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The story of the Madeira-Mamoré Railway (MMR) can be compared to adventure stories, as there are so many characters and plot twists involved. It all started in 1846 when the government of Bolivia considered the possibility of reaching the Atlantic Ocean via the Madeira and Mamoré rivers. Fifteen years later, General Quentin Quevedo released a railway construction project, as the Bolivian government had not deemed the idea of crossing the river with boats feasible.
In 1865, with the Paraguay War bulge, southern Mato Grosso was isolated, leading Emperor Dom Pedro II to analyse the prospects of recovering the area through navigation on the Madeira. Two engineers sent by the emperor suggested that an agreement with Bolivia be made regarding the use of the border rivers. The Bolivians, in turn, hired American Colonel Earl Church, an expert on railways, to evaluate the possibility of crossing the rivers.
Church’s first step was to create the National Bolivian Navigation Company. With two million pounds obtained through funding from London, he hired the company Public Works and imported equipment and materials to lay 36km of track. As Brazil, with the end of the Paraguayan War, had lost interest in the enterprise, Church and a group of twenty-five Englishmen headed the endeavour. Less than a year later, they abandoned the project, due to malaria outbreaks and the danger of the rivers, without laying even a metre of railway.
In order to continue the project, however, Church travelled to the United States in search of other funding. The company P&T Collins was hired with the proceeds of this new funding. This time, 7km of tracks were laid, but the American workers decided to leave because of tropical diseases and the climate. The first locomotive rode the tracks on the 4th of July 1878, American Independence Day. On the first corner, however, the vehicle overturned. Less than two months later, P&T Collins officially abandoned the project. Defeated, Church returned to the United States.
Only in 1883 did the Brazilian government resume its interest in the location. Wanting to annex the territory of Acre to Brazil, it signed the Treaty of Petrópolis with its Bolivian neighbours. Bolivia handed Acre over, and Brazil committed to building the railway. There were positives for both sides: for Brazil, because Acre was already occupied by Brazilian rubber tappers and the rubber extraction economy was on the rise; and for Bolivia as the country needed a way to transport their produce.
Although Brazilian Joaquim Cahamy had won the contract to build the railroad, he passed it onto American Percival Farquar, who in turn founded the Madeira-Mamoré Railway Company. The May, Jeckill & Rodolph company was hired to implement the project. In an attempt to avoid repeating previous failures, Farquar set up a hospital and put medical structures in place. By declaring a new “Eldorado”, he attracted thousands of workers from various countries. Thus began the construction of an almost 400km-long railway, which would follow the Madeira and Mamoré rivers, to the west of the current state of Rondônia, towards the Atlantic coast in Pará.
Problems continued to hinder the implementation of the railway construction project, however. The primary issue was health. The large number of people working in unhealthy conditions brought about so many cases of disease, the railroad earned the nickname “Devil's Railway”. To try to control the advance of malaria epidemics that came to kill one thousand and six hundred people, sanitarian Oswaldo Cruz (1872-1917) was hired in 1910. He wrote a report that attested to the poor conditions of workers and diagnosed a bleak future for the residents of Santo Antônio and Porto Velho, even stating that children in both cities were bound to die from disease.
Another difficulty was the need to cut down centuries-old trees, the initial tasks for the workers, in order to flatten the ground, dig, deposit the ballast and lay the track. At the project’s height, there were more than twenty thousand people of different nationalities at the construction site: Greeks, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Hindus as well as Brazilian Indians.
Despite all this, the Madeira-Mamoré Railway was inaugurated on 30 April 1912. On one hand, it had brought economic development to Rondônia, for example connecting the cities of Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirim, but on the other it was steadily becoming obsolete. 1912 was the year in which the rubber economy entered in a crisis. The railroad was run in a disorganized way, managed by private companies linked to the production of Bolivian rubber until the 1930s, when it finally came under the control of the Brazilian government.
With the decline of rubber production, the Getúlio Vargas government began to assign other functions to Madeira-Mamoré, including using its idleness to occupy the border areas, along which agricultural settlements were created, the main one being the Iata Agricultural Colony in Guajará-Mirim.
From 1930 to the early 1940s, the railroad was responsible primarily for transporting people and food to the cities of Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirim. The Rubber Battle at the end of World War II increased rubber production for three or five years, while increasing the use of the railway. More than 20 thousand soldiers, mostly from the Northeast, came to Rondônia to work on the rubber plantations. With the end of the conflict, these rubber-tappers swelled the rural population of the state, forming a group of extractors and squatters. In early 1960, construction began of the highway linking Cuiabá to Rio Branco, Acre, causing the MMR to lose its importance definitively, and to be deactivated on 1 July 1971. (Souza, 2010, p.239).
Partially listed by the National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) in 2005, the Madeira-Mamore Railway (EFMM) has been recovered, in part, by the federal and municipal governments. The railway, locomotives and sheds where the museum and the old railway workshop operated have been included in the contingent that is passing through revitalization processes.
Recife, 29 May 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2015.
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MUSSARA, Fabíola. Pelos trilhos da Madeira-Mamoré. Revista Planeta, Edição 457, out. 2010. Available at: <http://revistaplaneta.terra.com.br/secao/viagem/pelos-trilhos-da-madeira-mamore>. Accessed: 2 maio 2014
ROMANELLI, Cristina. A ferro e sangue. Revista de História da Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, 1º jan. 2008. Available at: <http://www.revistadehistoria.com.br/secao/artigos-revista/a-ferro-e-sangue>. Accessed: 10 maio 2014.
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Source: MORIM, Júlia. Madeira-Mamoré Railway. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.