Henry Meiggs (1811-1877), an American pioneer railroad builder in Chile and Peru, was a characteristic example of the "robber baron" type of entrepreneur.
Henry Meiggs was born in Catskill, N.Y., on July 7, 1811. He was drawn to California by the gold rush of 1849 but, like many others who made fortunes from this experience, did not himself look for gold. He went into the business of providing transport for the gold miners and quickly succeeded in accumulating a fortune which he lost even more quickly than he had acquired it. In 1855 he fled from California one step ahead of his angry creditors.
Meiggs next turned up in Chile. A man of great organizational and entrepreneurial talents, as well as having a profound lack of scruples, he was soon active in planning and executing projects for building bridges and establishing the first extensive railroad lines in his new homeland. He worked very closely with the governments of the time and earned a new fortune from these activities. His crowning achievement in Chile was the completion in 1863 of the railroad linking the capital city of Santiago with its port on the Pacific Ocean, Valparaiso.
In 1868 Meiggs moved to Peru. The country was in the grip of a railroad-building fever, and President José Balta was extremely interested both in having railroads constructed and in accumulating a fortune out of the process for himself. Meiggs entered into a "partnership" with the willing president.
Meiggs contructed two railroads. The first connected the southern port of Mollendo with Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, and extended to the town of Puno on Lake Titicaca and from there to Juliaca. This line ultimately was completed to the city of Cuzco, the old Inca capital of Peru. The second was a line from Callao, the port of Lima, to what was then the silver-mining region of Huancayo, high in the Andes Mountains. This line was subsequently of major importance in opening up the exploitation of copper and base metals in the mountainous region.
Meiggs's railroad-building activity in Peru was one of the major factors in bringing about the settlement of sizable numbers of Chinese immigrants in the country. When he found it hard to recruit Peruvian laborers for his railway construction gangs, he brought in Chileans and Chinese coolies. Many of the latter settled in the Lima-Callao region once the railroad jobs were completed, and to this day their descendants make up an appreciable part of the population of that area.
While Meiggs was busy in Peru, he was approached by President Tomás Guardia of Costa Rica, who proposed construction of a railroad from the Caribbean port of Limón to the national capital, San José, in the Central Plateau. Although Meiggs received a contract for the construction of this road, the enterprise was actually carried out by one of his nephews, Minor Cooper Keith, and it was completed 14 years after Meiggs's death.
In spite of the highly favorable terms which the Chilean, Peruvian, and Costa Rican governments had signed with Meiggs, his fortune had largely disappeared by the time of his death in Lima on Sept. 29, 1877. This was due to the murder of President Balta in 1872 and the serious undermining of the financial stability of Peru in the middle 1870s, resulting in the unwillingness and inability of the Peruvian government to complete its payments to the American plunger and railroad man.
Further Reading on Henry Meiggs
A full-length study of Meiggs is Watt Stewart, Henry Meiggs: Yankee Pizarro (1946). There are brief discussions of him in Charles R. Flint, Memories of an Active Life (1923), and Isaac Wistar, Autobiography (1937).
Additional Biography Sources
Myers, Elisabeth P., South America's Yankee genius, Henry Meigg, New York, Messner 1969.