During the 19th century, conditions were ripe for the development of infrastructure in Latin America. In Cuba, private investors were capitalizing on the sugar crop and looking for efficient transportation from the interior to seaside ports. This led to the first phase of railroad development in the 1850s. In the 1880s, large sugar mills transformed the structure of the sugar sector. This led to the creation of private railroads built by plantation owners to move raw material to the sugar mills and then to the public rail system for sugar export.

Pedro II ruled Brazil from 1825 to 1897 under the slogan "União e Indústria" (Union and Industry). The period saw the beginnings of industrialization, the first paved roads, the first steam-engine railway, a submarine telegraphy cable, and the introduction of the telephone. Pedro II was known as a scholar and a scientist and was a proponent of education. Many elite Brazilians came to the United States for higher education during his reign.

In 1861, a Director of Public Works was appointed in Peru and an appeal was made to American engineers for topographical surveys. Plans were made for bridges, roads, water works, and railroads. American engineers were also hired in Chile to build railroads and bridges. The American engineers were good advertising for American engineering schools, which encouraged native born students to study engineering abroad.

Surveys were conducted in Nicaragua and Panama to find the best route for an isthmian canal. The United States approved the Panama route and took over the canal project from the French in 1902. Construction on the canal began in 1904. The building of the Culebra Cut, later renamed Gaillard Cut, took place from 1907 to 1913. It was needed to link the artificial Gatun Lake with the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks that brought ships into the Canal from the Atlantic. Men and machines labored to conquer the 8.75-mile stretch extending through the Continental Divide.

The need for improved transportation to move raw materials to the coast of Latin American countries for export was a driving force behind the development of public works. The need for engineers to plan and build these projects was in turn the driving force behind the import and export of men educated at American colleges such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI engineers played an integral role in the development of Latin American countries.