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Appendix 8 second part

The opening of the Neuquen route of the FCS; translated from Chapter 2 of Arturo Coleman's book.

Click here to access the first part of Señor Coleman's chapter

A train is held up to allow the passengers to shave.

I refer here to an anecdote, in relation to the journey made by the presidential train, which I believe is being made public for the first time.

The President of the Republic, Dr. Figueroa Alcorta, travelled with his retinue in a special train from Buenos Aires to the banks of the Río Neuquén. It had been arranged that the train should stop at Bahía Blanca to change engines before continuing its journey. It happened that, leaving Cabildo station at the scheduled time, it was excessively delayed in reaching the next station, Adela Corti. This caused considerable anxiety, which was increased when a horseman arrived at the station and told the Station Master that he had seen a passenger train in the distance, stopped in the middle of the countryside. Fearing that something had happened to the engine or coaches of the presidential train, he arranged to send an engine with all care to investigate what had happened, or render assistance should it be necessary. Just as the engine was about to leave Adela Corti, it was seen that the train was approaching at high speed, which was maintained as far as Grünbein, where the Minister of Public Works Dr Ramos Mexía, who was travelling on the same train, requested that it not go into Bahía Blanca, but that the engine should be changed at Spurr junction. Accordingly, all the previously made arrangements were cancelled, and the train continued on its journey from Spurr.

As the press had announced that the presidential train would arrive in Bahía Blanca at ten, the illustrious General Arana with his general staff and the military band had met at the station in order to greet the President and his retinue. There were many members of the public there too, on the platforms, awaiting such distinguished passengers. It is easy to understand what they all felt.

On enquiring as to the reasons as to why the train had been so long delayed between Cabildo and Adela Corti, it was understood that Minister Ezequiel Ramos Mexía had arranged this so the passengers could shave with the train stationary . . . !

The Speech of Minister Don Ezequiel Ramos Mexía at the inauguration of the works.

I believe it is of interest to reproduce the most beautiful speech made by the Minister of Public Works at the laying of the foundation stone for the irrigation works. It follows: [End of page 177]

"Tomorrow we are going to inaugurate the services of the first section of the Patagonic railways and we are gathered here today in the middle of the desert to place the first stone which will soon be the great Neuquén dam destined to control the hydraulic regime of the Río Negro.

Thus, we are fulfilling the promises of the law for the development of the national territories, which are not such fantasy as their detractors claim. One by one, the monuments which celebrate the glorious centenary of 1810 are raised and placing, one after another, the surveyors‘ staves along the road which we have traversed to reach the second age-old cycle, which I will show tomorrow, because the time flies for the people of one of the most powerful nations and one of the most rapid advances recorded in the chronicle of human progress.

I am going to tell of what we propose to do, but before that you must allow me to define to you the ancestry of these ideas which move our arm. Very old things have returned as new things with the passage of time.

The history of humanity represents the most vibrant reaction of man upon man. It is its own work, and its most knowledgeable master returns, transmitting his teachings across the ages, as its mysterious echoes reverberate among his majestic ravines; which, there on the horizon, serve as a mark of this simple patriotic ceremony. It is not that history repeats itself, as I have said, but as a fertile and useful fœtus returns what it has received, improving with sedimentary contributions of innumerable generations, pregnant with experiences and examples.

Ancient inscriptions and papyruses relate that, in the confines of Hebrew theology, some 4,000 years before the Messianic appearance, a knowledgeable people, [End of page 178] a thousand times illustrious, printed on immortal pages, resistant to the merciless rigours of endless ages, a sovereign lesson, which we are now going to use, how once more in the natural order, it is always the dead who confirm and rule the living.

This people taught the world to correct the blind action of the meteoric laws with works of human ingenuity and thought to resolve, with remarkable certainty, a problem identical to the one confronting Argentines today sixty centuries later. Equally it was the hydraulic situation and surrounded by such obvious geological circumstances that comparing them with a cyclopean plague of the planet‘s chaotic constructions.

A day such as this, lost in the mists of the far-away epochs as this is and evoking, due to finding itself linked with us now, a multi-coloured multitude on the banks of a generous legendary river, to celebrate the start of the greatest irrigation works, of which there is a memory from ancient times and without a rival in modern times.

The Egyptians witnessed success, and the famous Nile, that great river threatening in its terrible arrogance, which today carries abundant riches, where once it bore devastating disasters.

The Nile‘s problems were two-fold: avoid the floods due to the high water level and create a continuous supply of water in times of drought so the irrigation would not fail the poor flack disadvantaged in their season of golden expectations. The Egyptians of the Twelfth Dynasty, in the reign of Amenemhat resolved to create the great lake Moeris, described by Herodotus who visited it 450 years before Christ. Four centuries later it was also the subject of comment by Diodoro of Sicilia and Estrabón who put the matter in the following terms:

"There – it is said – by virtue of its size and depth, lake Moeris is capable of receiving the excess water of the Nile in times of flood, preventing the flooding of houses and gardens, when the water level drops the lake empties its waters by an artificial canal for irrigation."

So wide and deep was this lake, that it was the scene of bloody naval battles between the Egyptians and the Lebanese. So important was the possession of the sluices of Hawara, by which it returned its surpluses to the Nile, that their possession allowed the Lebanese to impose on the pharaohs the legendary scarcity of production in the time of Joseph.

