b. Jan. 19, 1848- d. June 14, 1929. Born in Brooklyn, New York, son of Minor Hubbell Keith, a prosperous lumber merchant, and Emily Meiggs, sister of the railroad builder Henry Meiggs . He was educated in private schools until the age of sixteen, when he moved to Texas to manage a cattle ranch that his father bought for him in 1869. However, he abandoned the cattle industry in 1871 when his uncle Henry Meiggs invited him to work on a contract to build a railroad in Costa Rica. The railroad was to stretch from San Jose to the port of Limon, in the Caribbean coast, and Meiggs had succeeded already at building the Callao-Lima Railroad and the Oreja Railroad in Peru some years before. Keith accepted the invitation enthusiastically and went to Costa Rica with his two brothers to work in the railroad project.
During the first twenty five miles of the construction Meiggs and the Keith brothers faced incredible odds. Building in the jungle was much more difficult than calculated since the disease and hard working conditions left an incredible high cost: around five thousand men died during the construction, including Meiggs and Minor Keith's brothers. In 1874, Minor was left in charge of the project and stubbornly continued with it despite the odds. The large number of deaths made it hard for him to recruit new workers in Central America, so one source of labor came from New Orleans jails. With the seven hundred murderers and thieves that he began with, it has been said that only twenty-five survived the end of the construction. When he brought a boat with two thousand Italian immigrants from Louisiana, many of them rose in rebellion when they discovered the miserable working conditions.. Many of them decided to run away and sixty of them died lost in the jungle.
By 1882, Keith had carried the construction of the railroad seventy miles from the coast to Rio Sucio, but he was running out of money and received no help from the Costa Rican government who had defaulted on promised payments. This obliged Keith to obtain a 1.2 million pounds loan which permitted him to finish the railroad to San Jose in 1890. Once the railroad was finished, however, he faced a new problem: there were not enough passengers to travel on it. Operating costs could not be paid, not to mention the huge debts Keith had to pay. But he quickly found that he could keep the business alive by exporting the fruit of banana trees that he had planted as an experiment along his railroad tracks. The bananas had been used in times of financial crisis to feed the workers and in this new crisis Keith thought of exporting them using the train he had build to transport them to the port. This new experiment proved successful and by 1883 Keith owned three banana export companies. By 1890 the train was used solely for transporting bananas and the new plantations surpassed the value of the train.
After all the hassles he went through when building the railroad, the 1890s looked promising for Keith. He managed to become a very influential and respected man in Costa Rican society; he married Cristina Castro, the daughter of a national President, and worked as the main negotiator of the Costa Rican foreign debt with English banks. Although, he did not abandon the railroad business. On the contrary, he imagined a railroad network that would stretch from North America down to South America.
During a business trip to London he organized the Tropical Trading and Transport Company to co-ordinate the banana business and to provide transportation to his increasing shipments to the United States. In addition, the new company managed a chain of stores that he had established all along the Costa Rican coasts to trade local production. He also expanded his banana business to the region of Magdalena, Colombia, through the Colombian Land Company, and made a deal to export fruit to the States with the Snyder Banana Company of Panama (at that time Colombian territory). With these deals he dominated the banana business in Central America by 1899, but new problems were not slow to arrive. In that year Hoadley and Company, a New York broker corporation, against which Keith held $ 1.5 million in draw bills, declared bankruptcy and Keith lost all his money. The Costa Rican government and several members of the local elite made efforts to help him in his new crisis but,, Keith's financial situation did not improve. He was forced to go to Boston and talk with Andrew Preston, the President of the Boston Fruit Company and his partner Lorenzo Baker. The Boston Fruit Company was Keith's rival and he hoped a merger of the two companies would end his debt. They agreed and the United Fruit Company was born in March 30th, 1899.
The new company was led by Preston and Keith as Vice-president. Their diverse interests and skills complemented the other. Keith had his railroad network and plantations in Central America, plus the market in the United States South-East, and Preston grew bananas in the West Indies, ran a steamship fleet (the Great White Fleet), and sold to the United States North-East. As the company grew Keith continued with his railroad projects in Central America. By 1908 he completed a road in Guatemala from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City and this allowed the United Fruit Company to develop banana plantations in the Guatemalan lowlands. He also bought the Western Guatemala Railroad between Guatemala City and the Pacific Coast, creating an inter-coast system the line was eventually extended to the Mexican border, and connected Mexican lines in 1911.
In 1911, Keith decided to organize all his railway network in a new company called the International Railways of Central America (IRCA). This corporation consolidated his Guatemalan lines and one line in El Salvador. In 1929, he completed the line connecting Guatemala and El Salvador railroads which meant the unification of a system of 800 miles in length, valued in $80 million. Despite Keith's numerous achivements, his dream of completing an Inter-American railway system was never realized when he died in 1929.
By the time of his death he was considered the most influential American citizen in Central America. Some of his contemporaries even called him the "un-crowned king of Central America." His investments in railroads and banana plantations had a deep impact in the region's society and even today the banana industry is one of the most important sectors in the region's economy.
Bibliography: MAY, Stacy & Galo PLAZA, United Fruit in Latin America (Washington: National Planning Association, 1958); ADAMS, Frederick, The Conquest of the Tropics (New York: Doubleday, 1914); MCCANN, Thomas, An American Company: The Tragedy of the United Fruit (New York: Crown, 1976); INGHAM, John N. (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983)
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