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Interoceanic Ship Railway

Tehuantepec is an isthmus of Mexico lying between the Gulfs of Campeche (Campeachy) and Tehuantepec, with the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas on the E., and Vera Cruz and Oaxaca on the W. It includes that part of Mexico lying between the 94th and 96th meridians of W. longitude. It is 125 miles across at its narrowest part from gulf to gulf, or 120 miles to the head of Laguna Superior on the Pacific coast. The Sierra Madre breaks down at this point into a broad, plateau-like ridge, whose elevation, at the highest point reached by the Tehuantepec railway (Chivela Pass) is 735 ft. The northern side of the isthmus is swampy and densely covered with jungle, which has been a greater obstacle to railway construction than the grades in crossing the sierra. The whole region is hot and malarial, except the open elevations where the winds from the Pacific render it comparatively cool and healthful.

Since the days of Cortes, the Tehuantepec isthmus has been considered a favourable route, first for an interoceanic canal, and then for an interoceanic railway. Its proximity to the axis of international trade gives it some advantage over the Panama route, which is counterbalanced by the narrower width of the latter.

Pacific Rural Press, California, May 16, 1885

The Interocean Ship Railway

The attention of the whole world has been turned to the projects for getting vessels from the Pacific into the Atlantic, and vice versa, across the Isthmus, so as to save the long and expensive sea voyage around the cape. The engineering difficulties are great, and opinions are at variance as to the best means of overcoming them. The transisthmian projects which for many years have attracted the attention of may be divided, perhaps not improperly, into three classes:

1st. Those in which the construction will be at the mercy of floods.

2d. Those lacking good harbors.

3d. Those which empty into the Doldrums or Zone of Calms.

Interoceanic Ship Railway.
Conceptual Drawing of
Interoceanic Ship Railway.

Of these three fatal objections, the Panama tide-water canal scheme is open to the first and third, and the Nicaragua lifting-lock plan to the second and third. The ship railway project of Mr. James B. Eads, illustrated in this number is open to neither of these objections. It is not so costly, and will shorten by by considerably over 1,000 miles the contemplated route via Panama between the Atlantic States and this city or the East Indies.

This project of the ship railway is one devised by Mr. James B. Eads, the distinguished engineer, perhaps best known for the successful engineering displayed in the designing and construction of the Mississippi jetty system, which other engineers said would not work and which does work. The idea is a novel and original one, though it seems strange that no one ever thought before of its practicability. Mr. Eads hit upon the plan while studying the various canal projects, neither of which did he approve. He, of course, studied up carefully what might be brought forward as objections to his plan, and prepared to prove its practicability.

Interoceanic Ship Railway.

He saw that by means of the ship railway he would reduce the distance from New York to San Francisco, necessary for vessels to traverse, which is 15,687 miles by way of Cape Horn, by some 10,000 miles; and from New Orleans to San Francisco from 15,687 miles to something less than 4,000. He knew there would be difficulty in making people believe the plan feasible. He remembered the difficulty of introducing hydrogen gas in London, of sending the first vessel across the Atlantic under steam, of substituting the screw propeller for the paddle wheel, and how the original projectors have been scoffed at. Mr. Eads knew that ships had been going on and off lifting docks without injury from time immemorial, and was sure that vessels that could safely withstand the terrible buffeting of ocean waves could be moved over a smooth roadbed without fear of injury. In order to be sure as to the roadbed, he took with him to the Isthmus Mr. J. J. Williams, an able engineer, who had made several surveys for interoceanic railroads and canals, and Mr. E. L. Corthell, who had successfully carried out his plans at the mouths, of the Mississippi, and is an expert in railroad construction, having been chief engineer of the West Shore Railroad. Being a practical man, Eads naturally sought to discover a route that would furnish a substantial roadbed, possess something in the shape of harbors at either end, and above all a location outside of that, to the mariner, vexatious belt of perpetual calm. He found a cross section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which combined all these qualities; nay, more, for of all the routes across the narrow strip of land joining Mexico with South America, none shortens so much as this the voyage from the Atlantic and Gulf States to California.

