Biography and History

The Rio Madeira is a major tributary of the Amazon. It is formed by the junction of the Mamoré and Beni rivers at Villa Bella, Bolivia, and flows northward forming the border between Bolivia and Brazil for approximately 60 miles. The Madeira-Mamoré Railway (or the Estrada de Ferro Madeira-Mamoré) has its main railway station on the banks of the Rio Madeira at Porto Velho, Rondônia, Brazil. The line was built between 1872 and 1912 by U.S. and British engineers under license from the Brazilian government to aid the extraction of Bolivian rubber. At that time Bolivia was land-locked with no access to the Pacific Ocean and two hundred miles of waterfalls on the Mamoré and Madeira rivers. The solution was to build a railway alongside the two rivers which would connect Bolivia to the quieter reaches of the Madeira and beyond to the Amazon and the Atlantic. Workers came from many countries, including the U.S.A., England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, and China. The first and second expeditions in the 1870s, undertaken by the American George E. Church, were defeated by the heat, the difficulty of the terrain, and the loss of life from fever. The third contract was won by another American, Percival Farquhar. Construction began in August 1907 and was completed on July 15, 1912. The project cost $33,000,000 and at least 3,600 men died building the 367-kilometer track. The Madeira-Mamoré Railway had about a year of full operation before the combination of the collapse of rubber prices, the opening of a railway from Bolivia to the Pacific via Chile, and the creation of the Panama Canal rendered it uneconomical.

Robert Hopewell Hepburn, engineer, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1871. He was one of the American engineers who went on the 1878 Madeira-Mamoré Railway expedition, and wrote an unpublished account of it, "The Disastrous American Expedition of 1878," dated 1927-1937. His son, George, went on the second expedition (1907-1912), together with Edgar A. Smith, the American who ran the Madeira-Mamoré Survivors Association in the U.S.

Dana B. Merrill was the official photographer employed by the railway to document the construction. He put together a bound volume, Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré́, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil. S.A. (created 1909-1912), containing sixteen poems written by workers and photographs taken by him on the expedition.

In June 1867, Franz Keller, an engineer, and his father were commissioned by the Minister of Public Works at Rio de Janeiro to explore the Madeira River and project a railroad along its bank, where rapids made navigation impossible. Keller wrote the book The Amazon and Madeira Rivers, Sketches and Descriptions from the Note-book of an Explorer, in which he summarized the most important hydrographic results of the voyage and included his remarks and observations on the inhabitants, the vegetation, the products, and other topics of interest. The illustrations that were supplementary to the description of scenes are from sketches taken on the spot, drawn on the woodblocks by Keller himself; and engraved by Adolf Closs and Wilhelm Niedermann.

Source: From the finding aid for C1121

  • Madeira-Mamoré Expeditions Collection. 1875-1914 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C1121

    Consists of postcards, photographs, wood engravings, memorabilia, and printed material collected by Robert Hopewell Hepburn relating to expeditions sent down to tropical South America in an attempt by the Brazilian government to construct a railroad along the Madeira River. Robert Hopewell Hepburn, a young engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad System and a Princeton graduate of the Class of 1871, made the trip in 1878. He son undertook the same effort twenty-nine years later, sending back postcards to his father from Brazil.