Railroad to Baguio: Progress and Folly

The cold morning air from December to January prods the Manileño to seriously wish to get out of the city's morning haze and catch a last whiff of Christmas weather in Baguio, where it is chilly all day and the scent of pine trees is real. One hundred years ago, Americans who served the colonial government also looked to Baguio as an escape from Manila. There was no shortage of enticements. The U.S. National Archives has a gigantic poster.
Baguio-01.jpg

It beckons the viewer to an almost Anglo-European vista – on the far horizon lay the outline of blue mountains, at its foothills, a geometric flatland of homes and buildings, dotted here and there with conical pine trees. An American couple gazes at the vista in pleasant contemplation until the foreground announces that this Shangri-la is somewhere else. It directs your gaze towards an image of a local maiden from the region, garbed in possibly Ibaloy costume, her basket of vegetables alongside, inviting the traveler to her bouquet of fresh flowers. An inset depicts a train from the Manila Railroad Company. The poster immediately encapsulates the American imperial fantasy of a cool and pleasant summer resort, 5,000 feet above sea level, served by local maidens and conveniently accessible by train. The place was later named Baguio.

Filipinos know from history textbooks that Baguio, the city among the pines, was an American creation. It all started soon after the independent Republica de Filipinas under President Emilio Aguinaldo surrendered to U.S. forces after a disastrous two-year war that cost a million Filipino lives from battles, famine and various collateral damages. With the U.S. asserting its civilian dominance through a quasi-military colonial rule, it faced a unique opportunity to remake, if not re-shape the Philippine landscape, carte blanche, according to its imperious designs.

With the establishment of a Philippine Assembly, a legislative branch composed of elite natives who served primarily as an advisory body to the American Governor General, the social and physical re-engineering of the Philippines went full steam. All it needed now, was a Summer Capital, a status symbol for any Anglo-European colony of worth in the tropics.

 Dagupan (Damortis or San Fabian) railway leg to Kennon Road (1912). The southern line is marked in red. (U.S. National Archives)

Dagupan (Damortis or San Fabian) railway leg to Kennon Road (1912). The southern line is marked in red. (U.S. National Archives)

Against the moribund performance by the Spanish government who laggardly brought the Philippines into the 19th century, American rule by comparison was a heyday of public works projects, from government buildings to roads intended to make the new imperial acquisition commercially profitable. For Filipinos, Rizal’s Perlas de Oriente could be realized in their lifetimes, even if Rizal himself missed out on it. The railroad was the largest modern public works introduced to the Philippines, which began in 1888 and finished in 1892. The Ferrocariles Manila á Dagupan was an audacious last-ditch effort of the Spanish colonial government to bring the Philippines up to par with its modernizing neighbors. Rizal himself was curious as to its impact and confessed to his German friend Blumentritt that the first blow of the railroad, that is, the change it could trigger, was to his heart. During Rizal’s absence from the country and with his notoriety in the eyes of the Spanish colonial regime, his presumed fiancé, Leonor Rivera, married a British railroad engineer, Charles Kipping, in 1890 (establishing the Kipping-Rivera-Romulo lineage). In 1892, Rizal took the fateful trip on the railroad that he mused about to his friend Blumentritt.  The Riveras had a residence in Dagupan, which was the Northern terminus for the railroad.

Dagupan, which sits along Lingayen Bay, a natural harbor, had a reputation as a "gathering place" for traders of lower northern Luzon. It was accessible enough that in 1574, the Chinese pirate Limahong landed his forces there in an attempt to attack Manila. In 1945 during WWII, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's army landed on Lingayen as they raced to liberate Manila from the north. (Since that war, the Dagupan north railroad line had been unable to recover and eventually went into decline.)

