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pan-american highway | pan-americanism | darien gap

[Eric Rutkow, The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway and the Quest to Link the Americas. Scribner. New York, 2019. 438 p.]

 

REVIEW / Marcelina Kropiwnicka

The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway and the Quest to Link the AmericasThough the title tries to convince the reader that they will merely be exploring the build-up to the largest link between the United States of America and its southern neighbors, The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway and the Quest to Link the Americas covers much more. The book is written in more of a novel-fashion than a textbook-fashion. Author Eric Rutkow, rather than simply discussing the nitty-gritty development of the highway alone, is able to cover historical events from political battles in the homeland of the US to economic hardships encountered among the partner countries. Divided into three main blocks, the book chronologically introduces the events that took place during the Pan-American Highway’s construction, beginning with the dream that a railway would connect the two hemispheres.

With the New World just barely beginning to grasp its potential, writer Hinton Rowan Helper’s first-hand experience of traveling from the United States to Argentina in the mid-1800s made him come to the realization that there must be an alternative method of traveling between the two countries. After enduring the long voyage, he came to the conclusion, “Why not by rail?” The first quarter of the book hence explains the early attempts made towards linking the wide span between North America and Southern Argentina through the use of a railroad. Thus, when in 1890 the Intercontinental Railway Commission was created, the idea of a Pan-American railway began to flourish and preliminary work began.

The idea was passed on from one indefatigable supporter to another, keeping in mind the cooperative aim of pan-Americanism and the potential for US economic expansion. Yet still by the early 1900s, over half of the projected length of the railway remained unassembled. Despite multiple attempts and investment in building and rebuilding the rail (mainly due to logistical purposes), the project came to a final halt with the realization that the Pan-American Railway was beginning to look like what it was: an unfeasible dream. President Theodore Roosevelt had concluded similarly in 1905, when he gave preference to developing the Panama Canal, regulating the rules of the railway and building the US Navy. In the subsequent and comparatively short chapter of the book, Rutkow introduces the era when automobiles and bicycles were on the rise, causing a demand for the increased construction of roads and exhaustive efforts to build decent thoroughfare within the US. Also made note of in the book was the diverging attention from the rail as a result of the outbreak of the First World War. These events combined would ultimately cease continuation of the railway’s assembly.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the continuation of the dream of connecting the two spheres using a different method: the building of the Pan-American Highway. Although only a sister to the railway project, the two ideas arise from the same ideal. The new project seemed especially tangible due to the growth of the ‘motoring generation’ and the strengthened advocacy of Pan-Americanism. The belief was that the highway would foster “closer and more harmonious relations” among the nations in the Americas. Nevertheless, the highway remains unfinished due to a mere 50-mile wide gap, known as the Darien Gap, located between Panama and Colombia (“mere” considering the highway today stretches more than 20,000 miles, connecting Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina).

The most engaging part of the book emerges in the last chapter, when Rutkow attempts at connecting the missing link between the two worlds, but isn’t able to, which reminds us that the road remains unfinished. The chapter, which is committed to the Darien Gap, is able to give light to the idea that once, the two spheres had a dream of connecting, contrasting to what we see today with the pressure of erecting walls along the southern US border. Though the dream continues to overcome the gap and finish the road, a new challenge had finally emerged: Panama had changed its policy and refused to finish the pavement.

As for such a well-researched book of one of the largest projects on the American continent, there’s a peculiar laxity: the coverage on South America is far less complete in comparison to all the focus that the United States’ government efforts to organizing and funding the link received. In terms of critiquing the book as a literary piece, not every quotation within the book would be considered absolutely necessary to telling the story. Ironically there’s a certain scarcity when it comes to describing the road itself or its surrounding environment. Perhaps the author makes up for this blunder with his meticulous choosing of maps and images to provide the reader with a context of the environment and era in which the dream was being pursued.

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