The World’s Commerce Has A New Highway


This was a headline in The Galveston Daily News on August 16, 1914 and gives us our starting point in telling the story of John W. Young, the son of Captain John Young and the brother of Margaret Edythe Young. In a long life he would be as involved in the maritime and political life of Galveston as his father and his grandfather, Maurice Coffey. He missed out on being a Yankee Doodle Dandy by three days having been born on July 1, 1882 but by the time this chapter opens he was a Captain of Company 6 of the Texas Coastal Artillery following in the tradition of his maternal great-grandfather who had served under Magruder defending the Island from federal invasion during the War for Southern Independence. By way of background the reader needs an appreciation of Texas, Galveston and the trans Pacific trade prior to the opening of the canal.


One of the abiding myths of history is that prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 the only commercial route from the Atlantic to the Pacific was by way of the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa or via Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Ever since Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513 becoming the first European to reach the Pacific from the New World a wide variety of travellers and merchants had followed the same – or similar – routes. Before the building of the Transcontinental Railway the California Gold Rush was populated by fortune hunters – the heartiest could cross the isthmus on the old Las Cruces Trail in a little less than a week – with river boats and steamers operating out of Chages starting in 1853 reducing the trip to about half a day and finally, with the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 the trip could be made in three hours.


Competing with the Panamanian route was the The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. It is the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, and prior to the opening of the Panama Canal was a major shipping route known  as the Tehuantepec Route. James B. Eads proposed to construct a quadruple track ship-railway and the plan challenged early plans for the Panama Canal. The railway, when completed in 1909 was 191 miles long serving ports with a minimum depth at low water 33 feet and an extensive system of docks and railway tracks at both terminals to afford facilities for heavy cargos. Tehuantepec was a common destination for cargos to and from Galveston throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth centuries but even though it was closer to the United States the failure to build the ship railroad and the economies of scale realized with the Panama Canal made it the game changer in international trade.


The other thing that the reader needs to be aware of is that the United States Army operated in a very different way prior to the First World War. There were functions – the Army Corps of Engineers would be a good example for Galveston – that answered to a central command ultimately emanating from the Department of War in Washington, D. C., however most of the functions were state units that were effectively under the control of the governors and the president could only raise large bodies of troops by having the governors call out militias under their command and having the troops federalized and placed under Department of War command. Effectively many of the regimental officers, who had been elected by the men who served under them, retained the daily direction of their units and the transition was largely transparent.


Interestingly our story takes place before the Texas troops were federalized – which would happen in 1916 to fight under Pershing in Mexico and again in 1917 to fight in Europe – and Captain John W. Young was dispatched by Governor William P. Hobby to gain an appreciation of the Canal and of potential eastern trading partners and the impact they would have on Texas trade. Young and Hobby were both friends and political allies with members of the Young family supporting Hobby in Galveston especially among the longshoremen and labor unions and Hobby would also appoint the senior John Young as Commissioner of Pilots for the Galveston bar. The photographs that illustrate these entries are taken from an album kept by John W. Young on a final voyage before the world, and him with it, would enter the century of war.