Like Mexico itself, the McNab family story tells of a rich mix of cultures—French, Scottish, Zapotec. The Thistle and the Rose captures that complexity, providing a unique lens through which to view a magnificent, complicated country during critical years of change.
In The Thistle and the Rose, author Catherine Nixon Cooke narrates the story of John George McNab, a handsome Scotsman, and Guadalupe Fuentes Nivon McNab, a beautiful Oaxacan, and how they fell in love against the impossible challenge of building the famous Tehuantepec Railroad across the malaria-ridden isthmus of Mexico.
Cooke weaves a rich tapestry using multiple threads—research by renowned Latin American scholar Teresa Van Hoy, documents and photographs found in the Pearson Archive in the United Kingdom, rare Mexican historic texts, personal interviews, family letters, diaries, photographs, and genealogical data from Ancestry.com.
The author provides a sense of the rough-and-tumble country in early twentieth-century Mexico and the danger and challenge of building a link between the two oceans. She gives further insight into the McNab family’s role in shaping Mexico’s oil and transportation infrastructure. A story about love and courage in revolutionary Mexico, The Thistle and the Rose narrates the journey of self-discovery for a family that dared to embark on this quest.
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The Thistle and the RoseRomance, Railroads, and Big Oil in Revolutionary Mexico
By Catherine Nixon Cooke
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 John George McNab and Laura Helen Moore Brusenhan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Fiery Start
As the first decade of the new century drew to a close, smoke and ashes filled the Mexican sky for days. Peasants in the countryside agreed that the eruption of Mount Colima in 1909 was a sign that the powerful "Old Ones" would soon sweep the wicked away. A year later, a fiery glare streaked across the heavens. Newspapers described the phenomenon of Halley's Comet in scientific terms, but in remote villages without newspapers, elders announced that the showers of fire were another sign, an omen, a prediction of change and trouble.
Meanwhile, in the nation's capital, glorious progress was being reported. President Porfirio Díaz, now eighty years old, had just modernized the city with a hospital, jail, and insane asylum, and a spectacular glass curtain designed by the American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany graced the new Italian marble opera house. The international relationships he had spent more than a decade developing now illustrated to the world that Mexico was a land of promise, where men of imagination and money could fulfill their dreams. And men, money, and dreams were streaming in.
American funds had absorbed plantations and ranchesrich in cotton, sugar, timber, and cattleand holdings were estimated at $500 million by 1902, surpassing the Spanish-owned lands, which had been the largest for generations. A German financier named Hugo Scherer directed large amounts of European capital to Mexico through government loans, and President Díaz was negotiating with Japan for payment in exchange for huge concessions in Baja California. The London-based engineering firm S. Pearson & Son had built the Gran Canal to control flooding in Mexico City, dredged a new port for Veracruz, was building the Tehuantepec Railway across the strategic isthmus, and was drilling for oil in partnership with the Mexican government as the El Aguila Oil Company.
Its chairman, Weetman Pearson, was rewarded at home for his extraordinary international success when he received the title of baron from His Majesty's Government in 1910. He adopted the name of his vast estate in Sussex for his title, becoming Lord Cowdray. Still later in his career, he would be named first Viscount Cowdray, an even bigger honor in the British world of titles. Meanwhile, as Pearson was expanding his operations around the world, his employees in Mexico were hearing the first rumblings that the world of Tata Porfirio and Doña Carmelita would end with the elections in 1910. They joined other foreign operators in their concern that an intellectual young man from a wealthy northern family was talking about the presidential succession, the Constitution, and giving Mexico's land back to the poor. Francisco Madero was a man to worry about; he seemed to confirm the comet's fiery message that change was ahead.
The last decade had seen a boom in the Pearson operations, and a handsome young Scotsman named John George McNab had signed on as an engineer in 1896, determined to make his fortune in a new land of opportunity and adventure. The rumblings of change had not yet begun, and on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Veracruz, in 1898, McNab was looking forward to the diversion of a quinceañera ball after several long weeks of surveying work in remote areas to the south and west of Veracruz.
One of the supervisors in charge of building the renowned Tehuantepec railroad that would eventually connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, McNab was twenty-five years old, with sandy-brown hair and mustache, sparkling blue eyes, a thin aquiline nose, and a cleft in his chin that hinted at a dashing spirit. Eligible bachelors from the railroad company and other foreign enterprises were often invited to gala events by the local elite, and because a quinceañera meant the formal introduction of a daughter to society by her family, McNab knew he was sure to meet some beautiful, accomplished young women. In a note to a friend, he wrote: "I received an invitation to a swell ball tonight, so I must brush up my best coat and try to make an impression on some fair señorita."
When María Guadalupe Fuentes Nivon walked into the ballroom, escorted by her father Féderico Nivon, there was unprecedented applause, although she was not the honoree. Nearly five feet seven, she was regal, with thick chestnut brown hair and huge, dark eyes that were framed by beautiful brows. She wore a stylish European silk gown, along with a much-cherished pearl necklace that had belonged to her great-grandmother in France. She was a student at a convent school, spoke three languages, was accomplished at needlepoint, played the piano, and had a wonderful singing voice. John George McNab felt a jolt, that mythic thunderbolt of attraction and respect that was always described in romantic novels; his feelings blazed like the comet that would streak across the sky a few years later.
