In 1982 Werner Herzog, in what may have been a weirdly fashioned and irresistible death-wish effort, released a film that he wrote and directed: Fitzcarraldo. It is a spill-over big, magnificent film about a would-be ice-making rubber baron bringing an opera house into the trans-Andes, trying to make his way into the dense forest in a huge rear-paddle steamboat on the Amazon to stake a claim in exploiting leased lands filled with rubber trees The problem faced by Fitzcarraldo (played by the probably-insane Klaus Kinski--just see Herzog's 1972 Agiurre, Wrath of God and you'll know what I mean) is that his path is blocked by unnavigable rapids--he can however reach his destination by hauling his very large ship up and over a mountain to get to a more pliant river and then to his goal. Herzog actually does this for the film--no digital anything here--in what is one of the most glorious things I've even seen in the movies. He really does have native people clear a path up and over a mountain, and they DO haul this ship up and over. It really, truly, is magnificent.
The story is partially based upon the adventure of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, who in 1890 attempted a similar feat, though with a much smaller vessel, and who also dismantled the craft (?!) to haul it overland.
The bigger and deeper back-story though is the effort--mainly by Elmer Cotherell and James Eads--to build a combination railroad ship canal across the Tehuantepec isthmus in Nicaragua. The idea of moving across central America rather than taking the enormously long route around the tip of South America and up again is hundreds of years old. The Cotherell/Eads plan, begun in 1870's and alive in the early '80's, was really the first feasible (and workable) initiative.
It would have been a gigantic undertaking, and even though it was much longer (130 miles or so) than the more-favored Panama location for the canal, it seemed more workable as there would be less digging and no need for a lock/canal system as required at Panama.
The French began a doomed attempt at conquering Panama shortly before this. Ferdinand de Lesseps tried to build a canal in 1880, but the organization and general construction plan was truly inferior; also, the sanitary and medical conditions were irreproachable, with the French losing perhaps 22 thousand men in the failed process to disease (mainly malaria). (The United States would lose 5,609 workers while building the Panama canal, on land granted as a payback for "helping" Panama release themselves from Columbia.)
The Cotherell/Eads (who by the way was a master builder perhaps best known for his inspired masterpiece of a bridge at St. Louis) plan called for hauling the ships up and out of the water in a short canal and placing them on an enormous floating roundabout; the roundabout would then be raised, and the ship place on huge cradles borne upon vastly augmented railway lines. Once on the cradle, the ship would be pulled and pushed by a team of four large locomotive teams which were in turn composed of two large engines. Happily aboard, the ship would then be taken on the extended, expanded wide and augmented rail 130 miles overland and dumped into the Pacific.
It was evidently not a workable deal all the way around, though, as the U.S. decided on the new Panama to works its engineering miracle
.There is something pleasing though about the Ship Railway, though, something that appeals to the little bit of Mr. Herzog in me. Perhaps it was the appraisal of the very stiff-lipped Sir Edward Reed--who was the former master engineer for the British navy and consultant to Eads—that makes it all so irresistible. “It would be best to avoid a very high rate of speed” when hauling the massive ocean-going and heavily laden cargo ships. Indeed.