Trans-Andean Rail Trip

The Train booth that replicates the journey through Peru as part of the Good Will Tour. This display is part of the current temporary exhibit, Viva Hoover, now temporarily closed due to COVID-19.

The Hoovers tour down the west coast of South America took them to Valparaiso Chile on the battleship USS Maryland by December 11th.  Then, rather than taking the eleven day trip around the southern edge of the continent to the east coast, they took the Transandine railroad from Chile to Buenos Aires.  This reduced travel time to thirty six hours.

The railroad itself was a tremendous feat of civil engineering.  Begun in the 1880s, the rail route was completed in 1910.  It spanned the 800 miles from the Pacific coast of Chile to the capital city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, traversing the Andes, whose mountains towered more than 10,000 feet, in the process.  Near this apex, the rail road ran two miles through the Cumbre tunnel that crossed the Chilean-Argentine border.  The steepest gradients were at the higher altitudes, so engineers used a narrow gauge rail bed to allow engines to pull the trains up the grade.  This narrower track ran the 154 miles from Los Andes, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina.

At the time of the Hoovers’ trip, the promotional material for the Transandine route promised unrivaled scenery, luxurious travel, excellent cuisine and efficient service.  The train made three trips each week in the summer months and two trips per week during winter.  Given the temperatures at altitude, the promoters offered assurances that the comfort of passengers would be safeguarded by double glazed windows.  Ruth Fesler, Lou Hoover’s secretary, kept a diary wherein she described this part of the trip.  Fesler devoted four pages to this description, noting scenery, weather, security along the tracks and an elaborate luncheon.  She then comments: ‘After lunch everyone curled up as best he could to keep warm (3* below zero!) and no one much interested in looking at the scenery!’  Reality bites like a cold mountain wind.

The promotional brochure for the Transandine route also featured a photograph of the statue of Jesus at the border.  The inscription reads: ‘Sooner shall these mountains crumble into dust than the people of Argentina and Chile break the peace which they have sworn to maintain at the feet of Christ the Redeemer.’  These optimistic words crumbled into dust in the late 1970s as tensions between Chile and Argentina led them to close the route.  After tensions eased between the two nations, rail passenger traffic briefly resumed in 1979.  As this proved not to be profitable, such traffic soon ended.  Reality intrudes in the cold numbers of a profit and loss statement.

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