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What if Baguio settled for a railroad
by Jimmy Laking

What would have happened had the American colonial government settled for a railroad and not the “Benguet Road” (later renamed Kennon Road) as the outside world’s link to the developing City of Baguio?

In his study of Philippine railways, Dr. Augusto V. de Viana of the National Historical Commission considered it odd that the Philippines was one of the rare countries that “had not built a strong, reliable, and modern railway system.”

He added:  “Most countries—rich and poor—take pride in their railway system. The train provides a fast, inexpensive, and comfortable system of transportation. It helps reduce road traffic and contributes to cleaner air. Deve-loped and developing nations have also found the railways to be a great national unifying force and a solvent for class divisions.”

Believe it or not, the railroad almost reached the City of Pines. Some 110 years ago, the City of Baguio that we know today was then a hill station, designed initially as a rest and recreation center for American servicemen and Filipino colonials.

Dean C. Worcester of the Philippine Commission in 1900 likened Baguio then to northern New England and saw the “fitness of the place as a health resort.”  Another American, Dr. Frank S. Bourne, added: “The temperature of both air and water is delightful. At night, the air is decidedly bracing and invigorating. I consider the Benguet region the most healthful in the Philippines and will prove of the highest value in the treatment of diseases.”

The problem was how to link it to Manila in place of ponies used to bring up supplies to the mountains from the lowlands. Interestingly, the Philippine Commission at this time was not only thinking about the transfer of tonnage of goods to and from Baguio but also discussed the potential for “steadily expanding tourist traffic and vegetable trade with each passing decade.”

In 1909, the commission negotiated a railway extension with the Manila Railroad Company to link Dagupan City via Galiano and Aringay in La Union uphill to Benguet. The work started in 1911, but while progress was considered slow “due to rugged terrain, extremely steep grades and labor problems,” it managed to report an accomplishment rate of 80 percent in the establishment of the roadbed. It also reported the near completion of five major tunnels (two of which still
exist along the road to Asin).

The commission said five miles of the line were already functional as all equipment to complete the extension was in the Philippines, while most of the rolling stock was on order abroad.

But on the pretext of nationalizing the railroads in the Philippines, Governor-General Francis B. Harrison stopped work on the extension in 1914 as Robert R. Reed recounted in his book, City of Pines (The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital).

In his inquiries, Worcester was convinced that a railroad was the most feasible system of transportation to the Benguet highlands. Captain W. Mead, then the city engineer of Manila confirmed this in a survey but concluded the best route was along the Bued River.

But in a moment of sudden inspiration, he said the government could postpone the railroad, and instead settle first for a temporary wagon road he estimated at $75,000 only! The commissioners agreed. It was good news.

But as Reed recounted, “little did the commissioners realize the road would take more than four years to finish and that it would cost approximately $ 2,000,000!” The project also cost 500 Japanese lives from among a multi-national workforce of 2,000 assembled for the purpose. It also turned out that the zigzagging course was not part of the original plan but was resorted to in a bid to make up for an error in design.

Maintenance costs kept on soaring and both Americans and enlightened Filipinos howled against the “flagrant waste of public funds” to maintain the road. Consider what an editorial in June 20, 1912 had to say: “The humble people do not set foot on the Benguet Road, only the chosen ones, the bureaucrats with their fabulous salaries and other citizens favored by fortune. In the Benguet Road, the highway of millions, more money has been buried than in the Isthmus of Suez. If those millions lost on Baguio had been expended on public improvements of greater necessity for the people, we would not now be so overwhelmed with trouble.”

But spend the government must, a curse that is carried on to this day, year after agonizing year. In 1909, the Philippine Assembly appropriated P100,000 for Kennon Road’s repair, followed by another P100,000 in 1910. In 1913, the Assembly set aside P50,000 for the road repair followed by two appropriations of P10,000 each in 1914.

It did not stop there, of course, as the colonial government had to spend for the repair of the highway in the succeeding decades well up to Philippine independence. The total amount that the Philippine government had since appropriated almost annually to repair or to maintain the highway must be staggering it defies understanding.  It boggles the mind that a developing country with limited resources can find money to spend for a single highway while it has been unable to stamp out mass poverty in most of the highland region. Is there some method to the madness?

This year alone, the Arroyo administration shelled out P60 million, part of which was to rehabilitate the Baguio side of the Kennon Road. Next year, who knows?  

One architect who had high praises for the highway said the city could not have survived without it. We beg to disagree, considering the drain and pain it has been to public funds. 

As to the railroad, let us end with Dr. de Viana:

“By the mid-1980s, the Manila-La Union line was abandoned. What are left today are the abandoned tracks, bridges, and stations which were taken over by squatters. Access and right of way were taken over by interlopers. The politicians encouraged squatting for votes.

“The country’s railway service is a sorry shadow of its old self. The challenge to government or the private sector is how to restore the railway service which has always been the workhorse of all modern and developing countries of the world.”
Supplement Articles
:: Which Baguio Centennial?
:: Baguio Midland Courier Builder
:: The 4 Fs across
the times
:: Kennon’s own report on the famous zig–zag
:: A look into Baguio’s transport system
:: Baguio: A Citadel of Learning
:: Growing up in early Baguio
:: Early recollections
:: Baguio’ cool climate keeps tourism, economy vibrant
:: Development of Burnham Park is city’ concern
:: Remembering the lessons of the past for the future: The Baguio City Market
:: Look, young man, on this tree city, now
:: The Anatomy of Squatting in Summer Capital
:: Baguio’s Many People
:: Bring Baguio Home
:: The Cordillera Warriors
:: A native–born scans: The Future of Baguio
:: Cement Pours into Baguio
:: A futuristic master plan for Baguio
:: Should BMC start tweeting?
:: Behind the scenes: searching the Midland Archives
:: 62 years of important events in the city
:: My hometown
Baguio City




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