With the passage of the years, these great works have disappeared, and today modern science has not found another means of taking advantage of the elements of richness which even now are lost running sterile between the banks of the gigantic river which its capability in reserve, reforming the lost inland sea in the valleys of Wadi Rayan, once covered by its waves. [End of page 179]

The lesson of the past is thus transmitted to the people of today in their own country where the great masters of antiquity operated. The teaching is so vast that, overflowing the mark of its repeated applications, it traverses the modern world of America to offer itself as an unimprovable model to new and no less fertile undertakings.

The problem of the Nile was exactly the same as that of the Río Negro with which we are dealing today. Here as there, we have a Colossus to dominate, so that the fertile valleys which run between tight bends, are not devastated, covering it with 9,000 cubic metres a second at times and, at others causing the valiant cultivators of its banks to thirst with negligible flows as little as 250 cubic metres a second.

Drowned or dried-up, these fields full of promises, would remain wildernesses, if the hydraulic regime of the river were not governed as the other, to dampen its excesses helping its shortages. Here as there, for lack of water, we have valueless lands, which with it gain in inverse proportion. Here as there, arid sandy places have been changed by the action of man into orchard paradises as today you may verify.

Lake Moeris was and will be enriched by receiving via a diversionary canal the excess waters of the Nile in times of high water exactly as will Lago Pellegrini receive the excess from the Neuquén to return it to the river during summer. Both lakes will have a total capacity of the same 5,000,000,000 cubic metres with a useful supply of the same 2,000,000,000 cubic metres. [End of page 180]

See if the similarity of the figures does not suggest the idea which crept in at the beginning which at times the mountains and even seismic movements have weaknesses which carry men into sincere and inoffensive rhapsodies.

The Neuquén dam and the future outlet tunnel from the loch, combined with the Nahuel-Huapí dam, which we are about to construct, will have the double mission of playing the part the so-called sluice of Hawara and the great Asswan reservoir and when the secondary dams at lochs Traful, Huechulauquen, Lolog y Aluminé, are completed, the Río Negro and its affluents, the Neuquén and the Limay, will remain like tamed lions, subject to the dominating rule of human ingenuity which never fulfils its superior mission so well as when it uses dangers and evils to obtain positive benefits for the community.

To achieve this first outcome, whose principal efficient base will be entrusted to the edifice which will sit on this corner-stone which were are about to place. The second part of the vast plan will be the excavation of the distribution canals which will carry the irrigation water to a million hectares of potential fertile land with this great hydraulic system.

These works are in full swing, entrusted to the eminent engineers, Severini and Cantutti, who have come to carry out to perfection the general intentions of the illustrious and late lamented Cipolletti for whose painful loss, two intimately bound-together nations, Italy and the Argentine Republic, cry.

The irrigation of the Río Neuquén becomes today, gentlemen, an utopic inspiration, converting it into a tangible and indubitable deed, which could only be interrupted with difficulty.

The Government has the money in the bank to carry out the work of improving the rivers, and the great undertaking of the Southern Railway, whose financial means are well known, has contracted to construct, without any profit whatsoever, the distribution works, receiving in payment irrigation bonds issued by the Executive Power. There remain then, the works started which will continue until complete, all the canals, roads and plots undertaken by a powerful company which is primarily motivated to execute it by the sums raised from the traffic generated by this work.

United by this happy circumstance, the strong interest of the undertaking of the Southern Railway, and the financial means which it commands, as is well-known, the irrigation of the Río Negro must be considered as virtually complete, as there can be no force which can resist the march of progress in this privileged region of the Republic. All that is lacking is that time passes and this, unfortunately, will never stop happen. [End of page 181]

Having completed the part of the task undertaken by the Government, it was left to the land owners to complete the vast dream. It is not that the fertile water flows through the furrow-less fields, returning sterile to the river from which it came. The first thing to occupy them must be the preparation of the land for intensive cultivation, requiring considerable capital to clear, level, break-up and sow seed. For such good reason, the cost of water in poor land will be ruinous to landowners, who will have to pay, whether they use it or not. This is a legal requirement, precisely to avoid the retrograde activity of some ill-willed people who would think it appropriate to speculate for their own benefit, to the general detriment of the community.

Before finishing, as it is already time-up, I must tell you why the loch, which this dam will create, has been called Pellegrini. I‘ve asked the President to allow this name, close to the heart of Argentines, to be used for the future inland sea in memory of the great statesman who, with a prophetic finger, pointed me to the initiative which today we are starting to realize when the original law of development was presented to Congress, "Add to it the irrigation of the Río Negro," he told me, "and dedicate all your efforts, as there is nothing greater to do in our country."

Here already is the work planted, the initiative added a the long list of fertile and genial thoughts of the Government, and Lago Pelligrini, for ever baptized as a monument dedicated to his memory.

Thanks to the great works which we are inaugurating today, these places, not long ago subject to the crafty depredations of the savages, will pay in the violent transition of the harsh appearance of a desert transformed into the vision of a colossal flourishing of richness and progress. The vision of this near future is clear before my eyes, and if contemplating it, I would be able to isolate myself in the domains of dreams away from the rigid ceremonial which surrounds and confronts me in this moment in which I now live, and would carry me once more to the great phantasy to imagine, in these untilled lands, a great province, growing and fully cultivated. Its fields covered with millions of trees, covered in all sorts of fruits, the land into converted into small holdings, cultivated intensely and scientifically, the deaf rumour of the silent countryside, extinguished by the murmur of hundreds of hydro-electric turbines which generate power for machines, heat for homes and light for brains.

