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Appendix 8 first part

The opening of the Neuquen route of the FCS; translated from Chapter 2 of Arturo Coleman's book.

Chapter II


Perhaps in my long life as a railwayman, I have not been involved in a work of such vital importance for the Argentine, as I was with the railway line from Bahía Blanca to the [river] Neuquén, built in an incredibly short time, in the middle of a desert, when nothing could make one imagine that, in such a short time, such a radical change in this extensive and rich part of the Republic would result.

It is no secret to anyone, that the line to the Neuquén, before it was of utilitarian use, was purely strategic and, in fact, preventative and pacifying. The rails to Neuquén contributed to the consolidation of years of peace for the Argentine, demonstrating, in a visible way, that there was no sacrifice, nor enterprise, which could have brought it about, if the prodigious sentiments of patriotism, intelligence, capital and work were not combined.

With the same heading as this chapter, inspiring my work as a railwayman, I spoke to a conference, at the request of the Asociación Bahiense de Cultura Inglesa [The English Cultural Association of Bahía Blanca?] on 1 August 1944. On re-reading it, I find little to change in what I had prepared then. I reproduce that text, because I understand that in it is condensed a most interesting chapter in the development of the Southern Railway which itself constitutes a page in its own right of Argentine history.

Brief Summary of a Frontier Conflict

Here is a bit of history. The sword of Damocles, of a possible war between Chile and Argentina, was about to fall on the heads of both countries throughout half a century, compromising their political and economic futures. [End of page 155]

Chile‘s occupation of a portion of Magallanes territory in 1843, signalled the start of the frontier dispute with that Republic. Four years later, the diplomatic debate started with the protest formulated by the Argentine Government and renewed successively and alternately, when internal and external political circumstances permitted, and resulted in various treaties, among them those of 1856 and 1881.

When the time came to draw the line of the agreed frontier on the ground, following the appointment of the experts stipulated in the convention of 1888, a question arose which required altering the treaty line which had been defined as the water-shed of the Andes. Since then, a divergence of opinion in respect of the rules of procedure to be followed in the demarcation was noted among the experts. This intense divergence of opinions caused the works projected for the summer season of 1892-93 to be abandoned.

In Chilean newspapers the clamours increased, day on day. War was spoken about impertinently. In 1894, Chile ordered a formidable military preparation, sending General Korner to Europe to buy armaments and engage German officers, and authorized the construction of a second fleet. The season of 1894-95 then had to be fruitless. The Chilean and Argentine commissions could not understand each other.

International questions had been almost always settled in the Argentine Republic by means of conceding lands which it owned, with a prodigality which considered its rich inheritance as inexhaustible. Chile, on the other hand, had advanced its frontiers over its neighbours, so that eventually the poor one became the richest, by means of joining all that the others gave, whether high quality or poor.

It has been said that two rival ancient noble houses had engraved on their heraldic shields symbolic mottoes. "Twist and don‘t double," said one, "Double and don‘t twist," said the other. The first could well be appropriate to the Argentine shield.

In these years, Chile furtively sent numerous commissions of officers into the interior of our territory, charged with studying the topography of the Argentine frontier regions, not from the point of view of its geography, but that of the military. The cries increased with repercussions in Europe. Bankers suspended business with us; immigration was paralysed; business within the country was checked; capital became nervous, and public opinion suffered the terror of the spectre of war.

Just then, the National Government started to act, and the first measure which it took was to promote the construction of a strategic railway to enable an army, in case of war, to be deployed in the direction of the Andes. [End of page 156]

In mid 1895, His Excellency, the Minister of the Interior, Dr Benjamín Zorilla, expressed the view to the Chairman of the Local Board of the Southern Railway, that the Government had the intention of procuring the construction of a railway to the Neuquén and that they believed that the Southern Railway Company was the best way to achieve this.

The Chairman of the Local Board replied to the minister that, some time ago, a survey of the route had been carried out, and that the information acquired by the company was not promising. It would be necessary for effective state help to be given, as the lands were lacking water and grazing, and the population was sparse over a very wide area.

The Minister of the Interior persisted in his idea, offering in recompense a grant of lands as a premium. This was not accepted, as the whole route of the projected line was wholly in private ownership. Its appropriation was not practicable; thus, after careful study of the matter, with the object of helping the Executive Power, the Minister of the Interior, Dr Amancio Alcorta, on the one hand, and Don Guillermo White, on behalf of the Southern Railway, on the other hand, signed a contract on 16 March 1896 for the urgent construction of the line. As soon as it was sanctioned by the chambers of Deputies and of Senators, the plans were presented. By a decree of 13 September 1897, the first section of 175 kilometres from Bahía Blanca to Río Colorado was opened. The second section, between Río Colorado and Choele Choel (today‘s Darwin station) was opened on 30 June 1898; the third, between Choele Choel and Chelforó, 56 kilometres on 31 December of the same year and, finally, on 30 May 1899 as far as the confluence with the Río Limay.