Having selected the site for his ship railway, he now sought a concession from the Mexican Government. This was obtained in 1881, and extends over a period of 99 years from its date. It authorizes the construction across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec of a ship railway, an ordinary railway and a line of telegraph. Besides thin, it exempts all ships and merchandise in transit from Government duty, grants the concession half a million acres of public land, and guarantees protection during the construction and consequent operation of the works. To crown all tho right is given the company to obtain the aid of any foreign Governmen1', and in consideration of this assistance the company is authorized by the terms of the concession to discriminate in favor of the commerce of such government against that of all other countries, save, of course, Mexico.

Very favorable amendments have recently been made by the Mexican Government, as follows:

1st. A guarantee in cash or Government bonds of $1,250,000 per annum for 15 years after the railway is put into successful operation. This is equivalent to 5 percent on $25,000.000.

2d. The right is granted lo go to one or more foreign governments for the remainder of the guarantee and the right to give to the guaranteeing nations a rebate of 25 per cent on the tolls of their commerce for 30 years and a representation in the Board of Direction. This now includes Mexico, as she is to assist in the work.

3d. The right to collect tolls in gold.

4th. The right to import coal free of duty for ships in transit.

5th. To establish and operate true of duty and taxes two or more lines of tow-boats

6th. An additional grant of 330,000 acres of public lands.

The concession obtained, Mr. Eads set about having a careful survey made, topographical and physical, for the several previous surveys were with reference to a canal or an ordinary railway.

The length of the whole railroad line will be about 134 miles from Atlantic to Pacific. Beginning on the Atlantic side, the route will start from the Gulf of Mexico, the ships sailing up the Coatzacoalcos river to Minatitlan, a distance of about 25 miles. From Minatitlan there extends for about 35 miles an alluvial plain having an underlying stratum of heavy, tenacious clay. On the high land and ridges clay, loam and sand are found. Next comes an undulating table-land, and then irregular mountain spurs of the main Cordilleras, running through the entire continent, making at this point one of the most marked depressions to be found in its whole length. From this point the line passes through a valley formed by a small stream to the plains of Tarifa, where is situated the summit of the line. This is 726 feet above low tide. After traversing these plains, the Pass of Tarifa is reached. This is the most accessible of the many passes in this depression in the mountain chain. From here the line gradually sinks to the Pacific, reaching the plains on this side 118 miles distant from Minatitlan.

Tehuantepec, Mexico.
Isthmus of Tehuantepec>
Mexico. 1885

From New York to San Francisco via the Panama canal, a steamship would be compelled to pass the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, sail south a long distance, and after crossing sail north again the same distance before reaching the short route to San Francisco. In other words, she would have to traverse about 1,200 miles more than if the had crossed the Isthmus at Tehuantepec. From Gulf ports to Sin Francisco and the East the difference in distance in favor of Tehuantepec is still more marked; the route between New Orleans and San Francisco via Tehuantepec being about nineteen hundred (1,900) miles shorter than via Panama. From Liverpool to San Francisco there is a saving of 600 miles via Tehuantepec. With sailing vessels and sailing vessels, much as we hear of steamers, carry fully three quarters of the world's freights to-day, and are likely to continue to carry slow freights the contrast is still more marked. However, sailing vessels which are floated across the Isthmus via Panama are left in a region of almost perpetual calm, and have to go hundreds of miles before reaching the trade-wind regions. It would be a generous estimate to allow for only ten days' good authorities say from 20 to 30 days' delay between the Pacific side of the Panama canal and the point where a sailing ship strikes the northeast trades, by reason of calms and the slow progress made while in tow. Allowing that a sailing ship can average 170 statute miles in a day's run, this would add 1,700 miles to the 1,200 miles extra run required via Panama, and hence would serve, practically, to make the Tehuantepec route 2,000 miles shorter in the run from New York to San Francisco, and 3,500 miles shorter in the run from New Orleans to San Francisco.

