The Pan-American Highway

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Podcast Transcript

At the 1923 Pan-American Conference, a proposal was presented to link together all of the countries of the Western Hemisphere. A single road that would run from the shore of the Arctic Ocean all the way down to Terra Del Fuego in Argentina. 

Several decades later, the countries in question announced the road’s completion, which linked the entire western hemisphere. Sort of….

Learn more about the Pan-American Highway, the world’s longest road, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you want to understand the origin of the Pan-American Highway, all you have to do is look at a map. North and South American run, roughly, north-south. Moreover, the entire region is contiguous and connected by land. 

It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to consider the idea of a route that would connect together all of these countries. 

The idea was first proposed with the advent of the railroad. 

In the 19th century, the United States completed the transcontinental railroad, which connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. It was an incredible undertaking, and it allowed for the rapid transportation of people and goods from one side of the continent to the other. 

In the late 19th century, the dream of a similar railroad that could connect North, Central, and South America began to be discussed openly. 

In 1884 the United States Congress passed a resolution supporting the creation of a Pan-American Railroad, and it was a talking point at the first Pan-American Congress in 1889. 

One of the earliest proponents of such a railroad was the American President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1901, soon after assuming the role of president, he noted:

“We may assume that … the volume of our trade with South America will soon grow to large proportions. These means are: Adequate transportation facilities, such as steamship lines, railroads, and isthmian canal; reciprocal trade relations; participation in the business of banking, and a corps of commercial travelers specially equipped for Latin-America trade. It is not impossible that, following such development, the magnificent conception of an international railroad connecting the United States with the remotest parts of South America may at last be realized.”

The proposed Pan-American railroad was to be part of a larger project which included the Panama Canal, a project that Roosevelt began.

In fact, many of the early proponents of such a railway envisioned it as part of an even larger network that would cross the Bering Strait and travel all the way to Cape Town, South Africa

Over 120 years later, this global rail network has never been built and may never be built. It remains a dream of futurists. 

There were many reasons why the Pan-American Railroad was never built: money, politics, and technology. The creation of the Panama Canal dramatically lessened the need for a railway when ships could do most of the job. 

However, the dream of connecting the continents never quite died. 

The issue reemerged at the 1923 Pan-American Congress but in a different form. By the 1920s, automobiles had increased in popularity and importance, and more commerce was being shipped by truck. 

The idea was proposed to create a road connecting the two continents.  A conference dedicated to planning such a road was convened in October 1925.

It took 12 years before the nations of the Western Hemisphere finally agreed to the creation of such a road. On July 29, 1937, fourteen countries signed the Convention on the Pan-American Highway. The countries were the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. 

This was totally an American-led project. There really weren’t any other countries that spearheaded the project. One of the reasons why so many countries, especially in Central America, went along with it was because the United States would be footing much of the bill. 

There was shockingly little in the way of road development between many of the countries when the treaty was signed. For example, no paved roads connected Costa Rica and Panama as late as 1941. 

It is very difficult to put a date on when, or even if, the Pan-American Highway was completed. Each country was largely responsible for its own section of the road, and the road quality varied dramatically between countries and within countries.  

Because each stretch of road is unique, it will be easiest just to describe the discrete sections of the highway and how it was created. 

We might as well begin at the northernmost point of the highway, at least unofficially, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Here I should note that despite the Pan-American Highway being the idea of the United States, there is no official Pan-American Highway route within the United States. You will not find any official federal signs for the Pan-American Highway anywhere in the country, although you might see some unofficial local signs along the road. 

The road which goes from the town of Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, Alaska, is known as the Dalton Highway. It was not part of the Pan-American Highway’s original plan, and almost nothing is located along the road.

It was built in 1974 to support the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which begins at Prudhoe Bay.  The road is 414 miles or 666 kilometers long, and not all of the road is paved.

Once you get to Fairbanks, you reach the next segment of the road, the Alaska Highway, which, oddly enough, is mostly in Canada. 

The United States built the Alaska Highway with the Canadian government’s support during World War II to connect Alaska to the continental United States. The concern was that if the Japanese were to invade Alaska, they could blockade sea routes. By building the highway, it would be possible to relieve and supply Alaska without requiring sea access. 

The Alaska Highway goes from Fairbanks to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and it is 2,232 kilometers or 1,387 miles long. 

The highway was completed in 1942, but civilian use was restricted until 1948. 

Once you get to Dawson Creek, there really is no official route for the Pan-American Highway. You can take multiple paths to get to the point where it officially begins in Mexico. 

The United States designated the entire interstate highway system to be part of the Pan-American Highway in 1966. 

That being said, there are a couple of routes that are considered de facto routes that will get you from Dawson Creek to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

From Dawson Creek, the de facto route is usually along highway 43 to Edmonton, Alberta, which is 587 kilometers or 364 miles.

From here, there are two routes most people take. One goes east through Winnipeg to Minneapolis, and from there, you take Interstate 35 south to Dallas and then on to Laredo, Texas. 