During the last years of the government of Dr José Evaristo Uriburu, the question of the frontiers with Chile became more serious. Tension in the relations with the neighbouring republic increased alarmingly. The imminence of open conflict lead the two governments to complete and organise their armed forces to meet any emergency.

The overexcitement of opinion, all the time growing, augured a most dangerous situation and carried the conviction that the solution to the dispute was fatally destined to be resolved by force of arms. This epoch, 1896, coincided with the introduction of compulsory military service, initiating the first conscription and the concentration of recruits in Curumalán. This involved me actively in the transport of troops, arms and provisions. [End of page 157]

The military preparations required immense expense. Boats and stores were acquired. The budgets for 1896 and for 1897 were in deficit by 52 million [pesos] and 40 million [pesos]. The external and internal debt grew. In 1897, as war was seen to be imminent, a national impress with bonds of $100, bearing 6% interest was initiated. $38,405,000 was raised [$ = peso, not dollar].

Any recklessness could set off the explosion. But serenity and reflection, which men who manage public business did not abandon, exorcised the danger which floated in the heated atmosphere generated by the intransigent and bellicose press. The enormous weight of responsibility lent weight to the side of peaceable solutions, making governments understand anew and select a course of action which, with efficacy, calmed the spirit.

The meeting, at which the experts presented their considered lines for the whole frontier, took place in August 1898, requiring the two governments to provide what was necessary for the studies not yet carried out. They were successful, and put them in a position to determine their general lines after the summer of 1897-98. Previously, by the protocol of 13 April 1896, agreement was reached that what was not agreed by the experts would be submitted to arbitration by His Britannic Majesty.

In October 1898, for the second time, Lieutenant General Julio Argentino Roca became president. He distinguished himself for his policy of a friendly approach and continental solidarity, starting with an historic meeting in the Straights of Magellan before the year‘s end. This was, at the same time, a first step, a point of departure, an angular base, a handful of seeds of civilization, of peace and of a happy future.

After the presidential meeting in Magallanes, the visit of the frigate Sarmiento to the Chilean ports, and then of the Chilean cruiser Zenteno to Buenos Aires, taking the Chilean delegates to the conference which defined the frontiers on the Puna, clearing the northern horizon and always, despite the great difficulties, made worse by the suffering and the great impatience of the people and by the death of the distinguished Chilean president, Errázuriz, who, in his own country, with a fraternal embrace in the Straits of Magellan, had forcefully lifted the white flag of a new policy, distinguished by great thinking of civilization and concord, which advances, prevails, grows roots, and flourishes, in a dark stormy climate, and at last produces its fruits in the pacts of May 1903, which ended the old differences between the two sovereign nations of the Andes.

The British arbitration decision of 20 November 1902 recognised Argentine rights in the South, but awarded 54,000 square kilometres in the Puna to Chile who came out advantageously. Nevertheless Argentina, in the honour of the peace, accepted the loss and good relations developed between the two countries. [End of page 158]

The experts who defined the frontiers were Dr Francisco P. Moreno for the Argentine and Don Diego Barros Arana, for Chile and, as the arbiter‘s representative, Sir Thomas Holdich.

The Opening Ceremonies

As I said before, the opening of the line from Bahía Blanca to Neuquén was a national achievement. It was opened by His Excellency the President of the Republic, Lieutenant General Julio A. Roca, on 1 June 1899. Among the retinue were General Luis María Campos, Minister of War; Commodore Martín Rivadavia, Minister of the Navy ; Dr Emilio Frers, Minister of Agriculture; Dr Emilio Civit, Minister of Public Works, the Honourable William A. C. Barrington, Her Britannic Majesty‘s special envoy and plenipotentiary minister; thirteen national senators, among whom was Lieutenant General Bartolomé Mitre; 61 national deputies; Dr Benjamín Paz, President of the National Supreme Court of Justice; Dr Octavio Bunge, Dr Abel Bazán and Dr Juan E. Torrent, members of the Supreme Court; Engineer Alfredo Demarchi, Vice Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires; Luis Luiggi, engineer responsible for the construction of Puerto Militar; General M. J. Campos; General Francisco B. Bosch and General José I. Garmendia; Mr Ernesto Tornquist, Mr Emilio Lamarca and many high functionaries, as also representatives of the various branches of commerce, banking, insurance companies, shipping firms, railways, journalists, etc making up a gathering of more than three hundred people.

