At first glance, the origins of the railroad industry in Yucatán, Mexico, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appear to share many characteristics with similar enterprises throughout Latin America. Yucatán’s railroads were built during the development-minded dictatorship of General Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) to facilitate the expansion of the regional export economy and to reduce transaction costs in the peninsula. A mutually beneficial arrangement evolved between the iron horse and the region’s monocrop, henequen (sisal), a fibrous agave plant used first for cordage and rigging and later in the manufacture of binder twine for North American and European markets.

Yucatán’s new infrastructure, like its counterparts throughout Mexico, was a catalyst for far-reaching change during Díaz’ tenure (the Porfiriato). Property values skyrocketed; large landholdings were concentrated near railway lines; imported goods—grains, manufactured wares, and luxury items—flooded local markets; and migration within the peninsula exploded as campesinos took advantage of the railroad to seek employment in the burgeoning state capital, Mérida, and the principal port, Progreso. It has been estimated that railroads reduced freight costs to one-twelfth of those formerly charged by oxcarts and mule trains, while moving products 30 times faster than alternative means of transport.1 Moreover, political and social conflict was contained more effectively by federal and state authorities, who took advantage of the railway network and the new forms of communication (telegraph and telephone) that accompanied it to move troops with dispatch to trouble spots.

Finally, the railroad expedited the process of political centralization in Yucatán (and throughout Latin America). Many regional elites, who for decades had bitterly contested federal meddling in their bailiwicks, now did an about-face, encouraged by the substantial economic benefits realized from closer alignment to a federal government that fully supported (and partially subsidized) this transportation revolution. The railway network’s complementary alliance with the forces of political centralization also meant that previously isolated rural areas were tied more closely to the state capital. In a sense, the railway’s multidimensional impact became both tool and symbol of modernization in late nineteenth-century Latin America, not only linking peripheral regions more closely to the international market, but also coupling semiautonomous patrias chicas to an evolving nation-state.

What then distinguishes railroading in Yucatán from sister networks in other parts of Latin America? The principal difference was cogently stated by Manuel Dondé, a prominent Yucatecan import-export merchant, on the eve of the hammering of the first spike of the Mérida-Progreso railroad in 1875.

If we have something to be proud of it is that since all the work has been done by the sons of Yucatán, all of the ensuing glory will go to our beloved fatherland that has not needed foreigners to undertake this important task; Yucatecans are the capitalists; a Yucatecan the promoter; a Yucatecan the engineer and all of the workers are Yucatecans. Glory to Yucatán.2

This boastful statement might be chalked up to wishful thinking or simply regional pride; it was issued at a time when not one kilometer of track had been completed in Yucatán. But in retrospect, Dondé’s declaration of faith in Yucatecan know-how and entrepreneurial spirit has the authentic ring of prophecy. Yucatán was one of the few regions in Latin America, and the only state in Mexico, where an entire railway system—over a thousand kilometers of track—was envisioned, constructed, managed, and, in large measure, financed by local capitalists and workers.3

In contrast, railroading throughout Latin America was, with few exceptions, the province of Europeans and North Americans.4 In Mexico alone, North American capitalists provided 80 percent of the capital outlay for the nation’s major railways until the Díaz administration purchased controlling interest in these lines after 1908.5 Foreign companies designed and engineered much of Mexico’s 19,000-kilometer rail grid and supplied its rolling stock.6

It should be emphasized that Dondé’s prophecy overstated the case. A good portion of the investment capital came from foreign banks; the lion’s share of the machinery and equipment—from spikes to steel rails to passenger cars and engines—was imported from abroad; and occasionally middle- and upper-level management positions in peninsular railway companies were filled by foreigners. But even after taking these factors into consideration, the homegrown character of the Yucatecan system remains indisputable.7

As for the question of how indigenous railway ownership and management compared with foreign control in other regions, the answer is not so readily apparent—given the Yucatecan system’s similarities with others throughout Latin America. The purpose of this study is to explore the impact of local ownership of the means and factors of production on the evolution of the regional transportation system and henequen monoculture.8

After a careful examination of the annual reports (informes), technical briefings, and correspondence of the individual railway companies filed with the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas in the Distrito Federal and preserved in the Archivo General de la Nación, it is clear that what distinguishes the Yucatecan case from its peers is the symbiotic relationship between local railroad owners and the henequen economy. Whereas in other parts of Mexico foreign investors and businessmen had aggressively entered the export sector, the infrastructure, or both, in Yucatán the marriage of these two indigenous economic endeavors was so mutually beneficial and well integrated that the organization and management of the railway network and the henequen economy became mirror images. Even though some promoters initially conceived of their companies as keys that would unlock the region’s dependency on one crop, their railways became imprisoned by the insatiable demand for fiber. From the mundane, day-to-day routine of their respective haciendas and companies to the unpredictable boom-and-bust rhythms that repeatedly plagued the monocrop economy, the two structures grew, evolved, and experienced hardships with striking complementarity.

One compelling reason for this structural similarity was that both enterprises began as family businesses, and in a few important cases, notable families had substantial financial interests in both spheres. It should come as no surprise that in a small region like Yucatán, a few powerful families came to dominate both industries.9 And elite families in late nineteenth-century Yucatán were, by their very nature, paternalistic in the way they treated their extended families, their workers, and their rivals. This in turn is clearly reflected in the way they managed their estates and businesses.

In short, this study emphasizes two interrelated themes: the confluence of henequen monoculture and the attendant railway industry, and the possibilities and limitations of indigenous entrepreneurial growth in late nineteenth-century Latin America. After a brief sketch of the region’s political economy, the origins of the regional transportation sector are discussed. The second section also underscores the crucial role that political influence played at the state and national levels during this developmental stage.

A case study of two railway magnates’ quixotic attempt to promote economic development outside the northwestern henequen zone is discussed in the third section. This noble failure also accentuated the spectacular growth of the railway network’s hub, the state capital, Mérida. The growth of regional primate cities like Mérida was an important, yet often overlooked, characteristic of Porfirian Mexico. Railroads played a pivotal role in attracting immigrants and emigrants to provincial capitals.

Section 4 discusses the familial organization and management of the peninsular railway companies. Strikingly similar to the fiber estates they served, the family-run railways forged a patron-client relationship with their employees that at times included the institution of debt peonage.

During the last decade of the Porfiriato, however, paternalism waned, as intense competition for the spoils of the booming henequen economy forced railway families to sell their patrimonies to “el trust,” the Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán (FCUY). The fifth section appraises this freewheeling era. The financial panic that gripped the peninsula from 1907 to 1909 exposed monoculture’s inherent instability. The oligopolistic railway industry was only one of the regional economy’s unfortunate casualties.

The story of Yucatán’s railway industry raises significant conceptual questions about native entrepreneurial activity in late nineteenth-century Latin America. But first, a sketch of Yucatán’s political economy shows how it shaped the symbiotic relationship between monoculture and the railroad.

The Export Engine

Like so much of regional Mexico, Yucatán was thoroughly transformed by the requirements of North American industrial capitalism, and governed by its rhythms during the last half of the nineteenth century.10 The demand for hard fibers increased on the international market, and henequen, which had been cultivated on the peninsula since pre-Columbian times, now became the export of primary importance to Yucatecan landowners in the arid northwest comer of the state.

A zona henequenera grew up surrounding Mérida as hacendados increasingly rationalized their land and labor and turned their corn and cattle haciendas into modern fiber estates. The production of henequen increased furiously during the Porfiriato as exports rose from 40,000 bales of fiber to more than 600,000 bales.11 When fiber prices were high, henequeneros secured bountiful profits through the exploitation of a dependent working class, which was tied to the estates through the mechanism of debt peonage. The indebted peón underwrote the henequenero’s profits even in a difficult market, laboring on the estates under miserable conditions, often for less than 50 centavos a day. Yet local henequeneros—who needed to purchase machinery for processing the fiber; to build animal-drawn tramways for transporting the fiber to the nearest rail head; and to clear, plant, and wait seven years for their fiber plants (matas) to mature— had to borrow money in advance from import-export merchants (casas exportadoras). The casas exportadoras, in turn, were lent capital by banks and buyers in the United States. A small hacendado class, numbering between 300 and 400, had to promise its fiber to the casas in exchange for cash advances.

With these limitations, it was difficult to adjust productivity or predict prices. As a result, local landholders were particularly vulnerable to the repeated boom-and-bust cycles that afflicted the hard-fiber market. Although henequen provided 85 percent of the fiber for the profitable binder twine industry by the turn of the century, there was enough competition from Filipino manila and other hard fibers, as well as occasional attempts by North American buyers to corner the market, to create alternating shortages and gluts. This chronic price instability, coupled with the producers’ inability to diversify, meant that Yucatán’s regional economy as a whole, and the henequen sector in particular, experienced severe dislocations in the midst of sustained growth.

If most henequeneros found it difficult to negotiate this treacherous monocrop economy, a close-knit elite of 30 families not only survived but flourished. This group dominated the henequen economy, controlling land, labor, the import-export trade, and, as we shall see, transportation. They relied on a shrewd sense of timing, keen business acumen, and strong kinship ties. As the monocrop economy prospered in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, competition within this familial elite intensified. By 1902, a much smaller, more cohesive group constituted a hegemonic, oligarchical faction (camarilla) in the region. These ruling groups were common to many Mexican regions during the Porfiriato; this one was based on the Molina-Montes parentesco. Molina’s camarilla had homogeneous interests, a relatively closed membership, and—owing partly to its collaboration with the principal buyer of raw fiber, International Harvester Company—such control over the region’s economic and political levers of power that it was able to thwart the opportunities of rival camarillas in late Porfirian society.12

Before 1902, a truly exclusive and powerful collaborative mechanism had never characterized the henequen industry. A secret contract consummated between International Harvester and Olegario Molina’s casa exportadora, Molina y Compañía, in October 1902 dramatically transformed the political economy of Yucatán by weeding out competitors and forcing down the price of fiber.13 With increasing frequency throughout the rest of the decade, henequeneros and merchants became indebted to Molina’s casa and were forced to advance their future product at slightly less than the current market price to cover their obligations. Moreover, the access to foreign capital, and International Harvester’s capacity to funnel large amounts of it at critical junctures, enabled Molina and his faction to acquire mortgages, purchase estates outright, and consolidate their hold on regional communications, infrastructure, and banking—all of which guaranteed control of local fiber production and generally worked to depress the price.

The export engine that propelled the regional political economy had a significant impact on the attendant transportation sector. As competition intensified among casas exportadoras during the late Porfiriato, the familial character of the regional railroad industry was altered as well.

The Origins of the Peninsular Railway Network (c. 1840-1900)

Railroad building in Yucatán was the logical extension of the earlier drive by peninsular elites and political leaders to construct cart roads in the 1820s and 1830s. Before independence, Yucatán had less than 100 miles of shoddy cart roads, all radiating from Mérida. Local newspaper articles demanded the expansion of the transportation network throughout the state to encourage economic development. Recognizing that inadequate infrastructure was a major deterrent to growth, after 1828 the state allocated the funds. Pueblos and cities like Tekax, Valladolid, Tizimín, Tihosuco, Izamal, Maxcanú, and Ticul benefited from the accelerated pace of road construction.

Since the state government lacked the funds to respond to all the region’s needs, local investors had to supplement the effort. In 1841, for instance, a group of progressive landowners and merchants, including Manuel Sierra O’Reilly, obtained a concession to build a cart road at their own expense between Hecelchakán and Bolonchenticul in what was then part of the state of Yucatán. The combination of private and public initiatives paid off. By 1848 no fewer than 18 different roads converged on Mérida. John Lloyd Stephens and B. M. Norman, two foreigners in search of pre-Columbian ruins, marveled at the quality of what were euphemistically called the caminos reales.14

Heavy summer rains often washed out roads and caused costly delays in transit. Local elites, realizing that the railroad was a fast, inexpensive, all-weather alternative, therefore turned their attention to the more difficult project of building a railroad to link Mérida, some 35 kilometers inland, with a port. Which port it would be was a matter of some debate. While one investor team preferred to upgrade the state’s antiquated port, Sisal, another argued that a new and closer location with better facilities ought to be designed in Progreso, and a third opted for the more distant site of Celestún.15

The competition suggests that by midcentury, individuals and families had recognized the advantages of collective enterprise. But this had not always been the case. Entrepreneurial combines struggled to overcome a longstanding environment of elite disgusto and competition for political and economic power. Pedro Baranda, a local cotton manufacturer and politician, implicitly acknowledged as much when he eloquently pleaded the case for entrepreneurial cooperation: “If the spirit of association could be more generalized, if the united forces of many individuals could be freed from the unfounded fears that neutralize them or make them ineffectual, what important improvements in all branches [of the economy] might succeed!” 16 Eventually, however, Yucatecan elites systematically began to form these associations, forerunners of the popular joint-stock companies (sociedades anónimas) that characterized business during the henequen boom.

Even though many local elites embraced this new “progressive” attitude, capitalization problems, bad luck, and political squabbling bedeviled local and foreign capitalists during this formative period.17 After a few unsuccessful foreign concessions during the 1860s, railroad building in the state became the province of local capitalists. Perhaps the lack of mineral resources or the state’s isolation from the rest of the nation—and from the national railway network—discouraged North American or European promoters.18 With one small exception—the Mérida-Izamal portion of the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal line—the entire peninsular system was designed and built by Yucatecans.19

Yucatán’s early railway concessions were tangled in a web of political machinations. For example, a concession given to Manuel de Arrigunaga by imperial authorities to connect Mérida and Celestún was revoked by partisan liberals in the wake of Benito Juárez’ victory in 1867.20 After years of wrangling between various investor teams and state authorities, the Mérida-Progreso group prevailed and a liberal politician and merchant with connections in Mexico City, José Rendón Peniche, used his clout with Governor Manuel Cepeda Peraza to garner a concession.21

Rendón Peniche’s company was given a $60,000 subvention by the state government in 1871 and later was provided additional funds by the Ministry of Development. Although a marshy area in Progreso complicated construction, on September 15, 1881, the 36.5-kilometer line was inaugurated, six years after ground had been broken.22

Imaginative Methods of Capitalization

The fledgling rail lines surmounted capitalization problems only by enticing local merchants and henequeneros to invest in their enterprise. That, in tum, meant building lines first near haciendas in the heart of the henequen zone. Every peninsular railway company at one time or another mortgaged portions of its lines to local landowners and merchants, who then benefited from reduced cargo rates for their fiber.