In the ship railway project a ship is lifted out of the water by means of a submerged pontoon, similar to those in use all over the world; but no such force as that used in hauling a ship up out of the water on a marine railway is required on the ship railway, although, as well known, ships are constantly taken on the marine railway without injury. In the Eads system, however, there is no necessity for using any force whatever on the ship itself. It is lifted out of the water in a cradle which rests upon a series of rails; and these being brought even with the tracks on the dry land, the cradle, in its capacity of a car, is wheeled along an almost level railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and when it reaches the other side a similar means is employed to float it again. This is the whole project a combination of the lifting dock in general use, and an improvement upon the marine railway, because the ship is never, as in the latter, required to be off an even keel.

The engravings which appear in this article will give a good idea of some of the details of the plans. The cuts originally appeared in the Scientific American, and we obtained them for the Press from the Eads Ship Railway Company, New York, to which we are indebted also for information additional to that which has been before published.

The pontoon or floating dock (see Figs. 1 to 4) is of the same general construction as those in use all over the world, save in some important modifications rendered necessary to lit it for its especial work. For it is not enough that the vessel should be docked and lifted out of the water, but that it shall be caused to rest upon a cradle in such a manner that its weight shall be equalized fore and aft, and thus enable the carriage with its load to move easily and safely. This is effected by means of a system of hydraulic rams arranged along an intermediate deck about six feet below the upper deck of the pontoon (see Fig. 2). The arrangement of the rams is in both lateral and longitudinal lines, the former standing a little less than seven feet apart, the one from the other. The area of the combined rams in each lateral line is the same; the area of the one ram under the keel forward or aft is equal to the area of the five or seven rams amidships. They may be connected and made to work in unison, so that the same pressure per square inch of surface of the rams will exist throughout the whole system, or they may be disconnected by valves, so that a greater pressure may be brought upon the rams in a certain section or on a certain line. It is no part of the duty of these rams to lift the vessel.

They are designed only to resist its weight as it gradually emerges from the basin. They get their power from a hydraulic pump placed on a tower affixed to the tide of the pontoon, and rising and sinking with it, but of such a height that, even when the pontoon rests upon the bottom of the dock, it is not entirely submerged. The pontoon itself is directed by powerful guides, which cause it to descend and emerge from the water always in the same position.

A ship having entered the mouth of the Coatzacoalcos river, on the Atlantic side, and come up to the basin, the carriage with its cradle is run on the floating dock, then water is let into the compartments of the pontoon, and the dock and cradle gradually sink to the bottom.

Then the ship is brought in from the exterior basin, and so adjusted as to position that her keel will be immediately over the continuous keel block on the crackle, and her center of gravity over the center of the carriage. The water is then pumped out of the submerged pontoon in the manner employed in floating dock systems, and it rises gradually, bringing the cradle up under the ship's hull (see figure 2). As soon as the keel block of the cradle is close to the ship's keel, the hydraulic pump is called into action, and pushes up the pendant rods and posts of the supports gently against the vessel, closely following the lines of her hull and the run of the bilge. The pressure upon the rams increases as the vessel emerges from the water, but the water pressure under them being prevented from escaping by the closing of the valves, the ship's weight, when she stands clear of the water, is borne by the rams by means of the supports.

In the case of a ship weighing 5,000 tons, each of the 50 lines of rams would, of course, be called to sustain a burden of exactly 100 tons and these lines being placed at equal distances the one from the other, it will readily be seen that the ship's weight is equally distributed. The weight and displacement of the vessel is learned from the pressure gauge on the hydraulic pump.

