Coasting upon the steepest railroad in the world; dashing through clouds to find clouds below you: hanging to precipices; rushing along bridges over frightful chasms; whirling around curves, now in the midnight darkness of rocky tunnels, and anon where the light of day makes you shudder at the depths below you ; these have been among my experiences in the past few days. I have climbed to the top of the Andes, and have slid back to the sea.
My trip was over the Oroya Railroad, one of the most wonderful pieces of railroad engineering ever constructed. The road is only 138 miles long, but it climbs up the steepest mountains of the globe. It rises more than three miles in less than a hundred, and its highest point is 15,665 feet above its starting-point at Callao on the Pacific. At its highest point it is still 2,000 feet below the summit of Mount Meiggs. It cuts right through this mountain by a tunnel to the other side of the Andes, and then descends to the valley of the Jauja, through the rich silver-mining region of Yauli, and finally ends at Oroya, an Indian market town 12,178 feet above the sea.
The Oroya Railroad is one of the most expensive railroads ever built. It was costly in both men and money. Seven thou-sand lives were lost during its construction, and the first 86 miles of it cost $27,000,000, or over $300,000 per mile. Between the coast and the tunnel at the summit there is no down grade, and the speed of our hand-car was regulated only by the pressure on the brake in the hands of an Indian conductor. On many parts of the road the grade is over four per cent or 211 feet to the mile; and at such grades the track winds about and up the An-des, passing through cuts in the solid rock, and through sixty-three tunnels, some of which are of the shape of the letter S. Its track is of the standard gauge, well laid out and in excellent condition.
This road was built by an American, though it was suggested by a Peruvian. Henry Meiggs, a Californian, laid out the road, acted as its engineer-in-chief, raised the money to build it, and superintended most of its construction. The road was originally intended to reach the Cerro de Pasco silver mines, but the $27,-000, 000 gave out when about eighty-six miles had been built, and the extension is still some forty-odd miles away from these famous mountains of copper and silver.
The portion of the road above where Mr. Meiggs left off was constructed by the Peruvian corporation under what is known as the Grace contract. The intention is to extend the road ultimately into the Perene, a rich coffee-raising district, thence to the head of the steam navigation of some of the tributaries of the Amazon. The preliminary surveys for this have already been made. The total distance from the sea to the navigable Amazon is not more than 210 miles, but there is at present no sign of the road being soon completed. It is doubtful whether the rail-road now pays more than its operating’ expenses, and it will be long before it will yield dividends in proportion to its enormous cost. Only two passenger trains are run over it a week, its chief business being the carrying of silver and copper ore down the mountains.
The usual journey over this road is taken on the passenger train, which carries the traveller up the mountains one day and brings him back the next. Through the kindness of the American firm of Grace & Co. of Lima, I was taken up on a small engine and brought down on a hand-car, thus having an excellent opportunity to study the railroad and the mountains up which it climbs.
Our special engine was a dainty little locomotive called ” La Favorita.” It was half engine and half passenger-coach. Its cab was walled with glass and fitted with comfortable seats. It took the place of the tender which the ordinary engine has for coal, our fuel being coal-oil from the petroleum wells of northern Peru Our party consisted of the American minister, Mr. Dud-ley, and his secretary of legation, Mr. Neale, Mr. Sherman, the manager of Grace & Co., a Frenchman named Piper, a Mr. Pier-son, an electric-street-railroad man from Ohio, and myself. The engineer and his helper were Peruvians.
We left Lima at seven o’clock in the morning, and spent the whole day on the road, stopping at the most interesting points to take photographs, and going as fast or as slow as we wished.
Lima is situated in the valley of the Rimac river. It is right at the foot of the Andes, and our trip was up the mountains along the course of this river to its source on the summit. At Lima the Rimac is what we, in America, would call a good-sized creek It is not navigable, and is, in fact, a stream of foaming white water from the top of the Andes to the sea. The descent is so steep that quiet pools are nowhere to be found. The river is a succession of waterfalls, foaming churns, and rushing rapids. During the ride we could often see the river above and below us at the same time, and we went up, climbing the sides of the mountains, cheered on our way by the rushing of the waters.
We first passed through the sugar and cotton plantations which fill the valley above Lima. The fields look like gardens made for show They are surrounded by mud walls, and the crops are as green as those of the United States in June. We passed a sugar hacienda in which two steam-engines were pulling a cable plough through a field on one side of the track, while on the other side men were ploughing with oxen and wooden ploughs, urging the beasts onward with goads fifteen feet long. Farther on gangs of Indians were working among the cotton with over-seers on horseback. The cotton plants were in blossom, and the fields looked like vast gardens of pink and yellow roses. The men weed the plants, and the fields are as clean as any rose garden at home. Here we pass a cotton mill, and farther on we fly past a sugar factory which grinds out thousands of pounds of sugar a day. We notice that most of the rich land is used. It is all watered by the Rimac, for nothing grows here without irrigation.
