This is not truly a saga of highway construction, as Rutkow spends little of his time on the front lines with the earthmovers. He is more interested in the difficult political road of Pan-Americanism, the romantic notion of hemispheric unity that lives on in the name of the defunct airline Pan Am; the fading country medallions on New York’s Sixth Avenue, which nobody ever calls “The Avenue of the Americas”; a little-visited marble building on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; a proto-United Nations body called the Organization of American States and the 19,000-mile highway that still bears the faint stamp of Simón Bolívar’s original vision of a common army and parliament for the New World.
The story begins at sea with the nausea of Hinton Rowan Helper, the United States consul to Argentina, who endured a miserable voyage back to New York City in 1866 and wondered “why not by rail?” He devoted the next several years to promoting the then-fantastical concept of an overland rail link between the United States and Latin America. After initially floundering in Congress, the scheme became a choice morsel to be seized in the chaos capitalism typical of the early railroading era. Jay Gould, Collis P. Huntington and William Palmer all vied to be the first to lay tracks from the Rio Grande to Mexico City, an ambition that carried the endorsement in 1880 of the former president Ulysses S. Grant, who had fought in the Mexican-American War as a young officer and, as Rutkow puts it, “loved Mexico almost as much as he loved cigars, horses and whiskey.” The extensions of the Pan-American Railway into Central America became mainly a tool of the powerful mercantilist company United Fruit, known to its critics as El Pulpo, or “The Octopus.”
By the 1920s, however, the automobile was king, and Washington had embraced the doctrines of the Good Roads movement that sought to bring all-weather macadam and concrete to every muddy corner of the country, and into Central America. Within a decade, Franklin Roosevelt would become one of Pan-Americanism’s greatest champions, and his posture toward the highway is a reminder of how freely ideas and cash flowed during the New Deal. Rutkow paints convincing portrayals of technocrat-heroes like Logan Page and Thomas MacDonald at the federal road office, who handled their jobs with efficiency and prudence even while commanding staggering amounts of money.
At times, the book reads like an executive summary of the various conferences organized to promote the highway, while potentially colorful episodes are brushed over. Rutkow is a superb fact-hunter, having raided archives from San José, Costa Rica, to Laramie, Wyo., to find letters, minutes and articles that may not have seen daylight since the years they were written. Yet not every quotation about the highway feels necessary to the story, and there’s a paucity of description of the road itself or its surrounding landscape. And for such a well-researched book about a bicontinental project, there’s another strange omission. The route through South America receives precious little attention, with almost all the focus trained on United States policy toward road-building in Central America.
Rutkow is a graceful writer with a penchant for well-placed classical allusions, yet he possesses a distracting literary tic: a heavy reliance on the adverb “finally,” which occasionally occurs twice on the same page. He uses it to describe such perfunctory matters as Mexico’s control of its own rail system, the opening of a tunnel under the Hudson River, the nationalizing of American railroads during World War I, a power transfer in Guatemala, the disbanding of a committee, a proposal for federal funding of canals, the appearance of a Treasury Department report, a vetoed bill in Congress, a call to form a lobbying organization, the emergence of rural free mail, the popularity of good roads, the use of science in road-building, a job offer and the desire among Latin Americans to buy cars. This conclusory word is a curious one when overused in connection with a project whose essence is incompletion.
The narrative finds its highest velocity near the end, with a fascinating section on a North Carolina schoolteacher’s efforts to bushwhack his way through the Darien Gap, and Richard Nixon’s stated desire to drive the finished road himself in time for the 1976 bicentennial. That was in more ambitious times, before the momentum petered out amid Ronald Reagan’s anticommunist wars in Central America and worries about perforating the “biological plug” of the swampy barrier between the continents. The road remains — like the Pan-American ideal — frustratingly snapped in the middle.