In my role as Superintendent of the Plaza Constitución Section it was my responsibility to arrange the special trains. I travelled on the second one. Three long trains were provided, with every convenience imaginable for the well-being of the travellers. At midnight on 31 May 1899, the first of the trains, in which the President of the Republic travelled, left from El Puerto (nowadays Ingeniero White) station, the second left half an hour later and the last at 1.45 in the morning of 1 June. An exploratory engine preceded them. The rolling stock involved three tank wagons, six vans for provisions, twenty sleeping carriages, nine dining carriages, the presidential saloon, the Southern Railway‘s General Manager‘s saloon, three departmental coaches and a total of sixteen engines for the complete round trip.

The Impressive Flooding of the Río Negro

The trains reached Choele Choel (today‘s Darwin) at midday, but as communication with the stations in advance was cut-off, the President decided to continue the journey with great care, [End of page 159] given that we already knew that the Río Negro was flooding. On reaching Chimpay station, which was the next one, 36 kilometres further on from Choele Choel, the station yard was found to be covered in water from the enormous flood of the Río Negro and, as it was rising rapidly and threatening the embankment, it was decided to turn back from there once the third train arrived. The line was officially opening with the following speeches:

The Speech by Engineer Guillermo White.

"Most excellent President,


The Company of the Great Southern Railway have granted me the great honour of being their representative at the opening of the line to the Neuquén, whose construction has facilitated the means of covering, in hours, the great distances which separate us from Buenos Aires.

Do not forget, Gentlemen, that the distance, two years ago, could not be traversed in less than fifteen days, and this with all sorts of inconveniences and privations, not forgetting danger in all its forms, which the harsh, unsociable and short-of-water wilderness presents.

Meanwhile, I have crossed it today, without feeling its icy blasts, and without being frightened by its impressive loneliness. I have seen it thus, but as the hurricane is felt from the sheltered arm chair close to the fire.

Before this achievement of strength and human intelligence, I must at least record the phrase with which America greeted Europe on transmitting the first telegram across the Atlantic Ocean: [End of page 160]

‘Glory in Heaven to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will. ‘

Men of good will! This is precisely what this great work represents!

Men of other races and tongues, have not dared entrust us with their capital so that we might open up ways through the wilderness, carrying civilization and progress to the most remote areas of our immense territory.

And allow me, Gentlemen, may we remember the frequency with which the good will of the Government, of man and of English capital have been felt in our history.

England was the first nation to recognise our legitimate existence in front of the world; in London, the first enterprise under the historic government of Rivadavia was for the construction of the port of Buenos Aires. From this nation came the first agriculturalists and stock-rearers to this country and to them we owe the introduction of the first breeds of pedigree cattle, sheep and horses which transformed the primitive unproductive native breeds to the choice products which we send to their markets today.

Remember also that the vigorous action of David Robertson (later Lord Marjoribanks), who achieved the formation of this company in London in 1862 which, at once, constructed the railway from Buenos Aires to Chascomús, sprang from a group of English residents, so well sponsored by some Argentine gentlemen.

This group of men, of tenacious will and vigorous optimism and who are still around, Messrs Drabble and Fair, and the present Chairman, Mr Parrish, have never given up feeling affection and a special liking for this soil, making it obvious with long-lasting works.

And it is fair to say that this current of sympathy and English capital has not been limited to the railway undertakings; on the contrary, it is found protecting all human endeavours, from the most humble industry to the strongest banking institution.

Thanks to this same capital, I have no doubt, Gentlemen, that the lands which you have just crossed, and which this railway has joined to the port of Bahía Blanca, will be, in a not too distant future, the seat of villages and cities, and that these thirsty sterile lands will slake their thirst with the abundant waters of the [river] Colorado and the Río Negro, returning to man an hundred fold the fruit of his work, capital and intelligence. And I don‘t harbour doubts in this respect, precisely because I see the country dedicated to work, with a single noble aspiration in its government and people, the longing for peace. [End of page 161]

But, Gentlemen, for this peace to be truly fertile, it requires the most perfect equilibrium among the diverse elements which make up the nation. It needs its action developed under the shelter of just equitable laws which protect and stimulate work, and which are observed without odious exceptions on the part of public authorities, and without painful transgressions on the part of the people.

And, in furtherance of this aspiration towards the ideal, allow me, Mr President of the Republic, to remind you of that phrase of the celebrated English statesman, who attributed the greatness of his country to the faithful compliance with the law, good or bad, but observed without wavering.

