Coasting From Sky To Sea
General Jas. G. Steese, Sc.D., F.R.G.S.
(Feb. 1933 Dickinson Alumnus)

Think of a continuous, thrilling, terrifying swoop of one hundred miles in a hand-car from the top of a snow-clad mountain, over three miles high, to the shore of a tropical sea! Such an experience causes one, years afterwards, merely upon thinking about it, to catch one’s breath and one’s heart to miss a beat or two.

Bit, it is impossible, do I hear you say? Just a moment, while I quote you a few, a very few, facts and figures. The Oroya Railway (El Ferrocarril Central del Peru) is a monument to the genius of Henry if Henry Mieggs, and American, or rather, I should say, a United-States-of-North-American, for in the Southern Hemisphere the term “Americano” is not very definite, and we usually find ourselves indexed under “N” to distinguish us from the United States of Columbia, United Mexican States, United States of Brazil, etc.

Callo, the Pacific terminus of the Oroya Railway, and the principal port of Peru, is six days by boat south of Panama. The opening of the Panama Canal has already stimulated travel to South America, when America’s entry into the World War diverted all shipping to the Transatlantic service. Since the War, bigger ships and better service to South America have been inaugurated, and there is a constantly increasing stream of travel to and around South America, with many interesting side-trips inland. Amongst all the lands comprised in the vast South American Continent, there is none more richly endowed by nature with every thing that is magnificent to the eye of the traveler, none whose history is more fascinating, whose relics of a former age more potent to cast a spell over the imagination, than Peru.

It was here that, hidden for generations from the knowledge of the Old World, a powerful and enlightened oligarchy controlled the destinies of the great Empire of the Incas, ruling with a benign despotism unparalleled in the annals of mankind. It was here that, in the fullness of time, a handful of daring Spanish adventurers, under the indomitable Pizarro, emboldened by pride of race and lust of gold, subjugated an entire and almost unknown nation, planted the Cross over the ruined temples of the Sun, and turned the current of history. Such a land cannot but offer irresistible attractions to the modern tourists.

The most surprising experience in the trip from Panama to Callao is the fact that immediately upon crossing the equator the tourist gets out his sweater and by the time the steamer has gotten as far south of the equator as Panama is north of it, the air is as chill as it is in rounding Cape Hatteras late in the fall. This is due to the influence of the Humboldt Current, which might be called the reversed Gulf Stream of the South Pacific.

Callao stands in a spacious and well protected bay, affording anchorage for unlimited tonnage in deep water close to the shore. It is the centre of a very important shipping business, and is well equipped with docks. The town contains many interesting old buildings, its history as a port dating back to the era of the Spanish Conquest.

Peruvian Road System

One of the most striking features of advanced civilization met with at the time of the Conquests was undoubtedly the marvelous system of roads which traversed the country from on ends to the other. Nowhere else in the universe had Nature laid such colossal difficulties in the way; never were difficulties in the way; never were difficulties more stoutly combated and overcome. Now cutting through gigantic masses of rock, now scaling precipitous heights, now crossing abysmal ravines and roaring torrents, the great military thoroughfares constructed in Peru under the Inca Dynasty challenged comparison with the proudest achievements of the Old World.

Peru is still the country of wonderful highways, but they are today roads of steel, and the engineering triumphs which so amazed the discoverers of the country are eclipsed by the modern railway man. The Oroya Railway is a standard gauge line running from Callao to Huancayo, 217 miles distant, on the Atlantic side of the Andes, with branches to Morococha (9 miles) and to Ancon (24 miles). It was begun in 1869. Beginning at Callo it climbs steadily to an elevation of 15,665 feet above sea-level, where the divide is crossed through the Galera tunnel, at mile 106. The Morococha branch rises to elevation 15,865 feet – the highest point reached by any railroad in the world. At Oroya, mile 138, connection is made with the line running north to the famous Cerro de Pasco copper mines. Huancayo is 79 miles south of Oroya, and an extension has begun towards Cuzco, the old Inca capital, which has had rail connections with the sea at Mollendo for a number of years. Another branch, about 300 miles long is under construction down the eastern slope of the Andes to the head of navigation on the Ucayali River, one of the important upper tributaries of the Amazon.

