Aug 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Baguio!

By the time this sees print, it would be a day before Baguio’s 99th Charter Day. Tomorrow, we could sit back and look at our 99 year-old city and see what have become of this American dream of a hill station up in the cool mountains of the Cordilleras. I may have written about the city’s brief history before, but looking back again as we look forward to the city’s birthday is something I just couldn’t resist.

A little over a hundred years ago, soon after taking over the archipelago from the Spaniards, the Americans heard of a highland oasis that the previous colonizers planned to turn into a sanitarium, thanks to Professor Dean C. Worcester, the only ranking American official who has lived in the country during the Spanish occupation. Worcester, a zoologist, has made expeditions in different parts of the country between the years 1887 (the year Jose Rizal rocked the country with his “Noli”) and 1893 (about the time the Katipunan was slowly turning into a formidable revolutionary force that would eventually open the doors to Philippine independence). During that time, he learned of the planned Spanish hill station in nearby La Trinidad, Benguet. As a member of the Schurman Commission, the group formed to investigate the environmental conditions up here, Worcester came across a detailed report of a previous commission tasked to do the same thing: the Benguet Commission under the Spanish Governor General Ramon Blanco. And that set off a series of events, fortunate and unfortunate, the realization of the Baguio dream.

It didn’t happen overnight, and several times the whole dream was threatened. Upon visiting the area, the Americans decided that Kafagway, an area that approximates the present site of Baguio City, then divided primarily among Carino, Suello, Carantes, Camdas and Molintas families, was the better site for the future hill station, mainly because of its better accessibility from the lowlands (ha!). The first thing they needed was a road to get there, and here lies the first major setback.

They wanted a railroad from the lowlands up to Baguio, and thought that the trail the runs alongside the Bued river was the best route. The first man tasked to build that road (which was supposedly a mere prelude to a railroad), was Captain Charles Mead, who greatly underestimated the challenges posed by the conditions of the area. What the Americans thought would take only a year to build took 5 years, and would cost only $75,000 in the end cost $2,000,000. And after two failed attempts to complete the Benguet road and millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money and several years, what did the Americans have to show up in the proposed hill station? A tiny hospital and meager lodging facilities. The clamor to abandon what the people believed was a wasteful project aimed to benefit only the elite became stronger and stronger, but the resolve of the Americans seemed to grow stronger than that clamor.

But When Lyman Kennon took over the construction of the road, the dream came closer to realization. Construction activities went into high gear when Kennon made significant developments in the road’s construction, and when he announced in January of 1905 that the “road as it stands is entirely completed and ready…,” Baguio was on a one way road to becoming one of the most beautiful hill stations in the world.

Burnham entered the picture and provided one of the beautiful designs for a future city (of 25,000 people by the way). What was once planned to be a mere sanitarium took a life of its own and became a premier rest and recreation center, helped in so many ways by the declaration of Baguio as the country’s Summer Capital which meant that for a period of time when the heat becomes unbearable in the country’s capital, Manila, the seat of government and its functions are transferred to Baguio.

Here’s my two centavos’ worth: in the decades that followed after 1909 when Baguio became a chartered city, Baguio became one of the most beautiful cities in the world, famous for its pine forests and sunflower covered hillsides and cool climate. But in the last decade or so, we seem to have thrown all that away in the name of mindless hyper-urbanization and to sustain some people’s greed and gambling addictions.

Happy birthday, Baguio! I pray that your people would once again be bound by a sense of community and deliver you from all evil.

Cordillera Today, August 31, 2008 issue

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