I assert, Gentlemen, that because this railway was constructed strictly within the constraints of the law of contract which authorised it, it is the first step in the enlargement of these territories. The efforts of all men of good will, which have contributed with their work or capital to this great work, gather the merited fruit of their labour.

Now Gentlemen, I ask you to stand and accompany me in a toast, because our country is great and happy within the harmonious exercise of its institutions, and because everlasting peace reigns among our children and brothers.

Accompany me also in a toast for the President of the Republic, and with me wish him that, during every year of his government, the immortal month of May may be celebrated with achievements such as the present.

Mr President of the Republic: please hand over the Neuquén Railway to the civilized world. I conclude my speech."

President of the Republic’s Speech

The President of the Republic, Lieutenant general Julio A. Roca, replied as follows:


It is today exactly twenty years since, at the head of a body of the army, I reached these banks of the Río Negro, to establish on them the military forces which we needed to take real and definitive possession of the Pampa and Patagonia, thus fulfilling a law of the Nation and satisfying an aspiration and necessity felt since the first days of the Spanish conquest.

The wilderness, in reality in those times, started in the vicinity of the village of Azul. Olavarría, Carhué, Puán y Bahía Blanca, were merely military forts, lost in the immense savannah of the Pampa, beneath whose protection, small groups of families barely lived with continuous worries and fears. [End of page 162]

To reach the confluence of the [river] Limay with the [river] Neuquén, the division under my direct orders took forty days of continuous marching, crossing territories of which we had hardly any notion, and which the popular imagination populated with innumerable war-like tribes and mysterious terrors.

Twenty years later, in this picturesque valley, where once we found fresh tracks of the fugitive indian, we greet the sun of May and raise up our tents alongside the great river with the immense satisfaction of having completed a successful campaign, enlarging the homeland‘s dominions and resolving for ever the age-old problem of the frontiers.

On completing today this new conquest, which is complementary to that one, allow me, Gentlemen, linking one enterprise with the other, to recall the memory of the expedition of ‘79, which reminds me on this memorable occasion of all my companions-in-arms. Many of them cannot associate themselves with this grand celebration of civilization, who prepared, nevertheless, when they advanced step by step, experiencing all types of privations and suffering, on the road in the wilderness so that the settler with his flocks and agricultural tools might peacefully use and work the land and the railway advance triumphantly to receive his products to carry them to the ports and consumers‘ markets.

On this great day, it is worth remembering the Argentine soldier who lived in a constant battle with the savage, and has been the pioneer of our progress in the immense space, closed by barbarism which colonization has left us as an inheritance.

Gentlemen: This railway which allows us to achieve in a few hours, conveniently and comfortably, the [End of page 163] undertaking of the journey which the divisions of the national army took, experiencing great difficulties, was born under the administration of Dr Uriburu, in difficult and dangerous times for the Republic, considering purely strategic objectives. Providence, or the good sense of the people, has wanted it to become a new bond of peace and friendship with Chile, because, instead of stopping there, it has later to go onto find the Pacific through the Andes.

In such circumstances, the Board of the Southern Railway, as if it had a clear vision of the future, without making strict calculations, without wavering for an instant, undertook the work, which the government required in name of national security. Not skimping on finance, nor time, nor effort, it laid the rails from Bahía Blanca to the Neuquén, with unprecedented speed. This it is a new and beautiful testimony of the benefits that the country owes to the capital and the enterprising genius of the English.

When recognizing it thus, we cannot forget that nucleus of energetic resolute men who established the Southern Railway Company, among whom you have named Messrs Drabble and Fair and its present Chairman, Mr. Parish, old and staunch friends of the Argentine Republic. I must also link your name, Mr. White, with that of those who, working for the good and the progress of the country, have earned your gratitude through their fine personal qualities.

The Southern Railway Company has developed with the national life. In 1865, little more than one hundred kilometres long and with a capital of £750,000, today is 3,500 kilometres long and has a capital of £21,000,000; a remarkable example of the progress of a great company and of the benefits which one finds here ?the capital in the hands of intelligent and practical businessmen.

With such help, the territories which we have just crossed will, without a doubt, in the not too distant future, as I have said, be seats of populations and new industries. Its irrigation is easy, taking advantage of the mighty rivers that the nature has put to its service.

Many years will not pass before this valley of the Río Negro, as the valley of the Nile, and provided with an equally amazing fertility, becomes an emporium of production and wealth.

We arrive happily at an era in which we can deliver all sorts of flattering perspectives. The Republic is on a par with all other nations. Order is fixed in its breast, and the desires of progress reveal themselves with extraordinary vigour, approaching the future with tranquillity and confidence.