In 1899 the American colonial government, having built an intercontinental railroad from its East Coast to the West, had all the confidence that the Manila-Dagupan railroad could be improved. Indeed, multiple extensions were planned and later executed, among them the so-called Southern line that ran from Manila through Laguna, Quezon-Batangas and to Bicol. The economic benefits were obvious it seemed. Abaca from Bicol, copra from Laguna and sugar cane from Batangas, were all raw products that was much in demand in a rapidly industrializing United States. Abaca alone, a fiber plant used for cordage, was a prized commodity. Given that the U.S. competed as a new oceanic power in early 20th century, abaca was essential to the efficiency of its naval fleet because of its supreme quality as maritime cordage. Copra became valuable later, as a food additive and source of cooking oil; but more importantly, during WWI, its coconut charcoal byproduct was essential in gunpowder production. The railroad, then being the only means of mass transportation, encouraged the movement of people into Manila and its environs.

What was missing in this scheme was an efficient method to transport gold and minerals from the Cordillera mines to Manila. The American colonial administration addressed the dilemma in characteristically practical fashion: Build a summer capital for rest and recreation and at the same construct a road for transporting people and goods to and from the mountains. The Benguet Road project was a perfect solution.

 Walking along flooded rail tracks (U.S. National Archives)

Walking along flooded rail tracks (U.S. National Archives)

By 1914, the Manila Railroad Company (MRC), its name resurrected from the Spanish Ferrocarriles Manila á Dagupan, was blatantly advertising travel to Baguio via railroad even though there was no direct line to it from the lowland. The caveat was that the last leg of the trip from Manila was made initially by oxcarts, then later, by automobile from the foothills to Baguio. Building both legs to get to the summer capital via railroad to the foothills and then by road up the mountains proved to be challenging.

By 1912 America's summer outpost in the Orient, Baguio, was completed, with American tropical architecture and urban planning. Baguio materialized from Daniel Burnham's vision, executed later by his successors William Parson and Ralph Doane. They created a summer city for the American colonial administrators, missionaries and Filipino elite. In the mind of Secretary of War Howard Taft, it was necessary to "recuperate and escape the diseases" that afflicted Oriental society, even if at first, before the automobile, they had to travel by oxcart.

Before it became Manileños’ favorite vacation destination, Baguio, which the Ibaloy previously occupied, was typical of many settlements inhabited by the so-called "Igorotte tribes," a pejorative label for the inhabitants of the Cordillera adopted by the Americans from the Spanish. They were in fact, very diverse and ethnolinguistically distinct communities along the hills and valleys of the Cordilleras, which was designated as the Mountain Province administrative region. The indigenous communities inhabited areas that ranged from the spectacular rice terraces built by the Ifugao, to areas notoriously known as the “headhunting” country of the Ilongot. American colonial administration took great pains and applied much ingenuity to make these diverse communities obey colonial authority. The creation of Baguio was crucial to that effort.

Baguio was the epicenter of the American colonial strategy to Christianize the mountain communities, introduce public education with instruction in English, teach American notions of health and sanitation and bring peace and order among traditionally warring groups. Baguio was therefore, more than just the famed Summer Capital for Anglo- European residents of Manila, an escape from the high heat of the dry season. It was the American version of colonial summer retreats or hill stations like Shimla of British India, Malaysia’s Cameroon Highlands and the French's Hanoi. It was also America’s model for “benevolent colonialism” and enlightened treatment of “primitive” peoples.

According to David Brody's Visualizing the American Empire, who wrote a treatise on Burnham, Baguio with its hilly landscape would be designed like Washington, DC, with a vista overlooking the the city past the park that would later be named in Burnham’s honor. Burnham was also an early proponent of railways; he also favored Manila’s esteros as crucial to city's commerce.

