05 August 2008

Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México

The other day I made a blog entry entitled "Silao Train Station". I thought I would expand on that a little bit and provide some interesting information about how the Mexican railroads system began and how important it became under the presidency (actually the dictatorship) of Porfirio Díaz. President Díaz passed through the Silao Station for the last time on the 27th of October, 1903 when he came to Guanajuato to watch the opening performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida in a theatre named "Teatro Juárez" which was named after Benito Juárez, one of the greatest heroes of Mexico and also one of Díaz's biggest former political adversaries. It is an incredible story and it even sheds light on the struggle among nations for the control of petroleum which is still going on today.

There is an old saying that "México is the mother of foreigners and the stepmother of Mexicans". The picture of Porfirio Díaz (shown below) in profile on the stock certificates of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FN de M) of the years 1907 thru 1910 is one indication of the struggle among other nations as to who would eventually be the "owner" of México either physically or financially. In the beginning it was Spain, and then France attempted to take over for a while, and afterwards the United States and England battled for their own supremacy in Mexican affairs. Germany and Japan also had strong interests and recently even China has entered the picture.

The first railway in México was a short section that went from the center of Mexico City to the Village of Guadalupe. It was officially opened on July 4th, 1857. The locomotive was built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and shipped in pieces to the port of Veracruz. From there it was transported to Mexico City in wagons. Each wagon carried 12,500 pounds and was pulled by a team of 22 mules. There was a large copper plate on each side of the locomotive upon which was painted a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The little railway of Guadalupe was an instant success. In 1869 President Benito Juárez opened the section of line between Mexico City and Puebla. Four years later, his successor, Lerdo de Tejeda, was able to complete the line from Mexico City all the way to Veracruz. It was, and still is, an engineering miracle.

When Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1877 he opened the investment in railroads to foreign capital and offered a subsidy of 8,000 pesos for each kilometer of rail that was completed plus a substantial yearly subsidy per kilometer for maintenance. Often the routes that were constructed between cities were much longer than necessary and poorly constructed just so that the owners could obtain a bigger subsidy. Also the contractors, many of them who were friends of Díaz, were paid for many kilometers of track that did not even exist. In some areas steel bridges purchased from foreigners remained in pieces hidden in the jungle while foreign owned timber companies kept replacing wooden bridges at a large profit.

In the beginning many of the railroad concessions were granted to favored governors or groups of senators or owners of large haciendas but it wasn't long before most of them fell under American ownership and the largest owner by far was the Standard Oil Company and thus began the American battle with England over Mexican petroleum. As a matter of fact, by the time that the picture of Porfirio Díaz appeared on the FN de M stock certificates, the investment of United States capital in Mexico had grown to a billion dollars and that was greater than all of the capital stock owned by Mexicans themselves.

After the first four-year term of Porfirio Díaz he became the governor of the state of Oaxaca while his good friend from childhood, Manuel Gonzalez, became president of México for one term. It was at this time that Porfirio Díaz undertook the construction of the Tehuantepec Railway. There was an interest in bridging the continent at Tehuantepec ever since Hernán Cortez mentioned it in his fourth letter to the king of Spain in 1525. The first Spanish survey of the isthmus was done in 1774 by Don Augustín Cramer who was the commander of San Juan de Ulua in Veracuz. In 1808 the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt recommended the possibilities of commercializing the isthmus and in 1850 the "Tehuantepec Railroad Company of New Orleans" was formed for that purpose but the Mexican government put a stop to the operations fearing that it would only lead to more annexations by the United States. In 1848 gold was discovered in California and Napoleon III had an interest in opening up a trade market between France and California. For that reason Maximilian himself explored the isthmus to consider the possibilities of either a canal or a railroad. The Tehuantepec Railway was finally completed by the English company of S. Pearson & Son and it was dedicated on New Year's Day in 1907 at a total cost of $45,000,000 dollars. However, it was an immediate and profitable success and was soon running up to twenty trains a day in each direction.

At this point we must stop and look at the world stage. England and the United States were both in competition to acquire the mineral wealth of México and especially petroleum. England in particular needed oil to modernize her naval fleet and switch over from coal to oil. At that time México was thought to have one of the world's largest petroleum reserves. This was the period leading up to World War I and tensions in Europe and elsewhere were high. Germany and Japan also had their eyes on Mexican petroleum. In addition, many Mexicans were afraid that American interests were growing too powerful and that there needed to be a better balance of power. Because of this, the Díaz regime became very cool towards the United States and enacted tax laws to curb growing American financial power. He then looked to Europe for more investment to counter the Americans and consolidate the railroads.

In order to nationalize the railroads under one system Díaz needed capital. What better marketing tool could he use than his own picture on the stock certificates? The great success of the Tehuantepec Railroad and other enterprises had made Porfirio Díaz himself a hero and a big attraction among investors. He was the man with the golden touch. Not only that but he understood the importance of attracting European investors. For this reason he carefully re-established diplomatic relations with Austria and helped the Hapsburg family construct a memorial chapel in Queretaro over the spot where Emperor Maximilian had been executed by Benito Juárez. This was especially possible because it was well known that Juárez and Díaz had been personal rivals. It was an act of genius on his part because investors in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands bought up to $50,000,000 dollars worth of FN de M stock certificates with his picture on them. To this day most of these certificates carry revenue stamps from those countries.

It is ironic that after the reign of Porfirio Díaz the very railroads that he built were used against the government by the revolutionaries and since most of the rail lines terminated in Mexico City, that is where they carried the revolution. It is also ironic that today, almost 100 years later, the majority of railroad interests in México are once again controlled by the Americans. If you should pass by the graveyards where are scattered the bones of all of the Mexican ferrocarrilleros who built the Mexican railways by their backs and their sweat and their blood you might hear them singing in faintly in chorus when the wind blows softly:

"Mas si osare un extraño enemigo,
profanar con su planta tu suelo,
piensa ¡oh Patria querida! que el cielo

un soldado en cada hijo te dió."
(Himno Nacional de México)

"But if some enemy outlander should dare
to profane your ground with his step,

think, oh beloved country, that heaven

has given you a soldier in every son".
(National Anthem of Mexico)


'Eddie Willers' said...

Fascinating post, Bob!

Have you traded historical info with Ed Murphy, of Tuxpan, by any chance?

He is another FNM history buff!

Anonymous said...

No Eddie, I haven't yet had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. Does he have a web page? Could you e-mail me his URL? My e-mail address is on my blog.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.