According to a recent article in the Guardian, China is planning to build a high-speed railway to the United States. The rail trip would take two days to travel through China and Russia, underneath the ocean in the Bering Strait, through Alaska and Canada, before arriving in the continental United States. As the article points out, there are many reasons to doubt the seriousness of this proposal, not the least of which neither the United States or Canada (and perhaps Russia as well) have been consulted. But what is interesting is the historical background to this story, which represents a dream that can neither achieve fruition nor die. James Oliver’s The Bering Strait Crossing, discusses the lengthy history of exactly this idea. Of course, Siberia and Alaska in ancient times were united by Beringia, a land bridge that allowed camels and horses to travel to the Old World, and people to arrive in the Americas. But the two regions have been separated since the end of the last glaciation, when rising sea levels sank Beringia. Oliver’s work discusses the early history of Russian exploration in the Americas, which represented an effort to bring these two regions back into sustained contact. Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain in the service of the czar, first reached the Western hemisphere on 15 July 1741. This launched a Russian empire in Alaska that endured until 1867, when the Czar sold Alaska to the United States. In the end, Russia’s heartland was too far, and the U.S. dream of manifest destiny was too powerful, for this empire to endure. But the realization that only a brief stretch of ocean separated Russia from the United States led people to discuss building a railroad to connect the two nations.
In 1903 Russia completed the Trans Siberian Railway. At 9,289 kilometers, it was -and remains- the longest railway
on earth. This success raised a question: if such a railroad could be built spanning the world’s largest continent, would it be possible to continue a line underneath the oceans separating the Old World from the Americas? Indeed, one Baron Loicq de Lobel was advocating exactly this (Oliver, 120) even before the completion of the Trans Siberian railway. But by 1905 and 1906 the proposal seemed to be an idea whose time had come. The New York Times carried articles on the potential tunnel, although potential financiers lacked enthusiasm. The challenge was that there was very little in Siberia to attract American travelers, while an agreement among the U.S., Russia and Canada seemed unlikely in the political climate of the time. This fact, as much as the technical limitations of early twentieth century engineering, doomed the project. The onset of the Cold War finally buried the dream for nearly forty years, although there have been scattered efforts to bring back this proposal since that time (Oliver, 222-227).
Does China’s rise and the rail link between England and France perhaps foreshadow renewed efforts to create a
Bering Strait crossing? The fundamental problems -both a lack of demand, and political obstacles- would seem to remain unchanged. Other ideas -a Bering Strait ferry or bridge- seem equally fantastical (Oliver 208-216). This story reminds me of the TransAmazonian railway dreamed up by Fitzcarraldo, a character who was a mad dreamer, in Werner Herzog’s classic film of the same name. With global warming and the retreat of Arctic sea ice another old dream, the Northwest Passage, seems more likely to be achieved in our lifetimes. New to the blog? Check out the most popular posts last month.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University