(updated 4 Nov. 2004)


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Going up to Maymyo (only ten years ago a hornet's nest of dacoits, but now a thriving village, half European and half Burmese, soon to be the headquarters of the army of British Burma) we crisscrossed up the precipice on the east side of the Irrawady at a grade of one foot in twenty-five. In some places it was too steep for curves; switchback reversing stations came every other mile. First we climbed a mile forward, then we switched and climbed another backward -- and so slowly upward. But the scenery was marvelous. Tumbled masses of purple teak-covered hills rolled away to the horizon, and the valleys were rocky canyons often a half mile deep, with icy streams at the bottom from slim white cataracts that poured down the canyon walls. At one point the train crawled along the face of the rock with a sheer drop away of fifteen hundred feet from the outside of the shelf. All the way up to the plain in the Shan Hills where Maymyo lies, these spurs of the Himalayas outdid the Sierras in picturesqueness. On the plain itself, and indeed throughout the Shan States, though it has belonged to the Indian Empire for only fifteen years, the country has already been reduced to systematic order; the former soldiers of Thibaw, the last of the Burmese kings, are now building better roads than those that are to be found in New England, and the reformed dacoit, as he cultivates his rice field and patches up his irrigation ditches, can see the steam road roller lumbering through jungle that he shared not long ago with elephants and tigers. The whole province, about as large as France, is the most prosperous in India.
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Presently we arrived at the Gorge, with its stupendous natural bridge under which the Chungzoune runs, and were met by the Chief Engineer, Mr. Deuchars, who formed the plan of taking advantage of this formation and running the viaduct on its crest. By building across the natural bridge a viaduct three hundred and twenty feet high, it was possible for the railway to reach a natural shelf on the face of the cliff, up which it could climb on a steep grade to the top of the plateau some miles away, there to turn sharply to the northeast for the Kunlon Ferry.

Already the concrete piers for the trestle work had been built, and stretched in two apparently curving lines across the valley. Everything, in short, was ready, nothing remaining but to secure workmen, ship our material up from Rangoon, where it was arriving from New York by the American-Indian line, and begin operations.

This American invasion of Thibaw was signalized by a downpour of rain, tropic rain, that for steadiness and volume was phenomenal, the streams became torrents, the swamps became lakes, all work was stopped, the Mandalay-Kunlon [railroad] was washed away in thirteen places, and all of Upper Burma sat down and waited for it to stop. In one place, as the road washed out, one of the new Baldwin locomotives, sent down the line in a brief lull, sank into the water-soaked embankment, and to the disgust of a Burmese farmer, slid into the adjoining rice field. To add to the confusion of the railway officials, who were waiting for the rain to stop to attack the thirteen washouts, our first shipload of tools, material and erecting plant, which they had contracted to deliver to us at the Gorge, arrived at Rangoon, while the last twelve miles of track were unfinished.

Any great engineering project carried on ten thousand miles from home is bound to be full of difficulties, since all kinds of unforeseen accidents are likely to occur.  At Gokteik we had no sooner emerged from the rains than we were confronted with the problem of handling, sorting and storing material at the starting point of the viaduct in a cramped, inconvenient spot on the steep slope of a hill. In America a few carloads of material can be shipped as they are needed, but out there a second steamer load, comprising a full third of our material, was upon us before the first load had been properly stored and just as we were establishing our plant and beginning actual work in the field. The storage yard at the bridge head became a scene of mad activity. As the material came in from Mandalay, our big steam derricks whipped it out of the little, metre-gauge freight cars, and swung it over to the smaller derricks for final disposition, and coolies swarmed about with smaller pieces. The work went on with such speed that the native engine drivers and train hands could not shift empties in time to keep clear of the rush. So when too many of them accumulated, we picked them up with the fifteen-ton steam derrick, and set them down on the bank, where the drivers of the switching locomotives would discover them, fifty feet below the level of the track, piled up like empty dry goods boxes.