One must allow still the fortune which, in a not far away day, will return here the actors of this precursory scene to contemplate the sublime spectacle of an area full of beauty and poetry and if one of them might say to his companion

"My dear President – We have placed a grain of sand for a great work of civilization. We serve this satisfaction serves as conscience as [End of pages 182 & 183] compensation for such bitter receipts while we were engaged in the task and the embrace gives us reciprocal congratulations."

Thus ended the most beautiful inauguration speech of the Minister of Public Works, Mr Ramos Mexía, who still has the same interest as he did then.

To complete the analogy, Engineer Garrow worked in Egypt.

As the Southern Railway was disposed to bring to fruition the projected irrigation works between Lago Pelligrini and Chinchinales station in the valleys of the rivers Neuquén and Negro, all in accord with Law 6,546, a contract was signed with the Minister of Public Works thus assuring the realization of an initiative of supreme national importance, whereby [End of page 184] one of the areas of best soils in the Republic, which up till then were totally unproductive, would be brought into cultivation.

It was then necessary for the undertaking of the Southern Railway to find an engineer with ample knowledge of irrigation works. As of 9 March 1910, Engineer Roberto G. Garrow was engaged. He had constructed important irrigation works in Egypt. That technical person arrived in the country in April 1911, taking immediate charge of the construction of the canal. [End of page 185]

They mistook me for my father ...

Mr Ramos Mexía, who was a dynamic functionary and enthusiastic driver of the irrigation works in the valley of the Río Negro undertook various visits to the Upper Valley during his time as a minister. I had the honour to accompany him on his trips at that time. Now retired from politics and public affairs, twenty something years after having placed the foundation stone of the work, he expressed the desire to undertake a journey through the Upper Valley with a view to seeing the progress made by the construction of the canal. The General Manager of the Southern Railway, Don J.M. Eddy invited him to accompany him on one of his inspections of that area. Passing through Bahía Blanca, on getting off the train, Mr Eddy, referring to me, said to Mr Ramos Mexía, "I present my representative in this district to you, Mr Coleman."

"Aha!" said Mr Ramos Mexía, addressing me, "I knew your father well."

Surprised, I asked him where he had met him, to which he replied that it was many years ago, when the works for the construction of the canal in the Alto Valle of the Río Negro were started. He added that my father always accompanied him. I couldn‘t help smiling at the ex-minister and, after thanking him for the compliment, had to explain to him that the person accompanying him on his journeys had been me and not my father whom Mr Ramos Mexía never had the opportunity of meeting.

Arid lands changed into orchards.

When the inhabitants of the irrigated area understood that the great work was soon to become a beautiful reality, an enormous growth of activity resulted. [End of page 186]

Many landowners subdivided their large fields, and an undertaking acquired several leagues into which they incorporated the undeveloped land known as de La Picasa, located between Cipolletti and Contraalmirante Cordero. They subdivided and sold it in plots of from five to ten hectares for intensive cultivation. As a result of such expansion, the Southern Railway established an experimental smallholding of the first order in Cinco Saltos, [End of page 187] run by agronomists and competent technical staff with the object of giving free instruction, based on scientific criteria, as to the most suitable fruit trees for the area, to the fruit-growers. These trees, of the best varieties from abroad, were acquired in great quantities by the Southern Railway, and then sold to the fruit-growers at cost price, which resulted in the great change to that landscape.

The creation of the Cinco Saltos experimental small-holding was authorised by the London directorate in September 1918. The end achieved with the creation of the modern agronomy station was the promotion of the scientific development of the irrigated lands in the valley, making use of the efforts of the technical agronomists of the station. [End of pages 188, 189 & 190]

The Directors approved an expenditure of £3,500 for the purchase of land in La Picasa, its preparation and operation, acquiring 24 hectares at a cost of $6,000 [about £1,200].

Engineer Don Juan Barcia Trelles was appointed director of the agronomy station on a five year contract. He undertook a fruitful effort which was reflected in the methods adopted by the fruit-growers of the valley and in the variety of fruit trees planted on its lands.

The first budget of the Cinco Saltos experimental small holding was $84,460 [about £16,892], which included the value of the acquired land, the tools, seeds, buildings, draft animals, etc. [End of page 191]

Once regular production had started with the planted trees, there was a fear of lack of markets for so much fruit due to an inadequate distribution of the produce. Again the Southern Railway came to the rescue of the colonisers, initiating the establishment of an organisation which assured the disposal of the whole of the production, whether for internal or foreign consumption, and its colonization.

With this review of the actions, I have indicated the primordial factor which contributed to the conversion of a region, which was totally desert, into an emporium of richness and well being. All those fields, which were subdivided, became orchards of such high quality that it is doubtful if its selected products can be surpassed anywhere. [End of pages 192 & 193]

The de La Picasa fields became a garden of the most concentrated production and it is doubtful if nowadays there is a single hectare of this fertile earth which remains unproductive.

It is only fair to do homage and record some of the drivers of progress in the Alto Valle of the Río Negro who, with their sacrifices, worked the virgin lands, to obtain from them, the just return on their patriotic and enthusiastic efforts. Among them are Messrs Patricio & Miguel Piñeiro Sorondo; Augusto Mengelle, Marcial Muñoz, (Colonel) Fernández Oro, Jorge Larrosa, González, Larrosa & Contreras, Scala, Luis J. Casterás, (Dr) Doleris, Moll & Martínez, Belloni, Huergo & Canale, etc., and, in Neuquén, the brothers Plottier, Dr Agustín Battilana, Mr Linares and others.

