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Kennon’s own report on the famous zig–zag
by Lyman Kennon

“Sir, I have the honor to submit the following report on the construction of the Benguet road from its inception in 1900 to its completion in 1905.”

With these cryptic and unromantic words, Maj. L. W. V. Kennon, 10th infantry, U.S. Army and officer in charge, started his report on the construction of the famous “Zigzag” road which today bears his name.

Written 52 years ago yesterday, on Aug. 31, 1905, the narrative that follows his letter to the Secretary of Commerce and Police is a romantic saga of how American officers and Filipino workmen collaborated to carve a road out of a wilderness of mountain slopes, river canyons, and forests. This account of how Kennon and his crew conquered nature’s elements against what seemed like insurmountable odds constitutes one of the best adventure stories ever to come out of the history of Baguio.

In the opinion of the editors of the Baguio Midland Courier, who are printing it for its readers, this true story of the building of Kennon Road, compares favorably with the best of fiction stories and is a priceless historical document. The report follows:

There are hotter places than the lowlands of the Philippines—hotter places than Manila—but there is none where there is such a never ending, boundless continuity of heat, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, throughout the whole cycle of the year—none which insidiously saps the vitality and relaxes the spirits of energy native to men from colder climates.

Our troops suffered from the effects of it, and search was made for some cool spot in the islands where convalescing invalids could regain strength and vigor. The War Department directed that regiments after two or three years of service should be returned to America. Staff officers were not to serve more than two years in this enervating climate. Convalescing invalids were sent to Corregidor, to China, to Japan, and to America to regain health and strength. Many who could not afford such a change became chronic invalids or died.

These were new conditions brought about by American occupation. Our Spanish predecessors suffered in like manner and sought some place in the Philippine Islands where an invigorating climate and relief from the endless, tropical heat of the lowlands might be found. After three centuries of occupation and observation they fixed upon Baguio, in the province of Benguet, as the one place most nearly filling all the required conditions. Situated 5,000 feet above sea level, on the southwestern corner of the mountain system of northern Luzon, its rolling, turf-covered hills, studded thick with fragrant pines, swept by all the breezes that blow either from the north or the south or the east and west, with a low mean annual temperature and an occasional touch of frost, Baguio seemed indeed an ideal haven of refuge from the torrid plains in which the principal towns and business centers of the islands are located.

The plateau enjoying all these advantages was, however, most difficult to access. The first explorers reached it only by following the steep, slippery, dangerous, and obscure trails of the native Igorrote. To make the highlands of Benguet accessible to the white man, the Spaniards, towards the end of the last century, built a horse trail from Naguilian to Trinidad and Baguio and planned an extensive sanitarium and other buildings in Baguio. Insurrection and war prevented the carrying out of the project.

Soon after the American occupation the manifest need of some such institution was recognized and the Government decided to carry on into effect as soon as practical the plans of its predecessors. Baguio could practically be reached only from San Fernando and Naguilian, necessitating a sea trip of twenty-four hours from Manila and two or three days of horseback travel over a steep trail built by the Spaniards in 1892. In the stormy season, steamers were frequently a week in going from Manila to San Fernando. Evidently, such a trip was quite impossible for invalids and convalescents.

The survey was made under the direction of Capt. O.W. Mead, 36th U.S. volunteer Infantry, who reported also that a wagon road could quickly be.

Although the work had been carried under great difficulties and with many disappointing setbacks, it has not progressed with a speed satisfactory to the Commission, which was desirous of completing the road as soon as possible. In a meeting on June 1, 1903, a resolution was adopted declaring it to be the policy of the Commission to make Baguio the summer capital of the archipelago, to erect suitable buildings at that place, and to construct a wagon road from Naguilian to Baguio.

The Commission also stated that it was the intention to place Maj. L. W. V. Kennon, 10th Infantry, in charge of the improvements in Benguet Province, including the construction of the Benguet road. The same resolution provided that the bed of the Benguet road should be so constructed as to be available for the use of a railroad. Another, of July 2, 1903, directed the laying out of the grounds in the town of Baguio, placing this work also under the direction of Major Kennon.

Improvements in Benguet Province were at once organized, three separate enterprises, viz, the survey and construction of the Naguilian road, the survey and improvement of Baguio, and the Benguet road. Mr. E. L. Heath was appointed chief engineer of the Naguilian survey and Mr. George H. Hayward of the Baguio improvements. Mr. Holmes was retained as chief engineer of the Benguet road. Work on the latter far transcended the others in immediate importance, and after starting the work on them, the officer in charge established his headquarters at Twin Peaks and assumed the personal direction of work on the Benguet road in the middle of August 1903.

From the terms of the resolution above referred to, it will be seen that the officer in charge had new conditions and new problems to meet. The road constructed up to this time had been for ordinary wheel transportation only, and was practicable for carts as far as Twin Peaks. Indeed, after entering the canyon, the road was a cart road rather than a wagon road. It had many steep adverse grades and turns too sharp for heavily loaded wagons, drawn by more than a pair of animals. It was in no way fitted for use as the bed of a railway.

