STEAM-TUGS IN THE MAGELLAN STRAIT: THE SERVICE THAT NEVER WAS
Steam tug "Fueguino", trapped in ice
In 1840, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) took delivery of
two steam-powered ships, Chile and Peru, destined for
service between Valparaíso and Callao (later extended to Panama City).
En route from the British shipbuilders to their destination in central Chile, they
crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, not by way of stormy Cape
Horn, but through the well-charted and comparatively calm Magellan Strait.
The significance of this event was not lost on the Chilean government
which, as early as 1843, was reported to be considering a service of steam
tugs to tow sailing ships through the Strait.
The commercial advantages of the shorter route seemed readily apparent. No
longer obliged to battle the winds and heavy seas (especially when west-bound),
the average journey time for
a sailing ship could be reduced from around 25 days to 5 days. With a lowered
risk of storm damage or total loss, insurance costs would fall, while wear
and tear on equipment would be reduced; last, but not least, human lives would
be saved. For decades to come, proponents of this idea attempted
to persuade the Chilean Congress of its advantages and economic viability, but
none of these dreams were ever realized in practice.
Ironically, it was not until the era of the sailing ship was nearly
at an end, that a new (and radically different) alternative became available — the
Panama Canal (1914).
A Persistent Theme
As shown below, references to the steam-tug project appeared
occasionally in the English-language newspapers. I am grateful to Professor
Mateo Martinic for drawing attention to the additional information [summarized
in square brackets] published in his book "Historia del Estrecho de Magallanes":
|1836: [Bernardo O'Higgins, from his exile in Peru,
begins to develop the
concept of a tug service
as part of a move to assert
Chilean territorial claims to the Magellan Strait, submitting the plan
to British sea captain John H. Smith for technical approval. Subsequently,
shortly before his death in 1842, O'Higgins submitted these proposals to
the Chilean President, Manuel Bulnes.]
|1837: [A group of British businessmen in Valparaíso
develop a plan to establish "The Magellan Steam Company", operating
in the Magellan Strait. Some time between 1837 and 1840, a similar project
is discussed in Callao, Peru.]
|1841: [The U.S. sealer George Mabon
is granted a ten-year concession by the
Chilean government, but subject to the prior establishment
of an administrative presence in the region. Despite the founding of Fuerte
Bulnes in 1843, the project did not materialize.]
|1843: Chilean government considers use of steam-tugs.
|1857: Unnamed writer to Philadelphia newspaper supports idea of tug-boat
|1859: US Captain Ezra Nye proposes operating a line of tug-boats,
for 20 years, in return for an annual subsidy. [This is probably the
as that described in 1858, promoted by Miguel José Santa María,
William F. Nye and A. Ried.] /3/
|1869: Unnamed company petitions for a 25-year exclusive privilege
of establishing a line of steam tugs. /4/
|1872: US diplomat Joseph Root emphasizes to the Chilean government the
benefits of a tug service, hinting
at the possibility of financial assistance from interested trading
|1880: [Magallanes Goverrnor Francisco Sampaio writes to the Minister
of External Relations and Colonization: he states that a Straits tug service is
practicable and, given the interest in cutting a competing canal across
the Panama isthmus, politically desirable.]
|1882: Unnamed company applies for a permit to establish a line of
steam tugs. [The initiator may be Emilio Castro, whose application was not
|1887: French syndicate petitions for a service of tugs; also for the
erection of lighthouses, telegraphs etc., for a period of 100 years.
|1894: Huge line of steam tugs reportedly being built in England. [This
same year, the Punta Arenas newspaper "La Razón" highlighted
advantages of attracting even a portion of the estimated 2,500 sailing
ships currently using the Cape Horn route every year.] /8/
|1896: Chilean capitalists propose a service of tug boats. [Application
by Edmundo Richard was approved by the Chilean Congress, but failed to
|1901: [French citizen Fernando Joignant applied unsuccessfully to the
Chilean Congress for permission to operate a service of tug-boats.]
|1908: Otto Larssen forms a company in Denmark to establish a
complete towing service. /10/
Why did the idea not prosper?
Estimates of ship traffic via the Cape Horn route in the final decades of the
19th century run to several thousand
vessels per year: reason enough to account for such persistent interest
in using steam-tugs — and the proposals we have identified cover a span of
65 years. So, it is interesting to speculate on the reasons why they never
advanced beyond the discussion stage. Factors working against the tug proposals
can be grouped into three broad categories:
(1) Factors: Geographical and Economic
At 53 degrees South latitude, the Strait of Magellan was a long way from the
economic and industrial centres of power, predominantly in the higher latitudes
of the North Atlantic. The Southern Pacific destinations of Australia and New
Zealand (both British colonies), plus the guano and salitre deposits of
and Atacama, accounted for only a small part of interoceanic trade. Travel
times for sailing ships were measured in months. Local support services, such
as ship-repair, were extremely scarce.