The La Picasa and Lucinda colonies comprise 2,000 hectares between Contraalmirante Cordero and Cipolletti, where there has been a branch railway since 1910. It runs the whole distance of 35 kilometres.

The war of 1914 causes a great project to fail.

In addition to his ownership of Colonia Lucinda, Dr Doleris was part of a syndicate which owned 2,000 hectares of land in Colonia Roca and proposed the installation of a great sugar industry with French capital. They proposed to obtain power for the [End of page 194] machinery, using the existing weirs on the Grand Canal and named two of his children to run the project. One of them was an agronomist in Canada, and the other came from France. On the breaking-out of war in 1914, both sons returned to France in order to meet their military obligations. One of them died at Verdun on 20 May 1915 and the other, also there, on the following day. As a result of this tragedy Dr Doleris, having been a great mover, sold-off all his interests in the valley. [End of page 195]

Dr J. Amadeo Doleris, such a great enthusiastic colonizer of the valley of the Río Negro, reached Bahía Blanca on 8 June 1910, accompanied by Don Pedro Benegas, the well-known wine-grower from Mendoza and together we travelled the Alto Valle. I explained the development of the works and the prospects which the methodical and assured irrigation would bring.

Dr Doleris was a true personality who had come to the Argentine as a delegate to the International Scientific Congress held in Buenos Aires in 1910 to mark the centenary of independence. In France, he occupied a notable position in industrial centres, and owned a modern establishment in Lambaya in the Pyrenees. He was a member of the Academy of Medicine in Paris, Commendator of Agricultural Merit, President of the French Wine-Growers Society, Gentleman of the Legion of Honour and National Deputy.

His retirement from the Alto Valle of the Río Negro signified a real loss for progress in the region given the great projects which he cherished and which his capacity and energy had brought to fruition.

The French writer Jules Huret at Lago Pellegrini.

At that time, the construction of the Grand Canal developed an active propaganda. On the occasion of the visit of the well-known French writer Jules Huret and his wife to the Argentine in 1909, they were invited to visit the vicinity of the point of abstraction and Lago Pellegrini offering them all imaginable facilities.

The visitors arrived in Bahía Blanca in a reserved coach which was formed into a special train. It went on its way immediately, accompanied by Engineer Jorge Delpech and myself. At Cipolletti, Mr Luis J. Casteras, who met us, provided the means of transport on to Lago Pellegrini, a seven league journey and so rough that it took six hours to get to our destination.

We climbed to a high point to view the panoramic view of what was to become Lago Pellegrini. The details of the big project under way were explained to Mr Huret, indicating the depression with an area of some 28,000 hectares which would be converted in the future into a reservoir or artificial lake, retaining the waters of the Río Neuquén in times of high water, thus reducing the dangers from floods in the valley of the Río Negro.

The plans of the works were made available to the writer, and complete details of the project were given, so that they could be documented, and a book or journalistic articles prepared, which would attract the attention of agriculturalists in Europe with a view to showing them the possibilities which would be offered to them in a valley provided with irrigation. [End of page 196 & 197]

In return for all our efforts, we received unequivocal demonstrations of boredom and disinterest, brought about by the visitors having come from Buenos Aires and their experiencing the discomfort of the road from Cipolletti to the loch in order to show them such a puny thing, by their criterion.

Our repeated efforts at making the writer and his wife understand the importance for the Argentine of the project which was being undertaken were completely useless and, resulting from of our frustrated hopes, Engineer Delpech spoke frankly to the writer, saying that it was necessary to be an engineer to understand such things. Possibly the meaning contained in Mr Delpech‘s words did not register with Mr Huret.

In the face of such antagonism by visitors so ill-disposed or badly influenced by the inconveniences experienced, it was easy to understand that little or nothing could be said to support of the works. We resolved to return without even visiting the town of Neuquén.

Once more in Cipolletti, we reoccupied the coaches of the special train and started, disappointed and somewhat out of humour, on the return to Bahía Blanca. I gave orders to the train crew not to stop at any station, other than to take on water or cross another train.

A Senegalese believed she was meeting her countryfolk in the Valley.

The first stop on the return journey was at Chelforó, where the engine took on water. The following stage was to be to Choele Choel (the present day Darwin), but, to our great surprise, we were stopped at Chimpay by the Station Master, who asked us if we had lost a passenger, adding that, on the platform at Chelforó, there was a lady of "indigenous appearance" whose language nobody understood. Facetiously, I told him that the train wasn‘t carrying any coloured persons. At least that was what we thought.

As Mrs Huret did not understand what we were saying in our conversation, Engineer Delpech explained what it was about. The lady indicated that it must be her nanny and on inspecting the compartment closely where she had been travelling was able to establish that she was missing. We couldn‘t do other than return to Chelforó, 35 kilometres away, in search of the servant girl of "indigenous appearance".

None of the passengers on the train, excepting Mr Huret and his wife, knew that such an important person was travelling, since from the departure from Bahía Blanca up to the return to Chelforó, nobody had seen her.

