Archive for September, 2010

Calamity and Despair: G&Q Railway Photos from the Harman Collection

When my grandmother, Lillien Harman, died ten years ago, she left behind a colossal treasure trove in her Massachusetts attic — old Guayaquil & Quito Railway books, documents, financial accountings, letters, memos, cables in secret code, journals, diaries, personal photos and professional photo albums of the railroad in Ecuador. Tucked away for 100 years, the collection told the secrets and the missing story of the harrowing years of Ecuador’s G&Q Railway construction from 1897-1908, and of the years of my grandfather  — Archer Harman –  in Ecuador as President of the G&Q in the 1920s, before he sold the railway stock to the government of Ecuador.

Here are a few calamitous photos from the early 1920s.

For more information or for use of these photos, please contact Katharine Brainard.

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Home again… but not for long!

Well, we are all home – Brooklyn, NY; Bethesda, MD; and Santa Monica, CA – but not for long! We already have plans to return to Ecuador.

But first comes the sorting of digital video, development/scanning of large- and medium-format photos, transcription of notes, and writing of follow-up emails.

We would like to take a moment to thank all the wonderful folks who helped make this expedition possible on the ground – especially team member Rodrigo Donoso, driver Juan Santos, and Rodrigo’s staff, Fabian, Delfin and Angel.

We met so many wonderful folks (like our double-trouble twins from Huigra in the top photo) who helped us along our way. Here are just a few…

Thank you, thank you, thank you all! We’ll see you again soon!

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Urbina Station… and beyond!

Set on the slopes of the colossal Chimborazo Mountain – King of the Andes – Urbina Station is the highest point of the old G&Q Railway, at 11,800 ft. (3,640 m). Urbina, which is also used as an acclimatization station for mountain climbers, is under the management and care of our team member, Rodrigo Donoso.

When we arrived, Rodrigo’s llamas and alpacas were hanging out along the old railroad tracks in front, munching on a late-afternoon snack of grass. Maximilliano Donoso the Dog leapt off the front porch to greet us with a frenzied welcome. Rodrigo’s adorable daughter, Ariana, showed us how she rides a fuzzy alpaca; the most important part is to hold on tight and have a good time.

Rodrigo also raises guinea pigs (cuy), of which he currently has about a dozen. The boy cuy have it the worst – they get eaten – while the girls stay alive to have babies. Cuy are peppy little furry balls of speed that make squeaky noises that sound like “Cuy! Cuy! Cuy!” Katie fell in love with a baby cuy.

The main room of Urbina is warm and friendly, with a fire going in the wood stove. The seats are padded with colorful hand-woven cushions. The wooden walls are adorned with artwork of Ecuador’s mountains, Edward Whymper illustrations, Simon Bolivar’s lover – Manuela Zaens, and Che Guevara portraits. The floors are all wooden; Rodrigo’s workers have an interesting technique for scrubbing the floors – they move steel wool about with their boots to scrub the wood.

The food served at Urbina Station is incredible, starting out with what Araby called “Frog Butter” – squashed avocadoes – on bread. The soups – quinoa, cauliflower, and potato with fava beans – were awesome. Sliced bread to accompany the soups is toasted on a black slice of volcanic rock on top of the wood stove. We ate mellocos – which look like little baby potatoes, but are not – as well as lupin beans, plantains, babako and melons.

Chimborazo is a mountain of many moods, and the source of many legends. For example, if a thunderstorm arrives and a woman doesn’t hurry from the field and into the house, rumor is that she gets pregnant from Chimborazo. The resulting baby – Chimborazo’s child – is an albino. The nickname for the albino babies is “Chimborazo.” In fact, a number of albinos do live on the slopes of Chimborazo. Sandy and Rodrigo ventured out early in the cold mornings for photo shoots, and managed to get two excellent days of Chimborazo shots. The snow-topped mountain is usually obscured by clouds and fog, and sometimes the mountain doesn’t appear for 10-12 days.

While at Ubrina, 17 new FEEP railroad guides-in-training arrived for a presentation on the construction of the G&Q Railway, now called FEEP. You’d think a two-hour talk/PowerPoint would put them all to sleep, but they seemed very interested in the history, and glad to be there. Here is a photo of us with the guides, in front of the Urbina Station.

