Construction of Ecuador’s Railroad in the Sky: The Guayaquil & Quito Railway

“The story of Ecuador, like the story of the [Guayaquil & Quito Railway], is the story of struggle. Mighty forces brought the very land itself into being. Terrifying earthquakes piled mountain upon mountain, and then opened up appallingly precipitous gorges down which the melting mountain snows poured in torrential rivers. Volcanic eruptions scattered over the land ash and huge boulders, red with the heat of eternal subterranean fires. There was flame and thunder. The earth rocked. Awful was Ecuador’s hour of birth… and its subsequent history inevitable, a tale of struggle, defiant and audacious. But from that struggle was often wrung victory and achievement.”
~Blair Niles, Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923)

The Dream

Ecuador’s 288-mile railroad has been called many things – the railroad in the sky, the train to the sun, the train to heaven – but it has never been called easy. Difficult to build and even more difficult to maintain, the route was originally conceived by Gabriel Garcia Moreno, who dreamed of unifying Ecuador’s national identity by tying together its disparate parts – the lowlands (Guayaquil) and the highlands (Quito). He envisioned railroad and river transportation in the lowlands, mule trails through the mountains, and a coach road in the highlands. His railroad would be called el Ferrocarril del Sur (the Southern Railroad).

Construction of the Southern Railroad began in 1871, after 10 years of financial wrangling, beside a river in the small tropical village of Yaguachi, in the lowlands of Ecuador. At that point, transportation in Ecuador was so difficult that it took 18 men 25 to 30 days to bring a piano from Guayaquil up to Quito; the instruments, along with cargo and supplies, and even people, were carried on men’s backs.

In three years, the Southern Railroad progressed through the lowlands only as far as Milagro, a distance of 7.6 miles.

And then came Garcia Moreno’s gruesome end – returning from church on day in 1875, he was attacked and hacked to bits with machetes and repeatedly shot by a crowd shouting, “Liberty! We have killed the tyrant!”

With García Moreno’s assassination and the ensuing political upheaval, railroad construction halted at the tiny town of Barraganetal.

Ruin and Despair

In 1885, the British engineer, Marcos Jameston Kelly and his firm, the Kelly Company, secured a construction contract for the Southern Railroad. Having previously worked on Peru’s Oroya railroad, Kelly had a reputation as an excellent engineer on difficult mountain railways. By the time the Kelly Company was hired, the railroad had fallen into a wretched state of neglect. Most materials had been stolen or destroyed. Many bridges had collapsed – some through neglect and the harshness of the tropical climate; others had been wrecked for strategic reasons. Wooden ties lay rotting under the rails. What had been built had fast disappeared into the hungry jungle.

Kelly managed to progress the route up to the Chimbo River, an area called the “Land of Butterflies,” and also built 13 miles of rails from Yaguachi back towards Durán, a point on the Guayas River nearly opposite the city of Guayaquil. At that point, the railroad was 65 miles long.

However, the rainy season of 1888 brought more trouble. Torrential winter rains, floods, and landslides destroyed months of backbreaking labor in minutes; whole sections of the line were swallowed up and carried away by the raging Chimbo River. Work on the route halted. By the end of the year, the Kelly Company was bankrupt, and Kelly left Ecuador a broken and disgraced man.

A Road for Birds

Again, with the lack of funds and a shortage of laborers, the railroad seemed doomed. Vague superstitions surfaced that the Andes of Ecuador could not, or would not, be conquered, and that the spirits of the mountains would resist all attempts to lay twin rails of steel over them. At that point, the president of Ecuador, Antonio Flores Jijón, said, “If, sometime, any leader is able to finish the railroad, he would be greater than the great Andes themselves.” And the country went back to mule trails called “roads for birds” that were passable only six months out of the year.

The Dream, The Delirium!

General Eloy Alfaro

Then along came a man small in stature but large in dreams – General Eloy Alfaro – who cried out: “My dream, my delirium, is concentrated in this single word: Railway!”

Alfaro heralded a turning point in the history of Ecuador. He was said to have thought of his country first and himself second, a rare thing in South American politics. And he believed that the locomotive, the symbol of progress, would usher in the 20th century and rescue Ecuador from centuries of stagnation and religious oppression. To Alfaro, when that locomotive whistle one day blew, it would herald the redemption of Ecuador.

Alfaro was an ardent admirer of the United States, enthusiastic about North American ideas and democracy. Alfaro’s years of political exile in the United States led him to believe that only North Americans could build the railroad from Guayaquil to Quito. In 1898, he recruited two brothers from Virginia, one a West Point trained engineer and Calvary officer, the other a railroad financier – John and Archer Harman – to build the railroad that had been declared impossible. Where Archer was the dreamer of fortunes, his younger brother, John, was the opposite. John was disciplined; he believed in order and regimen.

