Buenos Aires had not completed essential infrastructure works for the modernization of its port, nor mitigated the serious problems of accessibility to it, when the President of the Nation, Bartolomé Miter, decidedly supported the completion of the first major interprovincial railway project in Argentina: the Rosario-Córdoba Railway.
Five years before the Battle of Caseros, which put an end to the Rosista stage, studies carried out by officers of his navy were known in London that indicated that the Paraná River, at the height of Rosario, had an optimal depth for the operation of ships and a favorable geography for unloading products, thanks to the height of the ravines. Natural advantages that no other part of the country had. That overseas port was a springboard for communications with the interior of the country.
Therefore, the choice of that point to be the scene of the first private international investment of such magnitude, foundational in the matter, was not accidental, and even less so that in its project and initial stage it could overcome the political and institutional instability of the years elapsed between the clashes of Caseros, Cepeda and Pavón.
From the proposal made by Allan Campbell to Justo José de Urquiza in 1855, through the construction contract signed between the latter and José Buschental, later extended to Guillermo Wheelwright, and the 1861 law that extended it, to the construction that formally started in April 1863, a network of public and private actors –on both sides of the ocean– underpinned an undertaking that, due to its magnitude and implications, could be considered a facilitating instance for the subsequent insertion of the region in the budding globalization.
Once the National Congress was constituted in the city of Buenos Aires, and weeks after Bartolomé Miter took office as president of the republic, on September 5, 1862, the law was voted that granted continuity to the railway construction contract, but without knowing the commitment assumed by the Confederation, to grant the builders a league of land on each side of the line, in all its extension, free of all expenses and encumbrances.
However, one of the first decisions taken by Miter in his capacity as president was to recognize the provisions in this regard by presidents Urquiza and Derqui, both in this issue of the transfer of leagues and in other prerogatives given to the concessionaire, giving rise, from then to the present, to controversies and debates, which have not lost relevance since the moment in which it concerns the role of the State, of the institutions of the Republic, the citizens and the projects of the Nation.
The symbolic inauguration of the works took place on April 20, 1863, with the presence of President Miter, accompanied by the Vice President, Marcos Paz; the Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Rawson, and the Minister of Foreign Relations, Rufino Elizalde.
Urquiza’s defeat in Pavón had made the local leaders think that the new president could backtrack with the benefits obtained with the opening of the rivers and the consecration of Rosario as an overseas port.
“The attitude of the victorious general soon threw those forecasts away. If Urquiza had opened the river, Miter was going to give the new city the iron road to the interior, a complement to the port,” wrote Juan Álvarez.
Juan Bautista Alberdi himself, alluding to the initiation of the work, stated: “The entire service record of General Miter is not worth the glory of that day.”
A journalistic chronicle described: Wheelwright “took the pickaxe and presented it to the president, who struck several blows on the line with it: after handing over the pickaxe he took the shovel and with it he turned over a shovelful of earth declaring that the great construction site”.
Then Miter would have made –according to Juan Álvarez– the following exclamation: “This is a happy event that inaugurates the complete extinction of brute leadership. That from El Plata to Patagonia, to the Cordillera de los antes, everyone take care of the railway from Rosario to Córdoba as their own being”.
For his part, Provincial Minister José M. Zubiría, representing the governor of Santa Fe, said that it was “the greatest work undertaken by any government since the War of Independence.” Wheelwright added: “We have established a new era in the history of this country”, defining his railway as “the new continental liberator”, because he hoped it would cross the Andes Mountains reaching Chile and Bolivia.
In his message to Congress in 1864, President Miter not only based his support for this company on the importance of providing the country with a road system (almost non-existent), but also on the fact that in this way industries could flourish, the material and moral well-being of the inhabitants, and the demands of trade, which demanded a high level of infrastructure according to international demand, would be met.
“That is why the Mediterranean provinces perseveringly seek a river outlet to the Atlantic; That is why the Nation opens a path through the solitary Chaco, linking all the provinces of the Republic with new bridges and roads; That is why the navigation of the Bermejo is a fact, as I hope that of the Salado…”, he explained, and predicted that this railway “would give new life to the provinces of the interior, changing the face of the Republic”.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the actions, policies and financial resolutions adopted by President Miter were decisive for the continuity of the undertaking and its effective realization, sustaining this adherence beyond his presidential mandate. When assuming a bench as national senator for the province of Buenos Aires, on the occasion of participating in the debates on the postponed construction of the local port, he revalued that experience as a sobering precedent.
Despite all kinds of difficulties, including wars, revolts and epidemics, on May 1, 1866, the first section between Rosario and Cañada de Gómez (71 kilometers) was opened to public service; on September 1, 1867, to Villa María, and on April 13, 1870, to Córdoba.
Each completed section encouraged the emergence of new initiatives and projects to extend its roads to the provinces of Cuyo and the north, and also to Bolivia, bringing its markets closer to the coast, but also serving as a bridge, in the opposite direction, for the arrival of thousands of immigrants, the emergence of towns and colonies and the development of production.
The largely favorable results in this regard seemed to more than compensate for the initial drawbacks, contributing to the economic, social, and cultural transformation that the country experienced at that time.
National Academy of History, director of the Nucleus of Regional Port Cities of Idehesi-Conicet