Minor Cooper Keith

Minor Cooper Keith
Minor C. Keith

Minor Cooper Keith (January 19, 1848 – June 14, 1929) was a U.S. railroad, fruit, and shipping magnate whose business activities had a profound impact in Central America and in Colombia.


Early life

Keith was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Minor Hubbell Keith, a lumber merchant, and Emily Meiggs, who was the sister of railroad builder Henry Meiggs. After being educated in private schools, at the age of sixteen he went to work as a store clerk in Broadway, a position which he left after several months to become a lumber surveyor. Having amassed $3,000 in a year, he bought a cattle ranch on an island near the mouth of the Rio Grande, in southern Texas. He administered the ranch until 1871, when he accepted an invitation from his uncle Henry Meiggs to help build a railroad in the Central American nation of Costa Rica.[1]

Costa Rican railroad

In 1871, Keith's uncle Henry Meiggs had signed a contract with the government of Costa Rican president Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez for the construction of a railroad from the capital city of San José to what became the Caribbean port of Limón. Minor Keith was involved in the project from the start and took it over after Meiggs's death in 1877.

At the time, Costa Rica's economy was based primarily on the export of coffee, which was grown in the country's central valley and transported by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Since the main market for Costa Rican coffee was in Europe and no canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans existed, creating a reliable transportation route to the Caribbean was a high priority for the Costa Rican government.

The construction of the railroad, however, proved extraordinarily challenging due to inadequate financing coupled to the rugged terrain, thick jungle, torrential rains, and prevalence of malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, and other tropical diseases. As many as four thousand people, including Keith's three brothers, died during the construction of the first 25 miles of track.[2] Having subsequent trouble recruiting Costa Rican laborers, Keith eventually brought in blacks from the Caribbean islands (mainly Jamaica), Chinese, and even Italians, to complete the project.[3]

By 1882, the Costa Rican government had defaulted on its payments to Keith and could no longer meet its obligations to the London banks from which it had borrowed to pay for the railroad. Keith managed to raise £1.2 million himself from the banks and from private investors, and negotiated a reduction of the interest on the money previously lent to Costa Rica, from 7% to 2.5%. In exchange, the government of President Próspero Fernández Oreamuno gave Keith 800,000 acres (3,200 km²) of tax-free land along the railroad, plus a 99-year lease on the operation of the train route. These terms were made official in a document signed by Keith and cabinet minister Bernardo Soto Alfaro on April 21, 1884 (known to Costa Rican historians as the "Soto-Keith contract").

The two most powerful cabinet ministers in the government of President Fernández were his son-in-law Soto (who succeeded him after his death) and his brother-in-law José María Castro Madriz, who had previously served twice as President of Costa Rica. In 1883, Minor Keith married Cristina Castro Fernández, who was the daughter of Castro, niece of President Fernández, and cousin-in-law of Soto.

Banana trade

The railroad was completed in 1890, but the flow of passengers and cargo proved insufficient to finance Keith's debt. As early as 1873, however, Keith had begun experimenting with the production of bananas grown from roots he had obtained from the French. To market the bananas, Keith began running a steamboat line from Limón to New Orleans, in the United States. The resulting banana trade proved extremely lucrative that he soon established the Tropical Trading and Transport Company.

Keith then established banana plantations in Panama and in the Colombian Magdalena Department. He eventually came to dominate the banana trade in Central America and Colombia. In 1899, he was forced by a financial setback to combine his venture with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company, which dominated the banana trade in the West Indies. The result of the merger was the powerful United Fruit Company, of which Keith became vice-president.[4] In 1904, Keith signed a contract with the President of Guatemala, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, that gave the company tax-exemptions, land grants, and control of all railroads on the Atlantic side of the country.[5]

Other activities

Board of Trustees of the Heye Foundation, 1920. From left to right: Minor C. Keith, James Bishop Ford, George Gustav Heye, Frederick Kimber Seward, Frederick Kingsbury Curtis, Samuel Riber, Jr., Archer Milton Huntington, and Harmon Washington Hendricks

Keith also invested in gold mining in Abangares, in the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste.[6] In 1912 he returned to railroad building, organizing the International Railways of Central America and eventually completing an 800-mi (1,287-km) railway system, but died before realizing his dream of a line from Guatemala to the Panama Canal. His work profoundly altered the economic life of Central American countries.[7]

Keith also founded a chain of general stores and owned one of the largest poultry farms in the United States. He was a trustee of the foundation that managed George Gustav Heye's collection of Native American artifacts and he bequeathed his own ancient Indian gold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.[8] He died of pneumonia at his home in West Islip, aged eighty-one.

See also


External References

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