The nanny explained to her employers that, while the engine was taking water at Chelforó, she saw through the window of her compartment the policeman in charge of the detachment and his wife with some children near a shack on the other side of the fencing and, as they were the same colour as herself, she thought that they were from her own country and, without saying anything to anyone, got off the train and walked to the shack to have a conversation. [End of page 198]

One can imagine the surprise of all of them when they could not understand her despite the colour of her skin. The Senegalese returned disappointed to the station and tried to explain to the Station Master that she was a passenger of the train which had departed.

Once the nanny was recovered, the journey restarted and, on reaching Darwin, the visitors expressed a great desire to get to know the island of Choele Choel. As we were not disposed to entertain them, I replied that they could do this another day, and that our destination just now was Bahía Blanca in order to catch the train to Buenos Aires.

The prodigious transformation of the Valley.

To detail all the progress in this area would occupy many volumes. I will limit myself to summarising, for example, the evolution experienced by one of the towns, in this case, Allen.

I well remember the enormous difficulties experienced by the first settlers in the region. The first house built in Allen was built by Señor Patricio Piñeiro Sorondo in 1909-10. There were no signs of life about it. The building materials had to be brought from Río Negro station (today‘s Stefenelli) by roads which were hardly tracks. To avoid this difficult journey, I had the goods trains stop near the site which is today [End of page 199] Allen station, opening the fences to allow the materials to be unloaded into the open countryside thus avoiding the difficult and costly cartage over a distance of 25 kilometres.

Allen is now a flourishing village with 10,000 inhabitants between the built-up and the rural area. It has municipal police and legal authorities, an office of agricultural defence, civil registry office, vegetable health, street lighting in town, post and telegraph office, railway station, hospital, telephone etc. In addition there is a public library, five schools, church, two banks, thirteen sporting societies, two cinemas and a theatre. [End of pages 200 & 201]

Among the numerous population are professionals, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers. Its activities develop, builders, auctioneers, 76 businesses of all types. There are 32 industries operating, including eight wine cellars and the important tomato and fruit conserves plant owned by Félix Bagliani & Co, who deserve to stand out, by virtue of the excellence of their products, which are a national pride. It gives work to a great many people. Its manufacturing capacity of 220 tons of tomato conserve a day at the peak of the harvest gives an idea of its importance. Moreover, as I have said, this firm processes immense quantities of pears, peaches, damsons, cherries, plums and strawberries which are cultivated in the valley. It also makes excellent cider, comparable to the finest imported ones.

There are 104 establishments for agriculture, husbandry and farm products in Allen, plus 56 growers of potatoes, with at least 20 hectares each, 85 fruit growers, 64 vegetable growers, 64 wine cultivators and five dairy farms.

There are also gypsum and alabaster quarries which produce 10, 000 tons of lime and gypsum a year. [End of page 202]

The fields are valued at from 500 to 800 pesos per hectare. Allen, the village and its surroundings, has an area of some 8, 000 hectares.

When the Neuquén line was opened in 1899, there were only five stations between Choele Choel (today called Darwin) and the Río Neuquén. Today there are 28, including those on the branch line to Contraalmirante Cordero. Two mixed trains a week were more than ample for the scarce traffic; years later, there are twenty passenger, goods and express fruit and parcels trains a day, or about 150 per week.

Irrigation with the waters of the Limay.

When the railway line was extended from Neuquén to Zapala, there was no large scale production expected along its length, due to the aridity of the lands beyond Senillosa and the difficulty of irrigation, given that the line was so far away from the Río Limay. Nevertheless, between Neuquén and Senillosa an irrigation canal was built along the Río Limay with mechanical lifting of the water in a scheme prepared under the direction of Engineer César Fattore. This was opened in 1910. The lifting station was housed in a large building and comprised three steam engines of 100 hp each, coupled to centrifugal pumps which could each lift 800 litres of water a second. [End of pages 203, 204, 205 & 206]

The length of the main canal was 15 kilometres from the pumping station which was called Puerto Valentina, adjacent to the Los Canales colony of Dr Plottier, as far as the Southern Railway's bridge over the Río Neuquén. With the bringing into use of this canal, the formation of colonies within the irrigated area was started, as was the forming of streets, squares, boulevards in the capital of Neuquén territory.

Gradually the small holdings of La Valentina, Bouquet and Nueva España colonies served by this canal were cultivated. Messrs Plottier, were first to start, on their own account, the construction of a canal, also using the waters of the Limay some seven kilometres long with a capacity to irrigate 2, 000 hectares, lifting the water mechanically with two abstraction pumps driven by 75 hp motors.

Later, the National Government built a gravitational canal, with its point of abstraction in the vicinity of Senillosa, which supplied water to the fields originally irrigated by the two previously mentioned canals.

As a result of irrigation there are various colonies and small holdings in full production near the capital of Neuquén Territory, lands which, in the initial rough isolation, appeared arid and sandy, offering the most unattractive picture imaginable.

Zapala is the gateway to the Cordillera de los Andes.

Zapala has progressed greatly and is presently a centre of population of some importance, on which cattle, sheep and fruit converge from the Andean valleys, as well as general merchandise from Bahía Blanca and Buenos Aires. [End of pages 207 & 208]

Moreover, as Zapala is the end of the Neuquén line, it is the natural location to maintain the armed forces of the region, stationed the length of the Cordillera.

Opening of the line between Neuquén and Zapala.

