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Notes on the creation of the Baker estancia, Aisén Region (1916-1928)
by Stephen Lucas Bridges, manager

Untitled Document

by  Esteban  Lucas  Bridges

In the first quarter of the year 1916, the Society Bridges and Reynolds had the opportunity to acquire a fifth share in Hobbs and Cia [Company, Ed.]., which had been recently started by some friends of ours, the capital decided on being $100,000.

I took a trip through the country and on my recommendation, the family joined. Mr. Charles Wood was in charge up there for Hobbs and Cia., and when I remarked that in that lonely place he did not carry a revolver, he said that he had no enemies and even if he went armed, a man with a knife would nearly always get home first. Some months later he was stabbed to death near the entrance to the Baker country.

In 1922, when in South Africa, I learnt that the capital was finished, and the place heavily in debt. I returned to South America and spent some months in Baker country, which included an adventurous trip to Bajo Pisagua [port at the mouth of the River Baker, Ed.] on a canvas canoe. I then went to Punta Arenas and met my partners there.

Mr. Maurice Braun wisely wanted to liquidate, and get out of the bad business at once. I opposed him, saying that even if the government allowed us to break our contract, our sheep, as prices stood then, would hardly fetch a shilling each and that the buildings, fences, roads etc. in which our capital had been sunk, would belong to the government.

At length I offered to take charge of the Baker, and when asked what salary I would accept, said that I could not work for the wages of a peón [unskilled farm labourer, Ed.], and as the place was not in position to pay me more, I would ask them to give me my ticket to England, if I wanted it, every winter; this held good for eleven years.

Among our obligations to the Chilean government, was one in which we had to take out our produce down to the river Baker into Chilean waters. After first exploration of the river, a light metal motor launch, 24 feet long with [...] mile speed, was purchased. She was named Stephanie Mary after my daughter and a settlement was started at Bajo Pisagua, close to the mouth. From here it was possible, with this motor boat, to reach the foot of the Saltón [large waterfall, Ed.] which, following the windings of the river, was about fifteen leagues away.

A vessel was built in Punta Arenas, her engine, propellor and fittings being brought out from Scotland: she was called the Juanita, after my wife. Twice I took her up to San Carlos, where we had made a shed and landing stage to avoid a nasty rapid, which occurs near the foot of the Saltón. Unfortunately, this vessel lacked the speed necessary to surmount some of the rapids in the upper river, so we laid a steel cable, a thousand metres long. from the head of these rapids to the steamer and drew her up with the aid of her windlass. On one occasion. the vessel caught in a cross current, would have capsized, but a bollard, accompanied by a piece of deck, was tom out of her at the moment that the cable snapped.

In order to use this vessel, which burnt firewood, we built a shed and landing place about seven leagues above Bajo Pisagua in a sheltered nook we called Puerto Alegre, and the Juanita plied between these two ports, while the Stephanie Mary, which burnt expensive nafta [gasoline, Ed.], worked between Puerto Alegre and San Carlos.

As the Saltón was an impassible barrier for boats, and between that and the Colonia, the navigation of the river would have been, to put it mildly, exceedingly dangerous. We made, at great expense, a track for mules from the Colonia to San Carlos. This track required much blasting of rock and a suspension bridge, with a 73 meter span, across the Río de los Ñadis.

A semi-portable steam engine and a saw bench had been purchased in England and landed al San Julián, whence a mule team had drawn it across Patagonia. From the Entrada [Entrada Baker, Ed.], yoke oxen took charge of it. and as it was moved inland, a trace had to be made to the "Confluencia" of the rivers Baker and Chacabuco, 14 leagues from the Entrada.

At this spot I had assembled some logs and empty dip drums with which to make a raft and take our load of over five tons to the Colonia, over eight leagues by river. On our way down, the raft caught in a snag and the force of the current was such that the whole thing capsized, and the raft drifted on with its load firmly lashed beneath it. This happened in the month of May, and I not only was obliged to swim more than once in the icy water, but even had to fill my lungs with air and work with my head under water till I had to come up for another breath.

With the saw mill at work at the Colonia, though suitable timber was far away, we built a fine settlement with a shearing shad for twenty four machine shears which the steam engine would drive, and a 100 foot dip [sheep dipping trough, Ed.]. We also made innumerable bridges for sheep and pack mules, many miles of track and leagues of wire fences.

