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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXVII.
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The steamer on which our friends were embarked was a small one engaged in the coasting trade. She drew less than twelve feet of water, and was therefore able to enter the shallow harbors of some of the Mexican and Central American ports where large vessels cannot go. On the morning after leaving Vera Cruz she was off the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos River, and a little after sunrise she crossed the bar and steamed slowly against the current of that tropical stream.
Dense forests, broken here and there by clearings, covered the banks of the river, and reminded our young friends of the Menam River, in Siam, or the Me-Kong, in Cambodia. Thirty miles from the mouth of the river brought them to Minatitlan, a tumble-down village or town with a few hundred inhabitants, who are chiefly engaged in doing nothing, if one is to judge by appearances. The business of Minatitlan is not large, and is chiefly connected with trade in mahogany and other tropical woods.
The river and the town have an international importance, as they are
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 on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which has long been under consideration as the route for a canal to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. The width of the isthmus from ocean to ocean is 143 miles, but by making use of the rivers on either side the length of a canal would be little, if any, more than 100 miles. The route has been surveyed at different times, notably in 1870, by Captain Shufeldt of the United States Navy, who declared that there was no insurmountable obstacle to the construction of a ship-canal.
Recently the Mexican Government has given to an English company a concession for a railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. One of the surveyors of this company was a passenger on the steamer with our friends, who fell into conversation with him during dinner, and learned many things of interest. The engineer told them that work was to begin immediately on the railway, and they hoped to have it completed by the end of 1889.
Doctor Bronson recalled the fact that in 1842 a concession was granted
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 to Don José de Garay for the Tehuantepec Railway, but nothing was accomplished, for the simple reason that the money for the work could not be obtained. As soon as the Garay concession fell through, the United States Government offered $15,000,000 for the right of way across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but the offer was declined. During the California gold excitement a Tehuantepec transit line was established. Steamers ran between the isthmus and San Francisco on the Pacific side, and to New York and New Orleans on the Atlantic. Passengers were carried across the neck of land in stage-coaches. The enterprise proved unprofitable, and was abandoned after a few years.
What interested Frank and Fred more than anything else at this point was the suggestion that huge ships might yet be transported across the isthmus, not by canal but on a railway. Their new-found friend told them about the project of Capt. James B. Eads, an enterprising American engineer, and referred them for further information to an article in Harper's Magazine for November, 1881. With their usual good-fortune they found a copy of the magazine in the hands of the purser of the steamer. Aided by it and the points given them by the engineer, together with some from Doctor Bronson, they wrote the following while the steamer was continuing her voyage from Minatitlan.
"Any one who thinks the idea of a ship-railway here is a new one is grievously mistaken. It originated with no less a personage than the conqueror Cortez, who visited the isthmus, examined the river Coatzacoalcos,
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 made soundings, and walked across from ocean to ocean, with a view to establishing a portage by which ships could be carried overland for the commerce between Spain and the far east of Asia.
"Cortez reported favorably upon the enterprise, and suggested a broad road carefully graded by which ships could be transported on rollers or wheels from one ocean to the other. It must be remembered that the ships of his day were much smaller than those of the present time, and their transportation a hundred miles overland would not have been a very difficult matter.
"Somehow the Spanish Government did not favor the proposal sufficiently to authorize the expenditure of the necessary cash. The matter slumbered until 1814, nearly 300 years, when the Government consented to the undertaking, but the revolution then going on prevented anything like actual work on the road. The Garay Railway concession in 1842 was the next project. Three canal concessions have since been made to Mexicans and one to Americans; then came the concession to Captain Eads for a ship-railway, and last of all is the concession already mentioned for an ordinary railway to be built by an English company.
"We will remark here that if concessions would build railways Mexico would have been gridironed with them long before this. It is probable that two or three hundred concessions have been granted in the last ten years, and nine-tenths of them are not likely to go beyond the 'permission to build' which the concession grants.
