7,000 Railroad Men Died in the Green Hell of Brazil


Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 32

Porto Velho, Rondônia, August 24, 1980 — September 1, 1980

August 26 On this writing table a few inches away is a souvenir of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad. A six-inch spike I picked up yesterday. It evokes so much for me. It was here, in this very place that men came from all over the world to build this railroad and left 7,000 of their number dead.
Railroad Spike
A war, in a way, against The Forest, and which almost as it ended in 1912 was lost. With the collapse of the rubber boom the purpose of the railroad (to get Bolivian rubber to the “navigable” Madeira) no longer existed.
Today there is an attempt to re-activate the railroad, some 32 of 360 miles operative, but the real story lies in the marshalling yards where half a dozen old locomotives (Baldwins etc.) stand with their great steel wheels buried in the sand. Most dramatic relic is the steam-powered crane (INDUSTRIAL WORKS - BAY - MICHIGAN) that appears at the head of the rail-advance in old photographs. You can imagine it, easily, clanking and hissing. You can imagine it but you can't ignore the twitter of the birds amid its workings.
Abandoned Steam Crane at Madeira-Mamore Railroad, Porto Velho

August 27 Above all, I have to remember to divorce present “reality” from historical fact: that the cemetery where hundreds upon hundreds - thousands - who labored to build the railroad lie is unreachable must say something. Can't go there, you're told by local head of museum, because bush that obscures place is infested with “cobras.” 
So, too, I think are the minds of those who inherited the sweat, the sadness, the lost dreams of all who came here. Nothing. Not a memorial, not a single relic except a small station filled with “functionaries” unexcited and unmoved by what they represent. 

Abandoned railroad locomotive on Madeira-Mamore line, Brazil
 By God! I say to myself, I'll write an epitaph for you yet, you brave “lost” adventurous souls who lie beneath this dust-damned soil. You came from so far away to so violent an environment, and you found the paradise you sought an earthly hell!
I walk through these dreary streets, I witness this museum without a soul and I feel a rage and anger beyond my control at such forgetfulness, such disregard for heart and soul and effort.
I look at a single spike, a single spar of rail, a rusted locomotive and I have respect. For what am I but an adventurer braving the same area, but with a comfort and safety you never knew. For five days I have trod these same grounds, endured the same heat - with air conditioning to help - and yet at no time have I seen anything that said these were men! — How I hate the forgetful, the thoughtlessness!
How I sometimes love the adage, "those who forget the lessons of the past are bound to repeat them." I wouldn't really wish it upon them but if they are so ready to dismiss the 7,000 (10,000?) who gave their lives in this place...
Baldwin locomotive from Madeira-Mamore line
I enjoy this burst of emotion, for it gives me a special urge to reach paper, it puts six thousand spirits behind me saying, "Tell them!" It brings a single spirit, a soul perhaps akin my own, who lies a dying in Candelaria with thought of a love far away, feeling all forgotten forever — I say to that spirit bound to this dusty hell hole, you will be remembered, not alone in dry unemotive reports I spent the best part of a day reading.
I sometimes begin to feel like Lord Byron and Childe Harold: “God, why did you give these people this land?” Oursler said I had to have a key. Well, tonight, amid this searching of soul — admittedly without intellectual censorship as the good Antonietta would have it — I'm hyper-critical of the Brazilians. They were handed one of God's private reserves. Are they in the process of screwing it up?
How I need a Sintra! How I need some cool, refreshing place where I can breathe “fresh air,” “sanity” and begin to believe! But then, I tell myself, how can you write about Brazil without experiencing all of it? Even the most distressing aspects? And what is better than spending so much time in the North/North-east until you begin to cry inwardly, “Away!”
Madeira Mamore Railbed Brazil Uys
Abandoned railroad in Rondonia, Brazil