During this time, these new works and purchases demanded far more money than the farm could possibly produce. and one by one, the partners either could not or would not stand the pace, and I am afraid I was looked upon by some of them as public enemy N.o 1.

It became evident that when we began taking our wool to the Pacific, and bringing everything the farm needed from Punta Arenas via Bajo Pisagua, Puerto Alegre and San Carlos, that the Stephanie Mary, intended to carry a few passengers, could not possibly do her share of the work, so a second boat was purchased from Messrs. Short Bros. from Rochester. She was 32 feet long, her carrying capacity was about three tons, and with her 150 h.p. Kermath motor engine, she attained a speed of twenty three miles per hour: a beautiful boat, decked throughout, which we named the Ian Lucas. Even so, there were times when, with the engine all out, she was very hard put to advance against the current.

In London I had purchased a little press which made very neat bales of wool weighing, if we wished, 50 kilos each for packing two on each mule, and we had two hundred pack mules working on the farm.

During our second shearing at the Colonia an inspection, under an Engineer, Mr. Carlos Oportus Mena, was sent from Santiago to report on what was going on. There were five gentlemen in the party which I met at Bajo Pisagua and had the pleasure of their company for a month (l am not speaking sarcastically). They, the two engineers, worked hard and Oportus was, wonderful to relate, a practical man able to realize the difficulties we had been up against and appreciate the work we had done.

While this work had been going on down the river, things were not running too smoothly on the farm. Numbers of intruders had swarmed onto the land, so we were unable to use about half of the area we were renting. There were generally three Carabineros under a Corporal or a Sergeant stationed at the Baker; we paying their wages and the expenses of their transport to and from the headquarters in Punta Arenas, but it appears they were not authorized to keep intruders off our land, and some of them were certainly inclined to encourage their own people, to our detriment.

Oportus, on returning to Santiago. stated plainly the facts of the case, and suggested that we relinquish the part of the land that these people occupied. and that in cases where they had managed to get a foothold, their encampments, though useless to us, should be valued, and we should pay them that valuation. It being impossible to carry on with these people living amongst our flock, if not on them, this was done, but it took some years to accomplish.

That winter our precious Ian Lucas was lost. She had been anchored and moored in a bend of the river considered safe, when one of the extraordinary floods to which this river is liable, came down during the night. A mass of drift wood must have caught and entangled her, as the strong mooring rope was broken. No vestige of this fine boat was ever seen again.

Ian Lucas ll, 40 feet long with two Grey engines which combined gave 160 hp, was ordered at once and built of triple mahogany on the river Thames. Her load was eight tons and she had a speed of twenty three miles per hour.

Apart from the lesser floods, caused by heavy rains, or summer heat on the mountain snows and glaciers. this river is subject to extraordinary floods between the months of December and May, which have no relation to the weather. It is unfortunate that [during] those months the produce from the farm should be sent away, and the supplies needed, come up the river on the return trips. One notices the water in the river is rising and looks anxiously ahead, for occasional drift logs and smaller wood may be encountered, but perhaps in some sharp bend a mass of wood, locked together, comes charging down the passage; the unfortunate vessel has to follow, and in that case the only thing to do is to turn, if there happens to be room, and flee till some place is reached where the boat has room to draw to one side and let the pursuing island sail past.

Another and perhaps greater danger are the Coihue [Nothofagus dombeyi, Ed.] trees which sink with root and branch and are dragged along the bottom by the current. At any time or place they may turn over, and one sees the branch or root appear above the surface in what looks like a perfectly navigable stretch of water.

Blow after blow, however. continued to fall on our devoted Company. Ian Lucas II had just left for San CarIos expecting to be away about four days when two canoes with Alacaluf [canoe people native to the Patagonia archipelago, Ed.], led by a half breed, appeared at Bajo Pisagua; they were armed with two rifles, but a barricade of rock had been built in case of such an attack, and the two men who had remained there, seeing the threatening attitude of the Indians, shouted at them to go away, and at last, fired over their heads in hope of frightening them, but this seemed only to encourage them. as they believed their opponents were very bad shots. A battle soon began which ended in the death of three of the attacking party, including then leader, before the others withdrew.

