Minor Cooper Keith
Minor Cooper Keith (19 January 1848 – 14 June 1929) was an American businessman whose railroad, commercial agriculture, and shipping enterprises much influenced the national economies of the Central American countries, and that of Colombia. His pioneering banana interests were absorbed by the then powerful United Fruit Company, today industry dominating giant Chiquita Brands International.
As a businessman, Minor C. Keith is notable for being a pioneer in the establishment and administration of a multi-national company and the exportation and importation of goods among the United States and the countries of the Caribbean Sea.
Minor Cooper Keith was born in Brooklyn, New York, to the lumber merchant Minor Hubbell Keith, and his wife Emily Meiggs, sister of Henry Meiggs, a railroad businessman. After private schooling, the sixteen-year old adolescent was employed as a store clerk on the Broadway; months later, he quit clerking, and became a lumber surveyor. Having saved $3,000 in a year, Keith bought a cattle ranch located on a river island near the mouth of the Rio Grande, in southern Texas, which he administered until 1871, when he accepted a work invitation, from his uncle to help manage the building of a railroad in Costa Rica, in Central America.
Costa Rican railroad
In 1871, Keith's uncle Henry Meiggs had signed a contract with the government of Costa Rican president Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez for the construction of a railroad from the capital city of San José to what became the Caribbean port of Limón. Minor Keith was involved in the project from the start and took it over after Meiggs's death in 1877.
At the time, Costa Rica's economy was based primarily on the export of coffee, which was grown in the country's central valley and transported by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Since the main market for Costa Rican coffee was in Europe and no canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans existed, creating a reliable transportation route to the Caribbean was a high priority for the Costa Rican government.
The construction of the railroad, however, proved extraordinarily challenging due to inadequate financing coupled to the rugged terrain, thick jungle, torrential rains, and prevalence of malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, and other tropical diseases. As many as four thousand people, including Keith's three brothers, died during the construction of the first 25 miles of track. Having subsequent trouble recruiting Costa Rican laborers, Keith eventually brought in blacks from the Caribbean islands (mainly Jamaica), Chinese, and even Italians, to complete the project.
By 1882, the Costa Rican government had defaulted on its payments to Keith and could no longer meet its obligations to the London banks from which it had borrowed to pay for the railroad. Keith managed to raise £1.2 million himself from the banks and from private investors, and negotiated a reduction of the interest on the money previously lent to Costa Rica, from 7% to 2.5%. In exchange, the government of President Próspero Fernández Oreamuno gave Keith 800,000 acres (3,200 km²) of tax-free land along the railroad, plus a 99-year lease on the operation of the train route. These terms were made official in a document signed by Keith and cabinet minister Bernardo Soto Alfaro on April 21, 1884 (known to Costa Rican historians as the "Soto-Keith contract"). He was de facto the land owner of at least 5% of the total territory of Costa Rica.
The two most powerful cabinet ministers in the government of President Fernández were his son-in-law Soto (who succeeded him after his death) and his brother-in-law Dr. José María Castro Madriz, who had previously served twice as President of Costa Rica. In 1883, Minor Keith married Cristina Castro Fernández, who was the daughter of Dr. José María Castro Madriz, niece of President Fernández, and cousin-in-law of Soto. His nephew-in-law Rafael Iglesias Castro served twice as President of Costa Rica (1894-1898, 1898-1902)
The railroad was completed in 1890, but the flow of passengers and cargo proved insufficient to finance Keith's debt. As early as 1873, however, Keith had begun experimenting with the production of bananas grown from roots he had obtained from the French. To market the bananas, Keith began running a steamboat line from Limón to New Orleans, in the United States. The resulting banana trade proved extremely lucrative, so that he soon established the Tropical Trading and Transport Company to increase banana movement to foreign destinations.
Keith then established banana plantations in Panama and in the Colombian Magdalena Department. He eventually came to dominate the banana trade in Central America and Colombia. In 1899, he was forced by a financial setback to combine his venture with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company, which dominated the banana trade in the West Indies. The result of the merger was the powerful United Fruit Company, of which Keith became vice-president. In 1904, Keith signed a contract with the President of Guatemala, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, that gave the company tax-exemptions, land grants, and control of all railroads on the Atlantic side of the country.
Keith also invested in gold mining in Abangares, in the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste. In 1912 he returned to railroad building, organizing the International Railways of Central America and eventually completing an 800-mi (1,287-km) railway system, but died before realizing his dream of a line from Guatemala to the Panama Canal. His work profoundly altered the economic life of Central American countries. United Fruit Company was involved in the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala but this occurred some 25 years after Keith's death.
Keith also founded a chain of general stores and owned one of the largest poultry farms in the United States.
Keith was a trustee of the foundation that managed George Gustav Heye's collection of Native American artifacts and he bequeathed his own ancient Indian gold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He died of pneumonia at his home in West Islip, aged eighty-one.
- Obituary in the New York Herald Tribune, 15 Jun. 1929, p. 13
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