Highest Railroad In World

The Oryoa road is not only the highest in the world, but there is no other which lifts its breathless passengers to any such altitude in such an appallingly short distance. To climb as the Oroya climbs, a Hudson River train leaving New York City would have to ascend, half an hour before it reached Albany, a height 1,000 feet greater than that from sea level to the summit of Pike’s Peak. Even Mont Blanc, the most famous peak in Europe, is not so high. The daily passenger train leaves Callao in the forenoon and reaches Oroya late in the afternoon. As there are no night trains on account of the great danger of rocks falling down on the track, the round trip ordinarily requires two days. Since there is a continuous down grade from the Galera tunnel to the sea, an opportunity is offered for the most unique hand-car ride in the world.

Through the courtesy of the General Manager of the line we were afforded exceptional facilities for making the trip. His private car was attached to the evening train to Chosica, a fashionable winter resort about 35 miles out of Lima, at an elevation of about 2,800 feet. For an hour or so we wound through a wide irrigated valley, fat and prosperous looking, with plantations of sugar cane and cotton fenced in by mud walls, the roofs of a hacienda showing now and then over the green. Beyond that the bade, brown mountains – high enough, it seemed, yet really no more than foot hills – shut in and shouldered upward, tier on tier behind each other, yellow and terra cotta and tawny brown, occasionally flashing through a slit in their flanks the snowy shoulders of peaks miles and miles away, to which we were to climb. At Chosica, our car was sidetracked for the night, dinner was served aboard, and we turned in to be ready for an early start the next morning.

Starting To Climb

About 4 a.m. we were awakened by our car being picked up by the morning freight, whose schedule had been advanced several hours for our special benefit. The real climb now began. The broad valley soon narrowed, the naked rocks closed in, and we were fairly in the canyon of the Rio Rimac. Twelve miles out of Chosica an elevation of 5,000 feet was reached at San Bartolome. Here is the first switchback, Meiggs’ original device, which enables a train to zigzag up the face of a canyon wall without resorting to abnormally heavy grades and rack and cog systems. It is interesting to note that this extraordinary ascent into the clouds is accomplished without the use of a single foot or rack line from start to finish.

At Matucana, 7,700 feet above the sea, the hand car, which was to be our means of descending, was trailed on behind. All passenger trains run by gravity on the downward journey and are piloted by a handcar running a few minutes ahead to make sure that the track is clear. Our Indian cook now brought in coffee, prepared in the Peruvian style, which was very acceptable, as the air was already quite chill. Then the climb continued over spider-web bridges, more switchbacks, and numerous tunnels.

The tunnels of the Infiernillo (Little Hell) open at either end of a bridge spanning a chasm over 1,000 feet deep. As the train wound and creaked along the forehead of the mountain one could look down on the roofs of the villages miles below, ant people and ant donkey trains, and the multitudinous little fields fenced in thick mud walls, which made the valley floor a gigantic waffle iron.
Above them, on a level with one's eyes were the andenes or old terraced fields of the ancient Incas, grass-grown now with the turf of centuries. The old terraces are mostly in disuse now, but the fields and grooves of the lower levels still use some of the old irrigation troughs. They were cut in the rocks by a people who knew neither cement nor iron pipe, but they follow the contours as though plotted with a transit. Sometimes, as the cars creep along a canyon wall halfway to the top, one can follow the silvery ribbon of water for miles along the face of the yellow rock.

Bridges And Switchbacks

More bridges, more switchbacks, and ever the air grows clearer and thinner and colder. The fields and gardens are gone now, the bleak table-land country appears, and people whose hearts or nerves are bothersome would begin to have soroche or mountain sickness. Below crawled burros and llama trains carrying silver and copper ore. At Casapalca, 13,600 feet, is the big smelter of this neighborhood. Here was a mud corral full of llamas, those absurd-looking animals, seemingly a cross between a sheep, camel, and an ostrich , which viewed the noisy industry with their look of timorous disdain.
Fourteen thousand - the chimneys of Casapalca's smelters were pins stuck in the carpet of the valley miles below - 15,000-600 more, and the train climbed up and over, and rested on the top of the cold, wind-swept Andean roof. All about were peaks and blankets of snow. One rose painstakingly and walked with care. Fifteen thousand feet is a good bit of a jump to take before breakfast. Behind the railway station Mount Meiggs climbs up another 2,000 feet, whence, through air so crystalline that one might fancy one could walk to the summit in half an hour, it looks down on both sides of the divide. To the west is the long descent, to the east the chilly plateaus and snow valleys of the Andean treasure land.