The vessel being clear of the water, handwheels or adjusting nuts that move in threads cut in the columns of the supports are run down to the bearings on the girder plates, whereupon the valve is opened and the rams withdrawn, leaving the girders to support the weight of the ship. Now, each girder has the same number of wheels, and as described above, bears its just proportion of weight and no more; hence, each of the multitude of wheels under the carriage is called upon to bear the same weight. This weight has been calculated to be only ascertain the exact amount of the excess of' weight, so that should this gauge show too great a preponderance, the pontoon must be lowered and the ship placed in a new position. The pontoon cannot elevate the rails on its deck above what would be a prolongation of the rails ashore, because of the heads of the anchor bolts or guiding rods, and these will also prevent any tipping of the pontoon when the ship burdened cradle is moving oil. The carriage with its cradle, which comes up upon the submerged deck, is calculated to hold a ship even more firmly than the launching cradle used at the ship-yards, with its shores and stays. This carriage moves upon six rails, three standard ; gauge tracks, each of four feet eight and one half inches. Ships themselves are girders and must of themselves be so, from stem to stern, because in the tempestuous seas in which they art; designed to roam the one part is constantly being called upon to support the other; now her the wheels. There is also a system of supports for the vessel, each haying adjustable surfaces hinged to the top of the supports by a toggle joint, in such a way that they may be made to closely follow every depression and yield easily to every protuberance or bulging. They pierce the girders of the carriage, and are exactly pendent over the hydraulic rams when the carriage is on the pontoon and rests in its proper position. Thus, as will be seen, the ship when crossing the Isthmus rests upon what might be called a cushion, and indeed she will have experienced far rougher treatment, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific under only ordinary conditions of weather, than that had while in transit by rail across the Isthmus . . .

These turntables in design resemble pontoons, for they rest upon water and will be strong enough to receive the carriage and its burden. The turntable pontoon will be firmly grounded upon the circular bearers of the basin, when the carriage is run upon it by the admission of water. This is pumped out by a powerful centrifugal pump, the water being drawn through the cylindrical pivot of the pontoon, which is hollow, and discharged into the basin. When the pontoon has been made sufficiently buoyant to be turned easily upon its pivot by steam power, the ship carriage is then quickly pointed in its new direction. The valves then permit the water to enter once more, and the pontoon turn-table again rests on its bearings. These turn-tables may be made to serve another purpose. By their means a ship can be run off on a siding, so to speak, where she can be scraped, painted, coppered, calked, or otherwise repaired without removal from her cradle, and thus be saved the heavy expense of going on a dry dock.

The locomotives for hauling the ship carriage over the isthmian railway will not differ from those in ordinary use, except that they will have about twice the traction power of the most powerful locomotives that run on ordinary railroads. The big freight engines of the day have no difficulty, as we know, in drawing freight trains of a total of 1,500 tons; and as they ship carriage moves along three tracks it would be easy, if such a course were necessary, to place three locomotives in front of it and three behind. The time estimated for crossing from ocean to ocean is only 18 hours. The engraving (Fig. 5) shows the method by which a steamship is to be carried over the railway.

The cost of the ship railway as completed by expert engineers will be abut fifty million dollars ($50,000,000) . . . The Tehuantepec Ship Railway is a private enterprise that does not ask a dollar from the Government, and there will be little trouble in its construction, if the Government does not . . . injure its prospects and defeat its aim, which is to furnish a cheap, rapid and safe passage for ships across that narrow strip of land, which heretofore has proved an effectual barrier to aspiring canal builders.

The company supporting Mr. Eads and which owns the concession granted by Mexico, and is composed of some of the most wealthy and influential men in Pittsburg, St. Louis, New Orleans and other cities. They are thoroughly in earnest, and determined to build the ship railway.

