William Wheelwright

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William Wheelwright

William Wheelwright (1798-1873) was an American promoter who pioneered South American steamship, railroad, and telegraph construction.

William Wheelwright was born in Newburyport, Mass., on March 18, 1798. After attending Phillips Academy in Andover (1812-1814) he sailed as a cabin boy aboard one of his father's ships trading in the West Indies. In 1817 he captained a family ship to Brazil. When a vessel under his command ran aground off Buenos Aires in 1823, he shipped out as a supercargo on a vessel bound for Chile. He subsequently founded a prosperous mercantile firm and served as U.S. consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

In 1828 Wheelwright returned to Newburyport, married Martha Bartlet, and took her on a mule-back honeymoon trip across Panama en route to Ecuador. Finding his enterprise had collapsed, he moved to Valparaiso in Chile and established a coastal shipping business. Several side-lines—development of port facilities and gasworks, mineral explorations, and experimentation with desalting ocean water—also absorbed his attentions.

Wheelwright's navigational experience stimulated his interest in introducing the recently perfected steamship on the Pacific coast of South America, where contrary winds and currents severely hamper wind-driven vessels. Although this scheme was considered to be highly impractical, in 1835 Chile's government granted a 10-year concession to operate steamers on that country's long coastline. After unsuccessfully seeking financial support in the United States in 1836, Wheelwright went to London and in 1838 influenced a British investment group to form the Pacific Steamship Navigation Company, which he served as managing director until 1852. A British government mail contract helped defray expenses.

In 1840 Wheelwright sailed two 700-ton steamers, the Chile and the Peru, through the Strait of Magellan to initiate steamship service from Callao to Valparaiso. After a 5-year struggle against seemingly insuperable obstacles, especially that of obtaining enough coal for fuel, the company began to show a profit.

While residing in Chile, Wheelwright inaugurated South America's first railroad and telegraph lines. He built a spectacular 51-mile railroad from Caldera to Copiapó (1849-1852) and wanted to extend the railway across the Andes to Argentina. Finding little support for this scheme in Chile, he moved to Argentina and, using English capital, constructed the Argentine Central Railroad between Rosario and Córdoba (1863-1870). He developed the La Plata portworks with a connecting railroad serving Buenos Aires in 1872. Regrettably, Argentina's war with Paraguay (1864-1870) and internal political strife obstructed Wheelwright's plans and deferred completion of the trans-Andean line until 1910. He died in London on a business trip on Sept. 26, 1873.

Further Reading

A notable Argentine philosopher, Juan Bautista Alberdi, wrote a commemorative biography, Life and Industrial Labors of William Wheelwright in South America (trans. 1877). Arthur C. Wardle, Steam Conquers the Pacific (1940), outlines Wheel-wright's career. □

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William Wheelwright

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