Under these auspices, gentlemen, I am pleased to declare open the line from Bahía Blanca to the Neuquén."

Hardly had the President‘s speech been completed, than a hurried departure was made due to the advancing flood waters. [End of page 164]

An official banquet in the middle of the countryside

Two minutes after the last train had passed a culvert of five metres span near Chimpay, the embankment and the bridge collapsed under the force of the water. If this had happened while the trains had been to the west of it, they would have been trapped there for several weeks. After staying a short while at Choele Choel (nowadays Darwin), looking at the scene created by the flooding river, whose waters reached within a hundred metres of the station, the journey was continued to Fortín Uno, where the three trains were placed alongside each other on the sidings in order to hold the official banquet, which was to have been held in Fortín Roca, where all he preparations had been made in a building specially built for this purpose. The purvey arrangements were entrusted to the most expert firm in the Federal Capital.

As the night was cold, all the windows of the coaches were closed and the glass misted-up, which prevented what was happening in the other dining saloons from being seen or heard. After the banquet there were various speeches. At midnight the trains set off for El Puerto [station].

As I have said, the official banquet was to have been held at Roca, where the most complete preparations had been made. Waiters and everything necessary had come from Buenos Aires, except the champagne, cigars and the orchestra which came in our trains. The champagne and cigars had reached Buenos Aires in the French steamer Chile, which had been held up by quarantine which in turn delayed the departure of the trains from Buenos Aires for a few days so that they could take these elements to the site of the banquet. The carrying in our trains of the orchestra, the drinks and the cigars lead to the success of the banquet held in the dining carriages in Fortín Uno station, which never since has had a similar spectacle.

As has been seen, the construction of the line to the Neuquén was a result of the dispute with Chile over the frontiers and the Argentine Government‘s having started negotiations with the Southern Railway. These negotiations resulted in certain concessions, because there was absolutely no prospect of traffic due to the arid unpopulated nature of the country and the lack of rain.

The only immediate use which could be perceived was that, one day, it would be possible to construct a speedy route into Chile, given that the line was solidly made using materials of prime quality. [End of page 165]

The necessary investigations were made very quickly, leading to the line‘s being constructed rapidly. There were no records of previous flooding to guide the engineers in the provision of facilities to allow water to cross the line. Traces of flows resulting from heavy rains, years ago, in the upper desert, and leading to the Río Negro, were used to determine where water would cross the line. The flood which took place at the opening of the line, destroyed many kilometres of line, which had to be later rebuilt on higher ground.

Before there was the line from Bahía Blanca to Neuquén, it took seventy days to get war materials to the frontier, while with its construction this was reduced to six days, and now, with the rails extended to Zapala, not more than 48 hours. This circumstance probably induced the Chilean Government to accept arbitration. The dispute was referred to King Edward of England who appointed Colonel Holdich to undertake the necessary studies. These determined amicably the outstanding question, thus avoiding war, which at times had seemed inevitable.

After the opening ceremony was completed at Fortín Uno, the trains returned to El Puerto [station], where they spent the night.

Change of name of "El Puerto" to "Ingeniero White"

During that evening‘s dinner in the dining carriage of the presidential train, the President of the Republic in an impromptu speech in honour of Don Guillermo White, who was present, renamed the area of El Puerto as Ingeniero White and at the same time today‘s Puerto Belgrano naval base was changed from Puerto Militar. On his return to Buenos Aires he confirmed these new names by decree of 19 June 1899, which in its operative part decreed:

Article First – Substituting for the Southern Railway‘s station names of Punta Alta and Puerto, respectively Puerto Militar and Ingeniero White prior to the formalities required by the General Management of Ways of Communication. Article Second – Communicate, publicise and insert in the National Register. – Roca. – Emilio Civit.

During the dinner at the smart Ingeniero White station, the President of the Nation received news that a member of his family in Buenos Aires had taken ill and had asked for him to be there. Accordingly, His Excellency decided to start his journey back to the Federal Capital right away. He left at midnight on a special train with a number of members of his retinue. His Excellency personally oversaw the lighting of the engine‘s fire and its preparation. [End of page 166]

The following morning a train was made up of eight dining carriages and a saloon for the retinue who had stayed behind in order to visit Puerto Militar which was under construction under the direction of Engineer Luis Luiggi. To honour the visitors, the coastal batteries were fired, after which the return was made to Ingeniero White. After remarshalling the trains with their respective dining carriages, a start was made back to Buenos Aires via the Lamadrid line, reaching the capital the following day, having passed through a terrible wind and rain storm. With this exception, the whole of the rest of the journey had been undertaken in pleasant, if somewhat cool weather, given the time of the year.

