Archive for September 18th, 2010

The Big Dig: Day One

Our ancestor, Major John Harman, Chief Engineer of the Guayaquil & Quito Railway, died in Ecuador in 1907 under mysterious circumstances.

Newspapers reported cause of death alternately as yellow fever, bubonic plague, and apoplexy. Harman family legend, however, points to poison intended for his brother, Archer Harman, President of the G&Q. Could someone have tried to kill Archer and managed to kill the Major instead? It’s possible.

We know the Major died suddenly. His family in New York City received a cable in the morning of Feb. 9th reporting that he was ill; in the afternoon a cable arrived with the sad news of his demise.

Both yellow fever and bubonic plague take a week or more for death to overtake a body. Apoplexy, an older term for internal bleeding, hemorrhage or stroke, would involve some internal injury or a weak heart, none of which were reported to be involved.

One of our goals on this trip was to locate the American Cemetery in Huigra, which disappeared under landslides years ago, and find the remains of the Major. Once found, we would bring his remains back to the United States to a forensic laboratory to determine cause of death and attempt to resolve the 100-year-old mystery.

Just locating where to dig was a difficult task. We asked many elderly railroad workers exactly where the cemetery was; some drew us maps, but often locations were misremembered or were different graveyards. The majority of locals agreed on one area, though, so that’s where we chose to dig.

First we used machetes to cut back the overgrowth full of snakes and butterflies and huge leaping green grasshoppers.

We hired a backhoe to dig down into the rocky rubble of old landslides.

After several hours, we located the first grave and cross: William Layman, a railroad engineer who died in 1922. With whoops and hollers, residents of the town gathered to see the cemetery for the first time in decades. Shortly afterward, another grave and cross: a fellow by the name of McCracken. And soon afterward, Edward Downey.

We also found an unmarked grave, in which the cross was lost in the landslides. The layout of the cemetery started to match the old photos uncovered from archives.

By nightfall, we had found four graves. We unwillingly stopped when darkness fell. On the equator, night falls quickly and the sun disappears in a matter of minutes. And so we would continue to a second day in search of the Major.

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The team at halfway to Quito

Halfway through the trip, we find ourselves reflecting on what we have done so far and what we have left to complete.

Here we are in Guayaquil, heading out into the tropical field. Before we left the city for higher altitudes, we rode the renovated train on refurbished rails from Durán to Yaguachi, photographed the Rio Guayas from a fishing canoe, hung with drunk guys on the Yaguachi Station platform, and ate corn-on-a-stick, boiled bananas, and fried plantains.

Here is Sandy, with his Shen Hao, a large-format 4×5 camera. He is also working with a Hasselblad medium-format camera that looks almost as impressive as the Shen Hao. Sandy has climbed on rickety tin roofs in Victoria, dangled off a collapsed bridge in Bucay, scaled scaffolding in Quito, and stood in the way of a sugar cane harvester in Milagro all for the sake of capturing the shot.

The lovely Katie keeps a sketchbook of the places we go and the people we meet. Here she is beside the Rio Chanchán, taking a rest from hiking through snake grasses and climbing over fallen boulders along the overgrown railway tracks, in the early morning sunshine.


Araby shoots the expedition’s film footage to make a short documentary. Here she is with school children at La Victoria. They are looking through our book of John Horgan railroad photographs of their town, which was originally an old G&Q Rwy town.

Rodrigo, our fearless guide, rode the spare tire on the Suzuki to Naranjapata because there wasn’t enough room inside. Rodrigo is the Master Procurer for anything we need. If you want it, he can get it. He magically produced ice-cold Diet Coke for me (he says to keep me happy and under control) even though none was available for miles around.

And here I am interviewing Don Alfonso, a retired 90-year-old railroad worker from Huigra. I’ve been talking to railroad workers along the line to find the incredible stories that tell the tale of the railway.

We took the last few days to search for the remains of our ancestor, Major John Harman, who died in the construction of the railroad in 1907. More to come on that shortly. Next we head to the highlands to continue documenting the railway route along the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

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