Two Brothers from Virginia

Archer traveled to Ecuador and returned with a contract. However, once he’d found financial backers and gone to London to buy the foreign debt of Ecuador, converting it into railroad bonds, back in Quito, the railroad contract was cancelled. Archer hammered out a new contract, and the work began. When the Spanish-American war was over, Archer’s brother, Major John Harman, joined him in Ecuador.

Archer Harman

Major John A. Harman

Onward and Upward!

What followed were years of revolutions, earthquakes, landslides, broken contracts, blackmail, terrorist activities, and opposition. Still, the route was levelled, rock was blasted, and low areas were filled in with earth and stone. Embankments were built to support the roadway. Masonry was built and a number of bridges were constructed. Ties and rails were set in place. Thus, under the Major’s direction, tracks progressed up the Chimbo valley from Victoria, foot-by-foot and rail-by-rail.


Then once again, disaster struck, in the form of torrential rains – 12 inches of rain in 24 hours. Whole mountainsides caved in, one after another, destroying tracks, bridges, and grading.

In just minutes, work that had taken months to accomplish was destroyed.

John and Archer surveyed the damage, and Archer went to Quito to discuss the situation with Aflaro.

“What do we do now, General?” Archer asked.

Alfaro rose to his feet. He picked up a bottle of whiskey and slowly poured two glasses.

“First, Don Archer, let us take a swig of whiskey to frighten away the devil.”

The two men drank the whiskey.

“And now,” said Alfaro, “Let us see what can be done.”

General Alfaro was not a man to give up. The railroad route was changed from the Chimbo River Valley to the Chanchan River Valley, and work commenced anew. In spite of jaguars, poisonous snakes, malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever; in spite of vampire bats, ticks, chiggers, swarming ants, hordes of mosquitoes, flies, and other buzzing, stinging, crawling insects; in spite of the backbreaking, bone-crunching work, construction continued.

The Devil’s Nose

And then came El Nariz del Diablo – the Devil’s Nose – a sheer and vertical rock wall that had to be surmounted to get the steam engines up to the highlands. Here, Major Harman faced a wall of rock, a mountain standing guard at the abrupt end of the Chanchan canyon. The work up to this point, even with the rains, floods, jungle heat, and diseases, had been easy in comparison to what was now faced.

The Devils Nose

Workers used drills, gunpowder, and dynamite to blast through the solid rock; explosions reverberated daily in the canyons, shaking the very tents of workers and engineers. Many Jamaicans were employed in this section of the route; and many a Jamaican finger, hand, and life was lost.
By August of 1901, the Devil’s Nose, a technical masterpiece of railway construction, was completed. A major celebration was held to mark the accomplishment.

Death in the Andes

Laying of track continued higher and higher up into the highlands. Progress was difficult along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, but for different reasons than in the lowlands – now the issues were revolutions, terrorist activities, political opposition, and bubonic plague. At one point, Archer Harman wrote: “Stoppage and disaster stare us in the face.” The worst blow to Archer was the mysterious death of his brother, Major John Harman, in 1907. On the morning of February 28th, a cable arrived in New York warning that the Major was ill; in the afternoon came the cable bearing the sad news of the Major’s death. Newspapers reported that John died alternately of bubonic plague, yellow fever, and apoplexy – and that he died in Guayaquil, Quito, and Huigra. What really happened? No one knows. Harman family legend points to poison, perhaps intended for Archer. The railroad, after all, had many enemies, not the least of which was the Catholic Church. Major John Harman was buried quietly, near the railroad tracks in the town of Huigra, the railroad headquarters halfway between Guayaquil and Quito.

Major John A. Harman's grave in Huigra.

Audacious Victory!

Archer continued to juggle European financing as tracks progressed higher and higher in the mountains, and Alfaro continued to fight his mighty enemies in Ecuador and focus on achieving his one true dream. And finally, success! In 1908, the dream came true; the G&Q Railway reached Quito!

The victorious celebration and official opening of the G&Q was on General Eloy Alfaro’s birthday, June 25, 1908. Doubts, frustrations, and opposition faded as the day dawned with an air of joy and anticipation. The entire city was elegantly decorated. People came from Guayaquil and all over the country to share in this tremendous moment in the history of Ecuador. All traffic in the city was stopped as thousands swarmed the streets and squares. Soldiers paraded in celebration of the national victory and the progress of Ecuador.

Eloy Alfaro’s daughter, América Alfaro, drove the golden spike into the last crosstie in Quito. Then the first locomotive – Engine No. 8 – draped in green palms and laurel wreaths, and flying colorful flags, rode triumphantly into Quito’s Chimbacalle Station. The steam whistle blew in the high mountain air and the crowds went wild. Champagne flowed. Glasses were lifted. Canons exploded with thunderous booms. Bells rang in churches throughout Quito; all day, every hour on the hour and on into the night, church bells chimed in honor of the arrival of the amazing “Railroad in the Sky.”