One company that repeatedly utilized this type of creative financing was the Mérida-Valladolid railway, owned by General Francisco Cantón. When capitalization problems stalled work on the Mérida-Conkal-Progreso ramal (branch) in 1885, Pancho Cantón appealed to local merchants and henequeneros for a loan. A group of 30 investors agreed to loan Cantón over $170,000 to complete the ramal.23

Although many of the creditors did not own haciendas directly on the intended railway route, they stood to gain from the line’s eventual completion. Several hacendados, such as the Peón de Regil brothers, Pedro Leal Gamboa, and Manuel Espinosa Rendón, all owned properties in neighboring Tixkokob partido (district) that would receive service as soon as the ramal was finished. The line would also serve to reduce the transportation costs of Motul and Temax henequeneros like Roque J. Campos, Palma y Hermano, and Ignacio Peón.

The terms of the mortgage illustrate Cantón’s precarious financial position.24

  1. Cantón promises not to alter railway rates on corn and henequen, the two principal commodities to be shipped by rail, for the duration of the mortgage.

  2. Cantón cannot pursue a second mortgage for more than $50,000 for the duration of the mortgage agreement.

  3. Fifty percent of the railway’s cargo earnings are earmarked for mortgage payments.

  4. Investors will receive a 50 percent rebate on shipping expenses up to a specified amount. Creditors will pay 50 percent cash and half in the form of a note. A rider permits a rebate reduction from 50 percent to 20 percent should competition appear (which it did with the completion of the Mérida-Izamal line in 1890).

  5. A 12 percent annual interest rate.

Despite the prejudicial conditions of the mortgage, Cantón signed the agreement on December 31, 1885. Although the third condition insisted that 50 percent of the railway’s cargo earnings were to be earmarked for mortgage payments, Cantón did not repay some of the investors until the late 1890s. Creditors continued to receive the 50 percent discount on shipping charges and to pay 1885 cargo rates for corn and fiber until the loan was repaid in 1899.

Another creative credit agreement sheds light on the mutually beneficial relationship that evolved between henequeneros in Tecoh—in Acanceh partido 30 kilometers south of Mérida—and Mérida-Peto railway promoters Rodulfo and Olegario G. Cantón (only distantly related to Pancho). In an effort to raise construction capital in 1885, the Cantóns met with Vicente, Perfecto, and Fernando Solís León, the owners of Hacienda Xcanchakán. The Cantóns wanted to lay track through the hacienda as the railway meandered south toward Peto. A complicated yet fascinating 15,000-peso mortgage was hammered out. In return for a low-interest loan, the Mérida-Peto railway agreed to build a depot on the hacienda and stop its morning trains for at least five minutes to pick up or discharge passengers or cargo. The company also repaid its mortgage in cargo receipts and applied for special reduced fares and rates for Xcanchakán passengers and cargo from the Secretaría de Fomento. Moreover, the Solís León brothers were given complimentary lifetime first class passes.25

The mortgage further stipulated that the railway had the right to cut up to four tareas of firewood (leña) daily on hacienda lands adjoining the tracks.26 Railway jornaleros cut the wood and left it beside the tracks to be picked up by hacienda peones. The peones transported it to a shed near the Xcanchakán depot. The peones in turn had the right to use their handcarts on the railway’s tracks at their own risk, though only when the trains were not scheduled to run.27 The hacienda also gave the railroad the right to take dirt, rocks, and sahcab from alongside the track to construct or repair the roadbed, so long as railway jornaleros did not disturb adjoining milpas (cornfields).28 Finally, the hacienda had to provide a responsible individual to manage the railway depot, oversee the firewood detail, sell tickets, and fill out the paperwork for cargo.

The presence of a depot (or estación de bandera) on an estate meant that henequeneros like the Solís Léon brothers could contract with smaller producers nearby to bring fiber to their station. By accumulating henequen from a number of small holders, the contracting henequenero would generate larger shipments that qualified for reduced tariffs.29

Not all hacendados welcomed the iron horse with open arms. Railway companies occasionally had difficulty acquiring rights of way through haciendas, and disputes bogged down in litigation. Meanwhile, boulders were intentionally left on the tracks, telegraph and telephone lines were cut down, and proprietors refused to give jornaleros access to their sahcab.30 It is difficult to discern from the documents what caused the opposition. Perhaps competition for labor caused concern, or negotiations with company officials over rights of way and remuneration soured.

One irascible hacendado, Manuel Lara, bitterly contested the Mérida-Peto railroad’s right-of-way privileges on his sitio on the outskirts of Oxkutzcab in Tekax partido. In 1894 Lara triggered a number of derailments. Almost five years later, he placed a blind mule on the tracks on three separate occasions. On the third, the foggy morning of January 18, 1899, a southbound train accidentally hit the forlorn animal, causing still another derailment and putting the mule out of its misery.31

Villagers intent on maintaining their communal lands (ejidos) also occasionally obstructed the march of the iron horse. In Maxcanú in 1891, three hundred villagers protested the Mérida-Campeche line’s attempts to lay track through ejido lands. The national guard was called in to restore order. Several years later, ejidatarios in Peto protested similar actions by the Mérida-Peto line. Ejido lands were at risk throughout Yucatán during the Díaz regime because all corporate forms of land ownership were to be discontinued under the provisions of the 1856 reform laws. Much to the chagrin of Maya villagers, who had worked their lands collectively since pre-Columbian times, the Ley Lerdo provided that communal lands be divided among the heads of village families, each receiving a small grant. Expansionistic hacendados wasted no time buying up the grants. The construction of rail lines in areas where ejidos had not yet been distributed must have exacerbated an already tense situation. Yet despite some confrontations, it is clear that, unlike other parts of Mexico, the advent of the railroad in Yucatán did not meet much opposition from independent campesinos—or less-than-enthusiastic Manuel Laras—either in the zona henequenera or on its fringes.32

The Politicization of the Railroads

If landowners and villagers, for the most part, were cooperative, railway promoters also had to bring local politicians on board to ensure success. Political connections were essential not only to secure initial approval and subsidies but also to convince federal and state authorities that even if a concession were undercapitalized, it had a realistic chance for eventual completion and would foster economic development in the region. To that end, it did not hurt to have a sitting governor on a railroad’s board of directors. Manuel Romero Ancona, governor of Yucatán from 1878 to 1881, found it no conflict of interest first to grant concessions to, and then serve contemporaneously as secretario on, the boards of both the Mérida-Calkiní (a forerunner of the Mérida-Campeche line) and the Mérida-Peto companies. The governor of neighboring Campeche, Marcelino Castilla, played the same role for the initial Campeche-Calkiní concession.33

At times, federal officials meddled in local politics when they wished to reward loyal supporters. During the first years of the Porfiriato, Minister of Development Vicente Riva Palacios gave state authorities the right to award specific railway concessions at their discretion. But in 1880 his successor, Carlos Pacheco, gave federal authorities the right to grant concessions to both foreign and national promoters, a move designed to lend greater coherence to national railway policy and encourage foreign investment.34 Pacheco approved a private concession for Pancho Cantón to build a railway from the capital to his native city of Valladolid. Cantón, a noted conservative and an avid supporter of Maximilian, was persona non grata with liberals like Governor Romero Ancona. In 1876 Cantón, in cau-dillesque fashion, had opportunistically forsaken his conservative political credentials and led the Tuxtepec revolt in the peninsula that brought Porfirio Díaz to power. His loyalty was rewarded by Díaz’ patronage, despite strenuous objections from Yucatán’s liberal governor and the state legislature.35

Sometimes political power and railway construction dovetailed nicely. For instance, an extraordinary amount of new track construction occurred on the Mérida-Valladolid railway during Pancho Cantón’s tenure as governor of the state, 1897-1901. While it is difficult to attribute this directly to political influence or patronage, the company never witnessed such a productive period either before or afterward.36

It appears that federal favors were sometimes handsomely returned by grateful railway promoters. In 1898 Rodulfo G. Cantón contracted with Porfirio Díaz y Compañía, an engineering concern established by the dictator’s son, Porfirio Díaz, Jr., to build the Acanceh-Sotuta branch of his Mérida-Peto line. The decision to choose Díaz Jr.’s company raised eyebrows throughout the state because Rodulfo Cantón had just received a federal concession to build a new railway to the Relize border. In addition to building the ramal, Díaz Jr.’s company also surveyed 145,776 hectares for Cantón’s Southeastern Railways in Ticul, Maxcanú, and Hunucmá partidos. Southeastern Railways paid Díaz Jr. five thousand pesos in advance and agreed to pay the engineer 25 centavos per hectare measured.37

The Ministry of Development also displayed remarkable patience and flexibility in its dealings with Yucatecan railway promoters. While in other parts of Mexico the ministry revoked many of the concessions for failure to begin construction within the stipulated time, the Secretaría de Fomento and its administrative successor created in 1891, the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas, at times extended deadlines for Yucatecan promoters, reduced the number of kilometers a company had to finish each year, and increased cargo (fletes) and passenger fares—perhaps because they had few other realistic options in this peripheral region.38 In addition to subventions granted for each kilometer of track laid, the federal government granted exemptions from most taxes, including import duties on building materials and equipment. Local railway promoters took advantage of these incentives. Technical inventories separately listed tax-exempt imported goods, such as Baldwin locomotives and J. G. Brill rolling stock (both Philadelphia-based firms) and steel rails from Belgium. It was not until 1898, however, that a national policy on railways was formulated by the finance minister, José Limantour. Limantour considered it essential to harmonize the needs of the export sector with the growing infrastructural network and to let the government continue to intervene, not only to supervise the existing network but to chart the system’s future growth.39

Despite the federal government’s tolerant policies, only in Rendón Peniche’s case did the initial concessionaire actually oversee the completion of his railroad (see Table 1). The concessions for the longer railways were invariably sold off to other entrepreneurs, who simply picked up where the original concessionaires had left off. Turnover was common in the early years, as it soon became apparent that railroad building would not generate a quick profit for speculators. So long as there was track to be laid—and for some lines there would always be new kilometers to build during the Porfiriato—profits were reinvested in new construction. As a result, promoters and their shareholders realized precious few dividends. Few who initially invested had the patience to wait for a handsome return.40

One of the biggest obstacles to success was the slow and uneven pace of new track construction. As in the rest of Mexico, construction soared during periods of economic growth and came to a virtual standstill when the regional economy sputtered.41 Because over 70 percent of the railways’ freight was raw fiber, the railways’ commercial viability, their ability to borrow funds from local banks and secure mortgage loans from landowners and merchants, and their ability to reinvest profits in new track were all directly related to the world market price of henequen.42

The Mérida-Peto line, for instance, which in good years built 15 kilometers of new track, laid only 2 kilometers a year during a mid-1880s downturn in the regional economy. A French archaeologist, Désiré Charnay, made two trips to the peninsula, four years apart, during the early 1880s, and on each occasion rode the Peto line to reach the Uxmal and Kabah ruins. When he learned that in the interim the company had only constructed 5 kilometers of new track, he sarcastically observed: “It is a very slow progress, and one wonders how many centuries it will take to reach Bacalar which, it is said, will be the end of the line.”43 During that same bust cycle, construction on the Mérida-Valladolid was virtually paralyzed. Little or no track was built by either railway during a similar downturn between 1893 and 1895. In contrast, during the boom periods of 1889-91 and 1898-1900, the Mérida-Peto averaged 11 new kilometers of track a year, and the Mérida-Valladolid also demonstrated impressive growth in boom years for which data are available.44

The henequen economy also sparked competition during the formative years of construction, as railway companies fought over favorable routes. Perhaps the best example of this was the bitter struggle between the two companies that served the corridor east of Mérida, Rendón Peniche’s Mérida-Progreso e Izamal and Francisco Cantón’s Mérida-Valladolid line. Initially, there appeared to be little basis for friction. The two railways’ tracks were of different widths—the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal was via ancha (wide gauge) and Cantón’s line was via angosta (narrow)—and their proposed routes did not conflict. But early on, Pancho Cantón shrewdly discerned that without access to the port of Progreso, he would not only lose a chance at the lucrative import trade but would have to funnel much of his fiber business to his competitors once it reached the terminal in Mérida. In 1881 he asked for and received federal permission to build a ramal from Progreso to Conkal, 15 kilometers northeast of Mérida.

This was a decisive move on Cantón’s part, for two reasons. First, all henequeneros now benefited from the creation of a second, competitive line that served Progreso, ending Rendón Peniche’s monopoly. Second, those henequeneros who took advantage of the new via angosta service to the port did not have to send their product through Mérida, where fiber often sat for months in warehouses awaiting transshipment onto the via ancha. Now the fiber went directly to the port, and henequeneros saved time and money. In a business where every fraction of a centavo per pound was important, Pancho Cantón’s new ramal proved immensely popular with eastern henequeneros. Cantón’s business soared as a result, and Rendón Peniche’s hold on the Mérida-Progreso route was broken.45

Rendón Peniche’s company lawyers fought in the courts to deny Cantón a right of way across the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal tracks in Progreso. But District Judge José Dolores Rivero Figueroa upheld Cantón’s right of way, and although the Mérida-Progreso lawyer Juan Molina Solís appealed the case to the Supreme Court, his request for amparo (protection) fell on deaf ears.46 (Interestingly enough, Judge Rivero Figueroa was later named superintendent of the Mérida-Valladolid railway.47) Tensions flared when Cantón’s construction crew working on the Progreso-Conkal branch started to lay track across the via ancha in Progreso. Workers from both companies violently clashed, shots were fired, and federal troops were called in to restore order.48

Despite the competition and the slow pace, by the turn of the century, after two decades of perseverance, four major lines—the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal, Mérida-Valladolid, Mérida-Campeche, and Mérida-Peto—had completed virtually all of their track. It was relatively economical to lay track in the level, arid henequen zone. Unlike many parts of Mexico, this terrain presented no need to build embankments or trestles, nor provoked concern about washouts, landslides, or hurricane damage.49

Like the spokes of a wheel, railway lines built by and for henequen magnates fastened outlying villages and haciendas into a tight orbit around their Mérida hub. And although fiber dominated the cargo receipts, the railroads carried everything from forest products to cereals, livestock to chemicals, general merchandise to imported luxury items. The growth in passenger traffic throughout the state was also impressive. The Mérida-Peto line, for example, which grew from 22,853 fares in 1881 to more than 435,000 fares in 1913, became the principal means of transportation for people who lived along the southeasterly route (see Figure 1).50

Henequeneros tied their fields to the expanding transportation network by means of narrow-gauge Decauville tramways, which were laid atop established roadbeds and easily moved between henequen fields. The inexpensive, portable, two-foot-gauge tracks, imported by the casa exportadora Escalante e Hijo from the Societé Nouvelle des Etablissements Decauville Ainé in Belgium, easily supported the “thousand-plus leaves the mule-drawn flatbed tramcars hauled out of the fields each trip.”51 Henequeneros then petitioned railway officials for permission to lay track (escapes) that connected their trams to the railroad.

