George Earl Church
George Earl Church (1835-1910) was a writer, civil engineer, and an explorer in Latin America. Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on December 7, 1835, Church on his fathers side was a direct descendant of Benjamin Church, while his mother's side was traced to a daughter of Edward Winslow, a passenger on board the Mayflower. Church moved with his family to Providence, R.I. at the age of three, possibly upon the death of his father.
His first employment, after having received instruction in engineering during high school and by tutors, was with the Boston & Maine Railroad. He also was early engaged on the Hoosac Tunnel. In 1857 at the age of 22, his first expedition to Latin America took him to Argentina, where he participated in railroad and military advisory projects. Initially he was appointed Chief Engineer for the Argentine Great Northern Railway, based in Buenos Aires surveying a route for the government of Argentina. After delays occurred due to financial restrictions, Church joined a seven-month exploration of southern Argentina that covered 7,000 miles (11,000 km). On his return, he joined the engineering team of the Argentine Great Northern Railway.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War broke out six years later, he returned to join the Army of the Potomac in the 7th Rhode Island Infantry. He became lieutenant colonel of the 7th Rhode Island and then served as colonel (i.e. commanding officer) of the 11th Rhode Island Infantry from October 1862 until July 1863. After his military service, he was appointed chief engineer for the Fall River railway extension of Providence, Warren, and Bristol Railway.
Church's extraordinary career as an engineer during the period of industrialization, economic expansion and territorial quests spanned from railway projects in Rhode Island and Canada to reporting on the Costa Rican banana industry. He consulted for English investors as well as for the Bolivian government, which commissioned him to explore the prospects of a transnational infrastructure for trading routes to the Atlantic. His expertise in Latin American geography, politics and economy was also sought by the U.S. government for missions in Mexico and Ecuador. He traveled tens of thousands of miles across the Latin American continent on land as well as on the Amazon and the Straits of Magellan.
Having written on issues associated with Mexico, the United States Government had Church appointed as war correspondent of the New York Herald in 1866. While acting as a correspondent, Church was appointed a principal military adviser of President Benito Juárez. After Juarez had secured his victory, Church unsuccessfully tried to get Washington to intervene in saving the life of Maximilian I of Mexico.
He explored the Amazon (1868-1879), and gradually became the leading authority on that region of South America, being appointed United States commissioner to report on Ecuador in 1880, and visiting Costa Rica in 1895 to report on its debt and railways. He then explored the River Amazon from 1868, becoming the leading authority on that region of South America. At this point, he spoke fluent Spanish, Portuguese and French, and was familiar with many Amerindian languages of Mexico, and Central and South America. In 1869, Church was appointed by the Government of Bolivia to find a way to explore a navigation enterprise that linked the Mamoré and Madeira Rivers, to extract raw materials from the Amazon jungle.
However, on realizing the difficulty of this undertaking from the Pacific Ocean side of the mountains, in 1870 he gained a concession from the Government of Brazil to explore the construction of a railway to connect the border states of Rondônia and Acre to the navigable Amazon river at Porto Velho. He made two failed attempts to construct the Madeira-Mamoré Railway, one in 1870 and a second in 1878, both through the failure of sub-contractors who were blighted by malaria.
Appointed United States commissioner to report on Ecuador in 1880, he then advised on railway projects in Argentina in 1889, and was then appointed United States commissioner to Costa Rica in 1895, to report on its debt and railways, with the possibility of improvements to the banana industry. During this period he wrote extensively on South and Central American, its people and its geography, often in partnership with his friend Clements Markham.
He wrote extensively on South and Central American geography, and became a vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society (London) as the first non-British member of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society. Among other scientific associations in 1898 he was made president of the geographical section of the British Association. He published on Mexico and its revolutions in the New York Herald (1866) and on South America's geography in The Geographical Journal (1901).
Church had met the musician and composer Olivia Sconzia, with whom he had two daughters: Blanche, born in Paris, France, on May 18, 1874; Nora, born in Florence, Italy, on February 2, 1878. He married Alice Helena Carter in 1882, and after her death in 1898, married the daughter of accountant Sir Robert Harding, Anna Marion Chapman. In his last years, he travelled to Canada to advise on a new transcontinental railway. Church died in London, where he lived during most of the last three decades of his life, on January 4, 1910.
Originally, he bequeathed his library on Latin America to Harvard University, with the provision that the materials be kept together in their entity. In 1912, after Harvard proved unwilling to maintain the collection intact, it was transferred to Brown University, which Church had designated as his secondary beneficiary. The George Earl Church Collection, which consists of 3,500 volumes of mostly 18th and 19th century monographs on all topics regarding Latin America, is now housed in Special Collections at the John Hay Library. Church's portrait was executed in 1885 by British portrait painter Ethel Mortlock (d. 1904), and came to Brown along with the bequest of his library.
Church, Col. George Earl". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. pp. 333–334.
"Obituary, Colonel George Earl Church". 35: 203–205. JSTOR 1777010.
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 6. pgs. 324-325.
Ethel Morlock, "George Earl Church (1835-1910)". Oil on Canvas, 49 1/2 in. x 29 1/2 in. Image courtesy of the Brown University Portrait Collection, Brown University, Providence, R.I.
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