September 17, 2015

Kaiser – building roads, and bridges, with Cuba

Henry J. Kaiser (striped tie), Carlos Miguel de Cespedes, Secretary of Public Works (Tom Mix hat) with partners and Cuban associates on the Cuban Central Highway project.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

In addition to supporting the Affordable Care Act, one of President Barack Obama’s most notable achievements has been to begin normalizing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. It’s been a rocky relationship ever since the Spanish American War of 1898, but the long arm of Kaiser history offers some positive examples.

In 1927 Henry J. Kaiser took on a $20-million contract to build 200 miles of roadways in Cuba. This was the beautiful and modern Carretera Central (Central Highway), running almost the entire length of the island.

It was a huge opportunity for Kaiser, and its success would help catapult him into the national area. He’d already worked on projects in Canada, and was eager for the challenges and rewards of the Cuban project,

Cuban Central Highway map, circa 1937
Cuban Central Highway map, circa 1937

Building the road

The total contract was for approximately 692 miles of highway, 481 of which was awarded to the Warren Brothers Company of Boston, Mass. (with whom Kaiser had partnered with in 1927 rebuilding Mississippi River levees), and 211 miles awarded to Compañia Cubana de Contratistas (Cuban Contractors Co.). The portion of the highway subcontracted to Kaiser Paving Company was about 200 miles.

The Warren Brothers/Kaiser Paving Company portion included the provinces of Pinar del Rio, Havana, Camagüey and Oriente, while the Compañia Cubana de Contratistas were to build the highway in Matanzas and Santa Clara provinces.

1927 photo of a steamroller at work during the Cuban Central Highway construction
"Steamrollers," Kaiser Paving Company Cuban Central Highway construction, Camaguey, 1927

The pavement constructed under the Warren Brothers contract was 20 feet wide, with a 6-inch base covered by a 2-inch Warrenite surface. Warrenite was a dense and durable proprietary road surface material, composed of stone and bituminous cement.

The plans for the Central Highway, prepared by a firm of consulting engineers working in collaboration with the Cuban Department of Public Works and its chief engineer, called for the construction of a highway with a minimum gradient and restricted curvature. This necessitated the excavation of deep cuts through hilly sections and exceptionally heavy fills across valleys and depressions. In many sections the back fill material was of an unstable clay nature and it was necessary to put in a broken rock reinforcement between the native soil and the base of the pavement because the alternating wet and dry seasons created such a shrinkage that often broke the pavement.

One of the most unique features of the highway was the absence of railroad crossings, and the insertion of reinforced grade crossings for… bull carts. Roads used by carts laden with rural goodness were built along the main road, with granite blocks inserted at crossing points to protect the pavement.

1928 black and white photo of Kaiser Paving Company, in Cuba.
Kaiser Paving Company, somewhere in Cuba, circa 1928.

The highway also required approximately 500 bridges. Some of the steel bridges along the highway were prefabricated in the United States under the supervision of the H.C. Nutting Co., of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The contract between the Warren Brothers Company and Kaiser Paving Company was dated February 19, 1927; Kaiser Paving started work on March 4, 1927. Although the contemplated completion date was July 31, 1931, in classic Kaiser fashion they finished a year ahead of schedule.

Kaiser put his most trusted men in charge of the operation. Alonzo B. Ordway was the general manager and Clay Bedford was the office engineer (later the general manager). Kaiser also hired George Havas, a Hungarian expatriate working as a banana plantation supervisor, as the office engineer. Havas was such an excellent part of the team that he was promoted to chief engineer, and went on to serve Kaiser Industries for many years.

The terms of the contract required that most of the labor be done by the Cuban workforce, with foreigners only staffing key positions. This proved to be a complicated blessing. Henry Kaiser was an early adopter of mechanization in the roadbuilding industry, but the conditions in Cuba thwarted his plans. It was soon found that in many cases using local hand labor and burros was a cheaper and faster method of construction than using the mechanical equipment imported for the purpose. The experience supported Kaiser’s trust in the human factor in production. He summarized the Cuba job this way:

1927 photo of a man wiht a horse and cart loaded with an air compressor.
"Ingersoll-Rand air compressor with 310 cubic foot capacity," Kaiser Paving Company Cuban Central Highway construction, Camaguey, 1927

We learned you can’t get fine talent into your organization by simply offering high salaries. You and the men you work with have to build yourselves up to the capacity to tackle bigger and bigger jobs.

Kaiser Permanente and Cuba now

Henry J, Kaiser’s biggest legacy, the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, has replaced road building with health care – and there’s a Cuba connection. Since 2012, a Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit grant has supported Oakland-based Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba in their MD Pipeline to Community Service program. The “pipeline” seeks to increase the number of diverse and socially committed physicians in underserved communities, and has provided support to more than 50 low-income, minority U.S. medical students trained at Cuba's Latin American Medical School in the form of summer observerships and clinical placements. Sacramento student Sarah Hernandez commented on the experience:

There are a lot of things to learn, but it pushes me to work harder and find those niches where I can apply my excellent Cuban medical education with my U.S. clinical training…exposure to a U.S. clinical setting is essential to my training and possible residency placements.

Special thanks to Leandro Torrella and the University of Miami Libraries for help in identifying Carlos Miguel de Cespedes in the top photo.

Enlaze a este artículo en español.