Go Baguio! Your Complete Guide to Baguio City, Philippines

Kennon Road and Baguio


The epic of Kennon Road is a part of the story of Baguio.
Without it, Baguio would not have survived.

by Ernesto R. Zárate, FPIA
A road was badly needed

The early settlers of Baguio, however, were beset with a serious problem. A road had to be constructed if the city was to prosper. Being on flat land, a La Union access from San Fernando through Naguilian would have been comparatively easy to develop aside from the fact that there was already an existing horse trail that traversed the peaks and sides of mountains all the way up to Baguio. But from Manila, one had to travel by boat to San Fernando which took the whole day, and then another day on horseback up the mountain trail. (At that time, the railroad ended at Dagupan – many kilometers from the base of the mountain.)

Several possibilities were considered and a decision was made to construct a wagon road up the narrow Bued River canyon to be called “Benguet Road.” In December, 1900, Captain Charles W Meade, then the City Engineer of Manila, was hired to undertake the project. With a budget of only $75,000.00, the money was quickly exhausted. Captain Meade was relieved on August 20, 1901.

N. M. Holmes took over as engineer of the project with an additional budget of $225,000.00 to get the job done. This time, however, Holmes encountered labor problems with the natives and by June, 1902, only a few kilometers had been opened up for wagon travel. Bad weather and landslides also hampered its progress.

Disquieting rumors were also rife as to the practicability of completing the road. There was a difference of opinion between the engineer in charge and one of his immediate subordinates. They could not agree on which route should be followed. The consulting engineer of the commission was thus ordered to make a survey. He reported that the route that was started was the more feasible course, but to complete the project, at least $1,000,000.00 would be needed. Not wanting to relive the experience the Commission had with Engr. Meade, they solicited expert advice, from Colonel Lyman W. V. Kennon, a man of great energy and executive ability, who had had vast experience in engineering work in mountainous country.

Enter Col L. W. Kennon

Historical documents describe Colonel Kennon as a tall and bearded man of fifty who had extensive engineering experiences while in South America and led the first American volunteer regiment to the Philippines during the revolution.

Lyman W. Kennon was a graduate of West Point but
began his career inauspiciously, being suspended one
year for hazing. On graduation, he found himself in the
Cavalry, knee deep in snow, trying to move Indians to a
new reservation. He was sent to survey the route for a
possible inter-oceanic canal, and then surveyed Mexico's
southern border (climbing 48 volcanoes each over a mile
in height in the process.) He was recommended for a
brevet promotion and the Congressional Medal of Honor
for his role in the Spanish American War. 

The annals of West Point further reveal: “Spending many years in the Philippines, he read and memorized passages from the Koran in preparation for an assignment to a Moro area. While in the Philippines, he completed a key road in 18 months (simultaneously surveying a better route that was not politically acceptable until 11 years later) where others had failed and the job was expected to take 3 years. His crew was composed of 46 nationalities, including Sikh guards lent by Britain. His recruiting was so good that the Navy refused shore leaves in fear sailors would desert to get on his road crews….” But that is getting ahead of our story.

A cast of thousands

According to records, between 2,300 to 4,000 workers were employed in the building of the road, all of different nationalities— American, Hawaiian, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, German, Irish, English, Swedish, French, Japanese and, of course, Filipino. Colonel Kennon is thus credited for employing the first overseas contract workers to the Philippines. A breakdown of the figures showed that 49 percent of the workers were Filipinos, 22.5 percent were Japanese, 17.5 percent were Americans and Europeans, 11 percent were Chinese, and the remaining 11 percent were from Latin America and other countries.

Records also showed that less than half the number of workers survived the building of the road. Aside from accidents, many too, died of malaria. Some of the survivors stayed behind and settled for good in Baguio City.

Colonel Kennon was a dynamic, untiring man. Under his leadership the area of Twin Peaks was soon bustling with activity. He was a compassionate person, a great organizer and an inspiring leader. The natives loved him. Under his guidance the road moved quickly towards completion.

Cameron Forbes, in his notes on Baguio further relates…

"As the Benguet Road began to creep into the hills, a stage line
was inaugurated from the northern end of the railroad at Dagupan
through the province of Pangasinan to the end of the road, from
which point the remainder of the trip was made up the Bued River.
During the construction of the road, stages passed from camp to
camp of road-builders, until finally, at a point called 'Camp Four,' all
passengers had to take to horses and follow a new trail which
zigzagged up the mountainside on an extremely steep grade, where
it was often necessary to walk, leading the horses. The trail reached
the high levels at a place called Loakan, from which point seven miles
of delightfully cool riding on easy grades brought one into the site of
the future city of Baguio."

Even when Taft left the Philippines to assume the post of Secretary of War in Washington, he was keen to see the completion of this road up to Baguio.

To get the Benguet Road completely finished, Cameron Forbes, who was then the Governor General of the Philippines, used practical psychology—it was leaked out that he placed a bet with Colonel Kennon that the road could not be finished by January 30, 1905. Upon learning of this, the entire work force doubled their efforts to help their beloved chief win the wager. So a day before the deadline, on January 29, they stood by the roadside in boisterous laughing groups to cheer Colonel Kennon as he drove up on a carromata straight through all the way up to Baguio. 

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Col. Lyman W. V. Kennon
©2012. All Rights Reserved. GoBaguio! Your Complete Guide to Baguio City, Philippines
About the Author:

Ernesto R. Zárate, FPIA, a Fellow of the Philippine Institute of Architects, is also an actor in Philippine movies and television and a published author. He was born and raised in Baguio City. His father, Juan F. Zárate, a Baguio old-timer, was the supervising teacher for the entire Mountain Province (Apayao, Kalinga, Bontoc, Ifugao and Benguet) during the American Occupation. His grandfather was the first treasurer of the Baguio local government which was then just a township.
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