Moreover, state concessions for short commuter trams between haciendas and neighboring pueblos mushroomed throughout the zona henequenera as enterprising henequeneros and merchants moved fiber and passengers within partidos. By 1910 a third of Mexico’s almost eight thousand kilometers of commuter and feeder lines were located in Yucatán.52

Within 20 years, the henequen zone was crisscrossed with rapid, inexpensive transportation for the export commodity. How to extend the railway beyond the state’s dynamic economic zone and bring development to the peninsula’s marginal subregions would prove to be a formidable challenge for railway promoters.

The Elusive Coal of Development: A Tale of Two Cantóns

Even though fiber remained the railroad’s bread and butter, some promoters believed that their industry had the potential to encourage diversified economic development beyond the narrow confines of the zona henequenera. Pancho Cantón (Mérida-Valladolid) and Rodulfo G. Cantón (Mérida-Peto) thought their lines in particular would revive an ailing southeastern economy. This tale of two Cantóns, who waged a heroic but ultimately futile battle to break the region’s reliance on monoculture, is instructive. It not only documents the railroad’s inability to promote linkages to other parts of the regional economy, but also illustrates the significant contribution of the peninsular railways to the growth of the Mérida hub.

Before the midcentury Caste War (1847-c. 1858), a lively grain trade and profitable sugar and cotton industries had flourished in the southeast. Valladolid, at 51,000 the most populous city in the peninsula, was a thriving entrepôt for trade with Campeche and Mérida and the site of a profitable cotton textile manufacturing plant. Sugar produced almost exclusively in the Tekax and Peto districts for the local market generated nine-tenths of the value of commercial production in the state. After the war, however, this same region found itself stripped of capital and short of labor. Now sugar, corn, and textiles had to be imported from Cuba, central Mexico, Europe, and the United States. An increasingly marginal southeast experienced a significant change of roles, struggling to feed its own rather than provide for others.53

The Caste War did more than ravage the southeastern portion of the state during its first decade (when upward of 35 percent of the peninsula’s population perished from battle, disease, and privation). The struggle between whites (dzules) and indios lingered for the rest of the century, in the form of relentless hit-and-run attacks by the rebellious Maya on frontier outposts like Peto, Chemax, and Yaxhacbén. Resettlement and economic recovery were delayed by the constant threat of ambush on the frontier. Time and again, federal and state troops sallied forth into what is today the Quintana Roo jungle to put an end to Maya autonomy, only to be driven back by disease, guerrilla attacks, and the absence of vital transportation and communication lines.54

For Yucatecan elites, many of whom had lost family and considerable fortune in the early years of the fighting, the campaign against the indios bárbaros became a fixation. Couched in phrases like “civilization versus barbarism,” a manifest destiny movement similar to those in the United States and Argentina preyed upon the thoughts of Yucatecan leaders. “The peninsula must be made safe for progress,” intellectuals insisted, and that meant a war without quarter until the rebellious Maya were rooted out of their jungle capital of Chan Santa Cruz.55

The federal government concurred with local leaders about the urgency of a campaign against the Santa Cruz Indians (or cruzob) for three reasons. Díaz worried about the cruzob’s arms purchases and business transactions with the British government and its settlers in neighboring Belize. Mexico was also concerned about the intentions of Great Britain along the border, especially since the frontier was so poorly defined and defended. And the federal government viewed the jungle as a valuable economic resource, filled with chicle, mahogany, cedar, construction woods, dyewood, and rubber. If foreign and national entrepreneurs exploited this region with the appropriate federal concessions, Díaz and his technocrats reasoned, those empresarios would simultaneously colonize the jungle and create a buffer against British expansion.56

For Pancho Cantón, the war against the indios bárbaros became nothing short of a personal obsession. In 1848, at the age of 14, he had escaped with his family during the Maya siege of Valladolid. When the city was retaken by dzules in December of that year, Cantón and his family returned home, shocked to witness the devastation done by the indios. Although only a youngster, he joined the local militia to help protect Valladolid against further incursions. That was the beginning of a distinguished military career that featured numerous expeditions against the cruzob, a seemingly endless string of promotions—to the rank of brigadier general—and a fair number of caudillo-style “revolutions” waged against political opponents, such as the aforementioned Tuxtepec affair.57 Even 50 years after Valladolid was razed, Cantón had lost little of his determination to defeat the hated cruzob. “Campaigning” for governor in 1897, he told his political supporters:

To all the motives mentioned that have led me to sacrifice the repose of private life and enter the commotion of public life, I must add the desire to cooperate with all my energies with the noble propositions of the President of the Republic to end once and for all the dreadful Caste War that for 50 years now has constrained the prosperity of the state in the rich southern and eastern zones. This is the greatest glory to which I could aspire, my lifelong goal and the objective to which I devoted the best days of my youth.58

No wonder the zealous Cantón eagerly embraced the task of building a railway to Valladolid during the Porfiriato. Such a line would help pacify the peninsula.

Although Rodulfo G. Cantón lacked the vengeance motive, he, too, understood the importance of railroads to the development of the interior. Born in Mérida in 1833 (ironically, the same year as Pancho), this Cantón was a renaissance man. A lawyer, he was also president of the board of directors of the Banco Yucateco, owner of one of Mérida’s first bookstores, founder of a music conservatory, secretary of the Academy of Sciences and Literature, an interim governor during Molina’s administration, and president of the ayuntamiento of Mérida when the streets of the capital were paved and the waterworks modernized. Like his friend and business associate Olegario Molina, Rodulfo ardently believed that the introduction of European and North American technologies would bring about the modernization of Mexico. Thus he traveled as Yucatán’s representative to a number of world’s fairs and scientific expositions. It was natural that this Cantón gravitated toward the symbol of modernization during this era—railroad building.

Rodulfo first became interested in railroads during the 1860s, when he served as a local representative for a British concession that never got off the ground. In 1879 he learned that another concession, for a line between Mérida and the frontier town of Peto, about 150 kilometers south, was having financial difficulties. He sold his bookstore and his hacienda, Opichén, for $40,000, and, along with his brother Olegario, a topographical engineer who had worked with the Mérida-Progreso railway, secured the rights to build the Peto railroad in 1880.59

In searching for financial support, Rodulfo tried to convince local investors that the Peto line had both economic advantages and patriotic goals. Writing in La Razón del Pueblo in 1880, he declared that his railroad would generate new economic growth:

[While] this railway line does not go to any profitable zones or large commercial centers that could offer immediate development, it is going to stimulate the development of wealth in the lands along its path and promote the movement of commerce .. . .60

Rodulfo Cantón specifically emphasized the availability of public lands in the interior and the revitalization of the ailing sugar industry in Tekax and Peto partidos as two further potential objectives of his railway.61 U. S. Consul A. J. Lespinasse concurred that the Peto railway would “infuse new life and activity along all the semideserted towns which are situated along the line.. . . For want of cheap and quick transportation they are unable to send their produce to Mérida.”62 In his reports Cantón also repeatedly bragged that his railway would “without a doubt” contribute to the end of the Caste War.63

Despite these lofty goals, Rodulfo had difficulty attracting investors once construction reached the edge of the zona henequenera in Ticul partido. He never let simple matters like money deter his vision, however. He was already pursuing a far more challenging dream: a railway that would extend beyond Peto to Bacalar on the Belize border, with a trunk line cutting through Chan Santa Cruz and terminating on the Caribbean at Ascension Bay. When he could not convince the secretary of communications of the viability of the project, Cantón redrew the plans to link Peto and Valladolid, the southern and eastern outposts of “civilization,” with the Belize border. Three lines, totaling 450 kilometers through the heart of the jungle, Cantón argued, would facilitate the deployment of troops and chase the Indians from their secure position. The Compañía de los Ferrocarriles Sud-Orientales, S. A., or Southeastern Railways, promoted actively by Cantón, finally secured the federal concession on March 19, 1897.

But Cantón never realized his dream of a transpeninsular railway. The Ferrocarriles Sud-Orientales died a premature death for want of capital in 1901, with less than 15 kilometers of track finished. Its failure to generate local interest was hardly surprising. Railway promoters had a difficult enough time convincing henequeneros to invest when the tracks passed near their estates. It was naive to expect them to support an undertaking as risky as a railway through the jungle. Patriotism only went so far. Despite the opportunity to diversify and integrate a potentially rich economic resource into the marginalized southeast, local elites understandably preferred to concentrate their capital in the buffeting realities of the fiber economy. Rodulfo Cantón resigned himself to the considerable task of completing the 150 kilometers of track to Peto and a feeder line from Acanceh to Sotuta.64

In many ways, Pancho Cantón must have been even more saddened and frustrated with his unfulfilled dreams than Rodulfo was. His obsession with the cruzob had a bittersweet ending. In 1897, as governor, Pancho Cantón and the federal government initiated a military campaign to drive the cruzob out of Chan Santa Cruz. It proved costly in human and material resources. Four thousand soldiers were struck with malaria in the course of the war, and more than two thousand Yucatecan soldiers perished in the fighting. Financially, the war accounted for more than 25 percent of the state’s annual budget during Cantón’s administration. After a difficult struggle through the jungle, federal forces finally drove the cruzob from their stronghold in 1901.65

If Pancho Cantón felt vindicated by that victory, events in Mexico City quickly dampened any satisfaction he might have enjoyed. In 1902 Porfirio Díaz announced the creation of a new federal territory, Quintana Roo, in the eastern portion of the peninsula. In a series of letters to Díaz, Pancho Cantón pleaded that this action endangered the economic security of the peninsula. By stripping the state of such fertile properties, he argued, the federal government condemned Yucatán to continue its precarious monocrop existence. Despite Cantón’s prophetic arguments, Díaz pushed ahead with plans to partition the peninsula; the state of Yucatán would lose more than a third of its territory.66

The loss of Quintana Roo territory and the failure of the Ferrocarriles Sud-Orientales were part and parcel of the larger problem of the search for the elusive goal of balanced economic development. Neither the Mérida-Peto nor the Mérida-Valladolid line brought about the revitalization of the southeast. Although by the close of the Porfiriato regular railway service served Espita, Valladolid, and Tizimín to the east and Ticul, Tekax, and Peto to the south, the railroad did not promote economic growth in these areas, nor did it encourage villagers on the outskirts to search for employment in these partido centers. The population of many of these districts stagnated and in some cases actually declined during the Porfiriato.67

Mérida Comes of Age

The peninsular railways did, however, clearly contribute to the steady growth of Mérida. From a sleepy town of approximately ten thousand at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the state capital grew as a direct result of the Caste War and the henequen boom. Its population doubled during the Porfiriato alone, leapfrogging over such provincial capitals as Guanajuato, Durango, Chihuahua, Morelia, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Zacatecas. By 1910 Mérida had 62,447 residents. It was the fifth-largest provincial capital, trailing Guadalajara, Monterrey, San Luis Potosí, and Puebla, and was experiencing one of the highest growth rates of any city in Mexico during the last decade of the Porfiriato.68

Mérida’s growth was in many ways a byproduct of the partitioning of the peninsula. After Valladolid was devastated by the Caste War and Campeche seceded from Yucatán in 1857, Mérida was left as the only viable commercial center in the state. Employment opportunities encouraged migrants to leave rural areas and attracted immigrants, many of them from Cuba and Spain. A notable decline in the death rate also contributed to the demographic upswing as improvements in public sanitation and health gave Mérida’s urban dwellers, especially the children of the laboring classes, a better chance for survival.69 By the end of the Porfiriato, the city was touted as the “Paris of Mexico.” An official visit by Porfirio Díaz in 1906 (the first time a Mexican president had visited the state) confirmed that Yucatán and its modernized capital were no longer a provincial backwater but an integral part of the modern Mexican nation.70

The affordable railroad made travel possible for the peninsula’s working classes. A third-class fare on the Mérida-Peto in 1901 was two centavos a kilometer. This meant that a round-trip fare to Acanceh, a partido seat about 25 kilometers south, cost one peso.71Jornaleros’ wages in 1900 ranged from 75 centavos to one peso a day, so railway fares were just within reach for most villagers. Figure 2 breaks down fares into the three classes of tickets sold, to demonstrate that the working classes provided far and away the highest percentage of riders for the Mérida-Peto line during the Porfiriato. (And the commute from Acanceh, Tixkokob, or Hunucmá, all important partido seats in the zona henequenera, took less than an hour.)

As Table 2 clearly illustrates, travel to and from Mérida dwarfed passenger traffic elsewhere in the state. Even setting aside the high percentage on the Progreso e Izamal line owing to the disproportionate traffic between the state’s capital and port, the 64.8 percent and 67.5 percent figures for the Mérida-Peto and Mérida-Valladolid lines, respectively, illustrate how the railroad played a key role in stimulating the growth of the capital. Only the Mérida-Campeche figure, 53.4 percent, is relatively low; but it is explained by the existence of a second, smaller hub on this railway, Campeche.

Data on fletes corroborate the economic importance of Mérida as a hub. In 1896, a staggering 90 percent of the cargo carried by the Mérida-Peto line went to or from the capital. In 1900 and 1901, the figures dipped to 69.5 percent and 72.3 percent of all cargo handled by the railway.72

The picture is even more striking when Mérida traffic is compared to intrapartido travel throughout the state. Temax, for instance, was an important pueblo located on the edge of the zona henequenera, the gateway to the east. A railway promoter like Pancho Cantón ideally would have wanted a partido seat like Temax not only to generate considerable passenger traffic within the partido, but also to channel migration toward Valladolid and other economically disadvantaged areas to the east. As Table 3 underscores, Temaxeños were more than twice as likely to venture to Mérida (and vice versa) as they were to travel between Temax and nearby Cansahcab in the same partido. Travel to Motul, an important partido seat west of Temax, was also meager. And movement between Valladolid and Temax, only 366 fares, was very discouraging.

From Valladolid itself the picture, although somewhat more promising than Temax, was hardly inspiring. Although intrapartido travel to Uayma and Tinum was higher than traffic to and from the state capital, it still was limited. Since Valladolid is 180 kilometers by rail from Mérida, the paucity of fares is easier to understand; the eastern city was isolated from other commercial centers in the state. Moreover, the fare was prohibitive for many third-class passengers, who constituted the bulk of rail traffic throughout Yucatán.