On 1 January 1914, along with my wife, I left Bahía Blanca for Neuquén in order to travel on the following day, 2 January, on the first passenger train, which ran between Neuquén and Zapala. Never before, nor since, have I been able to experience in a few hours such a pronounced change in temperature, passing from an asphyxiating heat to such an intense cold.

On reaching Chichinales station, the temperature within the special coach in which I travelled reached 41ºC in the afternoon, while the following night, in Zapala, it was –2ºC. In mid summer, the stove in the coach had to be lit while we remained in Zapala, and we had to change our summer clothes for others, taking all our clothing from our luggage, so we could go to sleep without freezing. [End of page 209]

In the middle of summer such a variation in temperature must have been due to some unusual cause and shortly we found out that this same day there had been a violent snow storm in the Cordillera de los Andes. As the wind blew from the west, a wave of most extreme coldness swept into Zapala.

In Neuquén, my wife was invited to send off the first passenger train, and so she did, holding the event as a fond memory.

Periodic regime of thaws in the Neuquén and the Limay.

Given the enormous snow cap which accumulates annually in the Cordillera de los Andes, there are periodic risings depending on the amount of snow fallen, its melting, and the amount of rain which falls simultaneously in the catchment discharging to these rivers. The area amounts to 1, 000 kilometres along the length of the Andean chain. The greatest and least floods which may occur depend in the first instance on whether the two flood waves reach the confluence [End of pages 210, 211, 212 & 213] which forms the Río Negro at the same time.

A report of all rises and falls in the waters of the Río Limay are conveyed by telegraph from Paso Limay and the movements of the Río Neuquén from Paso del Indio. As the flood wave of this river takes 36 hours to arrive from Paso del Indio to the confluence, and 70 hours from Paso Limay, the dwellers on the low lands of the valley of the Río Negro have sufficient time to escape with their livestock and chattels, to take refuge on the high ground when there is warning of a dangerous flood.

The highest level recorded for one of the rivers, which form the Negro, is sufficient to cause a rise in it, but without causing a flood. [End of pages 214 & 215]

A flood is produced unfailingly when the two furious avenues discharge simultaneously into the Río Negro, giving rise to serious damage. Such an event has decreased enormously with the use of the artificial Lago Pellegrini which holds back the rising Neuquén and regulates the outflow of the excess water.

The highest level recorded in Paso del Indio on the Neuquén was 7.70 metres, while the upper limit of the Limay was 7.05 metres and the lowest 1.88 metres, data which was obtained in 1944.

The rails to Neuquén have only served for peace.

The amazing progress managed by the field of influence of the Neuquén line remains described in great brush strokes especially in that part of the Valle of the Río Negro which has become the California of South America as I had the occasion to report in 1910 when the Argentine Republic completed its first centenary as a free and sovereign nation.

It is thus as a railway line, constructed across the Patagonic desert solely for urgent military contingencies and having as its origin purposes of destruction and despoliation, it has achieved the building, in the space of a few years, a bond of civilization and progress, [End of page 216] the core of these lands once the field of action of the savage indian, the living sap which as a work of magic had made villages grow, becoming an immense beehive of work and production. That which was undeveloped land and whose surprising and rapid transformation into a great emporium which is admired today, very few suspected and even many doubted. [End of page 217]

Despite its importance the work was on the point of failing.

The irrigation works in the valley of the Río Negro for various reasons needed more capital than had been allocated originally, which was £800,000.

In 1915, the funds noted were about to be exhausted, and the probability of their being augmented was not likely, since the works were undertaken at such a great distance from the Federal Capital, where they were a little less than unknown by the ministers and the national legislators. This required matters to be taken forward with great discretion. [End of page 218]

The £800,000 had generated five years of continuous work, but in October 1915, it was estimated that the balance of the funds would last only until January 1916, which would result in the cessation of the irrigation works. Such a circumstance signalled a complete disaster, because the network of canals and the Contraalmirante Cordero regulating dam would remained incomplete and all that had been invested would lack any practical utility.

The General Manager of the Southern Railway resolved to enable the ministers and legislators to observe personally the important works already carried out [End of pages 219 & 220] and ongoing in the valley of the Río Negro, prepared an excursion to the area.

On the night of 14 October 1915, a special train of 62 axles left Plaza Constitución made up of the General Manager's official saloon, a coach for the Minister of Public Works, two restaurant cars, eleven sleeping cars and a luggage van.

The Minister of Public Works, Dr Manuel Moyano, of Housing, Dr Franciso J Oliver and of Agriculture, Dr Horacio Calderón travelled in the train. Among other personalities in the ministerial retinue were, Messrs Adolfo E. Davila, E. Weigel Muñoz, Alejandro Lértora. Alejandro Calvo, Diego F. Outes, Miles A. Pasman, Antonio C. Gandulfo, [End of pages 221, 222 & 223] Alberto Castaño, Alfredo Demarchi, Miguel Iturbe, Manuel Carranza, Honorio Segas, Jorge McClean, Eleodoro Lobos, (General) Racedo, (General) Aguirre, Félix Amesto, Julio Pueyrredón, Eduardo Crespo, Guillermo G. White, Luis E. Zuberbuhler, Santiago O'Farrell, Raúl S. Zavalia, Horacio Bustos Morón, R. Lemos, Nicolás R. Calvo, Antonio Piaggio, A. Vilate (son), Pedro Agote, Agustín Mercau, José Guerrico, Alfonso Durao, F. J. White, Angel Villa, Tomás Vera Barros, Arturo Peralta Ramos, J. M. Moss, Baldomero Sommer, Fernando D. Guerrico, Guillermo White, N. R. Fresco, R. de Candolle and a nucleus of journalists.

