Cornell archives offer insight into Colombia's past

10/21/15

At the time, the remark about the weather was offhand, part of correspondence between young spouses. But more than 160 years later, it was startling.

“He said the climate was quite bearable, as long as you stood in the shade. He could do all the work beneath the trees,” said José Vicente Mogollón-Vélez, a Colombian scholar and public servant. Mogollón-Vélez visited Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Oct. 14-15 to learn about his country’s natural environment from the papers of John Cresson Trautwine, who designed the Canal del Dique, linking the Bay of Cartagena and the Magdalena River in Colombia in the 1850s. “Today, this area has been completely denuded of trees.”

Mogollón-Vélez, a former Colombian senator and minister of the environment in Bogotá, said his research at Cornell was part of his efforts to help repair the damage wrought to Colombia’s ecology by the great public works projects of the past.

Trautwine was a naturalist, cartographer, engineer and explorer. His son, John Cresson Trautwine II, and grandson, John Cresson Trautwine III, studied civil engineering at Cornell. The Trautwine collection, which includes documents related to the Canal del Dique as well as a study for a railroad from the Caribbean coast to Bogotá, came to Cornell in 1949.

Because Cartagena’s humid climate causes documents to deteriorate, those interested in studying the region’s history must consult archives in Bogotá, Madrid, Seville – and in Ithaca, Mogollón-Vélez said. At Cornell, Mogollón-Vélez gleaned historical clues not only from Trautwine’s correspondence but from his detailed maps and even his expense accounting – his hotel cost $1.50 a day.

Curator Laurent Ferri said Mogollón-Vélez’s use of the Trautwine papers illustrates the continued relevance of historical documents for practical purposes.

“Archives are not just for scholars studying the past, but people seeking to use this knowledge for today,” Ferri said. “Looking at these historical documents, you can not only reimagine the 19th century, but avoid making the same mistakes in the present.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.