AT&T Founder’s Sojourn in Argentina 1895-1906

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Article “ATT Leader’s Argentine Sojourn: 1895-1906”, published in Revista COMMENTS, AMCHAM -American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina-, Vol. 82, Nº 1, March 2000, Buenos Aires.

by Horacio C. Reggini


A leader in the newly founded Bell Telephone Company, and later the first President of the American Telegraph & Telephone Company, better known as AT&T, Theodore Vail’s is a name that figures prominently in the early history of the telephone. But, unknown to many, Vail also played a prominent role in the industrialization of Argentina at the turn of the 19th century, though, oddly, it was not in the field of telephony.

General Manager of the Bell Telephone Company in the late 1870s, Vail was named AT&T’s first President in 1885. Vail served as AT&T’s president for only two years, though he would eventually reassume the position for 11 years beginning in 1907, following his sojourn in Argentina.

And though the Bell Telephone Company played a role in the development of Argentina’s early telephone system, through its ownership in one of the country’s privately held telephone companies that sprung up in the 1880s, Vail’s contribution to that undertaking was negligible – even though he served from Boston on the Argentine affiliate’s board — compared to the endeavors he would eventually undertake in the country.

Following his withdrawal from AT&T in 1887, Vail lived in his country house Speedwell Farms in Lyndonville, Vermont. But the recluse’s life was not for him, it would seem.

In 1894, he received a visit from Walter G. Davis, a Bostonian who served as Director of the Argentine Meteorological Office. Created in 1872, and initially headed by the famous astronomer Benjamin Gould, who had been invited to Argentina by Domingo Sarmiento, the Meteorological Office was located in Córdoba next to the National Astronomical Observatory.

On his visit, Davis made Vail a bold proposition: to travel to Argentina and build a hydroelectric power plant on the Río Primero, taking advantage of a dam that had already been built. It would be an excellent business opportunity, in Davis’s estimation.

Vail apparently thought so too, because shortly after Davis’s visit, Vail headed for Argentina, accompanied by James W. McCrosky, an expert in hydroelectric works from England.

Situated to the west of the city of Córdoba in a magnificent mountainous setting, Vail’s undertaking was the first hydroelectric power plant in all of South America. It also played a key role in the spread of electrification and industry in Córdoba.

The project’s start actually pre-dated Vail’s arrival when the Córdoba provincial government granted a concession in 1893 to F. Mackinlay & Co. to use “the power that may be obtained” from the Río Primero and transport it to Córdoba. A few years later, Mackinlay authorization was transferred to the Córdoba Light & Power Company, a New York-based firm headed by Vail.

Work on the first San Roque Dam (it was replaced in 1944) began in 1883 and was completed in 1891. The initial studies for the project were completed by the Frenchman Esteban Dumesmil and Carlos Casaffousth, an Argentine who had studied under Gustavo Eiffel in Paris. When completed, the San Roque Dam was considered a world class engineering feat.

The power plant Vail built with McCrosky’s help was named Casa Bamba and was built 30 km. from the city of Córdoba on the Río Primero between the San Roque Dam and La Calera and officially inaugurated by the Governor of Córdoba, José Figueroa Alcorta, who would go on to be President of Argentina, on December 29, 1897. The name Bamba was derived from a famous chief of the Comechingo indians, a tribe that inhabited the Córdoba sierras.

Small by today’s standards, Casa Bamba had a generating capacity of 1000 KW. The mill Molino Enger in Upper Córdoba and the Córdoba brewery were among the first companies to use power generated by Casa Bamba.

Though Vail no doubt cherished his accomplishments in the telephone business, it appears as though Casa Bamba held a special place in his heart. “There was never anything that quite took hold of my imagination as Córdoba did,” he wrote.

Even after the power plant was finished, Vail visited it frequently on his trips to Argentina. “I never hear today the hum of an electrical machine that my mind doesn’t instantly revert to those long beautiful nights, with a stillness unbroken except by the purr of the dynamo from the station….The spot where the first plant was located we called Casa Bamba, and it was always one of my great enjoyments while in South America to run up to Córdoba for a few days’ picnic at Casa Bamba.”