Tables 2 and 3 suggest that the peninsular railways not only promoted the growth of Mérida during the Porfiriato, but failed to stimulate the economic development of the rest of the state. As one student of Yucatán’s economic history has surmised: “In a sense, the whole of Yucatán became the hinterland of the capital.”73

What must have been even more disheartening to visionaries like Pancho and Rodulfo G. Cantón is that the railroad—along with its partner, the steamship—hurt rather than helped diversified agriculture and industry in the state.74 Tariffs on inbound steamship freights were drastically reduced to allow shippers to fill their vessels on the return trip. Although railway tariffs on imports remained high relative to exports because Díaz’ government wished to stimulate foreign exchange, agricultural producers and manufacturers geared to the domestic market also had to pay correspondingly high fletes.75 As one Havana commercial publication noted in 1901:

Freight rates on Mexican railroads are high. How, then, can merchandise be shipped to the coast at an advantageous price? How can they [Mexican manufacturers] compete in foreign markets with products similar to those of other countries if within their own borders they have incredibly high freight rates?76

Conversely, railway promoters gave henequeneros a much-needed rebate on their fiber by interpreting federal tariff regulations liberally, which permitted discounts for bulk goods hauled long-distance.77

Since the cusas exportadoras worked hand-in-glove with foreign shippers like Ward and Company to move their fiber, it made good business sense to take advantage of reduced shipping rates and flood Mérida markets with foreign grain and foodstuffs. By the end of the Porfiriato, hacendados throughout the zona henequenera purchased corn, beans, sugar, and other staples from foreign suppliers through their casas exportadoras, thereby depriving the impoverished southeast of even its traditional markets. In trade with central Mexico, the early use of sail rather than steam vessels by Mexican carriers in the coastal trade meant that freight and insurance costs were 25 and 50 percent higher, respectively, than they were for foreign steamship carriers. And to the extent that railroads diverted precious capital from other enterprises, cart roads outside the zona henequenera were consigned to the dustbin of regional infrastructure.78

The Patriarchal Order

Railroads, like most businesses in Yucatán, began as family-run enterprises. Kinship management of local railway companies was reenforced by the peninsular transportation network’s isolation from the rest of Mexico and inability to link up with other national railway lines.79 Although some companies went public to raise additional capital during the Porfiriato, the promoters and their families never relinquished control of day-to-day operations. Even after 1902, when the independent joint-stock companies were fused into the FCUY—“el trust,” as the local press nicknamed it—the conglomerate still retained a strong familial orientation.

As Tables 4 and 5 illustrate, the Mérida-Peto and Mérida-Valladolid railways were extended-family operations. Kin and inlaws changed positions in the corporate structure, but they invariably held the most prominent posts even after the companies went public. Both railways retained this hierarchy until their sale to the FCUY in 1902 (Valladolid) and 1908 (Peto). In fact, when the Peto railway was sold—more than a decade after going public—Rodulfo G. Cantón and his wife, Estela, still held 1,049 shares (out of 1,200), and other relatives owned the remaining 151 shares.80

Although railroads and henequen were mutually dependent, the promoters and their families did not necessarily amass their personal wealth from henequen monoculture. Neither Rodulfo nor Francisco Cantón owned an estate in the zona henequenera. Rodulfo, as already noted, sold his small hacienda, Opichén, located on the fringes of the zone, to purchase his railway. Pancho Cantón owned a number of small haciendas on the outskirts of Valladolid, well outside the henequen zone. The Progreso and Campeche lines, on the other hand, were managed and owned by henequeneros such as the Peóns, who had wide-ranging investment portfolios in the regional economy. Of the four companies, only the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal, started by José Rendón Peniche and his fellow investors, comprised ownership and day-to-day management beyond the parentesco.81

Railway promoters managed their companies (and their workers) as henequeneros ran their estates—paternalistically. Throughout the early years of railroading, workers were treated as if they were part of an extended family, much like indebted peons (peones acasillados) on the fiber estates. Debt peonage, so ingrained in local labor practices, was also appropriated by the railway promoters to ensure a compliant and immobile work detail.82

Rodulfo G. Cantón’s Mérida-Peto, the most family-oriented railway in the peninsula, used the debt mechanism until the last years of the Porfiriato, while his jornaleros accumulated substantial debts. In annual technical reports, peones were listed not only as members of the manual labor squads that laid and repaired track or cut leña, but also in the company’s foundries, carpentry and machine shops, and warehouses in Mérida and Progreso. Company bylaws, approved by the Secretaría de Comunicaciones, permitted workers to receive small advances on their weekly wages, although these were never to exceed 50 percent of their salary. The advances were then deducted from their weekly pay. Many workers still fell behind, suggesting that railway owners may have copied the regional practice of no hoch cuenta—a large account used for weddings, baptisms, and fiestas, from which a worker rarely extricated himself. An 1890 Mérida-Peto informe listed cash advances to employees and jornaleros totaling $4,178.58.

It is important to note that advances were extended not just to unskilled peones but also to lower-level management and skilled workers. Primitivo Mejía’s debt, for instance, had risen by 1908 to a hefty $1,746.84. Debts listed for 37 of Rodulfo’s other employees in 1908 averaged 69 pesos per worker. Given jornaleros’ meager salaries, the debt effectively consigned workers to permanent servitude. To add insult to injury, the sale of the railway to the FCUY in 1908 meant only that the new owners inherited the workers and their debts.83

In addition to debt peonage, regular and temporary railway employees, just like their counterparts on henequen haciendas, were exempt from national guard service and road work (faginas or tequios vecinales). Railway companies were the only institution outside the agricultural sector to receive this waiver. Since the draft (leva) was universally despised by Yucatecans—many of whom feared they would be dragged off to the frontier to battle the indios bárbaros—the lure of an exemption enticed some workers to seek employment with the railway companies.84

At times, railway superintendents bitterly complained that district prefects (jefes políticos) violated the law, ignored the exemption, and hauled their workers off to serve in the national guard anyway. In 1882 Olegario Molina, superintendent of Rendón Peniche’s Mérida-Progreso e Izamal line, complained to state authorities that the district prefect of Tixkokob partido wanted 16 railway workers from Sitpach to fill his leva quota. When the jefe, who was under pressure from state authorities to round up conscripts, continued to harass Molina to release his workers, Molina angrily wrote to Governor Manuel Romero Ancona: “Don’t continue harassing those workers with National Guard service.”85 Ironically, 20 years later Governor Molina stood on the other side of the fence when he lamented that villagers were joining the railway companies in order to avoid service in the guardia. He issued a directive that any worker who took a job with the railroad must first obtain a letter from his jefe documenting that he had satisfied both his national guard and tequios vecinales obligations.86

State authorities also contended that railway companies sometimes padded their exemption lists to protect workers who did not really work for the company. Since railroads periodically hired or fired workers depending on economic conditions or particular needs, perhaps superintendents kept workers on their lists to guarantee a “reserve corps” of their own. One interesting example dates from 1901, when the management of the Mérida-Campeche line complained to the Secretaría de Comunicaciones that Governor Pancho Cantón s jefes políticos were snatching railway workers and whisking them off to the frontera to fight the cruzob. Cantón, who, of course, owned his own railway, dryly responded to the ministry that he recognized only too well the cunning practice of listing workers who were not employed by the company.87

Railway executives also mimicked the henequeneros by periodically whining about the shortage of brazos and the indolence of their workers. Labor scarcity was a perennial complaint, which only makes sense, given that companies refused to pay more for their workers than the prevailing pathetic wages offered to hacienda peones. Monoculture, furthermore, became the railway s chief competitor for labor. The only time railway executives moaned about the shortage of brazos was when they wanted to lay new track. As already noted, most new track was built during periods of high fiber prices, when capital was readily available. These were precisely the times when henequeneros were also expanding their work force—and raising wages—to take advantage of bonanza prices and harvest as much henequen as possible. The undercapitalized railway companies protested that they simply could not compete. When railway companies tried to import workers from Spain, Cuba, and the United States to compensate for these short-run labor shortages, they experienced only limited success, largely because working conditions and wages were so unattractive.88

Management’s charge of idleness mirrored the patronizing and condescending attitude shared by landlords since time immemorial throughout rural Latin America. As a Mérida-Peto superintendent candidly professed in 1887:

. . .the indigenous race, in general, lacks aspirations and their material necessities are limited to corn, the basic element of their subsistence. And when they are paid higher wages, they acquire in two days what is sufficient for their expenses for a week. They don’t have the drive to continue working and they know well that they enjoy the constitutional guarantees of not being obligated to work, a guarantee that is, in general, rigorously observed by authorities in Yucatán.89

The charge was rationalization pure and simple. Aside from the fact that jornaleros’ salaries rarely exceeded a peso a day, the notion of constitutional protection would be laughable if it were not so sad. Campesinos in the zona henequenera, many of whom had lost their lands as a result of the liberal reform laws that broke up their ejidos, had only a few, disagreeable options: unemployment; underemployment and immiseration in the village, with the unwelcome prospect of the leva and faginas; lifelong indebtedness and brutal working conditions on the estate, cutting and carrying 1,000 to 1,500 henequen leaves a day, albeit with some protection from the leva; or an equally arduous job with the railway, hammering spikes, building embankments, or cutting firewood at menial wages with the uninviting prospect of an eternal debt. Small wonder railway workers lacked “aspirations.”

Clientelism also implied reciprocity. Railway employees fashioned a relationship with management that not only provided them with some measure of protection and security but also demonstrated that, in lieu of a legitimate union that protected their interests, workers had to petition their grievances, individually and in small groups, against the unilateral measures employed by management. Not surprisingly, documentation that illustrates collective action against management is meager. Only two small examples of unsuccessful organized protest appear between the 1880s and early 1900s—one in 1881, staged by workers who felt they were working an excessive number of hours; another in 1902, led by Cubans and Spaniards who demanded to be paid in silver.90 Not until the last month of the Porfiriato, April 1911, did Yucatecan railway workers form the Unión Obrera de los Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán and strike, unsuccessfully, for improved working conditions.91

Recent studies suggest that despite the formidable structures of domination imposed by landowners and authorities, clientelism did provide room for workers to resist. Unfortunately, these data are even more difficult to track down than material on collective protest. Less obvious forms of discontent—“the small arms fire of the class war”—often become buried in the historical record. Pervasive alcoholism, noncompliance, shirking, and flight, or, more aggressively, clandestine acts of theft, arson, and sabotage certainly occurred; we can infer that from management’s chronic diatribe against worker indolence.92 Even someone as “culto” as Rodulfo G. Cantón perniciously condemned an entire race as “completely” given over to liquor, thereby defending his refusal to pay two of his workers who had suffered an on-the-job accident in 1900.93

Workers—all workers—were treated like children. The nation’s leadership maintained that indios and campesinos were intellectually and physically inferior. The científicos employed the pseudoscientific tenets of Social Darwinism to justify their own privileged position while denigrating the lower classes. Secretary of Finance José Limantour told the National Scientific Congress in 1901: “The weak, the unprepared, those who lack the necessary tools to triumph in the evolutionary process, must perish and leave the field to the strongest.”94 The pronouncements of the nation’s technocratic leaders dovetailed perfectly with the prevailing idiom of power on the hacienda.95

Not until the late Porfiriato would the patriarchal order in the railway industry break down. As railways changed from family ownership to joint-stock management to the regional monopoly of the FCUY, the paternalistic premise gave way to a partial proletarianization of the work force and the cautious formation of the industry’s first trade union movement.96 Still, it should be emphasized that these first, hesitant steps toward worker solidarity pale in comparison to the militant mobilization of railway workers’ unions throughout Mexico proper during this era. The peninsula’s isolation impeded the incorporation of Mérida’s workers into the national and international trade unions. Furthermore, Yucatecans and Mexican nationals filled most of the worker and management positions in Mérida. Whereas the visible presence of foreign workers sparked the growth of the nationalistic unions elsewhere in Mexico, their relative absence in Yucatán inhibited the formation of a strong railway union.97 And to make matters worse, the consolidation of the peninsular railways into the FCUY meant that during the 1907-1909 financial panic, many railway workers would lose even what little security clientelism had provided.

“El Trust” and Railroad Politics (c. 1898-1911)

The Spanish-American War indirectly aided Yucatán’s monoculture by denying the United States ready access to Filipino manila fiber, henequen’s chief competitor. As a result, the world market price for henequen soared to ten cents a pound, contributing to an extended economic boom. The price rise, coupled with intense political rivalries, created a tangled web of power relationships. Three camarillas crystallized in late Porfirian Yucatán; each had the backing of at least one powerful casa exportadora.98

The casas—Escalante e Hijo, Molina y Compañía, and Urcelay y Compañía—each with its political contacts in the statehouse and Mexico City, began to wage a fierce battle for control of real estate, industries, and the railways. Fed by high prices, “speculation fever” engulfed the regional economy as joint-stock shares, mortgage credits, emitted promissory notes, and real estate were frivolously horse-traded. Easy money was made available by local banks directly linked to the casas. The Banco Yucateco, for instance, was firmly under the control of the Molina house, while the Banco Mercantil de Yucatán was tied to the Escalantes. At stake were the spoils of the henequen economy. The railroad industry was considered one of the economy’s crown jewels.