It is by far the shortest distance by water between our Eastern and Western ports. It is a direct and necessary supplement to the Mississippi river, and is virtually its commercial extension into the Pacific ocean . . . the greatest and most direct benefits are those to be reaped by our whole Pacific Coast. There is no doubt that the gradual decrease in ocean rates for freight has worked to the advantage of our Pacific country, from the Rio Grand to Maine. The heavy and slow freights especially, that it does not pay to haul over transcontinental railways, will then, by a quick voyage, be placed at Galveston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York and Boston for the use of the immense population tributary to these ports . . . The distance from San Francisco to New Orleans is about 2,400 miles by rail and 3,570 by water, the former being equivalent to 9,000 miles of water transportation. This gives the ship railway an immense advantage over any present routes by rail, and, as has been previously seen, over any present water routes. And, from the distances given in this article, it also ships $75 to $80 per ton, but they can build iron ships at from $50 to $60 per ton.

It is therefore very important for our American commerce and for our own merchant marine that the interooeanic route should be located where it can be used to advantage by our sailing vessels. The importance of this will be appreciated by every commercial man along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, for we are still building these fine wooden sailing ships for the San Francisco trade and for other sea-going business.

Again, if this country desires to control the interoceanic route, and to be able to defend it, let it adopt a route that is capable of defense. At Tehuantepec, with a favorable treaty with the Government of Mexico, and by means of railway lines that are extended and are extending from the United States to the Mexican capital, and beyond even to Tehuantepec by American citizens, a land force of 100,000 men could be quickly transported from the Pacific Coast, Mississippi valley and the Atlantic Coast to meet an invading force.

The Gulf of Mexico, if we have a navy that can do any defensive work, can be easily protected, as the only two outlets to it from the ocean are at the Florida straits and between Yucatan and Cuba.

Another immense advantage to the whole Pacific Coast by the construction of the ship railway will be the impetus it will give to immigration from European countries. We need, especially for the increased cultivation of our soil that the ship railway will bring about, these hardy agricultural immigrants, who now do not reach us on account of the great expense of transportation over the transcontinental railroads. With our country filled up with these industrial people, who so easily will become a part of our body politic, we can then relegate to their own country the unassimilating Chinese population that have infested our Coast.

Now that the Congress of the United States has refused to ratify the Nicaragua canal treaty, and there are such grave doubts in regard to the completion of the Panama canal, we must rely upon the Tehuantepec Ship Railway as the final solution of this great problem of transportation so directly and essentially effecting our prosperity.

Eads went to Washington in January 1886, although in very poor health, to secure the passage of the act, confidently believing that it would insure the raising of the capital, in the United States and England, necessary to build the railway. He was not able to remain in Washington, and, by the advice of his physician and friends, sailed for Nassau, Bahamas, where he died in 1887 after a short illness.

In 1885-87 Elmer Lawrence Corthell devoted nearly his entire time to it, studying and writing on its engineering and commercial features, delivering addresses on the subject before numerous learned bodies, and publishing pamphlets which were circulated in every country.

July 7, 1890, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

Colonel Andrews Still Says the Ship Railway at Panama is Not Dead.

In the Fifth-avenue Hotel yesterday, says a New York Star reporter, I met Colonel Andrews, the wealthy Pittsburg man, who was the backer of Captain Eads in his Mississippi jetties undertaking, and also in the Tehuantepec Ship Railway scheme which Eads had projected when he died. The Colonel is President of the Tehuantepec Ship Railway Company at the present time, and is endeavoring to raise money in Europe to build the road on the plans made by Eads. He said to me that while nothing in the way of interoceanic communication is now talked about in this country, except the Nicaragua Canal, the railway project was very much alive. "It costs a good deal more to build a canal than , a ship railway," he continued. "When the canal is built the cost of maintaining it is an enormous sum. Especially at the Isthmus of Panama the maintenance cost would be very great. What with storms and floods and tidal waves and earthquakes a canal there would be shut up half the time. Where the canal skirts along rock mountains a single little earthquake shock might roll down stone to block it up inside of a minute. Then, too, it is exceedingly dangerous to run iron vessels through a canal with rock sides and bottom. Central America.