Want to visit Urbina Station? Click these links for more information on hiring Rodrigo Donoso as your guide, or staying at Urbina Station. We hope you have as much fun as we did!

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This expedition has been full of serendipitous moments. Many times, people and landmarks have appeared out of nowhere, just went we needed them, to help guide us further along our path. In Quito, Rodrigo’s guide friend, Adriana, came to our hotel room early one morning, with something to show us – a 100-year-old diary of a G&Q railroad worker from Australia that she’d been given by someone she guided. The diary mentioned Major John Harman, Edward Morely, Dr. Davis and other individuals that were in the employ of the G&Q during the construction years of the early 1900s.

It was awesome to hold H.G. Carpenter’s hand-written diary in our hands and read about his days of dysentery and work assignments, frustrations and social events. He came to Ecuador on December 12, 1901 with an Australian railroad crew, but was sick with dysentery much of the time until he departed in September of 1902.

Friday, 15th – Dr. Crow came up to see me today. He says that he will be able to cure me in a few days, but “I hae mi doots.”

Wednesday 28th – I was very bad last night and Robinson telegraphed for the Doctor. The Chinaman cook gave me some opium this morning, which relieved me a lot, but made me feel as if I was drunk. It is the first time I have ever taken opium.

Unfortunately, Carpenter had arrived just when floods and landslides had destroyed a large part of the route up the Chimbo River, the JP McDonald company was failing, and the Major was rerouting up the Chanchan River towards the Devil’s Nose instead.

Wednesday, 4th – Left Huigra at 9 o’clock this morning on the Passenger Train. I think if is the most wonderful ride I ever had in a train. It was something wonderful to see the train take the 29° curves. Arrived in Victoria about 9:30 a.m. Easton was sick in bed when I arrived. I immediately reported to Mr. Bennett who seemed very pleased to see me. Bowlby came down with me. He is going to leave the company and go in the transportation business… From what I hear, I do not expect to leave the G & Q.

Friday, 6th – I went over to see the Major this morning and asked him if it was the Company’s intention to keep me in their employ. He told me as they were closing down the route that he did not have any place for me. I think that I will go straight to San Francisco.

Carpenter left Ecuador, summing up his experience with a whiskey and soda, and commenting on his dysentery, “I’ve sure had some hell in the past year.”

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Up the Devil´s Nose!

The most difficult part of the G&Q Railway construction was La Nariz del Diablo, or the Devil’s Nose.

Our goal was to hike to the top of the Devil’s Nose and camp for the night. We set out from Alausi in the mid-afternoon with three porters in red ponchos from the nearby Nizag community, each with a mule loaded with supplies. We also had Fabian, and Delfín with his wife, Fanny, as the expedition team’s cook.

Walking along the refurbished railway tracks of newly set ties from the U.S., and new rails and gravel, we came upon a small yellow engine of workers chugging along.

They stopped and gave us a ride. The friendly boss, or Jéfe, was from Columbia; José was also working on a “then and now” book of the railway before reconstruction and after.

Then we split off from the tracks and hiked on a path up the mountain, past harvested cornfields and into the sky. At the top of the Devil’s Nose, Fabian, Delfín, and Fanny set up our tents, and also a kitchen/dining room tent complete with table, stools, and a petrol stove.

One of the porters from the Nizag community brought along his daughter, Elisabeth, who had a sweet tooth for butterscotch candies.

Fanny, Fabian and Delfin produced an excellent dinner of fried bananas, green banana and yucca soup, a main course of mushrooms nested on zucchini, lupin beans and mixed vegetables, and a desert of hot, sweet tree tomatoes in a sauce.

Here is Sandy enjoying his meal in the kitchen/dining tent.

 We built a fire outside, and Rodrigo roasted marshmallows while Sandy roasted some horseskull and bones he’d found on the hike.

The moon was shining brightly, along with stars, and we fell asleep to the sound of the water rushing in the Chanchan River far, far below, and wind bumping over the ridge of the ancient, sacred mountain.

In the morning, we awoke to charred bones in the dead fire, and a beautiful morning on top of the Devil’s Nose.

 Our porters returned and we broke camp, and hiked out to Nizag. It was a most excellent adventure!

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