Oct 17, 2007

With just a little extra effort...

Oct 2, 2007

Words of warning and desecrated graves

Shooting footages for our second episode, which portrays life in Baguio from the early 1900’s to the coming of Word War II, we visited the grave of one of the city’s most esteemed mayors, Eusebius Halsema, who served the city as its chief executive for 17 years. We were given general directions to the exact site and a description: nothing fancy, Eusebius’ grave lies next his wife’s, flat on the ground, no mausoleums, no imposing structures. We search in the general area where it’s supposed to be and after going through the names on tombstones for more than half an hour, we still haven’t found it. There were men playing basketball at a makeshift hoop near the Baguio’s cemetery’s entrance, and exasperated after a half-hour’s search, we approached them and asked if they knew the exact location. They lead us to a secluded site, and pointed to an area overrun by weeds and grass. We clear the area a bit and there were the graves, desecrated: the bronze headstones of both graves were missing. According a caretaker at the cemetery, they were stolen just recently.

After less than a decade of construction frenzy and overcoming criticisms from various sectors of Philippine society – the Americans eventually succeeded in realizing their dream of a hill station in Benguet. After only a few years since they discovered Kafagway, they have built a road that would connect it to the lowlands, a hospital, a hotel, schools, a few government and recreational structures, in the present site of Baguio. This amidst calls for the abolition of the project, particularly coming from the locals who felt that the government was wasting a lot of public funds, Filipino funds, in fact, for the benefit of the Western elite, which is not very different from the opposition just a few years ago to the development of a former military rest and recreation center into a world-class tourist hub.

The construction boom in Baguio in the early years of the 20th century was guided by a general blueprint by renowned city planner, Daniel Burnham. An urban site that can function as the country’s summer capital, a major health and recreational resort, and a significant market center. While Burnham provided expansive spaces for the construction of private residences and relevant public public and commercial structures, he strongly opposed dense settlement in Baguio. In his recommendation, Burnham stated that “The placing of formal architectural silhouettes upon the summits of the surrounding hills would make a hard skyline and go far toward destroying the charm of this beautiful landscape.” He added, “The preservation of the existing woods and other plantings should be minutely looked after, not only on the eminences immediately contigous to Baguio proper, but also for the surrounding mountains; and the carrying out of these precautions should be one of the first steps in the development of the proposed town.”

The early builders of the city, buoyed by the enthusiasm and hands-on direction of Governor-General Cameron Forbes, religiously followed the Burnham plan, and the result was one of Asia’s most beautiful hill stations.

Looking at the city today, the mountain skyline replaced with one of G.I. sheet roofs, commercial billboards and concrete buildings, it is not entirely to wrong to conclude that Burnham must be turning in his grave.

A change in administration came in 1913, and the new Governor-General, F.B. Harrison, initially was not as big a fan of Baguio as Forbes. The annual tradition of transferring the seat of government to this summer capital was discontinued, for the in the view of the new administration, this practice not only was costly, but downright inefficient for every year, when for a few months government officials would discharge their duties from up in Baguio, communication between the national, provincial and municipal offices was being disrupted.

But it took only a couple of visits to Baguio for Harrison to soften his stand against this mountain resort - he himself was eventually was captivated by the beauty of hill station. Consequently, his visits to the city became more and more frequent, staying longer and longer each time, and perhaps even exceeding the time spent up in Baguio by his predecessor. So while Harrison gave in to the call for the abandonment of the summer capital concept, he nevertheless supported its further development as a place for rest and relaxation.

In 1920, with the appointment of Eusebius Halsema, a civil engineer, the city’s development went into higher gear. Among Baguio’s achievements under the watch of Mayor Halsema were the city’s extensive well-paved roads, which, towards the end of his term as Mayor in 1937, totalled close to 110 kilometres. Baguio also boasted of having, at that time, the most modern street lighting system (sodium vapor lamps) at the market plaza, 3 hydro-electric plants and 600 telephone lines. The Loakan Airport, built to arrest the constant airplane crashes at Burnham Park and the plains of La Trinidad which served as temporary landing areas before, also came to be under Halsema’s watch. From a small city of 5,000, Halsema oversaw the tranformation of Baguio into a vibrant city of 25,000, said to be its maximum holding capacity.

Thus, in the early decades of 1900’s, the Carinos, Suellos, Caranteses, Camdases and Molintases, among the first settlers in Kafagway, together with other nameless Igorots, nurtured the land; Worcester and Wright planted the seeds, Kennon, Burnham, Malcolm, Forbes, and even Harrison, encouraged its growth; and the guidance and efficient administration of Mayor Eusebius Halsema all contributed to the fruition of the “American Dream” of a major hill station in Benguet – a fully developed city in harmony with its natural environment.

Today, all 300,000 of us, as we scratch our heads at what have become of this once highland oasis, let us be reminded by one of Burnham’s forewarnings:

“…unless early protective measures are taken, the misdirected initiative of enthusiastic lumbermen will soon cause the destruction of this beautiful scenery.”

If the desecrated grave of Mayor E.J. Halsema is an indication of how much we value our past and what it tells us, then may God have mercy on this city.


A century since… the early years,” the second episode of “PORTRAITS: Tales From A Hill Station,” airs Sept. 30, at 4:00PM on SkyCable-Baguio Ch. 12. Replays every Monday and Friday, 7:00PM.