A hundred years ago one of the most prominent civil engineers in the U.S. was Elmer Corthell. At the beginning of the last century he journeyed to Buenos Aires at the request of the Argentine government to consult on further development of the river and harbor. The history of the port in Buenos Aires is really quite fascinating, particularly the competing battle between Luis Huergo and Eduardo Madero but that’s another story, a post for some other day.
Madero won the first round but Puerto Madero turned out not to be very functional. Corthell was one of the engineers brought in to advise how to fix it and after two years of study suggested a set of jetties. Eventually the entire port would be scrapped in favor of a new one designed by Huergo a little further up the river.
After Corthell returned to the U.S. in 1902 he gave a lecture to the American Geographical Society, which was basically a report about his stay in Argentina. Corthell was very kind in his description of Argentina and never alluded to the political follies that prompted the Argentine government to award the port to Madero (a businessman, not an engineer) in the first place.
In his report Corthell does mention that Puerto Madero was actually designed and constructed by experienced English firms. He absolves everyone of blame by pointing out that the port was designed to accommodate only 2 million tons. But when Puerto Madero opened in 1899 the tonnage of vessels arriving and departing was 3,800,000 tons and in just two years, by 1901, the growth had more than doubled to 8,661,299 tons. (Perhaps long-term planning has never been a strong point for Argentine governments?)
Corthell gives high marks to Argentina. He said, “Argentine engineers and the methods pursued by them are equal to those of any country.”
Corthell’s lecture to the geographic society are filled with tidbits of information that would interest learned men of the day, such as the fact that in 1902 Argentina had over 60 breweries and 182 distilleries. Or, that in 1899 the tax on matches alone was $2,000,000.
As for daily life in Buenos Aires, Corthell said that French, Italian, English, and were “spoken almost everywhere”:
The manner of living is Continental-a cup of coffee with a roll in the early morning; breakfast at 11 to 12.30 (which is a meal in courses), and dinner at 7.30, the principal meal of the day. This is the custom among all classes,high and low. And there is another custom (it is strange how soon you fall into it): tea or coffee or mate (a species of steeped herb-yerba-pressed into a peculiar little gourd used as a bowl and drawn out of it with a hollow silver tube called a mate stick). This 4 o’clock drink is as necessary as any meal.
After he left Argentina Corthell wasn’t through with South America. A few years later he would travel to Brazil to build the port facilities in Rio Grande. And as a librarian I must close with acknowledging that in 1911 Corthell donated more than 6,000 books, drawings, and pamphlets that he had gathered over his 40 year career to establish the engineering library at Brown University.