Drawing on archival sources and more than two dozen oral histories, Rutkow (History/Univ. of Central Florida; American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation, 2012) offers a richly detailed examination of efforts to build a highway from Alaska to the tip of Argentina.
Although there are many histories of the construction of the Panama Canal and the nation’s highway system, the author fills a gap by recounting the political visions, economic hopes, and engineering challenges that played out during nearly 100 years, beginning with the dream of an intercontinental railway. Among the champions of that dream was a former consul to Buenos Aires, the indefatigable Hinton Rowan Helper—one of many colorful characters in Rutkow’s well-populated narrative—who, in the mid-1800s, imagined an alternative to dangerous, unreliable sea travel: 10,000 miles of trains. In 1890, the Intercontinental Railway Commission was established, though with scant participation from Latin American countries. But by 1903, Mexico had begun construction, and small lines linked agricultural zones in Central America. Captains of industry—Carnegie and Gould among them—took notice: The north-south railroad, the Wall Street Journal reported, “has commended itself to the wisdom of many who have studied it on its economic, engineering, and financial sides.” World War I underscored the benefit of hemispheric connections when trade with European markets was impeded. With the expansion of the U.S. highway system, however, and the rise of a new “motoring generation” supplied by influential car manufacturers, the vision of a railroad transformed into a highway network that would foster “closer and more harmonious relations” between the nations of the Western world. After World War II, the road became seen as a “highway of freedom” to prevent the spread of communism in Latin America. Building a highway across difficult terrain proved both dangerous and expensive, but by 1963, the Pan-American highway opened—with the exception of one 400-mile gap of impenetrable jungle.
A fresh, well-documented account of U.S.–Latin American relations.