A Brief History of Baguio City, Philippines
The beautiful City of Baguio, also known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines, was just one of the 31 tiny settlements, or rancherias, established at around 1846 by the early Spanish colonizers in the pine-covered highlands of the Benguet province. Back then, the rancheria that would eventually become Baguio City was called Kafagway, a village inhabited by the Kankana-ey and Ibaloi tribes of the Cordilleras. Rising around 5,000 feet or 1,524 meters above sea level, Kafagway and the rest of the Benguet province was perfect for growing arabica coffee, as the Spanish settlers discovered. The coffee trees, however, would outlast the Spanish colonizers for elsewhere in the world, something else was brewing that would change the destiny of Kafagway.
In the international arena, the United States of America won the war against Spain, and Spain sold the Philippines to the Americans for $20 million. By the early 1900s, the cool climate of the highlands as well as its rich gold ore deposits quickly attracted the Americans. The new colonizers began the construction of Kennon Road that would link the highlands to Pangasinan, to La Union and to the other lowland provinces.
Soon after, the highlands were developed as mining camps and as a retreat for the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1903, the Americans built Camp John Hay as a rest and recreational facility for US servicemen. At the same time, Americans mined the mountains in Benguet for gold. Kennon Road alone was lined with several mining camps. The American architect and urban planner Daniel H. Burnham designed the city. The city got its name, however, from bag-iw meaning “moss” in Ibaloi – the native tongue of the Benguet province. On September 1, 1909, the Americans declared Baguio a chartered city and the Summer Capital of the Philippines. During the American Occupation, quite a few Baguio natives acquired a taste for country songs, cowboy hats and boots. They also gained a command of the English language. Baguio City, in many ways, became westernized under American rule, and even resembled an idyllic American town.
This idyll, however, was shattered by war once again. Baguio City fell into the hands of a foreign power for a third time as the Philippines got drawn into the war between the United States of America and Japan. Japan bombed the city of Baguio on December 8, 1941 and invaded Camp John Hay 19 days later, turning it into their command post. During the early stages of the war, Japan successfully conquered many territories in the Far East. The Americans later recovered, however, and even gained the upper hand. Soon the Japanese imperial army was on the run. Japanese forces from all over Asia retreated to Baguio for their final stand. It was rumored that the retreating Japanese forces took with them the riches from the many countries they plundered. Then, upon the orders of Emperor Hirohito, on September 3, 1945, General Yamashita formally surrendered to the Americans in Camp John Hay. No treasure was ever recovered from the Japanese, and an urban legend was born: the fabled Yamashita Treasure. The legend has grown with the passing of time, and so has the alleged treasure. Numerous rumors of crates filled with gold bars and jewel-encrusted golden buddhas buried here and there have kept hordes of treasure hunters searching and digging all over Baguio and Benguet. But it was something less incredible and less dramatic than Yamashita’s Treasure that began to draw more people to Baguio.
Shortly after the war, Baguio reestablished itself as a favorite tourist spot of the Philippines. War-damaged buildings were repaired and more were constructed. Moreover, with the improvement of roads and other infrastructures, the city also established itself as the cultural and learning center of the north. Baguio became a melting pot as migrants from Kalinga, Apayao, Mountain Province, Abra and Ifugao as well as from the lowlands were drawn by the rapid urbanization of the city. It was this development coupled with Baguio City’s natural, cultural, historical and scenic attractions that made Baguio a top travel destination for honeymooners, families on vacation, executives on business conventions and conferences and Philippine showbiz celebrities.
Baguio History Trivia
It is interesting to note that the famous Zigzag of Kennon Road was born of an engineering error! Engineers decided to build Kennon Road more or less parallel to the mighty Bued River. The Americans went to work quickly and began building the road from both ends. Then, nearly five years into the project, it became clear the ends won’t meet because of differences in elevation. The engineers twisted and turned the road to compensate for early miscalculations, producing the steep and winding Zigzag.
Kennon Road nevertheless remains to be the most scenic route to Baguio from the lowlands so take this route if possible. In the Klondikes, visitors will get their first ceremonial welcome or “baptism” from the cool mountain streams gently trickling from the rocks high above onto the road below. Further up, the Bridal Veil Falls is an awesome sight to behold. The name says it all but you just have to see it to believe. Don’t miss the Lion’s Head and the Zigzag View that comes right after the gigantic lion. Just remember to drive slowly and safely. You’ll often find yourself driving with a wall of rock on one side and a ravine on the other. During or immediately after heavy rains, take Marcos Highway or Quirino Highway (formerly known as Naguilian Road) instead. Being parallel to the Bued River, Kennon Road is prone to road cuts and rockslides! Kennon Road best exemplifies the Cordilleras: wild and beautiful.