The vigorous and flamboyant railroad builders of the last half of the nineteenth century had an air about them that makes their twentieth century counterparts—the highway engineers, the agronomists, the AID and International Bank representatives, and consular officials—seem by comparison a dull and dreary lot. For one thing they managed to identify with the countries in which they worked. They stayed longer, and often married there. And their own fortunes were at stake. They were seldom on salaries. Minor Cooper Keith, who built the Costa Rica Railway linking the Meseta Central with the rain-drenched Caribbean coast at the new port of Limón and later was a co-founder of the United Fruit Company, is a prime example of the Yankee entrepreneur of the period. Hell-bent on making money, he unconsciously played a major role in the ‘economic development process’ long before that term had even been thought of in Costa Rica. Watt Stewart, his biographer, comes to the subject naturally, having authored a study of Keith’s uncle, Henry Meiggs, Yankee Pizarro, who had earlier performed Herculean feats of railroad building in the Peruvian Andes.

When, in 1871, the soon-to-be dictator-president Tomás Guardia determined that Costa Rica needed a railroad link to the Atlantic he had contracted the renowned Henry Meiggs in Peru to do the job. Meiggs immediately turned the contract over to his nephew, Henry M. Keith, who in turn lured his 23-year old brother, fresh from a year on Padre Island, Texas, where he had been managing the family’s livestock interests, to come to Limón as his commissary chief. Minor Cooper Keith remained in Costa Rica after his older brother’s departure in 1873, taking over his railroad interests and obligations there. He soon won the confidence of President Guardia and the London bankers. Several years and several million dollars were “wasted” on the Línea Vieja spur northward from the Reventazón river crossing before surveys were at last made showing that the spectacular Reventazón gorge route via Turrialba was in fact both shorter and more feasible. Construction on this difficult 50-mile gap between the coastal plain and Cartago (elevation 4,477 ft.) was initiated in 1886 and completed four years later with the aid of large numbers of imported Chinese, Italian, and Jamaican Negro laborers. It was an $8,500,000 job completed against enormous odds, and Keith later claimed to have lost $2,000,000 on the contract. It was his other activities—in real estate, banking, cattle, coffee, bananas, and public utilities—that more than made up the difference and made him a wealthy man. He had long been regarded as the daring little Yankee for whom nothing was impossible. The mere linking of Keith’s name with a project seemed to guarantee its success. The family ties of his wife, the daughter of a former president of Costa Rica, only served to reinforce his position.

The train trip from San José to Limón, in this reviewer’s opinion, is still the most exciting and beautiful railroad journey on the North American continent if not in the world. The lushness of the tropical vegetation that it tunnels, the precipitous nature of the quebrada slopes, and the precariously perched fields and houses on them are breath-taking, the engineering feat that the railroad represents even more so. But Watt Stewart is a historian of men, not of the land, and the majesty of the country and man’s conquest of it largely passes him by. Since Keith was responsible for the introduction of commercial banana growing into Costa Rica (to provide a payload for the line as it crept inland) and played a major role in the founding of the United Fruit Company, the early history of that company is the subject of a brief chapter. There is no hint of the subsequent impact of bananas on the country’s economy or the shift of fruit production to the Pacific coast in the wake of Sigatoka and Panama diseases and its current revival with the disease-resistant Valerie variety in the Limón area, where English-speaking Jamaican Negroes, descendants of Keith’s railroad and plantation workers, still form the dominant element in the population.

After the completion of the railroad and its transfer to the English owners Keith’s association with Costa Rica waned, and so does the interest of his biographer. Keith lived in seclusion on Long Island from the turn of the century until his death, at the age of 81, a few months before the 1929 stock market crash which apparently wiped out his estate. He had extensive holdings in half a dozen Latin American countries, but especially in Costa Rica. In the last two decades of his life his major concern was with the International Railway of Central America, operating in Guatemala and El Salvador. But his dream of a railway linking the United States with Panama never materialized.

Keith was a man of tremendous energy. Stewart sees him as “a benevolent old pirate,” a product of his times. Without him Costa Rica would never have been the same. He was apparently an uncomplicated man, small of stature, cold and at times calculating—neither loved nor hated. He had no children. The fact that he left no personal correspondence—whatever letters there were were destroyed in a fire in United Fruit Company offices several years ago—has made impossible a really human assessment of Minor Cooper Keith. That this biographer of his Costa Rican years has been able to piece together as much of the story as he has is something of a tribute to his determination. It is an anecdotal, rambling study, at times agonizingly short on interpretation, but it is sound as far as it goes. The reader who is unfamiliar with Costa Rican geography will have real trouble at times following the narrative. The only map in the book is a schematic endsheet showing the present-day system of the Costa Rica Northern Railway. Obtained from the company, it lacks many of the most important place-names used in the text. It shows nothing of topography or drainage and shows a rail net different in many particulars from that built by Keith nearly 80 years ago.

Costa Rica is currently engulfed in a heated controversy relating to the economic development of Limón province and the terms of the agreement that gave the railroad company a 99-year monopoly on transportation between the highlands and the Atlantic coast. There are no automobile roads on the entire Caribbean coastal plain and the province of Limón (pop. 65,000) is increasingly impatient for a trucking link with San José and the interior. The funds and technical know-how are available, and 1989 seems a long time to wait. One wonders where else in the world are so many people completely dependent on the railroad for transport as in Limón province? This museum-piece, West Indian Negro economy, today largely dependent on subsistence crops, cacao, and bananas, is the inheritance of a shrewd agreement penned three-quarters of a century ago between an anxious government and a Yankee impresario named Keith. By his kind much of the economic map of Latin America has been drawn.