Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Mexico Got Its Own Eiffel

The story starts in the 18th century: the King of Spain, anxious to convert the natives of New Spain (Mexico) to Catholicism, sent soldiers to guard the priests.  One of these soldiers was sent to a remote location in  Baja California Sur, where he elected to stay after the end of his military service and start a ranch.  A century and a half later, one of his descendants, José Rosas Villavicencio, discovered blue-green spheres of copper—technically called boleos—simply lying on top of the ground.

Gathering up a few of the boleos, he arranged to have them shipped across the Sea of Cortez to Guaymas, where the ore was analyzed and found to be high grade copper—so high, in fact, that the ore required no processing before smelting.   For the meager sum of 16 pesos, José disclosed the location of the copper ore.

For a few years, there was just a little general prospecting (nothing too elaborate), and, then, Porfirio Díaz became President of Mexico.  It is a strange irony that a man who came to prominence fighting against the French invaders, eventually decided to be French.  He dressed in French fashions, ate French food, learned the French language and tried as much as possible to rebuild Mexico in the French model.  And when the people had had enough of this brutal tyrant, he ran away from Mexico and lived the remainder of his life in Paris.

Díaz encouraged foreign development of Mexico and believed that the fastest way for Mexico to develop was for it to lose its "Mexican culture" and to adopt European ideals.  Since all mineral rights in Mexico belong to the government—not the owner of the land—in 1885, Díaz sold the copper mining rights for 70 years to a French mining company that was part of the House of Rothschild.

The Boleo Mining Company descended on this isolated area and started building...BIG:  roads, ranches, farms, water lines, a harbor, and housing for the miners.  They literally built the town of Santa Rosalia, building everything miners needed to work—but not much else.  One of the things considered unnecessary was a church—which is ironic if we consider why the Europeans first came to the area!

Meanwhile, back in France, Alexander Gustave Eiffel—yes, that Eiffel—began a company, Le Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel, that was experimenting with new methods of construction.  Using puddled iron (commonly called "wrought iron"), a small number of standardized structural pieces could be created and used in multiple construction projects.  After a lengthy discussion with the French Governor of Cochin-China (a French colony known today as Viet Nam), Eiffel saw the need for prefabricated bridges and buildings.

Eiffel designed these prefabricated pieces to be small enough to be easily transported to even the most remote locations.  A limited number of types of versatile small pieces meant that each piece could be produced quickly and used in multiple projects.

From his factory just four miles from the center of Paris, Eiffel could build the necessary structures, but instead of joining the pieces together with iron rivets, Eiffel used large nuts and bolts.  This would eliminate the need for skilled labor at the construction site.  Then the structure would be carefully dismantled, shipped to the desired location, and reassembled.  Sort of an Erector set (Meccano to you Europeans)—for big boys.

The concept worked, and was used all over the world.  The Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City, a church for an earthquake area of Chile, a bridge over the Nile River, and even the interior frame for the Statue of Liberty—all were prefabricated in France, disassembled and shipped to the construction site.  Eiffel did this with dozens of structures all over the world.

Which brings us to the Eiffel Tower.  (Trust me, we will be back in Mexico right after we go to Panama.  And Egypt.  And Brussels.)

In 1889, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world's fair.  The event planners wanted something big, something dramatic to serve as the entrance to the fair.  And they wanted something that could be easily demolished when the affair was over Eiffel's company suggested an iron tower with three levels, that was bolted together to facilitate its eventual removal.

Though somewhat dubious about the project, the fair officials gave him the job of erecting a 986 foot tower in just a little over two years.  Once constructed, it would charge admission for 20 years to recoup the cost of construction, and then be removed.  You wouldn't believe the loud opposition to the "monstrosity" by the artistic set of Paris.  The French writer, Guy de Maupassant, supposedly ate lunch in the tower's restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.

Ignoring his critics, Eiffel built the tower in just 26 months.  (And while he was building it, he created a small, secret, private apartment on the top floor—just for himself.  It is still there, but that is another story.)  When the fair started, Eiffel exhibited, besides the tower, several of his other creations.  One of these was a pre-fabricated metal church that could be easily shipped to remote locations in Africa, and be reassembled without difficulty.  Since the entire building was made of galvanized iron, it would be hardy enough to withstand the fiercest tropical weather.

Unfortunately for Eiffel, shortly after the fair closed, his reputation was damaged by his involvement in the French effort to build the Panama Canal.  Immensely popular after successfully constructing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps wanted to build a canal across Central America.  Unfortunately, building a sea-level canal in the desert sand was much easier than building a canal through the disease-infested jungles of the tropics.

When the de Lesseps' company, The Panama Canal Company, declared bankruptcy, it sent a financial shockwave through Europe.  Even though Eiffel's company had only accepted the contract to build the future locks for the canal, Eiffel was charged with financial fraud, assessed a large fine, and sentenced to two years in jail.  Even though the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, Eiffel resigned from his company, in which he had been forced to make drastic cutbacks because of financial losses.

While most of Paris slowly fell in love with the tower, Eiffel himself devoted the rest of this life to conducting experiments in meteorology and aeronautics.  Working from that secret apartment 900 feet above the ground, some of the data he accumulated was later used by the Wright brothers in designing their Wright Flyer.

Although the prefabricated church had won a prize at the exposition, it never made it to a French colony in Africa.  Instead, it was disassembled, packed in crates, and stored in a Brussels warehouse, where it remained forgotten for years until a French official of the Boleo Mining Company learned of its existence, purchased it cheaply, and had it shipped to Santa Rosalia.

The Eiffel church was reassembled and named 'Iglesia de Santa Barbara'.  The seventy-year lease for the French expired in the early 1950's and since that time, Mexico has sold the lease to a South Korean Company.  The enormous open pit mine is still there, and though it is no longer a tiny village, so is Santa Rosalia, located south of La Paz, on the southern end of the Baja peninsula.

The area experiences frequent violent storms, but Eiffel's design has proved to be remarkably sturdy and efficient.  After more than a century, the galvanized iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel is still in use.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently, nobody expects the French Mechanical Genius!