By comparison, land- and water-based solutions in Central and North America,
despite tolls and freight charges, held greater attraction for ship-owners:
(a) Nicaragua Canal: This option attracted US interest as early as 1826; in
1898 a syndicate led by W. R. Grace stood ready to proceed with construction,
but was passed over in favour of the Panama option.
(b) Isthmus of Panama: The strategic importance of a ship passage was already
recognized in Spanish colonial times. In the decades following independence,
road, rail and canal options were
studied. A railroad was completed in 1855, and operates to this day. Ferdinand
de Lesseps began work on a canal in 1881: this was abandoned in 1893, after
heavy investment. The US government formally adopted a different technical
design in 1903, signing a treaty with the government of Panama (just 3 days
after its secession from Colombia); its construction was completed in 1914.
(c) North American trans-continental railroads: The Pacific Railroad, first
of several rail routes to cross the US, opened in 1869. The Canadian Pacific
Railway was completed in 1885.
(2) Factors: Technological and Environmental
In the earlier decades, steam-driven tug-boats would have been underpowered
for operating against severe headwinds. Tow-lines are
hazardous under such conditions, either breaking, or having to be released
for safety reasons: in that event, a sailing vessel would be at the mercy of
the very dangers that towing was intended to avoid. Notwithstanding the comparative
advantage of the Magellan Strait over the Cape Horn route, in terms of calmer
seas and well-charted hazards, the winds were of comparable force and unpredictability.
It is likely that tug services would have needed to be suspended frequently.
(3) Factors: Political and Administrative
For the young republic of Chile, the Magellan region held little economic
interest until late in the 19th century. If the only beneficiaries of a tug
service were ships of other nations, it would not be surprising to encounter
parochial attitudes or indifference in some quarters, especially since the prospective
operators requested large government subsidies.
Foreign control of shipping in the Strait (such as the US's subsequent long
lease on the Panama Canal Zone) would not have been an option, given its strategic
importance as the southern gateway between two great oceans.
Although a Magellan Strait service would
favour ships of all nations, especially British ones, there is no evidence
in the sources consulted of any inter-government discussions by Chile (either with
Britain or any other nation) to pursue such a project.
Chile may also have considered the management of ship traffic as potentially
onerous, and often problematic. The Strait, roughly 300 nautical miles long,
with a width at its narrowest point of only 1 mile, would need to be shared
by a mix of steam and tugged-sail traffic, travelling in both directions.
How would priorities be set? What kind of competitive behaviour might be expected?
What response should be made when a sailboat wished to travel under its own
power? Would the tug traffic generate sufficient revenue?
The End of an Era
Even as early as 1872 (see letter by
Governor Viel) it was clear that the
era of commercial sailing ships would draw to a close. Surprisingly, this did
not occur until around the 1940s. The "last fling" of sail was due to the
development of the "windjammer", a style of vessel whose metal hull,
large carrying capacity and high speed made it a viable long-distance competitor
to the steamships. These were the last, and arguably the finest, sailing ships
ever to "round the Horn".
|/1/ "Courier", Hobart, Tasmania,
29 December 1843, Page 4; quoting
the "Plymouth Times" (Devonport, England)
|/2/ "Sydney Morning Herald", New South Wales, 4 August 1857,
Page 4; quoting the "Daily Alta" (San Francisco, California)
|/3/ "The Argus", Melbourne, 25 April 1859, Page 4; quoting
the "New York Herald"
|/4/ "Memphis Daily Appeal", Tennessee, 19 July 1869, Image 1
|/5/ "Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the United
States … 1873", Part I, Vol. I, Pages 104-117
|/6/ "Sacramento Daily Record-Union", California,
18 July 1882, Image 4
|/7/ "Hawaiian Gazette", Honolulu, 13 December 1887,
Page 5; quoting the "Shipping Gazette" (London)
|/8/ "New York Sun", 2 September 1894, Page 5; report by John R. Spears
|/9/ "Hawaiian Star", Honolulu, 6 August 1896, Image 1
|/10/ "Marion Daily Mirror", Ohio, 20 January 1908, Page 2;
reporting from Berlin
1. National Library of New Zealand. "Papers Past"
2. National Library of Australia. "Trove: Digitised newspapers"
3. United States Library of Congress. "Chronicling America"
4. New York Times. website
5. Photo of tugboat, Municipalidad de Puerto Natales