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The Andes rail line

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The original opening of the Lima-to-Huancayo railway line into the Andes in the late nineteenth century had a huge impact on the region and was a major feat of engineering. For President Balta of Peru and many of his contemporaries in 1868, the iron fingers of a railway, “if attached to the hand of Lima would instantly squeeze out all the wealth of the Andes, and the whistle of the locomotives would awaken the Indian race from its centuries-old lethargy”. Consequently, when the American rail entrepreneur Henry Meiggs (aptly called the “Yankee Pizarro”) arrived on the scene, it was decided that coastal guano deposits would be sold off to finance a new rail line, one that faced technical problems (ie, the peaks and troughs of the Andes) never previously encountered by engineers. The man really responsible for the success of this massive project was the Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski. Utilizing timber from Oregon and the labour of thousands of Chinese workers (the basis of Peru’s present Chinese communities), Malinowski’s skill and determination finished Meiggs’ railway over a 30-year period. An extraordinary accomplishment, it nevertheless produced a mountain of debt that bound Peru more closely to the New York and London banking worlds than to its own hinterland and peasant population.

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