe by the mid-1880s could boast of three routes to the Pacific: the first via the Atlantic and Pacific across northern Arizona and Needles; the second west from Deming across the Colorado River at Yuma (albeit subject to the whims of the Southern Pacific); and the third, over the Sonora Railway to Guaymas. What one might do there except wait for an occasional ship was another matter.

The latter two routes made for good marketing copy in boasting of “three ways to the Pacific,” but the reality was that the destiny of the Santa Fe was increasingly tied to its Atlantic and Pacific line via Needles into California. There was more of California to be had, and soon much of the country would be clamoring for a stake in it.

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