“Across the Isthmus to California:” News of the Tehuantepec Route Across México in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,” 18 December 1858

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When the Temple brothers made their long sea voyages from Massachusetts to the Pacific, Jonathan in the early 1820s to Hawai’i before he moved to California in 1827 and his much younger half-brother Pliny (F.P.F.) to California in 1841, they sailed on the six-month route around the horn of South America.

By the end of the 1840s, however, because of the need for speed with gold seekers clamoring to get to El Dorado, those traveling by the sea (as opposed to those making the very difficult overland trek across the plains, mountains and deserts) sought a variety of routes leading to the Gulf of México and the Caribbean and then across a variety of isthmuses from México south to Panama.

There were plenty of hazards in these undertakings with the jungles and other topographical challenges made considerably worse by the likelihood of tropical diseases—one area of the Caribbean near Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama was labeled “Mosquito Gulf” for just this reason. The death toll was sometimes staggering for those who journeyed through these regions in their quest west.

Still, there were those, like Andrew Boyle, future father-in-law of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, who braved these risks and his 1851 journey took him through Nicaragua as he made his way to San Francisco (and, eventually, to Los Angeles.)

That same year, William Workman decided, having made a significant amount of money selling cattle for the fresh meat to gold miners and other settlers in northern California, to make his only return visit to his native England. He chose not to go to the far southern route which Boyle took, but crossed México, likely from Acapulco over to Veracruz, where a document allowing him to leave for a sea voyage through the Caribbean still survives and was just recently donated to the Homestead from the estate of the late Josette Temple.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the 18 December 1858 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, one of many popular journals that arose in mid-19th century America as literacy rates climbed dramatically and a larger class of residents had more leisure time to devote to reading.

The paper was fairly typical of its time, along with such contemporaries as Harper’s Weekly, Littel’s Living Age, and others. It had national and international news, works of fiction, poems, humor, historical features, a generous selection of woodcut illustrations and a range of advertisements (these latter, of course, helping to pay for the cost of production.)

There are certainly some interesting articles outside of the featured one for this post, including the front cover illustration of the sumptuous Boston Theatre; news from such countries as England, France, “Rio de la Plata” or Argentina, and Nicaragua; “Gossip of the World” from England, France, and Prussia; Hunting and fishing in Canada; a fictional account of the French Bastille; notes on music and drama happenings; a chapter of a short story called “The Beautiful Vagrant;” and reporting, commentary, and humor on the recent message to Congress by President James Buchanan.

Our focus, however, is on “The Tehuantepec Route to California,” one of the several that brought travelers to California from the Caribbean and Gulf of México overland to the Pacific. This article is a continuation of material comprised of illustrations about locales along the route presented in the preceding week’s issue, but here “we now continue our correspondent’s sketches with a view of the starting of the first overland train from Suchil to the Pacific coast.”

Moreover, a full-page engraved map was provided “which conveys at a glance a view of the tree great Transit Routes,” the others being through Nicaragua and Panama, “and nables the advantages to be compared.” As noted, these latter were in operation for several years to date, but “that via Nicaragua is now closed, having been broken up by the filibuster [William] Walker in 1856.”

It was added that “the Panama route, although the farthest from our own shores, has hitherto enjoyed the greats amount of traffic, owing to the accomplishment of a railway line from sea to sea,” and, of course, the Panama Canal would be opened some sixty years later. Still, “the Tehuantepec line bids fair—if its managers are able to sustain their present position—to prove an active competitor.” Finally, it was noted that a route across Honduras was likely to be completed sometime in 1859.

The rticle continued that the Tehuantepec Company was organized in Louisiana “and was the subject of a treaty with Mexico, on the 30th of December, 1853, which secures to the citizens of the United States a right of transit over it for their persons and merchandise, and stipulates that neither government shall ‘interpose any obstacle’ thereto.”

Moreover, the United States was allowed to send federal mail while any government and private material transported across the route was to be free of customs and other charges by the Mexican government.” Obviously, all the leverage in negotiating the treaty was with the United States, which had seized a huge swath of northern México during the war from 1846 to 1848 and it was able to muscle its way through the discussions for the Tehuantepec route.