On a brief visit to the road in July it was found that no surveys existed which could be utilized in making estimates for the construction of the road under the newly improved conditions, and immediate surveys were ordered for that purpose. The orders anticipated the resolution of the Commission of Dec. 23, 1903, directing the officer in charge to make the surveys, plans, and specifications for an electric railroad bed with a width of 14 feet.

The Commission expressed the desire to have the work completed as soon as possible, and earnest effort was at once made to increase the force of the laborers. In June 1903, the number of men on the road was 173. This number was increased rapidly until it reached about 4,000 which was considered the maximum number and could be worked to advantage at any one time without too greatly increasing the difficulties and cost of transportation of supplies. The work was so placed as to enable the camps to be moving forward an echelon, keeping the most remote camps at a distance of not more than 4 miles from a depot or from wheel transportation.

In the first distribution of force, camps were organized at Twin Peaks, Camps 3, 4, and two intermediate points called 2 ½ and sub-3. At Camp 4 was a cliff 900 feet in length, on which a great amount of necessarily slow work had to be done. A considerable force was put to work on this cliff in order to prevent a blocking of the road when construction should reach that point.

The main force was concentrated between Twin Peaks and Camp 3 and by Feb. 1, 1904, the latter camp was accessible by carts, thus lessening materially the burden of transporting supplies. The greater part of the force was then moved forward and camps established between 3 and 4. These movements of the working force were made successively. A camping place was selected in advance, and a detachment was sent forward to build the necessary quarters, storehouses, etc. The road work at the old camp completed, the new one was occupied, the men carrying tools and rations on their backs. In this way, the removal was accomplished with the least loss of time.

Camp 4 lies 3.3 miles beyond Camp 3. In January 1904, not a pick had been struck into the ground between these two points. By April 1, the road was open and in use for cart transportation to Camp 4. It required the work of a small party a couple of months more to put the road in shape for wagons.

In anticipation of the opening of the road as far as Camp 4 by April 1904, and in order to make it available for use by the Commission in going to Baguio, a survey was made in January of that year of an existing Igorrote trail over Kias Hill. It was found that a horse trail could be built on this line with a maximum gradient of 15 per cent, and an estimated cost of $3,000. In order not to reduce the force on the Benguet road, the officer in charge requested that the appropriation for this trail be expended by the provincial authorities of Benguet. The line up Kias Hill was staked out by Benguet road engineers and the trail built for a trifle less than the estimated cost, under the supervision of Gov. William F. Pack, who on March 31, 1904, was the first person to ride over the trail and road from Baguio to Twin Peaks.

This trail has been almost in constant use since that date, and will continue to be useful for miners and others living in the vicinity.

Beyond Camp 4 lay some of the heaviest and most difficult work on the road. The distance from this camp to Baguio was 10.6 miles by Sept. 1, 1904, there were about 3,500 men at work between Camp 4 and Camp Colgan, distributed in five camps over a distance of 4.3 miles.

In November 1904, Camp McElroy was established near the Baguio end of the line, to work downwards and in January 1905, all available men were put on the grade between Camp Colgan and Camp McElroy, in provisional camps established under Foreman Dowd, Cook, Reid, and Boyd.

A wager had been made that the road would be passable for vehicles by the end of January. The foremen and the working force generally took a keen interest in the outcome of this wager, and worked enthusiastically to win it. They were so successful that on Jan. 29, 1905, the officer in charge drove from Camp 4 into Baguio in a calesa. At that time it was by no means a finished roadway, but required much work in casting grades, removing earth and rock from above, and in providing proper drainage. The amount of work which has been accomplished was enormous, and included the construction of a new roadway from a point one mile below Twin Peaks to Baguio, a distance of 18.1 miles; the making of a rock cut between bridges 39 and 40, between Camp 1 and Twin Peaks; the
maintenance and repair of the old road, its rebuilding in places, and the metaling of several miles of the lower road with crushed stone.

This work had been done between the dates of Aug. 16, 1903 and Jan. 29, 1905—that is to say, in seventeen and one half-months. At the former date, the most optimistic prediction allowed three years for the opening of the road, “if it could be done at all.” Others said it would take 20 years of work, some of the foremen on the road considered that they had “a life job.”

The road as it stands is entirely completed and ready for the laying of track from a mile below Twin Peaks to beyond Camp 3. The work is of a permanent character. The bridges and culverts except two at Twin Peaks, are of masonry and concrete. The curves and grades are practicable for an electric railway. Ample drainage is provided for the heaviest fall of storm water.

From above Camp 3 to Camp 4 road is laid out generally to pre-grading, strengthening, and construction of permanent bridges and culverts. In one or two places it may be found advisable to cross the river to secure better alignment, where the river makes sharp turns. This, of course, would require the construction of more bridges. The existing road is suitable for wagon transportation.

From Camp Reid to Baguio the road is laid out generally to prepare it for immediate track laying. It will need permanent bridges and culverts, and some modifications in grade and alignment on the zigzag between Camp Colgan and McElroy. The zigzag is on a solid basis and a secure foundation, the location having been so selected as to put it, as a rule, on solid rock.

Being a new road in mountainous country, the cost of maintenance for two years will be relatively high, on account of land slides, which will diminish in number and volume after the first rainy season, and which will have to be removed from the roadbed.

** Published on September 1, 1957

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