Now we are in the foothills of the Andes. How bleak and bare and gray they look in the early morning! Not a green spot is to be seen anywhere on the vast walls which here face the sea. We find the ascent difficult as we rise to the mountains behind. The foothills are gigantic masses of soft, silver-gray velvet, where the sun casts its shadows, and of dazzling white where it strikes full in their faces. The only green is the little strip along the banks of the river. Farther on we notice a thin fuz of green cropping out of the gray. It is as though the velvet was sprinkled with a dust of ground emeralds. Here we come across a little cactus, and there a small bunch of weeds.
As we ascend, the mountains grow greener, until at the level of Mount Washington we find them covered with a thin coat of vegetation. At the altitude of Leadville there is plenty of grass, and at one point, at a stopping of our engine, we count forty different kinds of flowers. There are buttercups without number, silver-gray mosses, and flowers of all colors, the names of which I do not know. As I remark upon the vegetation, Saying that it is still very scanty, Mr. Sherman tells me that, were it not the rainy season, there would be no green at all, and that at other times of the year the whole western side of the Andes is bleak, dry, colourless, and sterile.
Still higher we come into a region of rock, with bits of soil here and there. In such places every inch of ground is cultivated. The mountains are terraced clear to their tops, and some of them are covered with steps of green built up with rock, so graduated that a man can stand on one of the lower steps and plant the seed, or weed the crops, of the next ledge without stooping over. Some of the fields are not as large as a bedspread, and some on the opposite side of the mountain do not look as big as a pocket handkerchief. Some patches of corn seem almost inaccessible, and remind one of the farmers of West Virginia, who are said to have to plant their crops with the rifle, as the hills are so steep they are unable to stand on the sides long enough to drop the corn in the rows.
We see Indians planting and working in the fields, and pass numerous little villages of one-story houses made of sun-dried bricks, and roofed with thatch or sheets of corrugated iron. In most places the iron plates are not nailed to the huts; they are merely laid upon the rafters and kept there by covering them with stones. Many of the houses are not larger than dog-kennels, and they are quite as squalid as an American pigsty. Their in-habitants, who gather around us at the stations, are of the Peon variety, dark-faced Indian men, women, and children, the latter frightened to crying when I posed them for my camera. They have evidently never heard of photographs, and one little fellow howled like a Cherokee Indian when I pointed the instrument at him.
I will not say that the Andes are more beautiful or more impressive than the Alps, the Rockies, or the Himalayas, but they surpass them in some respects, and their wonders are their own. Here the mountains rise almost abruptly. You ride for miles between walls of rock which kiss the sky thousands of feet above you. Some of the rocks take the shapes of gigantic cathedrals, very temples of the gods, their spires hidden in the clouds. Others look like vast fortifications, walls of rock to shut the nations of the West away from the riches of this great continent. There are no pretty bits of scenery such as you see amid other mountains. All is on the grandest and most terrible scale. In our ride, we climb along the sides of these walls. Now we pierce them by a tunnel high up in the air, and, higher still, see another tunnel which we shall reach later on. In going from one tunnel into another we cross gorges, on an iron network of a bridge, which looks awfully frail as “La Favorita” passes over it.
Now we pierce a wall of rock where a river has been turned aside that it may not interfere with the road, and then by a winding tunnel we dash out into what is called ” the Infernillo,” or hell. It is a slender iron bridge two miles above the sea, high up between walls of rock. Far below we see waters rushing, and out of the wall we have left a great torrent of foaming water plunges. Before us, at the other end of the bridge, is another wall of rock in which is a black hole pierced by the track, and, as we look upward between these walls, we see, as through a narrow slit, the blue sky of heaven above this Andean hell.
There are several such hanging bridges on the route. We stopped at the Veruguas bridge, which spans a chasm 58o feet wide, and hangs to tunnels 300 feet above the Veruguas river. Some time ago this bridge was swept away and, for months, both passengers and freight were carried across on a cable, the little car running on a rope stretched from wall to wall across the frightful chasm.
At times we saw tunnels above and below us. The road goes up its steepest places in a zigzag route, so that at one time we counted five tracks running almost parallel below us.
Almost the whole line was blasted out of the mountain rock. On many places along the line, the hills are so steep that men had to be lowered by ropes over the edges of the precipices to drill holes for the powder which blasted away the ledges for the track. Falling rocks killed some, landslides swallowed up others, and many died of fever.
You can imagine something of the sensation of going down such a road on a hand-car. The reality is wilder and more ex-citing than one can conceive. The hand-car on which I rode was of the rudest order. It was merely a platform five feet long, and a little wider than the track, on four ordinary car-wheels. On the front part of the platform a strip of wood two inches thick and about as wide was nailed, and at the back was a seat much like that of a farm waggon. The seat was just wide enough for three. The conductor, a brown-faced Indian, sat in the middle, with his hand on the brake in the centre of the plat-form. Mr. Sherman and I sat on the right and left, our feet braced against the strip on the floor of the car, and our hands on the side and back of the seat, holding on for dear life as we rushed down the mountains. The only means of stopping the car was by the brake, and the danger as we rushed through the tunnels was not only that the car might jump the track in going around the curves, but also that we might meet a donkey or an Indian coming through. The rocks in many places are loose, and the possibility of a landslide is such that a hand-car is al-ways sent five minutes ahead of the regular passenger train to see that the road is free. At one time we chased a cow for about a mile, and at another two llamas blocked the track for a few moments. At times the road seemed to go down at an angle of forty-five degrees, and many of the severest grades were along the edges of precipices, or where we seemed to be clinging to walls of rock. I cannot say that I was not afraid, nor that my heart was not often in my mouth, but I will say that the experience was such that, knowing what I now do, I would risk the journey again to feel the same exhilarating sense of pleasure and danger combined.