There is no knowing at what moment the ship may drift upon rock, and something must then give way. Iron ships cannot be steered in a narrow channel. They steer themselves and swing about so slowly and ponderously that in such a rock channel they would be In constant danger.

l examined the Suez Canal very carefully," said Colonel Andrews, "and watched the big ships going through it to see how they move. The Suez Canal is a sandy bottom through white sand, as white as Italian marble. The largest pebbles are no bigger than my thumbnail. The sides are also of sand. Through such a country a canal is entirely feasible, as the Suez Canal bas been demonstrated to be. But at Panama it is altogether different."

June 5, 1892, San Francisco Call , San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

The Old Tehuantepec Project Revived Under New Auspices

New York Sun, New York, New York, U.S.A.

Mexico has not yet given up her hope of competing with Nicaragua and Colombia to furnish the ship route of the future between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The disadvantage In breadth under which the Isthmus of Tehuantepec labors is very great, when it comes to a question of cutting a canal; but Mexico's project is tto substitute the device of a ship railway. If vessels can be safely raised out of the water, placed on a cradle, run by locomotive engines along a track, and then lowered again into the sea, a few miles more of track is a matter of minor consequence. The revived project has been taken up by Messrs. Corthell, Hampson & Stanhope, of whom the first named has b een for some time employed by Mexico in making harbor improvements. It is said that the Government has $2.000,000 ready as a subsidy for a company bold enough to undertake this work.

Of course, with the Nicaragua project so well advanced, an attempt to compete for Interoceanic traffic by a ship railway at Tehuantepec is more heavily handicapped now than it was ten years ago, when Mr. James B. Eads was at the head of the enterprise. But as an offset it would hardly fear a rival in the Panama project, which was then going on busily, with a large supply of funds.

Admiral Ammen, who, to be sure, could not be considered an unprejudiced authority, being at the head of a rival enterprise, considered it a fatal objection to the project of Mr. Eads that the height of the lowest mountain pass was 754 feet and the grade, at the maximum, 105 feet per mile. One cut proposed had a depth of 312 feet and a base of 2500, requiring the excavation of about 4,000,000 cubic yards, which would cost about $6,000,000 and occupy six years. Mrs. Eads' own estimate of the total cost of the railway was $72,000,000, but its opponents thought this very far below the real expense. On the other side, it was urged that, by a few turns, the heavy grades, deep cuts, and costly fillings mentioned by Admiral Ammen would be avoided; but the latter says that this could only be done by an enormous turntable, of vast cost, on account of its foundations. It is also asserted that since curves cannot be used as on an ordinary railroad, several such turn-tables would be required.

However, in order to obtain any true idea of the practicability of a Tehuantepec railway, it will be necessary first to have the route carefully laid out, and then it will be, seen what peaks are to be avoided and what grades to be overcome. The start would perhaps be, as in the Eads scheme, from the head of navigation on the Coatzacoalcos, with a terminus on the Pacific in the region of Salina Cruz or La Ventosa.

The Mexican government entered into contracts with a prominent Mexican contractor for the work. In 1888 this contract was rescinded, after 67 miles of road had been completed. The next contract failed through the death of the contractor, and the third failed to complete the work within the sum specified ($2,700,000). In 1893 37 miles remained to be built. A fourth contract resulted in the completion of the line from coast to coast in 1894, when it was found that the terminal ports were deficient in facilities and the road too light for heavy traffic.

The government then entered into a contract with the London contractors of S. Pearson & Son, Ltd., who had constructed the drainage works of the valley of Mexico and the new port works of Vera Cruz, to rebuild the line and construct terminal ports at Coatzacoalcos, on the Gulf coast, and Salina Cruz, on the Pacific side. The work was done for account of the Mexican government. Work began on 16 December 1899, and was finished to a point where its formal opening for traffic was possible in January 1907.

The railway was 192 miles long, with a branch of 18 miles between Juile and San Juan Evangelista. The minimum depth at low water in both ports is 33 ft., and an extensive system of quays and railway tracks at both terminals affords ample facilities for the expeditious handling of heavy cargoes.

Mexico: The Interoceanic Ship Railway

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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