Transcontinental Mobility Infrastructures and the Cooperation AmongExperts in the Americas, c. 1870-1970

Mario Peters

The Pan-American Highway is the world’s longest highway. Plans for this road were first discussed at the Pan-American Highway congresses in the 1920s. But the highway was not the first Inter-American mobility infrastructure project. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the idea of constructing a railway line from Ottawa to Buenos Aires (Pan-American Railroad) inspired “dreams of overland connectivity” (Rutkow 2019) shared by government actors, local authorities, diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and experts throughout the Americas.  

My Habilitation project examines the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between North American and Latin American experts who worked on projects for the Pan-American Railroad and the Pan-American Highway. I consider the period between the 1870s, when U.S. boosters started to promote an Inter-American railroad, and the 1970s, by which time construction work on the Pan-American Highway ended. I pursue the project’s main subject, the interrelationship between Pan-Americanism, international infrastructures of mobility, and the cooperation of experts from the perspectives of the History of Knowledge and the History of Inter-American relations.

To understand the dynamics of cooperation, I ask how experts from the United States and Canada imagined Latin America and how certain ideas about their southern neighbors influenced their work on transcontinental infrastructures. It is equally important to consider how Latin American engineers, geographers, and surveyors conceived of the Pan-American Railroad and the Pan-American Highway. I compare North American and Latin American concepts for these infrastructures and ideas about the significance of mobility for Inter-American relations.

My study is based on the work with documents from international expert commissions and committees such as the Intercontinental Railway Commission, established by the Pan American Union in the 1890s, and proceedings of the Pan-American Highway congresses which started in 1925. I will also analyze reports, surveys, and unpublished material written by engineers, geographers and surveyors; railway engineering journals and automobile magazines to investigate how experts thought about the exchange of knowledge, cooperation, and conflicts with international colleagues. The analysis of these sources is also part of understanding how personal contact and discussion changed perspectives on “the other America.”  

By addressing these issues, the study aims to shed light on an important but often overlooked chapter in the history of Inter-American relations and expand on the linkages between Mobility Studies and the History of Knowledge.