The Benguet Road was essential to the realization of a summer capital. Earlier, the Spanish had already established a sanitarium at La Trinidad, a fertile valley in the foothills of Baguio City. The zigzag road, meant to be temporary until a railway could be built, was a massive undertaking, taking more than the estimated two years of completion. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the supervision of Major Kennon (it would be popularly known as Kennon Road), the project cost over $3 million and employed thousands of laborers, foreign and local, reportedly 20,000 workers at the peak of construction. It was considered the most expensive public works project of the American colonial administration and was over-budget. Hundreds of Japanese and Chinese coolie labor was employed. Workers were also hired from the local Ifugao population. The latter were skilled in assembling the rip-rap for the retaining walls that held back the landslide-prone soil. Officially completed in 1909, the road was an engineering failure in terms of cost and planning and led to Kennon’s quiet departure soon after. (E. Zarate, “Kennon Road to Baguio”)

 Old Kennon Road (Courtesy American Historical Collection, Ateneo de Manila University)

Old Kennon Road (Courtesy American Historical Collection, Ateneo de Manila University)

The Manila-Dagupan railway, in the meantime, underwent rehabilitation from the damage caused by Philippine-American War. The railroad had been key to General Antonio Luna’s strategy for protecting the new republic. To slow down the American advance in pursuit of President Aguinaldo, Filipino soldiers tore up tracks as they retreated farther into the northern Luzon. Pursuing US soldiers, captured one main town after another along the rail line. The Americans had mastered the logistics of railway maintenance and quickly kept the lines open so they could effectively employ rolling flatbeds as weapons of war, not only to transport men and materiel, but also to deploy armored cars with Colt rapid firing guns that could strafe the well-built entrenchments Luna has prepared along the rail line.

 Train-load of U.S. infantry soldiers, ca. 1899

Train-load of U.S. infantry soldiers, ca. 1899

Within a year after the capture of Aguinaldo, railroad authorities reported that repaired engines and stock were in use and the company was making a profit. The next challenge was how to connect the line to the terminus of the Benguet Road, known as Camp One. Here, ingenuity and practicality held supreme. Two approaches to Camp One were possible: from the Dagupan rail terminus, then a road trip to Baguio; the other was via a spur from Damortis to San Fabian, then by automobile to Baguio. Given that even during the 1960s travel to Dagupan took 4 to 5 hours from Manila, and then another three hours up the dangerous zigzag road to Baguio, the Americans really had an unshakable desire for rest and recreation. With convenient access, they made Baguio City more of an American town than Manila, built fresh and free of old Spanish Manila’s decay.

The costs of the Benguet Road and the railroad fueled the Filipino politician’s fear that the enterprise would lead to a monopoly. The native press vociferously in rejected the project and urged the Philippine Assembly not to release funds. The MRC, which had maintained its British ownership under both colonial regimes, prevailed and was able to negotiate a deal in government bond guarantees in exchange for a spur from Dagupan to Camp One, the starting point of the road to Baguio. It was a move to satisfy all stakeholders, albeit, temporarily. The railroad was only good during the dry months of summer. During the monsoon, and the river alongside which the railroad was built overflowed its banks, the rails had to be dismantled and stored for the dry season. The more its critics ridiculed the enterprise as a colonial folly. Other financial machinations had to be entered later to rescue the railroad company from dissolution. Still, as the poster depicts, the allure of Baguio held sway amid the rancor.

In 1912, a traveler would recount the trip:

Leave Manila on board the narrow-gauge European-
style train of the Manila Railroad Company at 8 am, served
breakfast and lunch aboard the dining car. After a hot and
dusty trip, reached the Dagupan railhead at 1:30 pm.

Changed to a branch line at San Fabian for Camp One.
From the station at Camp One, transferred to a passenger
motorbus of the Benguet Auto Line for a slow three hour
climb on the narrow Benguet Road, stopping every now
and then to wait for the ‘down’ traffic to receive dispatches
on the road ahead." (quoted by E. Zarate, “Kennon Road and Baguio”)

Elsewhere, in a poignant anecdote buried among the reports of this period, a Filipino laborer having failed to get a job in Camp One, walked all the way to Dagupan and then from Dagupan to Manila, a good 120 km distance, because he could not afford the fare. Such was the price of progress.


 Dr. Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez has degrees in History, Anthropology, and Education. A professor at City College San Francisco, he teaches a popular course on Philippine History Thru Film. He also directs the NVM Gonzalez Writers' Workshop in California. http://nvmgonzalez.org/writersworkshop/index.html


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