Dancing and laughing together as the new century began, the couple shared brief stories of their pastslandscapes that included mists, moors, alps, and jungles, in Scotland, France, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and ancestors who had been imaginative and courageous enough to leave Europe to make their fortunes in the New World. They agreed to meet again to learn more, but knew that Guadalupe's schooling and McNab's immediate endeavors might delay their opportunity to pursue their friendship.
McNab was immersed in Pearson's new railroad project; he was certain that linking the two oceans that touched Mexico's shores would have a powerful impact on future trade routes, including the potential control of Central and South America.
The vision was not new. Several centuries ago, King Charles V suggested to conquistador Hernán Cortés that a means of connecting the two oceans to the east and west of Mexico could be of value. Following royal orders, Cortés explored the Coatzacoalcos River to its source on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest portion of Latin America north of Panama. Along with his soldiers, he took several captives from Tabasco on the journey, including a local princess named Marina, who became his mistress and interpreter. With her help, Cortés learned that the distance across the isthmus was just over one hundred miles. He reported that if a strait could be built, it would be of "immense utility" to his Imperial Majesty. Others realized the potential as well, and in 1774, Spanish Viceroy Antonio M. de Bucareli ordered engineer Agustín Cramer to conduct a survey of the area to see if a canal could be built.
But it wasn't until after Mexican independence that President Santa Anna, recognizing the desirability of interoceanic communication, ordered a careful study of the region in 1833, and authorized a concession to Italian engineer Gaetano Moro in 1842. Throughout the nineteenth century, the canal idea continued to spark interest among Mexicans as well as politicians and entrepreneurs from the United States, and each new president of Mexico commissioned studies and awarded concessions to a variety of companies to pursue the project. While the concessions and studies did not produce any tangible results, the vision survived, and when a US company successfully linked the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in Panama in 1855 with a new railroad, the vision was revised.
Growing competition between Great Britain and the United States as the dominant power in the Caribbean and Central America, interest in both intercontinental and international commerce, and issues of national security caused both nations to focus on the strategic isthmus that includes the southeastern parts of the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, and small parts of Chiapas and Tabasco.
The whole region was hot and malarial, except for the open elevations, where wind from the Pacific Ocean rendered the weather comparatively cool and healthy. The northern side was especially swampy and densely covered with jungle, which posed a major obstacle to the construction of a canal. Eventually both engineers and capitalists realized that the huge cost of a canal was impractical, and the Mexican government looked for another way to establish a transit route through the isthmus.
The newly completed railroad connecting Veracruz to Mexico City was enjoying huge success, and several concessions to build a railroad were granted to various operators over the next few years, but they either failed or were rescinded.
By this time the Mexican government had already spent millions of pesos on the "inter-oceanic route," with disastrous results. Despite US interest in the project, an exasperated President Porfirio Díaz sought a solution through his personal friend Sir Weetman Pearson.
A highly respected civil engineer and contractor, Pearson ran Britain's largest engineering firm, S. Pearson & Son Ltd., based in London. He had succeeded where others had failed, not only in building the monumental drainage canal for Mexico City, but also in the difficult rehabilitation of the port of Veracruz. If anyone could save the Tehuantepec Railway project it was Pearson. Renowned for his business acumen, he negotiated a construction contract with the Mexican government in 1896 that also gave the British engineering firm the right to manage the railway, ports, and dry dock for a period of fifty years. Work commenced in 1899, supervised by Pearson's loyal director in Mexico, John Body, and a young man from Scotland who had been highly recommended to Pearson by his close friend P. W. Thomson.
Thomson was a large landowner in Texas, originally from Scotland, who knew the McNab family well and had hired John George shortly after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin. McNab had wanted to work in a hot, dry climate because of his allergies, and the large and well-respected Thomson Ranch near Eagle Pass suited him perfectly.
Just out of college, he started as a ranch hand, despite his parents' reservations about the rough and tumble world of southwest Texas. Just the year before, newspaper articles in their hometown of Evanston, Illinois, had carried the dramatic story about an outlaw named Dick Duncan who had been hanged in Eagle Pass for the cold-blooded murder of a family from neighboring San Saba. The Texas Rangers had caught him, and the details of his killings were gruesome. The senior McNabs worried about the dangers, and recognized how truly remote the ranch was. A stagecoach line between Eagle Pass and San Antonio had been the only means of transportation until less than a decade ago. Thankfully, in 1882 the main line of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway was extended to Eagle Pass, with a new connection to the Mexican Railway in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Thomson was excited about the increased international trade; the McNabs were glad their son would not be totally stranded in the "wild west." They shuddered to think that the town had not even had a courthouse until 1885, when a well-known San Antonio architect had been hired to build it for the staggering sum of $20,489. It was there that the infamous Dick Duncan had stood trial.