At Grünbein I joined the retinue, and accompanied them for the whole journey. The Minister of Agriculture left the party at the same station, because of some friction, it is said, with his public works colleague. On the 15th, they visited the Puerto Militar and the city of Bahía Blanca, and the next morning set off in the special train for the Alto Valle of the Río Negro. Mr Enrique Julio, Editor of the La Nueva Provincia newspaper joined the group.

On few occasions has it been possible for me to be part of an excursion such as this one for study and observation with so many representative people disposed to find the way to prevent such a great initiative from failing for lack of funds.

On the 16th at eight in the morning, the train reached, at the time specified, Allen station, where the Governor of [End of page 224] the Neuquén Territory, Mr Eduardo Elordi, along with Messrs Patricio Sorondo and Luis J. Casteras awaited the visitors. Eight motor cars were used to visit the various works. The engineers and technical assessors, with all the drawings to hand, showed the ministers around. At midday, Contraalmirante Cordero station was reached after a journey of four hours over bad dusty roads. I can confirm that, because I did the journey many times. The journey pleased no one, even though some of the journalists in the retinue appeared not to be put out by it, judged by the eloquent chronicles describing the visit.

The train was waiting in Contraalmirante Cordero. We then visited the dam under construction and the journey was resumed by motor car to Cipolletti, which was reached at six in the evening after having visited some of the small holdings being laid out and others already under cultivation. An hour later the train left for the capital of the Neuquén Territory and stopped on the railway bridge, so the excursionists could admire the splendid landscape and the broad Río Neuquén.

On the following day the irrigation works on the left bank of the Río Limay and the water pumping station, at a site some 15 kilometres from Neuquén, called Puerto Valentina, were visited. As I have said, this is where the Southern Railway's small steamers [End of page 225] Limay y Neuquén, were moored when they sailed on the Río Limay.

The said pumps had been installed by the National Government to facilitate the irrigation of some 3, 000 hectares of land between the river and the town of Neuquén. It had cost $400, 000, but such a fruitful idea did not prosper, and was spoilt by unrestrained private speculation. The lands which were bought originally for $20 the hectare in anticipation of being irrigated were sold at $600, resulting in uneconomic production.

The journey was intended to go as far as the railhead at Zapala, but it had to be cut short due to the need to return urgently to the Federal Capital. The area of irrigation, served at that time by the Co-operative's canal, in Allen and Colonia Roca was visited by motor car. At Roca the train was boarded for the return. Ingeniero White [station] was reached on the 18th at 5.30 in the morning. After a stop of a few minutes, the train left for Plaza Constitución which it reached at 7 in the evening. The total journey, by train and car, amounted to 2, 500 kilometres and the programme unfolded in accordance with the plan which had been prepared a week earlier, without any untoward events, except the omission of the visit to Zapala.

The hoped-for outcome of the visit was fully achieved, because in the face of the magnitude of the works already completed, the patriotic necessity of completing them by voting the necessary funds was understood. [End of page 226]

Products of the Neuquén line.

There were many most important people in Bahía Blanca itself who did not know the true scope and possibilities of the Alto Valle of the Río Negro and of the Neuquén National Territory for livestock, mineral and fruit production.

In December 1916, I devised a practical way of bringing this to their attention. It was the installation of a type of permanent exhibition of natural produce, raw materials and manufactured goods of the Alto Valle and the Pre-Cordillera.

To this end, I had a large display cabinet made and be placed in public view on the main platform of Bahía Blanca station along which thousands of passengers passed daily.

I asked the inhabitants, industrialists and fruit-growers of the area of the Río Negro and Río Neuquén to submit samples of their production. The number of samples which reached me was so great, that the exhibition had to be renewed periodically. It was admired by a great many of the public.

So successful was this simple exhibition of minerals, fruits, honey, natural silk, wines, photographs, etc that the Head of Traffic at Plaza Constitución asked me for an identical display cabinet which I sent to him. It was also used to display the produce of the Alto Valle of the Río Negro.

In Bahía Blanca the display cabinet remains to this day (1948). I am persuaded that it has in a great measure contributed to the dissemination of the beauties and riches abounding in that marvellous region, which water has converted into a paradise. [End of pages 227, 228 & 229]

How the irrigation of the lands of the Alto Valle of the Río Negro were started.

In 1912, when the great irrigation works of the arid lands of the Alto Valle of the Río Negro were being undertaken, it fell to me to report on their development and the state which the various private initiatives had reached. These in a limited fragmented form, already provided irrigation to small areas of country which had been cleared of their brush and partly levelled.

The old Roca Canal, which may be called the pioneering canal of the Valle of the Río Negro, constructed by Hilarión Furuque in a rudimentary form in 1882, took its supply from the Río Neuquén at the level of Cipolletti station of the Southern Railway. It was almost completely infilled by floods and could not supply more than a small portion of cultivable land. On the establishment of a Co-operative Society, presided over by Mr Patricio Piñeiro Sorondo, the situation changed, giving a significant impulse to the irrigation supplied by the Roca Canal. The length of the canal was 55 kilometres. It could abstract 16, 000 litres of water a second and, to ensure there was no reduction in volume supplied, a dredger was employed to keep the canal and its sluices free of sand and earth.Years before, in 1907, the Roca Canal could hardly deal with more than 1,200 litres a second, increased in 1908 to 2,400 and a year later to [End of pages 230 & 231] to 3,200, and ultimately reached 16,000 litres with the creation of the Co-operative.

