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Building the world’s “most challenging” railroad

Archer Harman and his brother John, the engineers who ventured out to Ecuador to complete the railway that would be known as the most “difficult engineering feat in the world”, reached remote Ecuador by mere coincidence.

 

It purportedly came down to an impromptu visit by the railway’s appointed fundraiser Luis Castro to his favorite New York bar-café. Archer Harman was there, playing pool, and after a brief conversation between tables, Mr. Castro asked him if he’d be interested in participating.

 

“Will there be adventure?” queried Archer with a grin.

It took Archer Harman five full days to reach Quito from Guayaquil, on mule and by horse and carriage, scouting the terrain that, he had no doubt, would crown him one of the most fearless engineers in history.

 

The majority of the coastal stretch (from Yaguachi to Chimbo) had been initiated during García Moreno’s presidency, but since his assassination, it had basically run into the ground, with large segments of the route already overgrown with lush tropical vegetation.

 

Then, almost ten years passed until Jameson Kelly was contracted to continue the railway’s construction. To this British engineer we owe the Yaguachi-Durán line, fabulous bridges designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel (three years before this engineer and artist would erect his masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower), the first telephones in the country (located for operational purposes in all coastal stations), and the initial work up the Andes from Chimbo to Sibambe.

The first major challenge the Harmans faced once they began their monumental work was that Kelly’s route along the foothill forests had been wiped out by rains and floods.

 

“What do we do now?” the brothers asked president Eloy Alfaro, who had contracted the Americans. He famously answered undaunted: “First, let’s have a whisky to fend off the Devil”.

 

Next, in a letter dated March 4, 1900, the Harmans proffered him their solution: the Davis route.

 

Henry Davis died of heat exhaustion not long after offering a somewhat questionable option to his superiors. He considered that detouring along the powerful River Chanchán, born from Chimborazo’s glaciers, to Bucay and then up to Sibambe, would avoid the difficulties encountered along Kelly’s geologically unstable route. It was a longer and steeper way up, but as soon as the decision was confirmed, the train’s administrators were quick to buy up land in the area of Huigra, shrewdly assuring that the track would pass right in front of their properties.

 

The complete overhaul of the railway was, of course, painstaking… uncomfortable, difficult, dangerous… but nothing compared to what awaited them next.

 

At some point or another they would be faced with the task of actually climbing up the wall of mountains of the Andes. The solution was to create a zigzag up this very mountain, today one of the great attractions of the Ecuadorian railway… the Devil’s Nose.

 

The entire site where the works took place to create this feat, turned out to be the deathbed of thousands of workers, including many of the Jamaicans who had been brought in. John Harman, the younger brother, also died on site, and his tombstone was placed in the town of Huigra (it quickly vanished under the gravel of numerous landslides and was only recently rediscovered).

 

Archer Harman, on the other hand, died back home, upon falling from his horse named, of all things, “Ecuador”. As for the train, it lived on to become the country’s most audacious feat of mutual collaboration.

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