Henry Meiggs, railroad tycoon

After he fled San Francisco, Henry Meiggs cruised the Pacific and even stopped at Tahiti before he headed for Chile, known in those days as the California of South America. There he took a job as overseer of a small gang of railroad workers. His reputation preceded his arrival and he was regarded with suspicion, but his business skills and unbounded energy soon made him indispensable and he became the general contractor for the most difficult part of the line between Valparaiso and Santiago and managed to promptly meet all the enormous monetary advances required to complete the job.

Peru’s Verrugas Canyon Bridge by Henry Meiggs

There were reports that Meiggs carried away a half million dollars from California, but he later said that he landed in Chile with only eight thousand two hundred dollars and had become so poor that he’d been forced to pawn his watch. Whatever the truth Meiggs became, in only a few years, one of the greatest railroad builders in the world. He was invited to bid on a rail system for Peru and became the principal contractor. Much of the eight hundred miles of track he built was high in the Andes Mountains in some of the most difficult terrain for any railroad in the world. His contracts with Peru were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, his wealth inexhaustible and his fame spread across all of South America.

Meiggs Tomb

In spite of his fame and fortune in South America Meiggs desperately wanted to return to California. He still had many friends there and through his agents bought back almost all of the outstanding debts and liabilities from which he had fled, though in many cases he paid only a small percentage of what he originally owed. In the winter of 1873-74 the California legislature passed a bill that dismissed any indictment against him and made it illegal to indict him for any offense prior to 1855. The Governor, Newton Booth, vetoed the legislation and it was promptly passed over his head. Meiggs, however, in the end chose to remain in Peru where he died a well-respected man in 1877.

 

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