The balance of power among regional camarillas was threatened in 1899, when a new joint-stock company dominated by Molinista shareholders, the Compañía del Ferrocarril, Muelle y Almacenes del Comercio, was formed. The board of directors announced its intention to build a third railway line between Progreso and Mérida and acquire docks and warehouses in the port and capital. Perceiving a threat of potentially ruinous competition, rival camarillas initiated serious discussions proposing to derail the new competitor by merging all the railway companies in Yucatán.99

The groundwork for the merger began during the late 1890s when the wealthy Peón y Peón family acquired stock in both the Campeche and Progreso e Izamal lines. Two brothers, Augusto and Joaquín Peón y Peón, became directors and board presidents of the respective railways. By 1900 the Mérida-Progreso railway held 447 shares of the Campeche line, and a number of Peón relations controlled a substantial portion of the Campeche’s remaining shares. In addition to his management role, Augusto, one of the largest henequeneros in Yucatán, lent the Campeche line a two-hundred-thousand-peso mortgage.100

With these two lines under the control of the Peóns and with the Molinistas threatening to build a third line to Progreso, the Escalantes began to take a serious interest in acquiring railway properties. Eusebio Escalante e Hijo, one of the pillars of the fiber trade since the mid-1870s, had watched its share of the market steadily decline throughout the 1890s. The Escalante camarilla decided to put much of its considerable financial muscle into the regional transportation sector. The Escalantes already owned Mérida’s profitable urban tramways, the Compañía de Tranvías de Mérida; the Agencia Comercial, an important company that owned lighters (boats that carried fiber out to the steamships), docks, and warehouses in Progreso; and a host of henequen properties in the southwest portion of the state. The Escalantes and their extended relations, including former governor Carlos Peón Machado and wealthy merchant Pedro Peón Contreras, systematically began to accumulate shares of railway stock. By 1902 they had acquired a majority interest in the Mérida-Progreso, the Mérida-Campeche, and the Compañía Constructora del Muelle Fiscal de Progreso and were in a position to become the chief architects of a merger. They achieved their goal that fall by purchasing the Mérida-Valladolid from Pancho Cantón for a record five million pesos. Cantón unloaded his railway not only because of the inflated price paid by the Escalantes, but because his debt had risen to one-and-a-half million pesos.101

Within weeks of the sale announcement, the Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán was born. All lines but Rodulfo G. Cantón’s Mérida-Peto had been acquired, and the new company, under the direction of Nicolás Escalante Peón, was capitalized at a highly inflated $23 million. Escalante Peón received the unheard-of salary of $24,000 a year, four times the amount received by other regional railway directors.102

The merger touched off “a wild speculation in the shares of the railway company. . . [,] two banks and also in the buying and selling of the plantations.”103 Rumors that International Harvester was about to buy the Ferrocarriles Unidos only fueled the speculation, as railroad shares that originally had been offered at one thousand pesos now went as high as two thousand.104 Tomás Castellanos, a prominent henequenero, would later lament that the wave of “speculation fever” that accompanied the railroad merger had contributed to the first bankruptcies of the 1907 panic.105 While the Escalantes appeared to reward themselves by overvaluing their own lines, they in fact put themselves in an untenable position. William James, a North American import-export agent then living in Yucatán, would later comment:

The original owners of the railroads, taking advantage of the situation, increased the real costs of the line. The new company [the FCUY] made an additional increase in the valuation when they organized, and then the general public speculated on a structure that wasn’t firm to begin with.106

The consolidation of the three major lines was also plagued from the outset by organizational problems. Nicolás Escalante Peón detailed them in his annual reports to the Secretaría: difficulties integrating vía ancha and vía angosta stock; insufficient warehouse space in Mérida and Progreso; too few locomotives, many of them underpowered; duplicate foundries and machine shops; outmoded accounting practices; little preventive maintenance on the rolling stock—the list went on and on. An article in El Eco del Comercio corroborated Escalante Peón’s assessment, reporting that fiber sat idle in railroad warehouses for an average of eight to ten days.107

Escalante Peón estimated that over two million pesos was needed to modernize and integrate the lines.108 But even though the Escalantes controlled over $14.7 million in FCUY shares—in comparison to the $8.3 million worth of stock the Molinistas retained—Escalante Peón could not convince the shareholders, many of whom had purchased stock at very high prices, to divert their dividends toward improvements. Escalante Peón argued that if a portion of the dividends were used as collateral, the company could secure low-interest mortgage bonds from abroad. When the shareholders refused, management was forced to seek a less advantageous loan from North American bankers. On August 21, 1906, the FCUY borrowed one million dollars from Ladenburg, Thalmann and Company of New York.109

The FCUY was also hindered by sagging passenger and cargo revenues, which peaked in 1903 and declined thereafter.110 To add to the trust’s difficulties, Escalante Peón had the FCUY purchase two properties, one the shareholders knew about and another that was kept secret. In 1904 the FCUY added the Escalantes’ own urban tram company to its holdings for a hefty price.111 Two years later, just as the consolidation loan was being negotiated with the New York bank, the trust, unbeknown to its stockholders, bought Escalante’s Agencia Comercial for just under two million pesos, more than double its real value. The Escalante faction took both these actions to raise cash to repay a debt of over a million dollars that the Escalante casa exportadora owed Thebaud Brothers, a New York import-export company. Thebaud Brothers had been involved with the Escalantes in the fiber trade since the 1870s.112 By early 1907, the FCUY’s debt service had reached 5,106,427.63 pesos.113

Another factor that hurt the entire regional economy, and especially the casas exportadoras, was the Mexican government’s decision in 1905 to adopt the gold standard and peg the value of the standard silver peso at 50 U. S. cents. Henequen interests for years had bitterly resisted the switch to gold, since they had benefited by paying most of their expenses domestically in silver while selling their fiber abroad in dollars or pounds sterling. Local casas were outraged by the reform, as prices of foreign imports increased almost overnight by 10 to 25 percent. Since Mexico, and especially Yucatán, conducted most of its foreign trade with the United States, the silver peso’s lower value also exacerbated inflationary pressure in the peninsula.114

From 1904 to 1907, with inflation rising and the price of henequen sagging, the artificially high price of peninsular stocks could not be maintained. When the bubble burst in 1907, the first local casualty was the Escalante casa. Rumors of the collapse of Eusebio Escalante e Hijo had been circulating in Mérida throughout the first months of 1907. In a desperate but futile attempt to avoid bankruptcy, Nicolás Escalante Peón went to Mexico City in May and June to speak with Finance Secretary Limantour and the recently appointed development secretary, Yucatán’s own Olegario Molina. At stake was more than just the failure of one of the largest henequen firms in the peninsula. Yucatecan banks and the railway trust were in imminent danger of default. Limantour agreed to the fusion of the Banco Yucateco and the Banco Mercantil de Yucatán into one stronger institution, the Banco Peninsular Mexicano.115 But while the federal government intervened to prop up the state’s banking industry and transfer control of “el trust” to the Molinistas, it did not rescue the ailing Escalante casa. Nicolás Escalante Peón would later suggest that Molina intentionally worked to subvert any type of financial settlement that would have saved the Escalante house from failure.116 Although we will probably never know if this is true, the Molinista faction, now led locally by Molina’s son-in-law, Avelino Montes, certainly had little interest in propping up Escalante.

As a direct result of the Escalante failure, in July 1907 Avelino Montes Sociedad en Comandita scuttled one of its principal rivals in the henequen trade, obtained control of the FCUY and peninsular banks, and then used its new clout to purchase a steamship line in 1908. Rarely has one business profited so well from another’s misfortune. Escalante’s demise ensured Molinista dominance over the key facets of the regional economy.

On September 1, 1907, the Molinistas took control of the FCUY. José Trinidad Molina, Olegario’s brother, became the new president of the trust s board of directors. The first report issued by the new management team was, needless to say, highly critical of the Escalante regime.117 Assailing the secret purchase of the Agencia Comercial, the Molinistas asserted that the FCUY had lost over $1.2 million on the sale. Austerity measures were implemented, including the wholesale sacking of 254 employees. Patron-client relations were sacrificed to financial exigency as the Molinistas cut wages across the board during the financial panic. The lesson drawn by railway workers, watching helplessly as “el trust” scaled their wages back to pre-1898 levels in the teeth of the recession, was that the monopolization of the railway industry had left them more vulnerable to monoculture’s bumpy ride. Salaries were reduced by $24,000 a month, and another $20,000 monthly was saved by cutting costs. In addition to these wholesale reductions, costly insurance policies were dropped, service between Mérida and Campeche was cut in half, and the completion of railway stations was postponed.118

Another casualty of the financial panic was Rodulfo G. Cantón’s Mérida-Peto railway, the only family-managed company left in the peninsula. Rodulfo had steadfastly refused to sell out to the FCUY despite an attractive offer from the Escalantes. The Mérida-Peto was brought down ultimately by a heavy debt service of more than $3.2 million and the turbulent economic climate. In late 1908, the company went into receivership and was purchased at a bargain price of $2.1 million by the FCUY, despite the trust’s own considerable financial difficulties. Rodulfo, who had labored for years to complete the line and had invested his entire life savings in the enterprise, was left with $31,481.18 and complimentary lifetime passes on the FCUY lines for himself and his family. He went to Paris and died less than a year later, a broken man.119

The fusion of all the peninsular railways was now complete, but the trust was far from healthy. In the depths of the crisis, the value of railway shares had plummeted from $1,000 to $250.120 The FCUY was forced to take out a $4 million loan from the Banco Nacional and an £800,000 loan from English financiers over the next couple of years to buy the Mérida-Peto and shore up the company’s shaky finances.121

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why the FCUY engendered such fierce competition among regional elites. Many investors went bankrupt during the financial panic, and the dividends realized from the railway trust never met shareholder expectations. But the competing camarillas also realized significant benefits from their control of the railways. Years later, testimony before a U.S. congressional subcommittee would go a long way toward explaining why the Escalantes and Molinas vied for the FCUY. Dr. Víctor Rendón, manager of the Comisión Reguladora del Mercado de Henequén, recalled:

In Yucatán it was a thing of common knowledge that Mr. Montes paid some money to railroad officials, from the superintendent to the general manager to the brakemen, to have all the cars they needed and to withdraw cars from their competitors. It was common knowledge that in the days of General Díaz, that he [Montes] had bribed the operatives and the telegraphers in such a way that he knew every telegram that was passed by his competitors.

Leo Browne, assistant general manager of the FCUY, added:

I found that Mr. Blake [the general manager] would daily get a memorandum from Mr. Montes of purchases of sisal that he had made; that is, a memorandum of the bills of lading covering his purchases .. . . In the distribution of cars Mr. Blake would first take care of Mr. Montes and Montes’ requests for cars .. . .122

These two quotations attest that even if the railway trust did not prove profitable itself, Avelino Montes’ control of it helped ensure bountiful profits for his multiple investments in the regional economy. Control of the railway was indispensable to the Molinista empire, which had the political connections to complement its formidable business holdings. In contrast, the Escalantes, who lacked political clout at a crucial moment, watched their house of cards fall.

The Escalante failure also crystallized the belief among competing political factions that accommodation with the Molinista camarilla no longer seemed possible. Political activity and, if necessary, violent rebellion increasingly were perceived as the only means to wrest control from Yucatán’s científicos.123

Fertile Terrain in the Porfirian State

Mexico in 1910 had the highest proportion of foreign investment in Latin America. Close to two billion dollars, roughly 70 percent of the total capital invested in the country, permeated railroads, mines, commerce, land, and industry. Certain export commodities required heavy capital investment—well beyond the means of national entrepreneurs—to import new technologies and improve infrastructure and marketing. Foreign capitalists often established economic enclaves in mining and commercial agriculture, which frequently entailed the construction of “company towns” along with an expensive network of horizontal and vertical linkages in the host country. This foreign-dominated primary export model carried heavy costs: it exposed the domestic economy to violent shocks brought on by changes in external demand; it exacerbated inequality while ignoring social reform; and it favored the political dominance of landowner-exporters, who played an increasingly oligopolistic role in regional economies.124 Where North Americans and Europeans did not venture, their Mexican-born sons and nephews did. Mexican manufacturing during the Porfiriato, for instance, was dominated by a small clique of foreign-born and “creole” financiers who used mergers, buyouts, and political influence to drive competitors out of business.125

Científicos encouraged the importation of foreign theories, capital, and technologies. Positivism, Spencerian Social Darwinism, and liberalism were mixed and matched to adapt to Mexican realities.126Científicos such as Limantour and Justo Sierra used these theories to rationalize the inferior treatment of workers, as we have seen; they also equated European and North American ideas with modernization and progress. To persuade foreigners that Mexico was an appealing site for investment, Diaz bolstered the army and rural guard to make the countryside safe, made regular payments on the nation’s debt, balanced the budget for the first time in its history, and eventually moved the nation to the gold standard. A North American writing in Harper’s magazine in 1897 wryly remarked that Díaz’ administration may not have been “republican,” but it certainly was “business.”127

In sharp contrast to past administrations, which, through “an ensemble of policies, laws, and institutions,” had discouraged entrepreneurial activity, Díaz and his brain trust gave foreign and national elites “an economic hunting license with a perpetual open season.”128 While urban or rural enterprises historically had used kinship ties and political muscle to overcome a capricious economic environment, now for the first time companies could utilize these very same strategies under the watchful eye of an accommodating state. Employing the tenets of economic liberalism loosely, the Porfirian government intervened repeatedly to encourage investment—providing subsidies, tax breaks, and tariff protection. Through legislation and persuasion, moreover, the state invited mergers and other anticompetitive strategies, contending that these tactics were needed to overcome the obstacles that plagued nascent industrialization. In this manner the Porfirian state of mind justified the privilege of the rich while it rationalized the creation of an authoritarian regime determined to unify its stubborn patrias chicas.

The railroad proved an indispensable vehicle for the evolution of the modern nation-state. The trick, as far as the científicos were concerned, was to build a national railway system in which foreign capitalists and Mexican authorities could be partners. Justo Sierra fretted about the pervasive influence of North American capital in the railway industry: “The financial object of the Americans in extending their railway network to Mexico was to dominate our markets to the profit of their industry.” It was Díaz’ genius, Sierra reasoned, to understand that because

. . . our history and the state of our society put us in a position where we were liable to be hooked and carried off into the future by the formidable Yankee locomotive, he preferred to make the journey under the auspices and through the action of the Mexican government, as equal partners with the obligation to preserve peace and order, thereby maintaining our national integrity and achieving progress.129

This partnership did not break down until the last years of the Porfiriato, when Díaz and Limantour became convinced that powerful North American capitalists had the ability (and the desire) to dictate Mexico’s economic future. James Stillman, E. H. Harriman, William Rockefeller, and Jacob Schiff had formed a powerful syndicate that not only controlled the Mexican railway industry but, what was more important, linked Mexican markets and mining interests to the greater North American transportation network. Visualizing an industrial, financial, and infrastructural empire without national boundaries, U.S. capitalists dreamed of using Mexican railways to integrate Central America and even the Far East into their far-flung network (and then sold those dreams to European and North American stockholders).130

In response to these developments, the Mexican Treasury moved to acquire a controlling interest in the Interoceanic, Central, and National railroads. By 1910 the government owned a majority share of the most important railways in the country.131 Most historians agree, however, that the Porfirians’ nationalistic initiative represented a tepid and belated response to their neighbor’s drive for economic hegemony.132

The Informal Empire

Theoreticians of imperialism have analyzed the complex relationship between the recipients of foreign capital and imperial interests, and their efforts make clear that the alliances that evolved were not as one-sided nor as clear-cut as once presumed. While foreign capitalists, political authorities, and domestic entrepreneurs shared the common perception that the iron horse meant profits and that it would bear them inexorably to the promised land of “progress,” they often clashed over how the new technology should be best utilized. In some parts of Latin America, the outcome lay beyond European or North American control; in Mexico, the evidence indicates that the railroad was at once a powerful tool of political centralization, imperialism, and economic growth. It not only served the designs of Díaz and his científicos, it benefited the foreign and national elites who invested in the export economy while it linked the host country’s raw materials and markets directly to the metropolitan economy.133

It is precisely this ambiguous or “excentric idea of imperialism,” coupled with the particular constellation of endogenous and exogenous forces at a given historical moment, that clarifies the Yucatecan case.134 Yucatán’s peripheral location, the rigors of plantation monoculture, the personalistic relationship between management and labor, the prevailing developmentalist ideology, and the idiosyncratic nature of the primary commodity and the international fiber market all explain why Yucatán’s fiber industry and its railway system never came directly under foreign control.