The same year the courthouse was completed, Thomson came up with a project to build a huge gravity-flow irrigation network that would draw water from the Rio Grande River, to convert the brushland of south Texas into fertile farms growing onions, alfalfa, cotton, and even figs. He formed the Eagle Pass Irrigation Company and hired a government engineer to survey the site and estimate the costs of the project. In 1889, Thomson began work; he completed three miles of canal before the project was stalled by lack of funds. Not daunted, the Scottish rancher tried to raise money by forming a company of English investors known as the South-West Texas Water Supply and Land Company Ltd., and he acquired permits from both the United States and Mexican governments. He brought an expert named Robert Wallace all the way from the University of Edinburgh to analyze the soils of Maverick County and the feasibility of the project. Professor Wallace's report was favorable, but Thomson's financial negotiations were thwarted by the outbreak of the Boer War and the economic panic in Europe.
Thomson was delighted to discover that young John George McNab was willing to come to Eagle Pass. His engineering abilities would be valuable if the irrigation project moved forward, and he had indicated a willingness to start as a ranch hand, which pleased his fellow Scotsman.
In 1890, McNab left Illinois bound for Texas. He watched the long, muddy Mississippi River meander outside the window of his railroad compartment, and spent a few days in each major city along the way. New Orleans was sophisticated and glamorous, with quite a nightlife; San Antonio reflected its Mexican influences, with all the modern conveniences, including several attractive restaurants and a new hospital. The final one hundred miles of the journey took him southwest to Eagle Pass, where miles and miles of sage and mesquite stretched as far as he could see. Arriving at sunset, McNab was struck by the hues of mauve, pink, purple, and fading gold that seemed to soften the austere brush country. He straightened his coat and tie, gave his hair a quick brush, and prepared to meet his new employer.
McNab spent six years working on the ranch, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomson treated him like a family member. By 1895 he had been elevated to managing fifty thousand head of sheep and ten thousand head of cattle, handling all the finances of the ranch, and promoting the innovative "canal project." The journey to San Antonio took only a few hours on the train, and during days off, there were opportunities to meet other young men and women at social parties and debutante balls. And with the little village of Piedras Negras located just across the Rio Grande and so many Mexicans immigrating to nearby ranches, McNab soon became fluent in Spanish.
Impressed with his productivity and engineering skills, Thomson realized that McNab deserved a career with more potential than working on the ranch could provide. He wrote a letter to his close friend Weetman Pearson, who happened to be the largest contractor in the world, recommending that he hire his valued protégé.
In his letter of recommendation, Thomson shared McNab's skills and previous responsibilities, and added: "My confidence in him was always implicit. He was always frank, obliging, energetic and conscientious in whatever capacity he filled. I shall always be grateful to learn of his promotions and advances and I am sure you will never have cause to regret his employment."
With Pearson projects in places like Abyssinia, Arabia, Argentina, Borneo, China, Cyprus, Egypt, India, and Mexico, the company worked in all the key sectors of the economyoil, railroads, electricity, drainage and irrigation, waterworks and sewers, highways, bridges, and ports. When John George McNab joined S. Pearson & Son Ltd. in 1896, he knew he had found both the opportunity and the adventure he was looking for.
He joined John Body in Veracruz and spent many weeks riding horseback through the isthmus, recruiting laborers for the new railroad project and overseeing equipment and construction. The endeavor was ambitious, involving reconstruction of railroad track that had been laid during earlier failed concessions, as well as the construction of two new modern ports. On the Gulf Coast, Puerto México (today Coatzacoalcos) was a thriving town of twenty-four hundred located on the navigable Coatzacoalcos River, but its new harbor works had to be designed to protect the docks, and vessels anchored there, from the devastating hurricanes that swept through from the Gulf of Mexico.
On the Pacific side, Salina Cruz's harbor faced expensive construction costs, requiring a thirty-three-hundred-foot breakwater to provide four thousand feet of quay space. The town would have to be relocated away from the water's edge, and the new Salina Cruz would receive professional urban planning and a modern water supply and drainage system, all provided by S. Pearson & Son Ltd.
John George McNab moved back and forth across the isthmus, watching the construction of this huge project, convinced that soon the new rail and port service would allow merchandise to be unloaded in one port and loaded onto a ship in the other port within twenty-four hours. But severe hurricanes and an earthquake hit the isthmus in the fall of 1902, partially destroying the newly built station at Salina Cruz and damaging a number of bridges and dredges. Exhausted from the winds that gusted at gale force, the constant rain, and long hours spent assessing the setback, McNab longed for the comforts of civilization, and for the company of Guadalupe Nivon, and her beautiful smile.
Excerpted from The Thistle and the Rose by Catherine Nixon Cooke Copyright © 2013 by John George McNab and Laura Helen Moore Brusenhan. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Message from the Heavens....................xxi
Chapter 1: A Fiery Start....................1
Chapter 2: Mists and Moors....................19
Chapter 3: Castles and Kings....................41
Chapter 4: Déjà Vu....................59
Chapter 5: The Thistle and the Rose....................85
Chapter 6: The Red-Haired Angel....................107
Chapter 7: Precarious Times....................129
Chapter 8: Chaos and Courage....................145
Chapter 9: Beginnings and Endings....................163
Chapter 10: Reunion....................183
Chapter 11: Revelations....................205