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THE dream of uniting North and South America by a convenient means of overland communication has long been popular. At first those who entertained this vision looked to the railroad for its fulfilment. In recent years, however, hopes have been shifted to the modern hard-surfaced highway. True, the United States is now linked by its own steamship lines with every other American nation possessing a seacoast and by its own air lines with every one of them without exception. But neither a sea nor an air route is regarded by the typical citizen in the United States as a satisfactory substitute for a highway on which, whenever he wishes, he might set out in his own car for Valparaiso or Buenos Aires.
One of the reasons why the United States convoked the first International American Conference in 1889 was to promote railway communication with the other American nations. This Conference resolved to establish an international commission of engineers to determine whether the construction of a railroad uniting North and South America was a feasible project, and, if so, to suggest possible routes. A Pan American Railway Committee, set up pursuant to this resolution, conducted a comprehensive reconnaissance survey, completed in July 1897. It was revealed that a railroad from New York to Buenos Aires would be approximately 10,471 miles long, of which at that time less than half was in existence.
There still is a Pan American Railway Committee, though in recent years little active railway construction has taken place in either North or South America. The Committee has submitted reports to the successive Inter-American Conferences; its last, presented at Montevideo in 1933, indicated that 2,990 miles still remained to be constructed. The present status of the railway is as follows: it has been fully completed as far as La Union, in El Salvador on the Gulf of Fonseca (4,286 miles from New York); between La Union and Panama about 200 miles have been built and some 1,300 remain to be laid; between Panama and Puno (Peru) 802 miles have been constructed, while 2,560 have not; between Puno and Guaqui, Bolivia, the plan calls for water transport on Lake Titicaca; from Guaqui to Buenos Aires the entire 1,600 miles have been completed. There are a number of reasons why early completion of the remaining sections seems remote, among them: the recent expansion of highway networks and the rapid development of air transportation; the technical difficulties and high costs involved in completing certain sections of the railway in mountainous and inaccessible country; the present high cost of railway maintenance; and steamship competition, especially along the west coast of South America.
In recent years, therefore, the American Republics have more and more been turning to modern highways as the best means of forwarding international communication. The importance of building a highway to connect the American Republics was recognized by the Fifth Inter-American Conference, held at Santiago in 1923. The Sixth Conference, at Havana in 1928, approved the plan and recommended that the governments coöperate in its prompt realization. A Pan American Congress on Highways was held at Rio de Janeiro in August 1929 and an Inter-American Highway Congress at Panama City in October of the same year. The latter met to consider means for completing the Inter-American Highway, the name popularly given to that part of the Pan American Highway between the Texas border and Panama. As now projected, it begins at Nuevo Laredo on the Rio Grande and continues through Mexico City, Oaxaca and on into the Central American republics. The capital cities of all the countries except Honduras lie on the proposed route. In general the Highway will traverse the most densely populated areas in those countries. At the same time, it will offer the tourist marvelous views of tropical jungles, unsurpassed mountain scenery and famous Indian ruins.
Of the 3,294 miles of the projected Highway between Nuevo Laredo and Panama, 1,615 are completed and open to all-weather traffic. More than one-half of the 1,640 miles in Mexico are already open, nearly all with an excellent hard surface. To construct all-weather roads on the remaining sections from Mexico to Panama will cost, it is estimated, approximately $55,000,000; concrete construction would cost over $150,000,000.
The United States Government has evidenced a real interest in this Highway. President Coolidge strongly urged Congress to enable him to coöperate with the other American Republics in its construction. An Inter-American Highway Commission was established as a result of the Panama Conference of 1929, and the United States has taken an active part in its work. On March 4, 1929, Congress appropriated $50,000 for joint reconnaissance surveys. The United States Bureau of Public Roads coöperated with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in making such surveys; Mexico and El Salvador did not request the assistance of the United States, indicating that they would complete their own portions of the Highway without outside help. The surveys demonstrated the feasibility of an Inter-American Highway from an engineering standpoint.[i]
The United States also appropriated $1,075,000 to join with the other interested governments in making location surveys and in actually constructing the Highway. Offices of the United States Bureau of Public Roads have been established in Panama City and in San José, Costa Rica. In most cases the coöperation of the United States takes the form of help in the construction of bridges: the United States supplies most of the engineering services, as well as the superstructure, steel, cement and necessary equipment; the Central American governments furnish local materials, labor, rights of way, etc. Through these joint efforts 14 bridges have been, or are being, built; and some 55 miles of highway have been constructed in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
The Highway is now paved throughout the 765 miles from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City. From there to the Guatemalan border at Tapachula some of the road has been completed, some is in course of construction and some has not even been located. None the less, President Cárdenas has said that the entire Mexican section will be open by 1940. The Guatemalan section of 310 miles follows for the most part the high plateau and at one place reaches an altitude of 10,500 feet -- the highest point on the entire Highway. The road is of gravel and passable throughout, though some parts are narrow, with steep grades and sharp curves. Much of it is now being reconstructed. In El Salvador the road is passable throughout its entire distance (185 miles), of which probably half is in good all-weather condition. Work is proceeding on the other half.
The total length of the Highway in Honduras will be about 90 miles, only 23 of which have so far been built. A 1,000-foot suspension bridge has been built over the Choluteca River through the coöperative action of the United States and Honduras. The Highway will be connected with the capital, Tegucigalpa, by the road now running to the latter from the Pacific coast. The Nicaraguan section is some 214 miles long and most of it still consists of trails or poor earth roads. Three bridges and about 18 miles of road are now being constructed through the joint efforts of the United States and Nicaragua.