The western route goes to Calgary and then south to Billings, Denver, and Albuquerque before heading across West Texas to Laredo. 

Crossing into Mexico, you finally get on the official, singular Pan-American Highway route. 

The stretch from the American border to the bottom of Panama is known as the Inter-American Highway.  The Mexican segment was actually one of the first segments, which was completed in 1950.  It connects Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Mexico City and then ends near the Guatemalan town of Malacatán. 

The Central American component was originally built by the United States in World War II for the same reasons that the Alaskan Highway was built. The United States wanted a land route to the Panama Canal in case it would be attacked by sea.

The highway stays along the Pacific coast side of Central America, passing through southern Guatemala, El Salvador, a small part of southern Honduras, and western Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. 

The distance from Nuevo Laredo to Panama City is 4,191 kilometers or 2,604 miles.

From there, it goes a short distance to the town of Yaviza, Panama. 

In South America, the road begins in Turbo, Colombia, and heads south. It goes 6,680 kilometers, mostly hugging the Pacific coast and going through Cali, Colombia, Quito, Ecuador, Lima, Peru, and the Atacama Desert to Valparaiso, Chile. 

From here, the road takes a 90-degree turn and heads east across and under the Andes mountains to Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Here the Pan-American Highway officially ends. However, just as with the segment in Alaska, it unofficially extends further south. 

You can travel another 3,079 kilometers or 1913 miles to the world’s southernmost town, Ushuaia, Argentina. You have to take a ferry to get to Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego when you have to cut back briefly into Chile. 

The total distance, depending on the route you take, is approximately 30,000 kilometers or 19,000 miles from Deadhorse to Ushuaia. If you were to drive, you could probably do it in under a month if you didn’t stop to see anything. The record time is ten days, 19 hours. 

Now, if you are familiar with this road or paid close attention to what I was saying, you might have noticed a gap in my description of the road. That is because there is a gap in the road. It isn’t big, but it is there. 

It is known as the Darian Gap, and it is in southern Panama and Northwest Colombia.  The Darian Gap is only 106 kilometers or 66 miles, which is pretty small considering the total distance of the highway.

If you want to get around the Darian Gap, your only real choice is to go by sea, and the highway on either end doesn’t end at a port.

The problem with the Darian Gap is that the land on either side of the border is mostly swamps and marshes. Any construction through this region would be extremely difficult and expensive. 

That being said, the Gap has been crossed, mostly on foot, but in 1986 it was crossed by car. However, it took 741 days, or over two years, to travel just 200 kilometers or 124 miles. That means they averaged only .16 miles per day or less than the distance of one lap around a running track.

The fact that there is no road doesn’t mean that plans haven’t been made. In the 1970s, the United States funded planning by the government of Panama to close the gap, but it was eventually halted due to environmental concerns. 

The local Embera-Wounaan people, who are semi-nomadic, have also objected to the creation of a road in the region as it would destroy the lands they use for food.

Perhaps the biggest reason, however, why the Darian Gap hasn’t been closed is probably due to foot and mouth disease.  Foot and mouth disease is a highly infectious disease that affects cattle. The Darian gap has been the effectual barrier to the disease, which occurs in South America, but hasn’t been seen in North or Central America in almost 70 years. 

Currently, there are no serious plans for bridging the gap, and the only solution which might be implemented would be a regular ferry service between Panama and Colombia. 

One other segment of the highway was proposed but never built. The West Indies or Cuban section.

The original plan was to have the highway split in Mexico and have one branch head up to the Yucatan Peninsula. From there, ferry service would connect the 128 miles from Mexico to Cuba, and then Cuba would be connected to Key West, Florida, by ferry, closing the loop. 

The Cuban government, at the time the highway was proposed, was really behind this idea, and they were probably the biggest supporters of the project behind the United States. However, the plan was abandoned after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and has never been revived.

While the Pan-American Highway has been dubbed the world’s longest road, it is entirely possible that an even longer road could be built connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. Most of it already exists in bits and pieces, and such a road would really be more an issue of politics than engineering. 

The Pan-American Highway probably never really achieved its potential. Container shipping by sea has become incredibly cheap, mostly eliminating the need to transport goods by land, especially over such long distances. Politics and border crossings also make long-distance land transportation difficult, and of course, there is the Darian Gap. 

Nonetheless, the Pan-American Highway is an impressive project, and it is a testament to engineering but also to intergovernmental cooperation.

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Rmsrambo, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes:

Can’t get enough

From the first episode I listened to (Everything is Made of Atoms), I was hooked. I love the spectrum of topics and quick, concise information. I’ve already gotten three other people hooked and will continue to spread the good word. I can’t wait until I catch up, so I can re-listen to my favorites. I would love to know more about the purchase of Manhattan and early NYC. Keep up your endlessly intriguing work! Thank you!

Thanks, Rmsrambo!  I don’t know if you have gone back through the previous episodes, but I actually did an episode on the history of New York City where I touched on those topics. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.