Recalling the Past

The opening of Neuquén station, after the construction of the great bridge over the river of the same name in July 1902, altered the appearance of the territory enormously, given that recently [End of page 167] the products of the Cordillera and the Pre-Cordillera, which had previously enriched the Chileans, started to increase, and to be inclined more towards the Argentine markets. The new capital of the territory was established in Neuquén, having been moved from Chos Malal [End of pages 168 & 169] on 12 September 1904. The government of the Neuquén was created by a law of 18 October 1884, defining Campana Mahuida in December that same year as capital, which was transferred in 1888 to Chos Malal and finally to Neuquén.

Before passing to Chos Malal, the capital had been temporarily in Cordihué and Ñorquién. The first governor of the territory was Colonel Don Manuel José Olascoaga.

It is interesting to note that among the methods adopted by the Minister of the Interior, Dr. Joaquín V. González, to improve the administration of the national territories was the practice of visiting the various territories. Dr. Gabriel Carrasco, head of the second section of that ministry, undertook these visits.

Dealing with little known regions, full of unexploited natural riches, which form the reserves which this country offers to the world‘s civilizations, I consider it to be of some interest to quote some paragraphs of Dr Carrasco‘s formal report which he passed to the Minister in 1900, following an eventful and emotional visit to Neuquén territory. Dr Charrasco said:

"Thirty six hours by train were sufficient for me to reach the edge of the great and beautiful Neuquén river, where less than twenty years ago sat that powerful monarch of the Argentine pampas, who is now dethroned and consoles himself by wearing a multicoloured [End of page 170] colonel‘s uniform, which he had been given in exchange for this ancient sovereignty. ¡NAMUNCURÁ! How many memories this name awakens in the mind of an Argentine!

Villages, towns, hamlets, rivers, the [river] Colorado, which was the frontier in 1833, the Río Negro, whose upper course was a mystery until the campaign of 1880, have unfolded in front of my eyes through the windows of the train.

Leaving Bahía Blanca, the old rail-head of our civilization, all, or almost all, which one sees is new, is the child of intelligent man over the barbarity which, during so many years, had its hide-outs here."

And he adds: "Two communities are being established at the extreme end of this line of the Southern Railway: that on the left bank which is known as Limay (now Cipolletti) and on the right which is called Neuquén station.

Visit the Justice of the Peace, Señor Pascual Claros. His place is made up of two mud shanties, a table and various chairs."

The reference, then, is made to the journey from the confluence to Chos Malal, the then capital of Territory of Neuquén, in which, for so many years, was the barbarous throne of savagery in constant battle with civilization.

He said: "Chos Malal is like Timbuctoo, the ancient and mysterious city in the centre of Africa, or like Lake Chad in the same region, which had not been known by civilized man other than through the fantastic tales of a lost traveller, who had heard them from the lips of slaves escaped from their despotic masters.

Neuquén station, located 1194 kilometres from Buenos Aires, is reached in twenty eight hours in sleeping carriages, having a restaurant and all modern conveniences.

In Neuquén the difficult journey truly starts; it is as well to anticipate it.

We must make our journey in six days, of which only the first and last offer us rest and sustenance under a roof. For the rest, wastelands and sandy deserts are crossed, where there are no villages, no trees, no people, no shade.

For those of us in Buenos Aires who are used to travelling in six hours to the City of Rosario, whose distance away is the same, it will seem amazing that it took six days to reach Chos Malal from Neuquén, but to these we must advise them, that a year ago it took fifteen days and, until two years ago, there was only one mail delivery per month. When the governor, señor Lisandro Olmos, arrived for the first time and there was no railway to Neuquén, it took him a month and a half to reach Chos Malal from the Federal Capital.

Finally, eleven years ago in 1889, I remember a beautiful evening in which I strolled along the streets of the capital city of Chile and I had the pleasure of meeting with my distinguished friend Colonel Don Manuel [End of page 171] José Olascoaga, who at that time was chief of the boundary commission for the Bolivian frontier, and I said to him "My Colonel! How pleased I am to see you here! What good thing has brought you to Santiago?"

He replied to me, "I‘m going to my governorship in the Neuquén."

"What? To go to Neuquén you‘re going by Santiago de Chile?"

"It‘s obvious my good friend," he replied to me, "taking the train from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, crossing through the Cordillera to here, and then recrossing opposite Neuquén, I get to my governorship there much more quickly and relaxed than I would have been riding on horseback across the hundreds of leagues of pampas, deserts and mountains which separate that place from the Argentine capital."

Here end the paragraphs of Dr Carrasco‘s report to his superiors.

Chileans born in the Argentine.

