Beloved hill station above the clouds
The holiday season from December to January with its chilly winds and cooler temperatures never fails to remind me of a place some people called Shangri-La. It was my hill station above the clouds where I grew up as a boy, enjoying some of the best years of life including a few Christmases that can never be relived again because of the people who mattered. so many have long since passed away.
Tourist brochures refer to it as the “City of Pines” or “the summer capital of the Philippines”. I never thought of it from that angle. It was quite simply at home. In my youth, I crossed on foot from one end of the city to the other without any difficulty. In fact, most of the time it was really a lot of fun. Burnham Park meant roller skating, biking, boating, and even hunting combat spiders among the many bushes surrounding the lake in the center of the park. Gentle slopes across town provided us with the best locations for our homemade shopping carts made from discarded cardboard or galvanized sheet metal. The dried pines that covered the slopes made possible the high speeds at which our carriages glided downhill, creating thrilling races.
In his fascinating book on American imperialism “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Great United States,” Daniel Immerwahr, associate professor of history at Northwestern University, tells us how Baguio was born. Just as the European colonizers set up hill stations throughout Southeast Asia primarily as health centers and recreation areas, the American colonial authorities decided to create one, choosing Baguio in the Cordilleras around 5,000 feet above sea level north of Manila.
It was William Cameron Forbes, Governor General from 1909 to 1913, who initiated the entire project, entrusting it to the famous Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham. Unlike many colonial administrators, Forbes enjoyed life in the East with its abundant amenities and multiple servants. He also loved the people “although, as nationalist leader Manuel Quezon remarked, in the same way that the former slave owners loved their black slaves.” Makati City’s enclave of the rich and famous is named after him. For Burnham, it was a once in a lifetime adventure to build a city entirely from scratch. In fact, he was responsible for drawing up the master plans for Manila and Baguio, but it was the latter that he was most interested in.
Before the start of the works, a road leading to the mountain station was necessary. The story goes that when Governor General William Howard Taft, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, first visited Baguio during the early days of the American regime, he traveled from Dagupan to the hill station on horseback, a further distance 50 miles. On arriving in Baguio, Taft sent back to Manila that he had arrived safe and sound. Manila responded by saying “How is the horse?” Initially, a railway line was considered but being too expensive, it was decided to build a railcar route instead. Major Lyman Kennon assembled a force of about 4000 men from different countries and speaking various languages. In January 1905, after months of hard work, Kennon announced the completion of the road. Benguet Road, renamed Kennon Road after its builder, was completed at a cost of nearly $ 2 million and claimed the lives of hundreds of people through illness and accidents. But for Forbes, the road was worth it. “Baguio was paradise: perpetual spring, cool mist, rolling hills, pine trees galore. “
The town itself was built according to Burnham’s plans by his protégé, William Parsons. “It was a triumph of modern engineering, boasting wide streets, an excellent sewage system, an ice factory and, later, hydroelectric power. There were tall government buildings located on the slopes that surrounded the prairie so as to dominate all in sight with stunning views. The real center of life, at least for the colonizers, was the Baguio Country Club, with an 18-hole golf course “equal to the best of Scotland”. Of the original 161 founding members, only six were Filipinos. In 1920, Baguio would be declared one of the most beautiful hill stations in Asia, attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world. Six years ago, the National Historic Commission of the Philippines declared the city a heritage site.
Over the years, the city of Baguio has gradually lost much of its earlier reputation and esteem, mainly due to overcrowding which has put great strain on services and facilities, the accompanying pollution, the illegal destruction of forest areas and the development of resorts in other parts of the country. Nonetheless, the city remains my beloved hill station above the clouds.
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