Costa Rica's 360 miles constitute a longer portion of the Highway than that in any of the other Central American countries. The route lies on the Pacific slope, but varies in elevation from 140 to 7,300 feet. Serious construction difficulties will be encountered in places, but when completed this section will offer unsurpassed scenery and open up regions heretofore inaccessible. With the exception of about 48 miles of paved road near San José, most of the Costa Rican section is yet to be built. A 25-mile stretch south of San José is now being constructed with the coöperation of the United States. Much of the remaining mileage to the Panama border traverses an almost uninhabited region and is as yet unbuilt. The same is true for the first 25 miles into Panama. But from Concepción to David (20 miles) there is a fair road, and from David to Panama there is a good highway of 308 miles, the longest stretch of improved road south of Mexico. Several bridges have been or are being built in Panama with the aid of the United States. In the Canal Zone a concrete road connects the border with the Balboa basin, where a free ferry to Balboa and Panama City is operated by the Canal authorities.
The financial difficulties in which some of the Central American countries find themselves are an obstacle to the early completion of the Inter-American Highway. General agreement on the desirability of constructing an international highway does not necessarily lead to agreement as to how to finance it. Various plans have been suggested. One provides for the refunding of the foreign debts of the Central American governments and the issuance of a new loan through the United States Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Another proposal is that a Central American Bank of Issue be established with branch banks in each country. It has also been suggested that the United States Government give direct financial assistance to the Central American nations. Still another proposal is that tolls be collected and used to finance construction. But none of these plans has been adopted thus far.
So much for the Mexican and Central American portions of the Highway. What about those lying in South America?
At the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace held at Buenos Aires in 1936 the delegates signed a Pan American Highway Convention of which Articles II and III are as follows:
Art. II. The High Contracting Parties shall form a Commission of technical experts with the object of coordinating the work of the different governments and also to complete the studies and formulate the necessary projects in those countries which, not having heretofore completed this work, may need the cooperation of the Commission.
Art. III. Immediately after ratifying the present Convention, the High Contracting Parties shall consult among each other with a view to appointing a financial committee composed of the representatives of three of the ratifying Governments. This Committee shall study the problems concerning the speedy completion of the Pan American Highway, and within a period not more than six months from the date of its constitution shall submit a detailed report for the consideration of the Governments, accompanied by a plan for the solution of said problems.
Thus far only three nations have adhered to this Convention -- Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States -- and none of them is in South America, the site of most of the unbuilt mileage.
The South American governments have not definitely agreed upon any particular route to be followed by the Pan American Highway south of Panama. In many cases it will, of course, make use of the extensive road systems which the individual countries have been constructing in recent years. However, long segments of it will have to be hewn out of the virgin wilderness. In so vast a continent with such wide varieties of terrain one cannot even hazard a guess as to the route which the Highway will follow in some sections.
A usable road now extends south from Panama City for about 50 miles. From that point to Antioquia, Colombia, a distance of approximately 300 miles, the country is largely swamp land which few if any white men have ever penetrated. The most direct route from Panama to South America lies through this region; however, to construct a road here would present such tremendous difficulties that it may be decided to substitute for this section of the Highway a ferry service from Cristobal to Cartagena (Colombia) or even to La Guaira (Venezuela). From either of these ports the Highway would then proceed southward along the western slopes of the Andes.
At present the capitals of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador are joined by the Bolivar International Highway (also called the "Carretera de los Andes"), much of which, however, is open for use only in dry weather. Venezuela has a good highway system. From Caracas the Highway is in fairly good shape to Bogotá, capital of Colombia. From Bogotá to Quito, capital of Ecuador, types of road all the way from concrete highways to mere tracks are to be found. From Quito the route -- two-thirds of which is now open -- continues south along the high Andes through Cuenca to the Peruvian border.
The Peruvian Government is now actively pursuing a three-year road building program which includes the construction of a great coastal highway running from Ecuador to Chile. At present, however, much of this road is unimproved. On the south it joins the longitudinal highway in Chile, largely a dry-weather road, running to Santiago, a distance of 1,577 miles. Santiago is connected with Mendoza, Argentina, by a road across the Andes through the Uspallata Pass, which because of its height -- 13,120 feet -- is free from snow and open to traffic only about six months in the year. From Mendoza a highway extends to Buenos Aires, a distance of 685 miles, about one-third of which is paved.
An alternative route would, instead of following the Pacific coast, keep to the Andean highlands at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 14,000 feet. Branching off from the other route in southern Ecuador, it would pass through Cerro de Pasco and Cuzco to the Bolivian frontier on Lake Titicaca. Much of this route has not yet even been located and construction would in many places be very difficult. From the Bolivian frontier a dry-weather road extends through La Paz, Oruro, Sucre and Potosí to the Argentine border. In Argentina not only is the entire Highway (1,328 miles) open to traffic, but over a third of it -- from Córdoba to Buenos Aires -- is paved with concrete.
Buenos Aires is connected with the three remaining South American capitals by roads of one sort or another. To reach Montevideo one takes a ferry to Colonia and then a paved road the rest of the way. From Montevideo to Rio, however, much of the road is poor. One-half of the 935-mile highway from Buenos Aires to Asuncion via Santa Fé and Formosa has now been paved.
This brief description of the present state of the Pan American Highway reveals that much remains to be done before a traveler can go by automobile from Washington to Panama, and still more before he can continue to Santiago and Buenos Aires. But tremendous advances have been made during the last decade and there is reason to believe that in the next few years the dream of a great Highway connecting the American Republics will approach fulfilment.
[i] A report on these surveys was submitted by the United States Delegation to the Montevideo Conference in 1933 and was later transmitted to the Congress of the United States on March 6, 1934. See Senate Document No. 224, 73d Congress, 2nd Session, entitled "Proposed Inter-American Highway."