Frankly, it must be admitted that, before the arrival of the railway to Neuquén, the small population and little commerce which there was, had many more connections with Chile than with the Argentine.

I will relate a curious case to illustrate this. It happened during the visit in November 1919, of Mr Lemarque, the Minister of Agriculture, to the first oil well in Plaza Huincul. [End of page 172]

Engineer Cánepa, in charge of the works, had opened a school in a house to teach the children of the increasing number of workmen to read and write. I invited the Minister to listen to a conversation which I initiated with a pupil from which he would learn of the ignorance and erroneous knowledge of the natives of the Neuquén [territory] as to their true nationality.

I selected at random a boy about twelve years old and asked him what he was called. Satisfying my question, I then asked him about his nationality, to which he replied "Chilean". "Where were you born?" "In Neuquén," he replied. I continued "Where were you baptised?" "In Neuquén," he replied. "Then you are an Argentine," I declared. But the youngster vehemently declared "no," he was Chilean.

In honour of the Minister, the Argentine flag had been hoisted on top of the tower at the oil well and pointing to it, "This is your country‘s flag," to which he replied that it was not, and that he preferred his own country‘s flag, completed convinced that he was Chilean.

From the arrival of the rails at Neuquén and Zapala, and the start of the progressive intensive official action, everything changed, and no doubt at all could linger among the inhabitants, that Neuquén Territory is clearly Argentine, and that those who are born there, whatever the nationality of their parents, are Argentines.

On the arrival of the first trains at Neuquén and the establishment of government there, transport agencies, cartage firms, stores and all types of business houses started to develop actively and gradually the population [End of page 173] and the products of the territory and the mountains were channelled more towards Argentine markets. The same happened with those in Colonia Lucinda, Colonia Roca and the Upper Valley.

The marvellous effect of irrigation on dry lands.

During the occupation of the Río Negro Territory by military forces, an irrigation canal was dug in 1882 with its point of abstraction on the Río Neuquén. Even though it was of simple construction, it could irrigate between 300 and 1,000 hectares of land. In the memorable flooding of the Río Neuquén in 1899, it was almost totally destroyed, the cultivated land washed away, villages knocked down and the canal almost completely infilled.

The waters of that flood rose to a metre above the floor level of the houses and advanced on the military encampments, destroying the nascent village of General Roca, where most of whose houses were built of adobe. All that was left after the flood was the San Miguel school and the chapel of the Salesian Congregation, because they were more solidly built.

The praiseworthy work of the Salesian priests, as much in Río Negro [territory] as in the Neuquén [territory] and Tierra del Fuego [territory] consecrated their lives to remedying the ignorance and barbarity of the children of the ancient forest-dwellers of those districts, causes astonishment. It is logical and just to count them among the most advanced Argentine representatives of progress in the South.

The aforementioned canal was rebuilt during the occupation of the military forces, but its operation remained precarious and risky, because of the constant threat to its point of abstraction from the untamed river.

The resident engineer of the bridge over the Neuquén [Engineer Carlos Krag] proposed a new intake and the necessary materials for the work were sent in 1902. They had been deposited on the banks of the river when a large flood swept them away and altered the course of the river.

For many years the canal operated with difficulty, providing irrigation to a few hectares of land.

The Cooperativa de la Colonia Roca organisation was established on 27 September 1907. The acquisition of small-holdings required the contribution of $50 [$ = peso] per hectare for the maintenance of this canal.

Under the intelligent guidance of Don Patricio Piñeiro Sorondo, the president of the co-operative, the bed of the canal was enlarged to obtain a flow of 2,500 to 3,000 litres per second of water.

The alterations in level were undertaken from January 1910 and completed a year later with complete success [End of page 174] which added to the fame of the Argentine Engineer José A. Marcet, who was an enthusiastic follower of the English school of irrigation. His renown in the planning of hydraulic works, undertaken in Mendoza, Tucumán and Patagones, was confirmed in Río Negro. The new canal cost the cooperative the sum of $700,000.

The village of General Roca, as I‘ve said, was almost totally destroyed by the flood of 1899. It was rebuilt in a better selected site some four kilometres to the west of the original, in a spot which the waters of the Río Negro could not reach in its floods. The village was called Roca Nuevo.

The life of this village was simply vegetative until 1912, when the canal reconstructed by the Cooperativa de Irrigación was opened to the users of irrigation as a public service. In due course, the village of Roca knew how to make the best use of the benefits of irrigation.

This canal irrigated a portion of the rich soils of the Alto Valle of the Río Negro, since Colonia Roca alone comprised 40,000 hectares. In the area of Zorrilla, adjoining Colonia Roca, were another 40,000 hectares extending to the east of Chinchinales station or almost a length of 100 kilometres of uncultivated land, traversed by the railway. It was necessary to study the possibility of increasing the irrigation on a grand scale.