Modern Transportation for a Growing City

But Vail’s hydro-electric project was not his only contribution to Argentine industry. On his first trip to Argentina, Vail met Charles B. Thursby on board the ship that carried them both to Buenos Aires. Thursby was a businessman interested in converting the city’s horse drawn trams to electric cable cars.

Once again Vail smelled a business opportunity.

Shortly after arriving in Argentina, Vail purchased the company La Capital, an operator of a horse drawn tram line owned by Wenceslao Villafañe, and began the process of converting it to a tramway company. In addition to receiving permission from the city to convert to electric power, La Capital was granted permission to extend its existing line, which ran east-west across the city beginning on Paseo Colón, to Flores.

According to official documents dating from 1896, Vail was the president of La Capital, Thursby was general manager, and the handy McCrosky was chief engineer. The newly acquired firm was advised by Luis María Drago, a grandson of Bartolomé Mitre.

(During a distinguished career, Drago served as editor of La Nación, Minister of Foreign Relations, during the second Roca administration, and chairman of the Unión Telefónica del Río de la Plata. However, Drago is best known for the doctrine, which still bears his name, which states that public debt does not justify armed intervention.)

Work began on January 22, 1897 at the corner of San Juan and Caridad (now General Urquiza). A first section, between Plaza Flores and the corner of San Juan and Entre Ríos, of the new line was inaugurated on December 3 of that same year. From there passengers continued on to Plaza de Mayo via a horse drawn tram.

The section between Paseo Colón and Entre Ríos was inaugurated on July 29 of the following year. Argentine elected-president Julio A. Roca attended the inauguration, travelling the new line in a special car called the Palace Car, it was reported in the following day’s edition of La Nación.

Under a second concession, Tramways Eléctricos La Capital, built an extension of its line from Flores to the Liniers slaughterhouses. That extension was completed in May 1900.

The extension to Liniers was intended to provide more than passenger transportation. La Capital also provided exclusive service for transporting meat, using special cars, from the slaughterhouses to the meat markets in the city center.

Construction work for La Capital’s tramway lines was overseen by the engineer Benito J. Mallol, one of the 18 founding members of what was then called National Center for Engineers but is now known as the Argentine Center of Engineers (CAI).

The cars were stored in a yard at the corner of Liniers and Europa (now Carlos Calvo). Adjacent to the storage yard, a meat distribution station was built. The station was later renamed Vail Station.

The passenger cars used by La Capital were doubled decked “Imperial” cars, with the lower deck closed and the upper deck open. Each of the cars, which were built in the U.S. by J.B. Brill & Company, had room for 54 passengers.

Each car was powered by two General Electric GE-1000 electric motors and the cars could achieve a maximum velocity of 25 kilometers per hour. Power for the vehicles came from a power plant in Paseo Colón and Comercio (now Humberto 1º). The design also anticipated a telephone set, which would enable the conductor to notify operators at the power plant immediately of a power outage.


Vail Picks Up the Telephone Again

Vail’s visits and business in Argentina ended by 1907 when, at the age of 62, he took the presidency of AT&T again, a position he held until 1918, when illness forced him to retire. He died two years later at the age of 75.

In addition to building AT&T into the corporate giant it remains today, in the final years of his life, Vail devoted much of his time to philanthropic endeavors. One of his most noteworthy accomplishments was the purchase of a 35,000 volume collection of books on electricity which he donated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That collection is still housed in MIT’s Vail Library.

Vail’s philanthropic efforts did not go unnoticed either by his company. Following his death, AT&T established the Vail awards which are given to employees in recognition of outstanding public service. Since the awards’ founding, 2,700 AT&T employees have been honored.

Vail represents one of a distinguished line of U.S. entrepreneurs who have contributed to Argentina’s development. At a time when hydro-electric power plants and tramways were as novel as the Internet is today, he traveled to a faraway country and built his dreams.