The principal artery of the Co-operative fed the whole of a network of subsidiary canals. Thus 10,000 hectares could be irrigated, which were gradually cleared and levelled. With irrigation, there were more plantations of alfalfa and later fruit-trees.

The natural fields of the valley of the Río Negro, covered in piquillines, alpatacos, grease bushes, jarillas and other bushes native to the semi-desert region, were almost valueless, but with the possibility of irrigation, attracted quotations of about $500 per hectare on the basis that the cost of clearing the land did not exceed $100 per hectare.

At the same time, the Lucinda canal, which also took water from the Río Neuquén near Ferri station, irrigated the great establishments of Messrs Casterás, Cordiviola, Fernández Oro, (Dr) Diaz, Contreras and Cordero, together with other minor ones totalling more than 2,000 hectares.

A society was formed to cultivate 6,000 hectares of virgin land between Río Negro (today's Stefanelli) and Cipolletti stations. It had to build an abstraction point on the Río Negro with its own resources.

The illustrious Spanish writer Don Vincente Blasco Ibañez, who proposed the creation of an agricultural colony based on the method of intensive cultivation practised in Valencia, brought many market-gardening families from Valencia and Alicante in Spain and acquired an area of 2,500 hectares [End of pages 232 & 233] of uncleared land, which had by 1912 been duly prepared and sown. Some 1,800 were irrigated directly by a canal supplied by the Río Negro. The colony was located at Kilometre 1134 (today's Cervantes station) on the Neuquén line. A complete network of channels was excavated which was supplied by two massive pumps each of 500 litres per second capacity. The hopes which the writer Blasco Ibañez put into his initiative were wasted in half way through the work, although the work undertaken gave good results, even though in other hands.

All the early private canals, which I have mentioned, and which were then being built came to be subsidiary or auxiliary canals to the Grand Canal constructed by the Southern Railway to the account of the National Government. Its point of abstraction on the Río Neuquén was established seven leagues north west of Cipolletti and the grandiose canal runs along the edge of the high plain on the north side of the railway line as far as Chichinales station, a length of 100 kilometres.

In 1912, the colossal work of the dam at Contraalmirante Cordero was nearing completion, and some 35 kilometres of the principal canal had been completed. The width of the canal at its entry is 75 metres as far as the diversion, where the excess flow of the Río Neuquén during high flows, is sent to the channel which discharges into Lago Pellagrini, also known as Cuenca Vidal. At that time the future lake, completely dry, was no more than a closed valley, awaiting its transformation into the regulator of the Río Neuquén. [End of page 234]

There were numerous engineers employed in the irrigation works and on the dam, together with some 1,200 workmen using the most efficient machines.

On the awakening of interest in the Upper Valley of the Río Negro, individuals and corporations initiated land clearing and levelling works complemented by the opening of the waterways. At that time, in addition to those mentioned, the following water conduits were built or are under construction from the end of the Grand Canal: those of Messrs López Cabanillas, Carlos Tarelli and Drago, between Chelforó and Chinchinales; of Mr Pawly, in Chimpay; of Dr Jorge Lauri, Messrs Llausas, Murga and others with a capacity to irrigate 24,000 hectares, and in Choele Choel, another belonging to Mr Sarasola.

Other irrigation projects were being studied or financed. Large areas of countryside were being divided up, among those of Dr Zorilla between General Roca and Chinchinales, where the first tranche of 6,000 hectares was divided into plots of 100 hectares, a further 20,000 were being prepared. All were easily irrigated by the Grand Canal. At the same time the National Government, at some nine kilometres west of Neuquén had installed three pumps on the Río Limay, each with a capacity of 800 litres of water per second to supply canals with a total length of 20 kilometres which served 2,000 hectares under cultivation in the lands of Mr Casimiro Gómez, Widow Doclou, Mr Buque Roldán and various others. Eight kilometres [End of page 235] further away, Dr Plottier irrigated another 2,000 hectares in his establishment with water courses whose length was seven kilometres. When I write these lines in 1948, I cannot do less than feel satisfied [End of page 236 ] with what I wrote in 1912 predicting "It is not an exaggeration to presume that in a few years the valley of the Río Negro, from Neuquén to Choele Choel will be a great area for the production of alfalfa, fruit-trees, vines and other products, and perhaps the most important in the Republic." [End of pages 237, 238, 239 & 240]

End of chapter


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Along the route



Rolling stock

Over the Andes?


The potash line

Extension fom Cinco Saltos?


1 Itinerary of route

2 Loco list

3 Irrigation map

4 Rögind chapter 25

5 Rögind chapter 30

6 Rögind chapter 49

7 Rögind chapter 55

8 Rögind chapter 56A

9 Rögind chapter 56B

10 Coleman chapter 2

11 Coleman chapter 3

12 Coleman chapter 5

13 Map of FCS system

14 1955 public timetable

15 Modern photos

16 FCS rulebook extracts

17 Wagon diagrams

18 Press articles

19 Potash line decrees

20 Fruit train timetable

21 Trasandino decree

22 Automatic couplings

23 Railmotor specification

24 Southern Transandine agreement

Chapter 3

The BAGSR's route to Neuquén


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