Albear, a Patriot of Construction / Dimas Castellanos

Any nation whose history is full of acts of violence diminishes relevance to figures or events that are removed from this kind of acts. If violence is also promoted as the paradigm of behavior, the concept ends up entrenching so deeply in the conscience of society that it establishes a false identification between war and history, between revolutions and patriotism, thus minimizing other forms of patriotism, and other ways of making history and promoting the culture.

In Cuba, the history of violence—conquest, colonization, pirate attacks, slavery, abolition struggles, separatists, independence support, annexation support, civil wars, racial crimes, state coups, gangsterism, terrorism, insurrection struggle, armed counterrevolution—conceal figures and events that, due to their dimensions, constitute the foundations and columns of the motherland and the nation. Colonel Francisco de Albear y Fernández de Lara, a giant of Cuban engineering, born in Havana on January 11, 1816, is one such example.

In 1835 he traveled to Spain to study at the Academy of Engineering. He returned to the island in 1845, loaded with the culture and prestige that enabled his appointment as Engineer for the Royal Board of Agricultural and Commercial Development of the Island of Cuba, from which post he undertook a vast engineering career.

From the renovated Saint Augustine Convent of Havana—his first job—to the construction of the Isabel II aqueduct, we can find in his work all the distinctive engineering projects of the period. It would be enough to mention the Trinidad Cavalry Headquarters, his acknowledgment of the Zaza river for canalization purposes, his study on the widening of docks in Cienfuegos, the Commerce Marketplace, the Botanic Garden and the School of Agronomy, the docks, platforms and cranes of the coast of Havana, most of the roads from the capital to neighboring regions, the installation of the first telegraph lines in Cuba, the design of the Havana street plan, the train and central road projects, among others.

In the topic of hydraulics: In spite of the Royal Trench—built between the last decades of the sixteenth-century to canal the waters from the Chorrera River; in spite of the Fernando VII Aqueduct built between 1832 and 1835 to conduct water through iron pipes; and in spite of the 895 cisterns and 2,976 wells in place, the supply of drinking water to the San Cristóbal village of Havana was still insufficient during the first half of the nineteenth-century.

Facing this crisis, General Concha, who was Captain General of the island at the time, entrusted a commission—headed by Albear—to come up with a solution. This event presented the illustrious engineer with the opportunity to develop his master work, which consisted in providing a modern aqueduct—which would raise the water from the phreatic surface and transfer it through underground pipes—to the capital city to solve its problem of scarcity and insalubrity of contaminated waters from cisterns, wells and older aqueducts.

Once the preliminary studies were concluded, Albear chose the Vento springs out of all the options, because they were situated at over 41 meters above the sea, and because of the feasibility of the collection, conduction, quantity and quality of their waters. Afterwards, he proceeded to do an exhaustive research on the transfer of the vital liquid to the Palatino deposits; he demonstrated the negative influence of solar light over the collected waters; he modified the geology of the terrain as to adapt it to the protection of the canal; and—through the use of meager mechanical means—he succeeded in making it travel underneath the Almendares River.

No similar project could be repeated until the mid-twentieth-century, when the tunnel under the Bay of Havana was built: both works are part of the Seven Wonders of Cuban Engineering of all times.

For his ensemble of magnificent projects, Francisco de Albear was awarded—first in Philadelphia and then in Paris—a Gold Medal and an Honorable Mention that reads: “In recognition of your work, which deserves extensive study even in its minimal details and which is considered a Master Work”; the Royal Development Board qualified him as the most famous of Cuban engineers. And to this distinguished eminence of engineering, Enrique José Varona dedicated these beautiful verses:

To make a foundation for faith where excess doubt is found,

To make light in the middle of the night,

To take nothingness and found the work,

That, Albear, is to be great… And great you are!

At the time of his death, Albear possessed—deservingly so—the titles of Marquis of Saint Felix; Brigadier of the Royal Corps of Engineers; the Great Cross of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Hermenegildo and the Order of Military Merit; Cavalier of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Fernando; Professor of the Special Academy of Engineers; Correspondent Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Madrid; Member by Number and Credit of the Royal Academy of Medical, Physical and Natural Sciences of Havana; Partner of Merit of the Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Nation; Honorable Member and Correspondent of the British Society for the Development of Art and Industry; Founding Partner of the Geographical Society of Spain; Member of the Scientific Society of Brussels; and Member of the Society of the Working Classes of Mexico.

In recognition of his work, the aqueduct that was initially named after Isabel II was renamed after him, and the Havana City Hall erected a statue in his honor at Monserrate Street, between Obispo and O’Reilly, in Old Havana. However, the recognition of this eminent engineer as a patriot of construction and one of the forgers of Cuban culture, whose masterly work continues to supply a great part of the water we consume today in our dear Havana, is still pending.

Translated by T

January 28 2011