The sensation of standing on the top of the Andes was also worth experiencing. As we climbed up and up above Casapalca, which is about 14,000 feet above the sea, the air grew colder and rarer. We rode out of a heavy rain into a dense snow-storm. Soon we were in banks of snow. The mist and the clouds surrounded us so that we could not see twenty feet beyond the car. We rode through the clouds and saw the storm sweep down the Andes below us. As the mist disappeared, we caught a glimpse of the country through which we had been passing, and shuddered as we looked at the precipices over which we had gone. Mount Meiggs was almost straight above us, and we stopped the engine a moment in front of the black mouth of the Galera tunnel on the very roof of the South American continent. Behind us all the waters were flowing into the Pacific. On the opposite side of the tunnel the waters find their way through the Amazon into the Atlantic. The dividing of the waters is, in fact, within the tunnel itself, and you could really stand at a certain point in the Galera tunnel and drink from waters which will lose themselves in both oceans. I did not do this, for the interior was as dark as pitch, and I was too anxious to see the other side of the Andes.
We passed through the tunnel, and stopped ” La Favorita ” at the other side, amid some of the grandest scenery of our journey. The mountains all about us were capped with snow. Over us towered Mount Meiggs, 17,575 feet high, its top a-half mile above where we stood. Our altitude was more than three miles above the sea. We were on the highest railroad point in the world, far higher than the top of Fujiyama, the snow-capped mountain of Japan, almost as near to heaven as the top of Mount Blanc, a thousand feet higher than Pike’s Peak or any mountain in Colorado, higher than Mount Whitney, and, in fact, higher than any mountain in the United States outside Alaska. As I looked at the grandeur about me I felt like the expressive but not irreverent cowboy who woke one morning in the midst of the Alps. His method of showing his approbation had always been by a hurrah, and when he looked up at the snow-capped peaks rising one upon another as far as his eye could reach, he could contain himself no longer, and throwing his hat into the air with a cowboy yell, he exclaimed, 0 Hurrah for God!”
This was how I felt, but I acted differently. My voice was so weak from the rarity of the air that I could not have whistled a dog. At about i0,000 feet above the sea, the conversation of our party began to flag. On the outside platform of 0 La Favorita” it was almost impossible for us to talk to one another, and I found myself again and again weighing my thoughts to decide whether they were worth the breath it would take to utter them. Any kind of exertion took triple strength. My boots suddenly grew heavy, and I changed my step to that of an old man. At the eastern end of the Galera tunnel we stopped amid banks of snow, and Mr. Sherman and myself had a snowballing fight up there in the clouds. It was not an exciting contest. Every throw sent our hearts into our throats, and we had to stop and pant for breath. After this, when we walked at all, we went very slowly, and in climbing up the hills we crawled. As the day went on, the uncomfortable feeling increased. We descended about 1, 000 feet, and stopped for the night at Casapalca, where there is a big silver and copper smelter owned by Americans, and where we were received by the vice-president of the company, Captain H. Guyer, an Idaho mining engineer, who made us at home and put us up for the night. Before we got to the house, the Frenchman and Mr. Pierson were attacked with soroche, or mountain sickness, a disease common to strangers in high altitudes; and later on all members of the party were more or less affected. My attack did not come until midnight. I awoke feeling as though the top of my head were rising into the air. I had a terrible pain in the temples, cramps in my legs, and at the same time a strong inclination to vomit. I lay on my back all night, to give my lungs as full play as possible, and hardly slept a wink. I managed to get up at daybreak and drink some coffee, and by keeping out of doors recovered sufficiently to take my hand-car ride down the mountain. Mr. Sher-man fared even better than I, but Secretary Neale said that, between the smell of sulphur from the smelting furnaces and the soroche, he thought he was in Hades, and he dreamed all night that a hundred devils were dancing on his chest.
The soroche is common throughout the Andes. It usually begins at the altitude of 12,000 feet. With some people it does not last more than a day or so, and then passes off. With others it is very serious. The first symptoms are pains in the head and nausea, then comes vertigo and weakness of sight and hearing; fainting fits follow, and blood flows from the eyes, nose, and lips. Those who have weak lungs are liable to hemorrhages; and ‘those whose hearts are weak are liable to drop dead. It is especially hard on full-blooded and stout people and those addicted to liquor and high living, but healthy, thin people of temperate habits soon get over it.