The paper vaguely referred to “various obstacles of a temporary nature” that delayed progress on the plans developed by the company “but additional activity was brought to bear upon it in the beginning of this year, and it was determined to open at least a carriage road from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as a preparatory step towards the construction of the railroad.”

It was asserted that “the great advantage emjoyed by this route over all the others is its proximity to the United States” which were said to outweigh the problem of not having harbors at either end. The route across Honduras was not as desirable and was considered beter for vessels sailing from Europe.

A lenghty table showed distances from New Orleans, New York, Sydney, China and other cities with mileague and days of travel shown. From New Orleans through Tehuantepec to Ventosa on the Pacific side was not much more than 950 miles and 4 1/2 days of travel, some 500 miles and more than two days shorter than through Nicaragua and Panama. From New York to San Francisco through the new route was 4,168 miles and 18 1/2 days, while the other routes were 700 to 1,200 miles and 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 days longer.

The article observed that “from these figures it will be seen that the Tehuantepec Route has considerable advantage in proximity both to New Orleans and to San Francisco . . . the first passages have been made with much celerity.” Despite the lack of harbors, “the Company propose[s] at some future time to construct a breakwater for the protection of the anchorage” on the Pacific side.

The issues were much more challenging on the Atlantic coast because the Coatzacoalcos River was only 150 feet wide and twelve feet at its deepest, with storms reducing this up to half for much of the year, while waves during these events could be from five to seven feet even in normal conditions. One Army expert stated that he saw thirty vessels stranded in one March storm.

Despite these hurdles, the company sent out engineers and laborers from New York in July 1858 and work commenced soon after arrival on 20 August on the carriage road. The steamer “Quaker City” brought the first pasengers from New Orleans in late October, while another vessel arrived from New York a few days later. The travelers and freight were sent up the river to Suchil and then took to the road for Ventosa.

A full-page illustration by a correspondent to the paper depicted

the vigorous attempts at a start made by the pasengers, and the obstinate resistance offered by their sturdy mules. It was the most ludicrous scene, he writes, it is possible to imagine. Backing, plunging, rearing, kicking, biting, snorting, hee-hawing, and makig themselves generally as perversely disagreeable as a mule can be, the beasts objected to teir riders and to the journey. Several of the inexperienced were thrown, and there was a general shower of passengers, revolvers, sardine boxes, bowie knives, camp kettles, and all the paraphernalia of California travelers; while the blowing of the Suchil’s steam-whistle suddenly filled the air with affright for the mules, and confounded worse the previous confusion.

It turned out that, thugh there were fourteen carraiges provided for transport “the road for some forty or fifty mles of the one hundred and sixteen was quite impracticable for wheels.” So, when leaving Halloween day, the travel by mule was for sixty-two miles and by wagons for the remaining fifty-four, with arrival at Ventosa on 2 November.

The following day, a steamer plied the Pacific shore to Acapulco in thirty-six hours. So, the trip from New Orleans to Minatitlan on the Atlantic shore was 8 1/2 days over 840 miles and then another 95 miles to Suchil. After the 116 miles across the isthmus, the distance to Acapulco from Ventosa was 315 miles.

The total time for stops was forty hours, the longest a short sleep of five hours each on two locales on the route, while dinner at Tehuantepec was four hours and the layover at Ventosa was fifteen. The account concluded that “the workmen of the Company are now actively engaged in prefecting the carriage road, and will probably accomplish a considerable portion of their task before the opening of the rainy season,” starting in May.

Not mentioned is that the product, which was named to tap into the growing market for products that used cocaine, contained 50% alcohol (many patent medicines of the era were loaded with the stuff)!

This article is a fascinating, if somewhat brief, explication of the efforts to develop better isthmian routes across México and Central America during the mid-19th century and yet another example of the American government and private interests leveraging the imbalances of power to achieve their objectives at the disadvantage of the countries through which such routes passed. One wonders if any residents of Los Angeles used the Tehuantepec route (a reliable rail line was not completed across the isthmus until 1907) as they traveled to and from the Angel City to other locales.

Leave a Reply