The California Native International Adventures

Since 1983

From The California Native Newsletter:

Working on the Railroad

By Don Fuchik Arthur Edward Stilwell
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Copper Canyon rail journey through the Sierra Tarahumara is one of the world's most dramatic train rides. Spectacular in scenery and engineering, the line spans 37 bridges, passes through 86 tunnels and rises 8,000 feet in the 410 mile trip from Los Mochis to Chihuahua City.

This amazing rail line owes its creation to the farsightedness and creativity of two nineteenth century American visionaries—Albert Kinsey Owen and Arthur Edward Stilwell (as seen in photo).

A Pennsylvania-born civil engineer, Owen saw the enormous potential of the huge natural harbor at Topolobampo and conceived the idea of a Pacific to Atlantic rail route through Mexico's rugged Sierra Madre as a land bridge connecting markets in the Far East with Europe. He had worked as a surveyor on the Laredo-Mexico City Railroad and knew that another line could be built through the seemingly impenetrable Sierra. At this time the French had failed in their attempt to build a waterway across Panama so a binational railroad seemed a more viable alternative.

But Owen was a dreamer and turned his efforts to founding a utopian American colony at Topolobampo. The colony failed after only five years.

Another man, who had practical business skills as well as vision, carried on the quest for the railroad. He was Arthur Edward Stilwell, scion of a wealthy Rochester, New York family, who, at age 32, became the nation's youngest railroad owner.

Stilwell planned his rail line to run from Kansas City to Presidio, Texas, then join a Mexican line across the Rio Grande at Ojinaga, which would run through the state of Chihuahua and cross the Sierras to reach Topolobampo—several hundred miles shorter than the Union Pacific's Kansas City to San Francisco line.

Financing was obtained in the U.S. from local communities and oil companies, and in Mexico by the government of Porfirio Diaz promising land and cash concessions to wealthy entrepreneurs including Enrique Creel and Luis Terrazas.

Construction began and the tracks pushed forward throughout the 1890's. The Topolobampo-El Fuerte segment was completed in1903, followed by the Chihuahua-Creel section in 1907.

Then the Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and over the next ten years put a stop to the project—the Mexican government could not meet its economic commitments, and Pancho Villa attacked the trains. Villa was miffed at being snubbed by Luis Terrazas at a ceremony celebrating the completion of a portion of the route. Terrazas correctly believed that Villa had been rustling his cattle. Because of all this, the Stilwell interests were forced into receivership.

Plans to complete the railroad languished for the next twenty years. Then, in 1940, President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico's railroads and announced that the government would complete the several hundred kilometers that still remained to be built. In 1941 the remaining route was surveyed and, on November 22, 1961, the first train arrived in Los Mochis from Chihuahua—almost a century after Owen first had his vision.

The railroad was completed by the Mexican government at a cost of over a billion pesos, without foreign aid. A colossal project far beyond the capacities of most developing nations. Engineering marvels abound: the El Descanso Tunnel extends over 6,000 feet; the Chinipas Bridge is 355 feet high; the Rio Fuerte Bridge is over 1,600 feet long. The gentle curvature of the rails, the gradual grades never exceeding 2.5%, and widespread use of 6-mile long spans of rail make for a smooth and comfortable passage.

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