Instead of the archetypical enclave, an informal empire evolved between accommodating elites and foreign buyers. International Harvester and its predecessors funneled capital through local agents to regional producers. By the end of the Porfiriato, International Harvester dominated the fiber industry and influenced price trends on the local fiber market. This collaborative matrix not only had important ramifications for the local economy—because land tenure and ownership of the means of production remained in Yucatecan hands—but it also shaped the symbiotic structure of the regional transportation industry.135

In economic terms, the railways failed to generate forward linkages that might have promoted diversified development. Nor did Yucatecan capitalists transfer into other businesses the management know-how and financial expertise garnered from the region’s railways. As Alfred Chandler has demonstrated for the North American case, railroads were the first true corporations; and as such they offered object lessons in modern entrepreneurship. In Brazil, São Paulo coffee barons cut their corporate teeth on railways and then moved profitably into manufacturing. But Yucatán’s entrepreneurs never transcended the constraints of monoculture.136 Occasional efforts to cross over from the field to the factory, such as the ill-fated “La Industrial” binder twine plant (1896-1908) that proved incapable of competing with North American binderies, seemed to confirm to local capitalists that monoculture’s fickle booms and busts, unstable as they might be, at least represented a known commodity.

If the monocultural state of mind limited local entrepreneurs’ willingness to diversify, it also confirmed that Yucatecan entrepreneurs were very much at home in the tumult of Porfirian high finance. Steven Haber, in his impressive study of the Mexican manufacturing industry, has documented a similarly cohesive oligopoly that “knew how to structure the market in order to avoid competition and had the economic and political clout to do so.” Social and family connections were utilized to build economic empires and to restrict entry to the market through political connections and the control of capital.137

The aggrandizing actions of regional and national elites were lent credence by intellectuals like Porfirio Parra, who extrapolated from the pseudoscientific theories of Social Darwinism that the contest for control of the sociedad anónima had much in common with prehistoric man’s struggle to survive against the elements.

What occurs among coarse and brutal primitive peoples also happens, although in much different form, among modern groups in a civilized and refined society. Suppose one had a group of shareholders in which a small group excels, a privileged minority more capable than the others, and they impose themselves and rule the rest, even though according to the philosophical tenets that inspired the Constitution [of 1857], all the shareholders have the same right to form the directorship of the company.138

In the late Porfirian corporate environment, survival of the fittest meant the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Not surprisingly, the New York Times reported in December 1902 that “nearly all the principal branches of industry” were controlled by trusts and combines.139

Yet these powerful economic combinations were not always lucrative for the capitalists involved. Haber has found that profits in manufacturing, like railroads, were spotty at best.140 But investments by these diversified oligopolies were part of a larger strategy of profitability; losses in some areas would be compensated by high profits in others. This allowed entrepreneurs to control both new, promising areas of activity, such as railroads and manufacturing, and the older, more established options of land and commerce.141 This is precisely why many Yucatecan henequeneros kept such diffuse investment portfolios. Haber’s insights on the bonds between entrepreneurs in Mexican industry apply as well to Yucatán’s factionalized agrocommercial economy: “Because no individual would risk his entire fortune on any one enterprise, this tightly knit group combined again and again to finance a variety of undertakings.”142 The dearth of profits never discouraged Yucatecan elites from waging an intense battle to acquire control of “el trust.”

As long as henequen enjoyed a brief, Ricardian comparative advantage on the world market, those elites that dominated the regional economy prospered. When that short-lived moment passed soon after the Mexican Revolution, Yucatán’s economy floundered.143 Indigenous entrepreneurship was not enough to overcome foreign capital, technology, and markets. The structure of the export model permitted family elites to organize their capital and invest in local railways, but it did not prove profitable in the short or the long run, for the families or for the region.

The author wishes to thank the Bowdoin College Research Fund for financial support to complete this study; Serena Zabin, Richard Abbott, and Art Rex for their assistance with the map and figures; and Steven C. Topik, Joan Supplee, and the anonymous reviewers of the HAHR for their comments and criticisms.

Research for this article drew on the following archives: Archivo General de la Nación, Ramo de Gobernación, Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas, Mexico City; Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán, Ramo del Poder Ejecutivo and Ramo de Justicia, Mérida; Archivo Notarial del Estado de Yucatán, Mérida; and Colección General Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. They are abbreviated hereafter as AGN, SCOP; AGEY, RPE, and AGEY, RJ; ANEY; and CGPD.


James Scobie, “The Growth of Latin American Cities, 1870-1930,” in The Cambridge History of Latin America, ed. Leslie Bethell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 4:235. John Coatsworth conservatively estimates that rates fell from 10 cents per ton kilometer (using wagon transport) in 1878 to 2.3 cents per ton kilometer (using the railways) in 1910. Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1981), 97-99, 102-3. This seminal work on Mexican railroads was originally published as Crecimiento contra desarrollo: el impacto económico de los ferrocarriles en el Porfiriato, 2 vols. (Mexico City: SepSetentas, 1976).


Quoted in Gabriel Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” in Enciclopedia Yucatanense, ed. Carlos A. Echánove Trujillo, 8 vols. (Mexico City: Edición Oficial del Gobierno de Yucatán, 1944-1947), 3:545.


Besides Ferrer de Mendiolea’s essay cited above, other useful works on Yucatán’s railways include Raquel Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril y la oligarquía henequenera,” Yucatán: Historia y Economía 26 (Jul.-Aug. 1981), 23-54; Lorenzo Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia económica y social de los ferrocarriles en Yucatán. Empresas y grupos económicos: 1876-1915.” Estudios Políticos. Revista del Centro de Estudios Políticos, UNAM 5:18-19 (1979), 113-56; Miguel Vidal Rivero, Los ferrocarriles de Yucatán a la luz de la historia, 2d ed. (Mérida: Talleres Gráficos y Editorial Zamná, 1975); Manuel Irabién Rosado, Historia de los ferrocarriles (Mérida: Consejo de los Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán, 1928); and Víctor M. Suárez Molina, La evolución económica de Yucatán: a través del siglo XIX, 2 vols. (Mexico City: Ediciones de la Universidad de Yucatán, 1977), esp. vol. 2, part 2.


While it was not unusual for regional entrepreneurs to initiate construction, foreign capitalists often stepped in when regional interests faltered. Rarely could native entrepreneurs sustain their investments in and control of the railway industry in their regions. A notable exception were the Brazilian-owned railways that served the coffee monocrop in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. See Robert H. Mattoon, Jr., “Railroads, Coffee, and the Growth of Big Business in São Paulo, Brazil,” HAHR 57:2 (May 1977), 273—95; and Flávio Azevedo Marques de Saes, As ferrovias de São Paulo, 1870-1940 (São Paulo: Ed. Huicitec, 1981).


The 80 percent figure is cited in Michael C. Meyer and William C. Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 444. On the nationalization of the railways see Lorena M. Parlee, “Porfirio Díaz, Railroads, and Development in Northern Mexico: A Study of Government Policy Toward the Central and Nacional Railroads, 1876-1910” (Ph. D. diss., Univ. of California, San Diego, 1981); Servando A. Alzati, Historia de la mexicanización de los ferrocarriles de México (Mexico City: Talleres Editorial Beatriz de Silva, 1946); Fernando González Roa, El problema ferrocarrilero y la Compañía de los Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (Mexico City: A. Carranza y Hijos, 1915); Jaime Gurza, La política ferrocarrilera del gobierno (Mexico City: Impresora de Stampilles, 1911); and John H. McNeely, The Railways of Mexico: A Study in Nationalization (El Paso: Texas Western College Press, 1964).


By the turn of the century, two U. S. companies, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, controlled more than half the track in Mexico and operated the only railways between Mexico City and the U. S. border. Lorena M. Parlee, “The Impact of United States Railroad Unions on Organized Labor and Government Policy in Mexico (1880-1911),” HAHR 64:3 (Aug. 1984), 443-76, esp. 445-46. John Hart traces the complicated links between North American investment in Mexican railways and the U. S. banking industry during the Gilded Age in Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 131-41. See also Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, Francisco R. Calderón, “Los ferrocarriles,” in Historia Moderna de México, ed. Daniel Cosío Villegas, 10 vols. (Mexico City: Editorial Hermes, 1955-1972), 7:483-634; Robert W. Randall, “Mexico’s Pre-Revolutionary Reckoning with Railroads,” The Americas 42 (1985), 1-28; Walter L. Goldfrank, “The Ambiguity of Infrastructure: Railroads in Pre-Revolutionary Mexico,” Studies in Comparative International Development 2 (1976), 3-24; and David M. Pletcher, Rails, Mines, and Progress: Seven American Promoters in Mexico, 1867-1911 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1958).


This theme still resonates in the historical literature. See Vidal Rivero, Los ferrocarriles de Yucatán, 75-76.


It is interesting that only one major study has been written to date on the impact of the railroad on a region during the Porfiriato: Arthur Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effects of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, Mexico, 1867-1911 (New York: Garland, 1987). But the three railways that crisscrossed these Mexican states were owned and operated by British companies.


On the role of elite family networks in Latin America see Diana Balmori, Stuart Voss, and Miles Wortman, eds., Notable Family Networks in Latin America (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984). A voluminous literature exists on Porfirian-era elites and their relationship with the central government. An excellent overview is found in Thomas Benjamin and William McNellie, eds., Other Mexicos: Essays on Regional Mexican History, 1876-1911 (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1984).


This section draws on the author’s previous research, published as Yucatán’s Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen and International Harvester, 1860-1915 (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1985), and a collaborative work with Gilbert M. Joseph, “Summer of Discontent: Economic Rivalry among Elite Factions during the Late Porfiriato in Yucatán,” Journal of Latin American Studies 18:2 (Nov. 1986), 255-82. For thoughtful discussions of the henequen elite during the boom see Ivan A. Franco Caceres, “Notas sobre la oligarquía yucateca” (Tesis de licenciatura, Escuela de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 1985); and Alejandra García Quintanilla, Los tiempos en Yucatán: los hombres, las mujeres, y la naturaleza (siglo XIX) (Mexico City: Claves Latinoamericanas, 1986).


A bale of fiber equals 350 pounds.


See Héctor Aguilar Camín, La frontera nomada: Sonora y la Revolución Mexicana (Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 1977); Mark Wasserman, Capitalists, Caciques and Revolution: The Native Elite and Foreign Enterprise in Chihuahua, Mexico, 1854-1911 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984); Mario Cerutti, Burguesía y capitalismo en Monterrey, 1850-1910 (Mexico City: Claves Latinoamericanas, 1983); and Alexander M. Saragoza, The Monterrey Elite and the Mexican State, 1880-1940 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1988).


A vigorous debate has emerged on International Harvester’s role in the peninsula. See Thomas Benjamin, “International Harvester and the Henequen Marketing System in Yucatán, 1898-1915,” Inter-American Economic Affairs 31 (Winter 1977), 3-19; Gilbert M. Joseph and Allen Wells, “Corporate Control of a Monocrop Economy: International Harvester and Yucatán’s Henequen Industry During the Porfiriato,” Latin American Research Review 17:1 (Spring 1982), 69-99; Jeffery T. Brannon and Eric M. Baklanoff, “Corporate Control of a Monocrop Economy: A Comment,” Ibid. 18:3 (Fall 1983), 193-96; Fred V. Carstensen and Diane Roazen-Parrillo, “International Harvester, Molina y Compañía, and the Henequen Market: A Comment,” Ibid., 197-203; and Joseph and Wells, “Collaboration and Informal Empire: The Case for Political Economy,” Ibid., 204-18.


Before 1828, four main roads from Mérida linked the major population centers of Izamal, Tekax, Campeche, and the port of Sisal. Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 31. On the post-1828 construction binge, see Suárez Molina, La evolución económica; Lawrence J. Remmers, “Henequen, the Caste War and the Economy of Yucatán, 1846-1883: The Roots of Dependence in a Mexican Region” (Ph. D. diss., Univ. of California, Los Angeles, 1981), 101-2; and Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” 507-22. On the 1841 project, idem., 526. On the number of roads, see Remmers, “Henequen,” 133. Travelers’ accounts commented favorably on the main peninsular roads, but also recognized that many smaller southeastern roads were unsatisfactory. See John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, 2 vols. (New York: Dover Publications, 1963, reprint of 1843 Harper and Bros, ed.), 1:211, 2:43, 61-63, 116, 160, 182; and B. M. Norman, Rambles in Yucatán; or, Notes of Travel Through the Peninsula Including a Visit to the Remarkable Ruins of Chi-Chen, Kabah, Zayi, and Uxmal, 7th ed. (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1849), 75.


Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 34. Despite considerable efforts by state authorities to attract settlers, Sisal’s population failed to grow. Even though Sisal had displaced Campeche as the leading commercial port in the peninsula, only 742 inhabitants lived there in 1846. Proponents of the Progreso option, such as Juan Miguel Castro and Simon Peón, argued that their new site, 11 miles closer to Mérida, would lure settlers. Remmers, “Henequen,” 124-25, 245-48.


Ibid., 155-56.


Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 28-29.


From 1903 to 1907, International Harvester investigated the possibility of acquiring the Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán (FCUY), the conglomerate formed by local investors in 1902 from the four principal railway companies in the state. Ultimately, however, the scheme failed for a variety of reasons: the FCUY’s high asking price; the federal government’s opposition (after 1905 it adopted a more nationalistic posture toward railroads); and International Harvester’s preference for maintaining its policy of indirect control of the henequen economy. See Joseph and Wells, “Corporate Control,” 90.


The Izamal branch was built by a North American contractor who finished the job in four years seven months between 1886 and 1890. North American workers were utilized at first, but when complaints arose over the contractor’s payment of workers in Mexican silver, Yucatecans were substituted to complete the line. La Revista de Mérida 3615, Nov. 28, 1898.


Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 34.


It may not have hurt that Rendón Peniche’s partner, Pedro Contreras Elizalde, married one of Benito Juárez’ daughters. Remmers, “Henequen,” 657.


