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Collection Overview

Hepburn, Robert Hopewell
Princeton University. Library. Special Collections
Madeira-Mamoré Expeditions Collection
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1 box and 0.2 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1


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.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of postcards, photographs, wood engravings, memorabilia, printed material, and newspaper and magazine clippings collected by Hepburn regarding the expeditions commissioned by the Brazilian government to build a railroad along the banks of the Madeira River. The postcards consist chiefly of cards sent to Robert or Mrs. Hepburn from their son, George, while he was on expedition to build the Madeira-Mamoré Railway. They were sent from Amazonas State in Brazil, from Bolivia, or from La Paz in Peru. One photo-postcard was sent to Edgar A. Smith in Bristol, P.A., from Porto Velho, Rio Madeira, Brazil, and dated Nov. 30, 1910, with the inscription "A Merry X-mas from dad." There are twenty-eight photographs, which include three albumen prints of the Madeira river, a tree, and the expedition headquarters at Porto Velho, all inscribed and dated Jan. 4, 1908, and nineteen gelatin silver prints of the landscape, the engineers, and their quarters, various phases of construction of the railroad, native Indians, exotic animals, and the rivers and rapids, most of which were taken by Dana B. Merrill, and most are numbered on the negative. A photograph of a monkey (Merrill no. 527) bears the inscription "To Robert H. Hepburn from E. A. Smith, with your son on the expedition of 1908," and there is one posed formal portrait by F. A. Fidanza of Pará, Brazil, inscribed in Hepburn's hand "Frederick-Lawford-Hunt." In addition, there are three photographs of the ships that were used to carry equipment in Pará, Brazil, two of which, the JUNO and the BRAZIL, are hand-painted in sepia colors, one tintype inscribed in Robert H. Hepburn's hand "1879, self / Geo. M. Kearberg (?), right hand man on Madeira exp.,"and one photo-lithograph of one of Merrill's photographs, which he originally numbered 795 and labeled "Caripuna Indians on the Rio Murum Parana."

Most of the wood engravings are taken from Franz Keller's book. They include illustrations of scenery, of native Indians, rubber collectors, and wild life in the Madeira region. Also included is a lithograph map of the Madeira-Mamoré Railway and its connections. The memorabilia includes a list of the members of the Madeira and Mamoré Association, dated January 1908, menus for different annual dinners of the Association, a note in the hand of R. H. Hepburn, and a small souvenir label with the logo and dates of the expedition, "1878-1907-1912," bearing on the verso the inscription "To Robert H. Hepburn of 1878 Expedition, from Edgar A. Smith of 1907-1912 Expedition." The clippings include pictures of native Indians, exotic animals, such as anteaters, tapirs, and piranhas, and streets and buildings in Brazil and Bolivia.


Arranged by accession number

Collection Creator Biography:

Hepburn, Robert Hopewell

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.

Collection History


Items were a gift of Robert Hopewell Hepburn.

Custodial History

The collection was formed as a result of a Departmental practice of combining into one collection material of various accessions relating to a particular person, family, or subject.


No appraisal information is available.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Dina Britain on June 23, 2006. Finding aid written by Tenley Eakin on July 5, 2006. Folder inventory added by James Clark '14 in 2012.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Madeira-Mamoré Expeditions Collection; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1