Baguio is a lovely town nestled aloft a high plateau with old Spanish houses and parks with profusion of flowers on a pine-clad mountain. Baguio is located in the southern part of the Province of Benguet, approximately 180 miles from Manila with an elevation of almost 5,000 feet above sea level. The province of Benguet was the gateway to the Cordilleras, the most spectacularly scenic area of the Philippines and had the well-preserved culture of the mountain people. Baguio is the home of the Igorots, the world renowned woodcarvers. Baguio is also home to the Philippine Military Academy, the elite military academy, affectionately known as the West Point of the Philippines.
Baguio became a town in 1900 with Mateo Cariño as the presidente (mayor) and a chartered city on Sept. 1, 1909 and nicknamed the “Summer Capital of the Philippines” for its pleasantly cool mountain breezes amid towering pine trees and beautiful scenery with parks and gardens. Hot, humid days during the long summer months sent wealthy Filipinos and Americans to the cool, dry climate of the Mountain Province especially the resort town of Baguio.
Before the American occupation, the area was a small settlement, a hamlet of about 20 homes known as Kafagway. In 1909, its name was changed from Kafagway to Baguio from the word begjiw, an Igorot word meaning moss which was in abundance in the Burnham Lake area.
Baguio was one of Governor-General William Taft’s innovations and it remains to this day a charming remnant of the U.S. presence in the Philippines. From the moment he arrived in Manila in June 1900, the torrid Manila weather bothered him. He concluded that the American community needed a cool retreat. He asked Dean Worcester, a member of his commission, to find a spot. Americans, conscious of the cool mountain air to be beneficial to their health, Worcester dug out an old Spanish medical report that claimed that the climate of mountainous Benguet province benefited and in many instances cured a lot of ailments so he formed a party to explore the area.
There, atop a plateau of green meadows and pine groves, he discovered a village known as Kafagway, its population a clan of Igorots and bizarre German scientist named Otto Scheerer, who had gone native after a broken marriage. Worcester wrote, the “delightful cold breeze” that swept the landscape “literally dumbfounded” him.
Taft, elated, commissioned Daniel Hudson Burnham to turn the site into a summer capital. Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) was one of Chicago’s greatest architects and urban planner who also designed Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) in Manila. Burnham took the job without a fee and built a town whose layout was modeled after Washington, D.C. Being one of the best American landscape architects, he also laid out plans for parks and gardens.
Taft ordered a road built to the site, a span of twenty-eight miles from the main route, entrusting his completion to Cameron Forbes, then a young U.S. official in Manila. Baguio appropriately means “storm” in the local dialect. Bedeviled by typhoons, the road ultimately cost $3 million, a vast sum for the time, as four thousand Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese worked for a decade to hack through the dense mountain jungles.
At one stage, though sick with dysentery, Taft inspected the road, finally reaching Baguio, whose bracing air reminded him of the Adirondacks. Enthusiastic, he dictated a cable to Elihu Root, Pres. McKinley’s secretary of war, in Washington: STOOD TRIP WELL. RODE HORSEBACK. TWENTY-FIVE MILES TO FIVE THOUSAND FEET ALTITUDE. Root, visualizing Taft’s girth, replied, HOW IS HORSE?
Baguio became truly American. Indeed, except for the odd Igorot wandering through its streets, it might have been a resort in the Berkshires or upstate New York. As Worcester had foreseen, rich Americans constructed large gables houses set behind deep lawns. Bishop Brent opened a boarding school, denying admission to native and even mestizo boys with the specious argument that he was preparing American students for U.S. universities. In 1910, a group of prominent Americans, also founded an American country club. Cameron Forbes wrote the prospectus, promising a golf course “equal to the finest in Scotland”. The American invited a token number of wealthy Filipinos to join the club, and several built vacations homes in the area.
An American flavor still pervades Baguio. Street commemorate American governors, among them Francis Burton Harrison and Leonard Wood, and a park honors Burnham. A Philippine army camp, still bearing the name of McKinley’s secretary of state, John Hay, once ignited a marathon legal battle. The Americans had seized the site from an Igorot chief, Mateo Cariño, who sued the U.S. government. Five years later, in February 1909, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stating that America’s “first object” in the Philippines was to “do justice to the natives, not to exploit the country for private gain.” In addition to receiving a $5,000 award, Cariño proved that U.S. law had a long arm.
Across from the Wright Park, named in honor of Governor-General Luke Edward Wright, is The Mansion, built in 1908 as the official summer residence of the American Governor-General and now the summer home of the Philippines President. The Mansion was designed by architect William E. Parsons based on preliminary plans by architect Daniel Burnham. Its main gate is a replica of the gate at Buckingham Palace.
To the southwest of Wright Park is Camp John Hay, established on October 25, 1903 after President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order setting aside land in Benguet for a military reservation for the United States Army. It was named after Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Milton Hay. Camp John Hay, surrounded by tall pines, was a vacation spot for American officials and officers. It was bombed by the Japanese the same day as Pearl Harbor. World War II started in the Philippines at Camp John Hay. With a twist of fate, the war in the Philippines also ended there with General Yamashita returning to Camp John Hay and signed the Japanese surrender to the United States on September 3, 1945.
In our Image by Stanley Karnow