Suárez Molina, La evolución económica, 2:174; see also Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” 546. For a thorough discussion of Rendón Peniche’s project, see Remmers, “Henequen,” 657-58. Unless otherwise noted, $ denotes Mexican pesos.


Data on the Mérida-Valladolid railway’s extensive use of henequenero mortgages is found in “Informes anuales del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Valladolid,” 1886-1896, AGN, SCOP, 23/263-1; and El Eco del Comercio (Mérida) 1420, Aug. 22, 1893. Pancho Cantón’s mortgage is explained in detail in Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 129-32.


José Patrón Zavlegui (notario), Dec. 31, 1885, ANEY, oficio 5, vol. 40, 1122-34.


The terms of this railway mortgage are found in “Convenio celebrado entre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto y los propietarios de la finca Xcanchakán,” 1913-1914, AGN, SCOP, 23/353-1.


A tarea was commonly defined as two varas by two varas by three-fourths of a vara (a vara equals 33 inches). A tarea weighed roughly 46 kilograms. Workers were paid 25 centavos per tarea at the turn of the century, when the prevailing wage in the campo was a peso a day. The need for firewood to supply the railroad locomotives was prodigious. The FCUY estimated that in 1912, all four lines utilized 61,060 tareas of leña a year at a cost to the company of $133,082.63. “Informe de los trabajos ejecutados en los años 1901, 1912 y 1922,” AGN, SCOP, 231, 453-1. The intense demand for firewood by steam-driven decorticating machines (which separated the fiber from the henequen leaf) as well as locomotives led to the deforestation of the zona henequenera.


In 1913 the FCUY tried to abrogate the mortgage agreement, arguing, among other reasons, that the provision that gave hacienda workers the right to use their handcarts on company tracks was illegal. “Convenio celebrado,” AGN, SCOP, 23/353-1.


Beneath the hard surface layer of limestone lies a softer, almost pure calcium carbonate material known in Yucatán as sascab or sahcab. Quarries are found throughout the peninsula. The Maya used it in construction and roadbuilding for centuries. Eugene M. Wilson, “Physical Geography of the Yucatán Peninsula,” in Yucatán: A World Apart, ed. Edward Moseley and Edward Terry (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1980), 11.


Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 126-27.


Examples: Letter, Secretaría de Fomento to Governor Manuel Romero Ancona, Oct. 5, 1881, AGEY, RPE; “Expropriación de terrenos de Mérida a la villa de Uman por el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Calkiní,” 1882, AGN, SCOP, 23/170-1; and Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 131-33.


Letters from the office of the Secretaría de Gobernación to Governor Carlos Peón Machado, Sept. 28, 1894, and Governor Francisco Cantón, Jan. 18, 1899, AGEY, RPE.


Coatsworth has found considerable agrarian violence in other parts of Mexico. See “Railroads, Landholding, and Agrarian Protest in the Early Porfiriato,” HAHR 54:1 (Feb. 1974). 48-71. On Maxcanú violence see El Eco del Comercio, Sept. 15 and 26, 1891. Moisés González Navarro contends that the violence in Maxcanú resulted from the division of ejidal lands. See Raza y tierra: la guerra de castas y el henequén, 2d ed. (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1979), 192. A recent cache of documents published on the Maxcanú uprising confirms that the incursion of the railroad was not at the heart of the dispute. Leticia Soler dos Santos, “El levantamiento indígena de Maxcanú, Yucatán, 1891-1892,” in Porfirio Díaz frente al descontento popular regional (1891-1893), ed. Friedrich Katz and Jane Dale Lloyd (Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana, 1986), 185-223. When railroad companies took on the task of surveying public lands throughout Yucatán, they did spark some violence. See Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 103-4, n. 27.


Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 32-33.


Fred W. Powell, The Railroads of Mexico (Boston: Stratford, 1921), 185-87.


Calderón, “Los ferrocarriles,” 530; and Francisco Cantón Rosado, comp., Datos y documentos relativos a la vida militar y política del Sr. General Brigadier Don Francisco Cantón, ed. Carlos R. Menéndez (Mérida: Talleres de la Compañía Tipográfica Yucateca, 1931). 67-68.


“Informes del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Valladolid,” 1886-1892 and 1896-1902, AGN, SCOP, 23/263-1, 263-2.


On Díaz Jr.’s role see Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 102-3 and n. 22.


Calderón cites the Secretaríal responsiveness to the Mérida-Peto railway throughout the 1880s and 1890s. See “Los ferrocarriles,” 554.


The new railroad law was passed in 1899. See Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, 44-45; and Calderón, “Los ferrocarriles,” 569-70.


Not all regional elites saw the concession as an end in itself. It might be held for a period and then transferred to powerful local notables for future political or economic considerations. See Powell, Railroads of Mexico, 187-88.


Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, 40.


The 70 percent figure is a rough overall estimate used by railway administrators in their annual reports. A 1900 informe, for example, estimates that henequen represented 75 percent of caigo fletes for the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal and Mérida-Valladolid lines and 70 percent for the Mérida-Campeche. “Datos estadísticos del movimiento de pasajeros y carga en 1900, 1901, y 1902,” AGN, SCOP, 23/469-1. Railway promoters continually griped not only that the federal government was slow to pay their new track subventions, but that those delays crippled efforts to lay new track. See, e.g., “Informes sobre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1885-1892, AGN, SCOP, 23/261-1.


Désiré Charnay, Viaje a Yucatán a fines de 1886, trans. Francisco Cantón Rosado (Mérida: Fondo Editorial de Yucatán, 1978), 6. Rodulfo G. Cantón envisioned extending the Peto railway to the Caribbean port of Bacalar near the Belize border.


Data on new track construction are found in the annual and technical reports filed with the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas, AGN, SCOP, sec. 23.


Cantón’s son, Francisco Cantón Rosado, claimed that his father first intended to build his railway through Izamal, but when he learned that Rendón Peniche had acquired the rights to build a line there, he changed his route northward through Motul and Temax to avoid ruinous competition. Datos y documentos, 67-70.


Ibid., 69.


“Informes anuales del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Valladolid,” 1898, AGN, SCOP, 23/263-2.


La Revista de Mérida, Feb. 12 and 23, 1884.


Railway building in some parts of central Mexico was exceedingly difficult and costly. British engineers constructing the México-Veracruz railway, for instance, had to build numerous tunnels and breach the Barranca de Metlac, a chasm 900 feet across and 375 feet deep. Meyer and Sherman, Course of Mexican History, 407. On Yucatán’s terrain see Informes del Consejo de Administración del Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán de 1903, pamphlet (Mérida: Tipografía y Litografía Moderna, 1904), AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2; and Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 31.


Data for the Mérida-Peto line are the most complete of the four. Before 1902, data on the other three lines are fragmentary but still document comparable increases.


El Eco del Comercio (Mérida) 3320, Sept. 21, 1904; Remmers, “Henequen,” 515.


Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, 40-41.


On the pre—Caste War economy see Suárez Molina, La evolución económica, and Remmers, “Henequen.” Remmers, citing Jorge Ignacio Rubio Mañé’s Archivo histórico de la historia de Yucatán, Campeche y Tabasco and a reliable 1846 state memoria, estimates that Valladolid’s population (51,605) had increased by more than 140 percent between 1796 and 1846. Amazingly, Peto partido, the center of the southeastern sugar industry, had more inhabitants (51,004) than Mérida partido (48,044) in 1846. Remmers, “Henequen,” 5, 95. On the textile industry see Howard F. Cline, “The ‘Aurora Yucateca’ and the Spirit of Enterprise in Yucatán: 1821-1847,” HAHR 27:1 (Feb. 1947), 30-60.


The best account of the Caste War is Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatán (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1964). See also Gilbert M. Joseph, Rediscovering the Past at Mexico’s Periphery: Essays on the History of Modern Yucatán (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1986), chap. 3.


As Remmers relates, local dzules had to pay for their convictions. “In the period from 1847 to 1877 the state imposed 30 direct taxes (including extensions and extraordinary payments) and over a score of forced loans on the citizenry to defray Caste War and political expenditures.” “Henequen,” 349.


Marie Lapointe, Los mayas rebeldes de Yucatán (Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1983); Herman Konrad, “Capitalism in the Quintana Roo Tropical Forest Frontier,” in Land, Labor, and Capital in Modern Yucatán: Essays in Regional History and Political Economy, ed. Jeffery T. Brannon and Gilbert M. Joseph (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1991), 143-71; and Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, chap. 4.


For biographical data on Cantón’s early years see Cantón Rosado, Datos y documentos; and José María Valdés Acosta, A través de las centurias, 3 vols. (Mérida: Talleres Pluma y Lápiz, 1926-29), 2:497-500. On Cantón s political exploits see Eduardo Urzaiz, Del imperio a la revolución (Mérida: Gobierno del Estado, 1971); Felipe Pérez Alcalá, “Los sucesos del 11 de agosto en Mérida,” in Noventa años de historia de Yucatán (1821-1910), ed. Carlos R. Menéndez (Mérida: Cía. Tipográfica Yucateca, 1937), 539-44; and Gilbert M. Joseph and Allen Wells, “Yucatán: Elite Politics and Rural Insurgency,” in Provinces of the Revolution: Essays on Mexican Regional History, 1910-1929, ed. Thomas Benjamin and Mark Wasserman (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1990), 93-131.


Díaz selected governors, though always with the trappings of a formal political campaign. The quote is from Cantón s nomination acceptance speech at the Gran Club Liberal, Aug. 10, 1897. Cantón Rosado, Datos y documentos, 185.


Biographical data on Rodulfo G. Cantón can be found in Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” 552-53; and Valdés Acosta, A través, 2:490-91. On his early role with the British concession, see Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 28.


La Razón del Pueblo (Mérida), Jan. 14, 1880, quoted in Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 122.


See, e. g., “Informes sobre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1885-1802, AGN, SCOP, 23/261-1.


Quoted in Remmers, “Henequen,” 663.


“Informes sobre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1885-1892, AGN, SCOP, 23/261-1.


For a more comprehensive discussion of the unsuccessful Ferrocarriles Sud-Orientales project see Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, chap. 4.


See Lapointe, Los mayas rebeldes; and Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, chap. 4.


Although the idea of a federal territory in the jungle was not new, Díaz’ actions still surprised Cantón and other Yucatecan leaders. The architect of the plan was Manuel Sierra Méndez, a Díaz adviser, científico (technocrat), and brother of the minister of education, Justo Sierra. Sierra Méndez, a native of Yucatán, argued, ultimately in vain, that the partition should be temporary and that following the defeat of the cruzob the territory ought to be reincorporated into Yucatán. Memorandum, Sierra Méndez to Díaz, “Apuntes sobre la campaña de indios presentados en croquis explicatorio de ellos,” July 12, 1897, CGPD, leg. 22, caja 17, 008128-008140. Cantón’s letters to Porfirio Díaz are found in the appendix of Cantón Rosado, Datos y documentos.


Estadísticas sociales del Porfiriato, 1877-1910 (Mexico City: Secretaría de Economía, Dirección General de Estadística, 1956), 11.


Seminario de la Historia Moderna de México, Estadísticas económicas del porfiriato: fuerza de trabajo y actividad económica por sectores (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1965), 29. See also Richard E. Boyer, “Las ciudades mexicanas: perspectivas de estudio en el siglo XIX,” Historia Mexicana 22:2 (1972), 142-59. For a more detailed discussion of Mérida’s growth see Gilbert M. Joseph and Allen Wells, “Modernizing Visions, Chilango Blueprints, and Provincial Growing Pains: Mérida at the Turn of the Century,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 8:2 (Summer 1992), forthcoming. Railways did not always spark the growth of cities in late nineteenth-century Latin America. Cf. Daniel J. Hogan, Maria Coleta de Oliveira, and John M. Sydenstricker Neto, “Café, ferrocarriles y población: el proceso de urbanización en Rio Claro, Brasil,” Siglo XIX 4:7 (1989), 71-94.


See Estadísticas sociales, 28.


Preparations for the unprecedented visit were described both in the local press and in El Imparcial. See, e.g., El Imparcial (Mexico City) 3320, Nov. 2, 1905, and 3358, Dec. 10, 1905. A thorough description of Díaz’ trip to Yucatán is found in González Navarro, Raza y tierra, chap. 6.


“Datos estadísticos para la Memoria Presidencial del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1902, AGN, SCOP, 23/162-1.


“Informes técnicos y estadística del movimiento de pasajes y de carga en el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1896, AGN, SCOP, 23/283-1; “Estadística del movimiento de pasajeros y carga del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1900-1901, AGN, SCOP, 23/163-1.


Remmers, “Henequen,” 646. In one respect the railway did promote travel to the campo. Special trains with reduced fares were scheduled for important ferias in Halachó, Izamal, Tizimín, Espita, and Valladolid. The ferias, which included indigenous dances (jaranas), bullfights, and licit and illicit gambling, were popular with the working classes and profitable for the railway companies. AGN, SCOP, 23/passim.


Adolfo Gilly, adapting Marx’s views on the impact of the railway in Europe, contends that Mexican railroads weakened subsistence and nonexport agricultural production while contributing to a price rise in commodities “de primera necesidad,” such as corn and beans. Gilly, La revolución interrumpida. México, 1910-1920: una guerra campesina por la tierra y el poder (Mexico City: Ediciones “El Caballito,” 1971), 17-18.


On SCOP tariffs see Coatsworth, Growth Against Development, 123.


Quoted in Steven H. Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1989), 40.


Remmers, “Henequen,” 667.


Ibid., 669-70. Puebla’s and Veracruz’ roads were also largely forgotten during the Porfiriato. Schmidt, Social and Economic Effects, 282-83.


Although a concession was granted to link Yucatán to the rest of the nation by rail in 1910, the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution quashed the initiative, and Yucatán was not connected by rail with Mexico proper until 1950. Goldfrank, “The Ambiguity of Infrastructure,” 13.


Tomás Aznar Rivas, Jan. 16, 1909, ANEY, vol. 1, book A, 16-99.


This company was unquestionably the most profitable and best-managed railway in Yucatán, suggesting that family businesses may not have been the most exemplary model for entrepreneurial success. On the profitability of the Mérida-Progreso e Izamal see Informes del Consejo de Administración del Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán de 1910, pamphlet (Mérida: Imprenta de la Escuela Correccional de Artes y Oficios, 1911), AGN, SCOP, 23/460-1.