Engineering Difficulties

It will be readily surmised from the foregoing that the courageous builders of this unique mountain railway surmounted some of the greatest obstacles ever encountered in the history of engineering, and the traveler is filled with perpetual astonishment as he finds himself ascending from height to height; far below him in the valley the slender streak of rail which marks the ground over which he has passed a few minutes before, while towering above him, as far distant in an upward direction, the further course of the line is indicated by a tunnel opening. The sublime grandeur of the scenery met with in these high regions baffles description.

It was now noon, and, in spite of the unaccustomed altitude, we ate a hearty Peruvian breakfast, consisting of soup, salad, several meat courses, vegetables, wine, and fresh strawberries and cream. Leaving the general manager's car to be brought down by the next regular train, we transferred to the handcar and pushed off. The experiences of the next four hours are too kaleidoscopic for accurate or detailed recollection.

We started amid snow and ice, bundled up in sweaters, overcoats, and blankets, and landed in lemon and orange groves four hours later. Continuously before us unrolled a grandpanorama, ever changing and ever more wonderful. Whereas our train had painfully toiled upward foot by foot, we now seemed to rush down a mile at a swoop. But two stops were made in the hundred miles, one for a section gang repairing track in I tunnel, and again to let the up passenger train by. Going at breakneck speed our handcar rushed out of one black tunnel, across a swaying bridge swung over the chasm of the Rio Rimac, and into the darkness of another tunnel cut out of the sheer face of the cliff. As we careened across the Infiermillo bridge, one of our party aptly described his impressions as a "flash of daylight accompanied by a sinking of the heart."

Tunnels En Route

In all we rushed through fifty-seven tunnels, crossed as many flimsy-looking bridges and slowed down for thirteen switchbacks. The fastest kilometer was made in fifty-six seconds (about 40 miles per hour), and the fastest single stretch of twenty-seven kilometers in twenty-nine minutes (about 35 miles per hour). When one considers the steep grades and the sharp curves necessary to get a rail road through such I canyon, the fact that our light handcar, traveling at such a speed and controlled only by a hand brake, stayed on the rails, is the best evidence in the world of the excellent construction of the line and of the, vigilance of the maintenance force.

We reached Lima just as the evening train was pulling out for Chosica, so that our roundtrip had taken just twenty-four hours. Lima stands some five hundred feet above the sea, and, sheltered by the lofty mountains, occupies a site of great natural advantages. "Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, nor ever wind blows loudly." As Prescott wrote, "Amidst the woe and destruction which Pizarro and his followers wrought on the devoted land of the Incas. Lima, the beautiful City of the Kings, still survives as the most glorious work of his creation, the fairest gem on the shores of the Pacific." Its renowned Cathedral, founded by Pizarro in the year 1535, and where his remains now rest; its innumerable churches and convents; its grand old Spanish houses with their exquisite carvings; its quaint blend of the mediaeval with the modern; all unite to render Lima justly famous amongst the cities of the world. It is well provided with hotels, and boasts a good service of trams, electric light, and other up-to-date conveniences. In planning the city, Pizarro made the squares large and the streets unusually wide. This latter feature at once attracts the attention of the visitor, as it is in such marked contrast with so many other Spanish-American cities founded about the same time.

Mountain Sickness

In view of the increasing travel to South America, a few remarks about mountain sickness may be of interest to prospective travelers. I have known of many people who have refrained from going to South America and have even denied themselves many, interesting trips nearer home from a fear of this ailment. Personally, I have never lived for any length of time above an elevation of 500 feet. I made my first trip to Peru just after finishing several years' work on the Panama Canal, and was in a very debilitated condition. We heard terrible tales of "soroche" from all our friends in Lima, and so were prepared to expect anything, yet we climbed to almost 16,000 feet and back in less than 24 hours, and later crossed the Andes at a number of different places by train and by mule at similar elevations.
Except for the lassitude following overeating and a pounding of the blood vessels due to the reduced pressure, we at no time felt any tendency toward sickness or nausea; nor at any time (luring the entire tour did – we see any one else so troubled. I have, however, seen people troubled in Colorado arid Mexico at considerably less elevations. In my opinion, the tales of 41 “soroche" are very much exaggerated, and while one cannot draw general conclusions from the experiences of a few individuals, I believe that many of the cases actually observed are due to imagination, hysteria, Old age, violent exercise, or some inherent weakness.

During my travels in South America I have had many adventures and have seen many strange and curious things, but none for novelty, thrill, and magnificence, to compare with the hand-car coast down the Oroya Railway of Peru.

End Notes and Bibliography