Dia a Dia: El Tren de los Sueños

Following is a link to the show that aired on Dia a Dia on Sunday, February 13. The crew joined me on a ride down the Devil’s Nose and then we traveled to Huigra to talk about the cemetery. The show also covers the history of the construction, as well as the impact of the rehabilitation effort on Nizag, the local indigenous community.

See the show!

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The Big Dig: Day Three

Day three began with the backhoe digging under the torn-down pig house, in a continued search for the Major. The dirt was rich and black, and full of earthworms that weren´t in the other dry soil. A possum popped up out of a hole below the pigpen dirt.

We uncovered the base of the biggest cross yet, which ended up being a monument rather than a grave.

Then, alack and alas, the backhoe blew an oil hose, and that was that. We carried the crosses and pieces of stone across the railroad tracks to store them safely in a nearby stone shed. We bagged small pieces together and marked bags accordingly.

Here is a diagram of all the findings at the dig.

We assembled a proposal to turn the American Cemetery that we´d uncovered into a memorial for all those that gave their lives in the construction of the Guayaquil & Quito Railway, with photos and sketches.

The team stopped for a photo in the ditch.

Then we loaded up the van and headed to Quito for an official celebration at the refurbished Chimbacalle Train Station. There commenced speeches and a presentation of a green marble plaque in honor of Archer and John Harman. We proposed our plan for the cemetery in Huigra, and we had the great pleasure of meeting the 90-year-old daughter of William Layman, whose remains lay under the first grave we uncovered.

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The Big Dig: Day Two

We were back at work in the American Cemetery early in the morning in eager anticipation of what the day might reveal.

Sandy worked out a deal to buy a brick pigpen with corrugated tin roof built on top of the old cemetery site. The resident pigs were moved up the railway tracks a ways, and a hammer and some heavy kicking made quick work of the structure.

Before continuing, a shaman blessed the cemetery, the backhoe, the Huigra folks, and us, to cleanse any negative energy.

We found three more graves — two unmarked and one of a 10-year-old child who died in 1929.

As the light of day was fading, we uncovered a large intact cross. Attempts to dig it out of the hillside with pick, shovel and machete failed, so we tied a rope from cross to backhoe and began pulling with mechanical strength. Success!

Once the backhoe lifted the cross out of the ditch, it took four men to move it to our safe area, by the light of the machinery.

Even though we haven’t found the Major yet, we have positively identified the American Cemetery and uncovered seven graves. Tomorrow we will return to the site for Day Three.

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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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