Labor relations in both institutions underwent a transformation during the boom that weakened clientelistic bonds. For a more thorough discussion see Gilbert M. Joseph and Allen Wells, “El monocultivo henequenero y sus contradicciones: estructura de dominación y formas de resistencia en las haciendas yucatecas a fines del Porfiriato,” Siglo XIX 3:6 (July-Dec. 1988), 215-77. Finding documentation of debt inventories for railroads is difficult. Only for the Mérida-Peto do we have such data. But all the informes use the term peones repeatedly. Unlike terms such as campesinos or jornaleros, which were used genetically in Yucatán, peones invariably connoted workers who were tied to the estate or business, usually through the debt mechanism.


On no hoch and chichán cuenta see Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 174. On employees listed in the sale, see Tomás Aznar Rivas, Jan. 16, 1909, ANEY, vol. 1, book A, 16-99; “Relación de empleados de Acanceh, Tecoh, Ticul, y Tekax,” 1899, AGEY, RPE; “Reglamento de la Compañía del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1902, AGN, SCOP, 23/225-1; and “Informe sobre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1890, AGN, SCOP, 23/261-1.


Males between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to serve annually in the national guard and to construct and repair roads. Exemptions from service could be secured in three ways: if the individual could pay a set fee or find a replacement to serve for him; if a peasant was classified as a permanent resident laborer attached to a hacienda or a railway company; or if one had a debilitating illness (with an affidavit required from a doctor as proof). Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age, 159.


Letters, Olegario Molina to Governor Manuel Romero Ancona, Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, 1882, AGEY, RPE.


El Eco del Comercio (Mérida) 2770, Nov. 7, 1902.


Letter, Compañía Peninsular de Ferrocarriles to Governor Francisco Cantón, Oct. 23, 1901; and Cantón’s brusque reply, Nov. 4, 1901, AGEY, RPE.


“Informes sobre el Ferrocarril de Mérida a Peto,” 1885-1892, AGN, SCOP, 23/261-1.


Ibid., 1887 report.


On the 1881 incident see Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” 547; on the 1902 incident, which required the jefe político to bring in 34 guardia nacional soldiers from the capital to quash the protest, see El Eco del Comercio (Mérida) 2783, Nov. 22, 1902.


Ferrer de Mendiolea, “Historia de las comunicaciones,” 571; Vidal Rivero, Los ferrocarriles, 156-58; Alvaro Gamboa Ricalde, Yucatán desde 1910, 3 vols. (Veracruz and Mexico City; Imprenta Standard, 1943-1955), 3:40; and Fidelio Quintal Martín, “Breve historia de Yucatán durante la última década del Porfiriato (1901-1910),” Boletín de Ciencias Antropológicas de la Universidad de Yucatán 11:65 (1984), 55. A short-lived precursor of the 1911 union was formed in 1907 in response to a management-decreed wage cut. See Eric Villanueva Mukul, Así tomamos las tierras: henequén y haciendas en Yucatán durante el Porfiriato (Mérida: Maldonado Editores, 1984), 126.


For an insightful discussion of “everyday forms of resistance” see James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990); Idem., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985); Michael Adas, “From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23:2 (Apr. 1981), 217-47; and Steve J. Stern, “New Approaches to the Study of Peasant Rebellion and Consciousness: Implications of the Andean Experience,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World: 18th to 20th Centuries, ed. Steve J. Stern (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 3-25. This evidence is easier to obtain for the rural population as a whole in the criminal records found in AGEY, RJ. See also Joseph and Wells, “El monocultivo henequenero.”


Letter, Rodulfo G. Cantón to Governor Francisco Cantón, June 19, 1900 AGEY RPE.


Quoted in Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City (New York: Random House, 1988), 374.


For further discussion of the developmentalist ideology that sought to infuse workers with a new work ethic, see William E. French, “Peaceful and Working People: The Inculcation of the Capitalist Work Ethic in a Mexican Mining District (Hidalgo District, Chihuahua), 1880-1920,” (Ph. D. diss., Univ. of Texas, Austin, 1989).


For more detail on how the railway union fit into the urban milieu during the late Porfiriato see Daniela Spenser, “Workers Against Socialism? Reassessing the Role of Urban Labor in Yucatecan Revolutionary Politics,” in Brannon and Joseph, Land, Labor, and Capital, 220-42.


See Parlee, “Impact of United States Railway Unions.” Kandell adds that on foreign-owned railways, “English was the official language of the trains, thus creating a major obstacle to the training and promotion of Mexicans. Few Mexicans held administrative or supervisory jobs, or other white-collar positions like conductor. Only a third of the engineers were Mexicans.” La Capital, 376.


A more comprehensive treatment of the turn-of-the-century boom and its political and economic implications is found in Joseph and Wells, “Summer of Discontent,” and idem., “Yucatán: Elite Politics.”


Whether or not the Molina parentesco proposed the third line as a ploy to force a merger is conjecture, but such tactics were commonplace in the United States during the Gilded Age. The company, organized with a working capita] of six hundred thousand pesos, included among its shareholders two Molina sons-in-law, Rogelio Suárez and Avelino Montes, and Molinista ally Agustín Vales Castillo. Ramón Escalante Pinto, Sept. 8, 1899, ANEY, oficio 17; and Víctor M. Suárez Molina, Don Rogelio Víctor Suárez: caballero español. Breve relato de su vida y gesta (Mérida: Talleres de Impresión Díaz Massa, 1949), 26-27.


On the mortgage, see “Informe sobre el balance general del Ferrocarril de Mérida a Campeche”, 1902, AGN, SCOP, 23/270-1. On the numbers of shares, see José Patrón Zavlegui, Apr. 21, 1900, ANEY, vol. 95, 671-77. The Peóns were such a powerful economic force in the peninsula that they had a slew of investments with rival political factions. See Allen Wells, “Family Elites in a Boom-and-Bust Economy: The Molinas and Peóns of Porfirian Yucatán,” HAHR 62:2 (May 1982), 224-53.


Cantón Rosado, Datos y documentos, 70.


Railway mergers occurred with regularity throughout Mexico during the last decade of the Porfiriato. For a discussion of this trend see Calderón, “Los ferrocarriles,” 572-73.


Testimony of Víctor A. Rendón, Importation of Sisal and Manila Hemp: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Agriculture and Forestry, 2 vols. (Washington, D. C., 1916), 1:26.


Ibid. On International Harvester’s designs on the FCUY see U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Corporations, International Harvester Company (Washington, D.C., 1913), 149-50, and note 18 of this article.


Diario Yucateco (Mérida) 392, June 12, 1908.


El Economista Mexicano (Mexico City), Aug. 17, 1907, 428.


Informes. . . 1903, AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2; and Letter, Rafael Dondé to Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Obras Públicas, Aug. 14, 1903, AGEY, RPE. El Eco del Comercio (Mérida) 2877, Mar. 14, 1903.


Informes. . . 1903, AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2.


Ibid. On the shares controlled by the various factions see Barceló Quintal, “El ferrocarril,” 42.


Only the División Este, the old Valladolid line, would eventually climb back to its 1903 revenue levels. In contrast, the Progreso e Izamal and Campeche lines steadily declined. Data on revenue from AGN, SCOP, 23/passim.


El Imparcial (Mexico City) 2677, Jan. 18, 1904.


Informes del Consejo de Administración del Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán de 1907 (Mérida: Tipografía y Litografía Moderna, 1908), AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2. On the Escalantes’ financial problems with Thebaud see “Cuaderno de prueba de confesión ofrecida por el apoderado del síndico del Thebaud Brothers en el juicio ordinario que sigue contra el Banco Peninsular Mexicano y socios,” 1909, AGEY, RJ; and Diario Yucateco (Mérida) 563, Dec. 30, 1908.


Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 146.


For a trenchant analysis of the 1905 reform see Steven C. Topik, “La Revolución, el estado y el desarrollo económico en México,” Historia Mexicana 40:1 (1990), 79-144. See also David Pletcher, “The Fall of Silver in Mexico, 1870-1910, and Its Effect on American Investment,” Journal of Economic History 18 (Mar. 1958), 33-55; Alfonso de María y Campos, “Los científicos y la reforma monetaria de 1905,” Estudios Políticos 5:18-19 (1979), 157-88; and Hart, Revolutionary Mexico, 169-77.


Menéndez, Noventa años, 186-87.


Cuaderno de prueba, AGEY, RJ; and ¿Cuál es el valor y cuál es el alcance de la convención que se dice ajustada entre la Sociedad ‘E Escalante e Hijo’ u sus acreedores? (Mérida, 1911).


In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that during Escalante Peón’s tenure management made notable improvements in the FCUY, including the complete renovation of the vía ancha. According to Escalante Peón’s last informe, more than four million pesos were spent on these improvements. See Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 145-46.


Informes del Consejo de Administración del Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán de 1908 (Mérida; Compañía Editorial Yucateca, 1909), AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2.


Tomás Aznar Rivas, Jan. 16, 1909, ANEY, vol. 1, book A, 16–99.


Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia. . . de los ferrocarriles,” 150.


Informes del Consejo de Administración del Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán de 1909 (Mérida: Imprenta de la Lotería del Estado, 1910), and Informes. . . 1910, AGN, SCOP, 23/460-2.


Importation of Sisal and Manila Hemp, 1:74 and 2:1030–31, respectively. The Escalantes were accused of precisely the same machinations when they controlled the FCUY. Arrieta Ceniceros, “Importancia . . . de los ferrocarriles,” 147.


See Joseph and Wells, “Summer of Discontent.” Sonora during the last years of Porfirian rule provides an interesting parallel. Gregorio Mora, “Sonora al filo de la tormenta: desilusión con el porfiriato, 1900-1911,” in Jaime E. Rodríguez O., The Revolutionary Process in Mexico: Essays on Political and Social Change, 1880-1940 (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center, 1990), 57-80.


For a thoughtful critique of Latin America’s economic problems and various theories raised to explain its underdevelopment, see John Sheahan, Patterns of Development in Latin America: Poverty, Repression and Economic Strategy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987).


Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment.


The amalgam of imported theories that shaped the científicos’ perspective is discussed in Charles Hale, The Transformation of Liberalism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989).


Quoted in Schmidt, Social and Economic Effects, 23.


The first quotation is from John Coatsworth, “Obstacles to Economic Growth in Nineteenth-Century Mexico,” American Historical Review 83:1 (Feb. 1978), 92; the second from Steven C. Topik, “The Economic Role of the State in Liberal Regimes: Brazil and Mexico Compared, 1888-1910,” in Joseph L. Love and Nils Jacobsen, Guiding the Invisible Hand: Economic Liberalism and the State in Latin American History (New York: Praeger, 1988), 140. The ensuing discussion draws on Coatsworth, 80-100, and Topik, 117-44.


Justo Sierra, The Political Evolution of the Mexican People, trans. Charles Ramsdell, Introduction by Edmundo O’Gorman (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1969), 361. Andrés Molina Enríquez voiced similar concerns in Los grandes problemas (Mexico City: Imprenta de A. Carranza e Hijos, 1909), 345-46; while Francisco Bulnes, never one to mince words, bluntly remarked: “You may be sure that if United States railways do not enter Mexico, their bayonets will.” El verdadero Díaz y la Revolución (Mexico City: Editorial Nacional, 1960), 220.


Hart, Revolutionary Mexico, 134-39. For a discussion of the aspirations of North American railway promoters see William E. French, “Business as Usual: Mexico North Western Railway Managers Confront the Mexican Revolution,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 5:2 (Summer 1989), 221-38.


McNeely, The Railways of Mexico; Parlee, “Porfirio Díaz, Railroads, and Development”; and Topik, “La Revolución, el estado y el desarrollo económico.”


For a thoughtful discussion of Díaz’ concern with North American investment in Mexico’s railways and his encouragement of other foreign competitors, especially the British, see Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), esp. 21-27. Whether or not economic nationalism contributed to the onset of the Revolution is a matter of some debate. Cf. Hart, Revolutionary Mexico, chap. 5 and pp. 246-48; and Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 1:67-71.


On the effects of foreign capital, see Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Theories of Imperialism (New York: Random House, 1980); and Mommsen and Jurgen Osterhammel, eds., Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities (London: Allen and Unwin, 1985). For an intriguing anthology that studies imperialism from the standpoint of the railroad, see Clarence B. Davis and Kenneth E. Wilburn, Jr., with Ronald Robinson, eds., Railway Imperialism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991). On the railroads’ specific effects, in addition to the sources cited in note 4, see William G. Fleming, Regional Development and Transportation in Argentina: Mendoza and the Gran Oeste Argentino Railroad, 1885-1914 (New York: Garland, 1987); Paul B. Goodwin, Jr., “The Central Argentine Railway and the Economic Development of Argentina, 1854-1881,” HAHR 57:4 (Nov. 1977), 613-32; and Joan Suppléé, “From Bevos to Bordalesas: The Impact of the Transportation Revolution on Argentine Regional Development, 1870-1890,” unpublished paper.


Ronald Robinson, “The Excentric Idea of Imperialism, With or Without Empire,” in Mommsen and Osterhammel, Imperialism and After, 267-89. Scholarship on imperialism gives new meaning to the term spirited. Mommsen gives a thorough summary in Theories of Imperialism. See also Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe, Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London: Longman, 1972); and Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970).


A healthy debate has also emerged on informal imperialism. See, e.g., W. R. Louis, Imperialism, the Robinson and Gallagher Controversy (New York and London: New Viewpoints, 1976)) and P. J. Cain, Economic Foundations of British Overseas Expansion (London: Macmillan, 1980).


On North America, see Alfred Chandler, ed., The Railroads: The Nation’s First Big Business (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1965). For Brazil, see Steven C. Topik, The Political Economy of the Brazilian State, 1889-1930 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1987), chap. 4.


Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment, passim; quote, 83. See also David W. Walker, Kinship, Business, and Politics: The Martinez del Rio Family in Mexico, 1824-1867 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986).


Quoted in Arnaldo Córdova, La ideología de la Revolución Mexicana: la formación del nuevo régimen (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1973), 64.


Quoted in Topik, “La Revolución, el estado y el desarrollo económico,” 100.


Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment. The three railways operating in the Puebla and Veracruz regions during the Porfiriato also showed erratic profit sheets. Schmidt, Social and Economic Effects, 166-72.


Gustavo Garza estimates that profits from railway operations ranged from 1.5 to 3.6 percent per year. But foreign owners, he argues, were more concerned with penetrating internal markets and mining regions and cutting the cost and time of transport. Garza, El proceso de industrialización de la Ciudad de México, 1821-1970 (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1985), 114.


Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment, 192.


See Jeffery T. Brannon and Eric M. Baklanoff Agrarian Reform in Mexico: The Political Economy of Yucatán’s Henequen Industry (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1987).