Engineer Guillermo Villanueva, former Director of Public Works of the Nation, knowledgeable about men and things in his profession, in his journey through Europe, engaged on behalf of the Government, the Italian Engineer César Cipolletti to direct the hydraulic and irrigation works in the Province of Mendoza and then in San Juan and part of Tucumán.

Law 3,927, dealing with the construction of irrigation canals and studies of the Río Neuquén, Río Negro and Río Colorado was submitted to the Minister of Public Works. The President of the Republic commissioned, by decree of 31 December 1898, Engineer Cipolletti to prepare, prior to a general inspection, a preliminary report on the best and most favourable usage of the aforementioned rivers to provide irrigation for the lands through which they pass, defining in a memorandum the studies which would need to be undertaken.

In the first days of the month of February 1899, all was ready to start the task and, on the 14 of the same month, the commission met in General Roca, proceeding to undertake the final arrangements for the different expeditions and to brief the engineers seconded to the Director on the instructions relative to carrying out the various parts of the studies. In the brief space of eight months, the completed report was submitted to the Government, giving the answers and solutions to the question posed in the memorandum, recommending the best and most convenient courses of action [End of page 175] for the use of the waters of the rivers Limay, Neuquén, Negro and Colorado in order to apply them to the irrigation of the land which could be worked.

The critical international situation, which then affected the country, caused the suspension of the works which had been reported upon, but Engineer Cipolletti‘s technical concept remained demonstrable, as much in the great report presented as in its resistance to analysis and criticism for almost a decade.

Engineer Cipolletti, having finished his work in Argentina, returned to Italy, and, during nine years, undertook important works involving the greatest hydraulic problems in his homeland. Amongst other important studies, he prepared that for the improvement of the regime of the river Tiber, from Rome to the sea. This work earned him recognition by the king who honoured him with the title of Commendator.

Again contracted by the Argentine Government to direct the construction of his great project in the Río Negro Territory, he left his homeland for a second time in January 1908, heading for Buenos Aires aboard the steamer Tomaso di Savoia. However, unfortunately, he died on board after a short illness on 23 January of that same year.

Engineer Cipolletti was replaced by one of his assistants, Engineer Decio Severini, and some pertinent negotiations resulted in the appointment of the undertaking of the Southern Railway as the authority responsible for the works. These were assessed by Engineer R.G. Kennedy who, in an extensive report, voiced various objections to the proposals.

The commission of assessors for the works of regularizing the regime of the Río Negro was established by decree of 29 July 1909, in order to rule on the works proposed by Engineer Decio Severini, taking into account the observations made by Engineer R.G. Kennedy in his report. All aspects were considered and, after a lengthy discussion, ruled in favour of Engineer Severini‘s project and declared that the projected work to create a reservoir in the Cuenca [depression] de Vidal was consistent with the requirements contained in law 3,559 and did not prejudice the other complementary works of the overall plan to control the risings of the Río Negro and the suppression of the danger from floods which threatened the valley of the Río Negro giving rise to benefits which justified the expenditure involved by the projected works.

This report was signed by Engineers M. Iturbe, Otto Krause, Julián Romero, E. V. Lange, E. Molina Civit and R. de Candolle, this last being the Deputy General Manager of the Southern Railway.

The works were started on 1 January 1910. The placing of the foundation stone by Dr. José Figueroa Alcorta, the President of the Nation, [End of page 176] took place on 17 March with the dignified solemnity of the momentous event. Also involved in the ceremony was the future president, Dr. Roque Sáenz Peña, who, from this first moment, gave high priority to these works, as the basis of the future greatness of Southern Argentina.

The second half of this chapter.

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Main pages


Along the route



Rolling stock

Over the Andes?


The potash line

Extension fom Cinco Saltos?


1 Itinerary of route

2 Loco list

3 Irrigation map

4 Rögind chapter 25

5 Rögind chapter 30

6 Rögind chapter 49

7 Rögind chapter 55

8 Rögind chapter 56A

9 Rögind chapter 56B

10 Coleman chapter 2

11 Coleman chapter 3

12 Coleman chapter 5

13 Map of FCS system

14 1955 public timetable

15 Modern photos

16 FCS rulebook extracts

17 Wagon diagrams

18 Press articles

19 Potash line decrees

20 Fruit train timetable

21 Trasandino decree

22 Automatic couplings

23 Railmotor specification

24 Southern Transandine agreement

Chapter 3

The BAGSR's route to Neuquén


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