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The method of erection is plainly shown in the photographs. The great traveler was first constructed directly upon the railway track on the embankment at the south end of the bridge, then, as soon as it was in working shape, the material for the first tower was passed out through it in proper order, lowered and bolted into position, in readiness for the native rivetters, then as soon as the tower had been pretty well riveted, the big girders for the intervening space between the newly constructed tower and the abutment on the bank were swung out; the longitudinal stringers and the cross floor beams followed; ties and rails were laid for the trains with material, and tracks were laid upon the girders for the traveler to run on. When everything had been completed, tackles were made fast to the traveler and to the forward end of the girders, lines were carried to the winding engine and the big 100-ton machine moved slowly forward to the edge of the newly finished structure; there it was bolted down in readiness for the next tower. To see it move ahead like a colossal drawbridge hundreds of feet in the air until the overhanging beams seemed on the point of toppling the whole mass over into the gorge was a sight that the natives could never look on with equanimity.

In all this work with the traveler the American workmen proved so efficient as compared with the natives that, roughly speaking, one American must be taken to equal at least four natives. Divided into castes and subdivided into trades, the natives were able to do but one kind of work; though in an American rivet gang there are but three men, all capable of doing any part of the work, the Indian natives are obliged to have in their gangs a hammer man, a snapman, a dolly holder, a man to heat the rivets, and one to pump the bellows. The bellows men may not heat the rivets, the rivet heater may not swing a hammer, the hammer man may not hold a dolly bar, and when the gang are obliged to move they have to wait for the khallassies, or riggers, to rig their stagings. When the painting began on the viaduct, we found the painters, too, quite useless without the khallassies. Good workers at their trades they were, however, all of them, the rivetters from Oudh and the Punjab, used to bridge work, and the khallassies, sailors mostly from coasting vessels or P. & O. steamers.

Usually, on Indian bridge-work, the British engineers put a thousand or two thousand of these natives under one or two Europeans, for they are docile as sheep, and have the same respect for their European overseers that sheep have for a collie; but we introduced the innovation of having white men work. On the traveler, on the material as it went up, on the topmost points of the rising towers to connect the new pieces as the crane swung them up, the Americans and a few British and German sailors we had picked up, with one North Carolina negro who spoke Hindustani, worked hard, to the measureless surprise and admiration of the coolies, so that as soon as the construction of the viaduct got well under way, operations went on with tremendous rapidity, some of the two hundred foot towers, much like New York skyscrapers, going up in three or four days. When one thinks of the slow progress of an office building, rising gradually week by week, the speed of these Steelton workmen with their train of coolies may be comprehended. One whole month, however, was spent on the great double, three hundred and twenty foot tower directly on the natural bridge at the lowest point of its hollowed back. From 7 to 12 and from 1:45 to 6 the men worked. Over the traveler was spread an awning for protection from the sun, but as much of the work was done in the open, the men, dressed as thinly as possible in khaki, had to depend on white pith helmets to protect them from sunstroke, for sometimes the temperature rose to one hundred and twenty degrees and at all times the Indian sun at midday is dangerous. But without intermission, except when the monsoon blew, (as it did at times with force enough to whip the canvas awning off the crane and send it swirling over the bent tree tops down the gorge) or when in the rainy season the whole sky emptied itself into the valleys, the bridge was pushed forward. No heat daunted the men, and in the rainy season, from July to October, the rain had a comfortable habit of falling mostly at night.

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By November 1, 1900, the viaduct was completed. The last rivet was driven; the last coat of steel gray paint was put on; the natives were paid off and sent away with the usual chit or recommendation; the big traveler was removed, and the Americans were sent home. The ground was cleared up, the track was laid across the viaduct, and the long steel structure was ready for the tests of the railway company. The tests lasted two months. Heavily laden trains were run over the viaduct, and expert engineers examined every detail. After the most thorough scrutiny the railway accepted it, expressing complete satisfaction, and the Secretary of Public Works offered the congratulations of the Government of India on the successful completion of the undertaking.

The railroad from Rangoon to Gokteik was of metre-gauge, and the largest freight cars were capable of carrying only nineteen tons, while some of them had a capacity of only six tons. Some of the pieces shipped up from the sea were 55 feet long, and had to be hauled up the fifteen mile ghat below Thondaung, on which the grade was one in twenty-five and the curves as sharp as nineteen degrees. The viaduct was officially opened on the first of June, 1901, by His Excellency Sir Frederic Fryer, K. C. S. I., Lieutenant-Governor of Burma, and the leading Government and railway officials.


Speech of Deuchurs

Speech of Sir Frederic Fryer

Article from The World's Work

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