"The idea of Captain Eads was that wherever a canal can be built
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 to float a ship a railway may be built to carry one. His theory was laughed at by a great many people, but has been accepted by eminent engineers all over the world who have carefully studied his plans. Like every novel scheme, it has met with much opposition, and many objections have been made to it; but they are chiefly by men whose minds are not scientific. It should be borne in mind that the steam-railway, the steam-boat, the ocean steamship, the telegraph, in fact every great enterprise of modern times, has encountered similar opposition, and in some instances has had no support even from scientific minds. Doctor Bronson says there is fair reason to believe that the ship-railway of Captain Eads will be in operation before the end of the century, and vessels of five or six thousand tons will safely pass over dry land from one ocean to the other.
Scale 1 inch to the foot.
"Captain Eads proposed to build a line of twelve rails, with a grade of not more than fifty feet to the mile at each end. The line descends into the water, to enable ships to be placed in the cradles in which they are to rest during the transit. The grade of one foot in a hundred, or fifty-two and eight-tenths feet to the mile, would carry the line to a depth of thirty feet in a length of 3000 feet. Here the ship, in a landlocked basin, will be floated to a cradle and made fast. The cradle and ship together will be hauled out by means of stationary engines on land, just as ships are hauled upon marine-railways or dry-docks.
"The cradle is an enormous platform car 300 feet long, or it may be a tank of the same length in which a ship can float. In either case it will
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 be the width of twelve rails spaced to standard gauge (4 feet 8½ inches), and will have 100 wheels on each rail, or 1200 wheels in all. This will give a pressure of five tons to each wheel, supposing the cradle to be carrying a ship of 4000 tons, which is no more than the burden of the wheel of an ordinary freight car with its load. Thus is answered the objection which has been made, and very naturally, about the enormous pressure upon the cars and road-bed. Taking the area into consideration, the pressure is no greater than that upon an ordinary railway when a loaded train goes over it.
"The cradle will be drawn along the railway by four locomotives, each of them as powerful as five ordinary freight locomotives of the Pennsylvania or other great railway company. Of course there can be no curves on the railway, as the cradle can be no more flexible than the ship. All bends on the line will be made at turn-tables; but the nature of the country is such that only two of these, or possibly three, will be needed."
The youths paused at this point to look at the drawings which showed the design for supporting the cradle on its carriage. Fred observed that the axle of each wheel was independent, and that there was a pair of springs above each and every wheel. He asked Doctor Bronson why it was so many springs were needed, as it was evident that with twelve hundred wheels there would be twenty-four hundred springs.
"I suppose," was the reply, "that it is to facilitate the change of the carriage from a level to a grade, or vice versâ. In going from an up grade to a level there would be a greater pressure at the ends than in the centre, and the same would be the case in going from a level to a down grade. The springs are intended to regulate this; the railway is intended to form an upward incline from each end towards the centre, where there will be a level of several miles."
Frank asked how fast the train, if train it could be called, was expected to run in making the transit of the isthmus with a ship.
"From eight to ten miles an hour," replied the Doctor. "Captain Eads proposed not to keep a vessel more than twelve hours out of the water, and he thought it quite likely the time might be reduced to ten hours."
Then the youths looked at the map and studied out the course of the proposed ship-railway. Frank slowly dictated while Fred jotted down the names of the places mentioned.
"The bar at the mouth of the river must be dredged out so as to admit ships, which will then find plenty of water up to a point called Ceiba Bonita, on the Uspanapan River, which runs into the Coatzacoalcos just below
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 Minatitlan. There the ship-railway will begin, and it runs in a straight line to the mountains, where there is a depression only 650 feet high. In fact there are two of these depressions, and either of them may be taken. These are the passes of Chivela and Tarifa. By the former the railway may run to the town of Tehuantepec, and there make a bend by turn-table, and continue to the Pacific Ocean; and by the latter pass it may go to Salinas Cruz, which lies on a lagoon, where a harbor must be dredged out."
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"And how much will be the cost of this great work?" one of the youths asked.
"I believe the estimate is seventy-five millions of dollars," was the reply, "including the construction of the railway and its equipment with cradles, tanks, locomotives, and everything else needed for operating the line.
"The saving of distance," continued Doctor Bronson, "for a ship going by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec instead of Cape Horn from New York to Hong-Kong is 8245 miles, and from New Orleans to Hong-Kong 9900 miles. The route from Engla............
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