Henry was born on July 7, 1811, in Catskill, New York to Elisha (#270) and Fanny (Williams) Meiggs, their second son in a family of nine. Elisha and his brother Gilbert (#275) are the first known Meigs to spell the name with an additional "g." No record of why the change was made remains.
In the mid- to late nineteenth century, Latin American leaders saw the geographic isolation of their countries as a major obstacle to trade and modernization. Many came to regard the building of railroads as the key to national progress, but they also recognized that financing and construction, as well as relations with labor and consumers, were among the concerns that had to be addressed. It was especially clear that Latin American railroads could not be built without importing foreign technology and capital.
The region’s leaders often courted American and European industrialists, like Henry Meiggs and his nephew, Minor Cooper Keith, to develop their nations’ railroad systems.
From J. Fred Rippy, Henry Meiggs, Yankee Railroad Builder. (1944)
Henry Meiggs was perhaps the most remarkable railroad builder who ever appeared on the Latin-American scene. Landing in Chile early in 1855, a stranger and "like a thief in the night," he obtained his first railway contract three years later, and by the end of 1867 had managed the construction of nearly 200 miles, a good part of it across the Chilean coastal range. In 1868 he went to Peru, where the railway era was at its dawn, with less than 60 miles in operation. At his death in Lima on September 30, 1877, Peru had approximately 1,200 miles of track, more than 700 miles of which had been built under Meiggs’ direction. . . .
Meiggs knew how to win Latin-American sympathies. He was a great dramatist and a great orator. His banquets, celebrations, and charities were long remembered both in Chile and Peru. A Chilean declared that he was a true philanthropist. He distributed thousands of pesos and soles among the poor and the victims of earthquakes. He spent tens of thousands on ceremonies and entertainments, chiefly in connection with his railways.
Work was begun on the Valparaiso-Santiago Railway with a gorgeous fiesta; interrupted to dedicate a monument created by Meiggs himself to the memory of a Chilean Revolutionary hero; concluded with magnificent ceremonies that extended from one end of the line to the other. Trains received the blessings of the higher clergy; Chileans drank toasts to Don Enrique Meiggs the Great Builder; Meiggs compared the Chilean officials of the day with the intrepid founders of the nation, paid glowing tribute to his railway experts, and praised the Chilean roto to the skies. For five years thereafter he was a social lion in Chile. . . .
Meiggs’ spectacular career is not free from the stain of dishonesty and corruption. Having over-speculated in California real estate, he sold forged warrants and issued unauthorized stock in an effort to save himself and his friends. When his crime was about to be discovered he fled to Chile to avoid prosecution — perhaps even execution — by irate citizens determined to take "justice" into their hands. Although his record in Chile is untainted and it is said that he later made amends for his financial sins in California, he has been accused of resorting to large-scale bribery in Peru. He is also charged with major responsibility for bankrupting the nation.
The millions spent on his railways and others of the period did bring Peru at least to the very brink of bankruptcy; and the unsuccessful war with Chile that followed in 1879—1883 sent the country over the precipice. In 1890 the Peruvian Corporation, an English enterprise organized to bail out European bondholders and salvage the wreck of Peruvian finances, took over most of the railways of the nation. And the Peruvian railways are still dominated by this English corporation. In the midst of their calamities it was natural for the Peruvians to search for a scapegoat, and some of them found one in Henry Meiggs.
Meiggs probably bribed several politicians. Bribery seems to have been the custom in those days, not only in Peru but in a number of other countries. It is likely that Meiggs had to buy some of the Peruvians in order to obtain permission to build the railways. And the drive for bribes, along with the Meiggs pageantry, no doubt contributed to the railway boom. But other factors were involved. The earning capacity of railroads and their power to stimulate economic development were vastly overestimated — perhaps honestly so by many — and enthusiasm for the new means of transportation was already tremendous among the members of the ruling class before Meiggs reached Lima. . . .
The conclusion seems clear. Peruvian leaders must share much of the blame for the nation’s calamities. At times Henry Meiggs was a scoundrel; but he had his good traits and he built some remarkable railways. Few have ever accused him of shoddy workmanship or the use of any but the best of materials. His iron roads may not last as long as the Inca palaces; but they are sure to endure for many years.
A Side Note on Henry Meiggs by Rick Meigs
Henry Meiggs always hoped and planned in his later years to return to the United States. In preparation for his return, he repaid most of his San Francisco debts. Even the laundress was sought out by his agents, who was instructed not only to pay the long standing laundry bill, but to add enough gold to place the woman beyond want. The only debts he refused to honor were notes purchased at deep discounts by speculators. If the notes were sold back to the original owners, he would pay them off, otherwise he would not. In 1873, Meiggs also managed to get a law passed by the California legislature, vetoed by the governor, making it illegal for a grand jury to indict him for offenses committed before 1855. But alas, he never did return and much of Henry's fortune was lost in the years following the murder of President Balta of Peru in 1872 and the serious undermining of the financial stability of Peru this caused. This resulted in the inability of the government to complete its payments to Meiggs.
On July 19, 1977, the following item appeared in the New York Times:
"San Francisco, July 18 -- One hundred years after his death in South America, Henry "Honest Harry" Meiggs has been exonerated of stealing nearly half a million dollars from this city in the crash of 1854...Henry Meiggs has gone before "a higher court than here on this earth," said Judge Harry W. Low as he granted the motion to quash an indictment for theft of public funds issued after Mr. Meiggs fled.... Since [his death] supporters [of Meiggs] have sought to clear his name four times. Today, despite last-minute objection by Hal Cruzon, an amateur historian, Judge Low ruled that the testimony of Gustavo Gutierrex, Vice Counsel of Peru, and Quentin Kopp, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said that Mr. Meiggs had rehabilitated himself and therefore should be cleared." (New York Times, July 19, 1977, page 16, col. 2)
There is also some interesting biographical information about Henry posted at www.mrc.com/history_project/biographies/meiggs.htm.
Copyright (c) by Rick Meigs