As soon as I heard the news, I went down with a Major and Lieutenant of Carabineros. who made the necessary investigations, and we buried the victims. Our two men, one Scotch, one Chilean, had heroically done their duty, but after this trying episode, all they wanted to do was to leave that part of the country. The whole affair was a great grief to me, as, since my Father, over 70 years before. had cast in his lot with the Yahgans of Tierra del Fuego, this was the first time a native had died at the hands of any of us or our employees. But I had to carry on.

Bajo Pisaga was generally isolated from May till September as the winter frosts so lessened the flow of water that the river was only navigable by canoe; besides which, the state of the roads made the trip to San Carlos out of the question.

A year or two after the events I have narrated, four men had passed the winter at Bajo Plsagua, a German, an Englishman, a ChiIote cook and a Norwegian carpenter. There was plenty of work to keep !hem employed, they had a gramophone with plenty of disks and books; but it's a dreary place at the best of times, and the cook, for some days, had been acting so strangely that the Norwegian, a man of about sixty, considered he was not sane and ought to be secured, and taken up to the farm as soon as possible. One day the cook went mad, killed the German with his knife, and badly wounded the Englishman, who was in charge. These two, the Englishman and the Norwegian, secured the firearms and put off with the dinghy to the Stephanie Mary, which was anchored close by, while the madman remained on the jetty, brandishing his knife and shouting threats and challenges. I was out at the time, but the manager, McWilIiam, went down with a Carabinero officer and some men and found the whole place a heap of ashes, and the season's supplies for the farm, which had already been delivered there, completely destroyed.

It really seemed that some evil fate hung over that spot, where, some twenty five years before, the Baker company had sadly to acknowledge defeat after the loss of over one hundred men either through scurvy or drowning.

Ian Lucas ll, together with the Juanita, was anchored and moored in a completely hidden lake which had a deep but very narrow outlet winding on to the river.

It was necessary for me to go with the three survivors of the tragedy I have related, to be Interviewed by the authorities in Castro and there await certain verdicts on the case from still higher authorities in Valdivia, so the [...]

With Bajo Pisagua in ashes, even the jetty having been destroyed, we had to prepare for shearing again at the Entrada but our mechanic made occasional trips on the Stephanie Mary to see that the vessels were all right and If necessary, pump them out. This place was so secure, that not wishing to invite further tragedy during the lonely winter, I told him to make a final trip in May and leave all tidy till the following Sept. When he returned in that month he found the Juanita lying on the muddy bottom, with her funnel out of the water while Ian Lucas II had been stolen. At Bajo Pisagua was moored a spherical buoy that had once done duty near the mouth of the Thames. It was attached, by the heavy chain, to an anchor weighing almost half a ton. This, with a considerable amount of iron, which still lay at Bajo Pisagua, had also been removed. No Indians can be blamed for this, for a good windlass must have been used to raise that anchor.

We floated the Juanita once, but at last had to desert her and she will still be laying in that beautiful lonely pond.

Now I had to review the somber situation. The Colonia where we had shorn our flocks for several years was at the extreme west end of our sheep camp, and some of the animals had to be driven twenty five leagues to be shorn. The mule track from there to San Carlos was steep and rugged and the return trip took the mules at least five days. To make a cart track would have been too costly a job for us to undertake. We had, by great good fortune, never lost a man or boat in action on the river, but could not blind ourselves to the danger of this undertaking. Besides this, the consumption of nafta on these fast boats was prohibitive and the rebuilding of the Settlement and the river Fleet unthinkable. Vessels, passing up and down the main channels. strongly objected to touching at Bajo Pisagua where it was often foggy, and it took them fifty miles off their usual track.

One of the leading shipping agents in Punta Arenas told me that if on top of the ordinary freights, they were offered a premium of $16,000 Chilean every time they touched at the Port, he would still oppose their doing so.

On the other hand. the Baker had sometime previously passed from the jurisdiction of Punta Arenas to the recently established Province of Aysen, which the Chilean Govt was opening up a great rate, spending millions on a road to the interior. We proposed that we should be allowed to take the Baker produce Northward through the Argentine, and re-crossing to Chile at the head of Río Mayo, ship our wool al Puerto Aysen. This plan was followed, though the distance by the road we had to use was nearly 700 klms and the last hundred still had to be done on small bullock waggons.

We were advised to prepare for the day, which we were told was not far distant, when there would be an all Chile road from the Baker to Puerto Aysen, but we had to contribute our share. We agreed to the following conditions, to make a road for carting, connecting the Farm with the west end of the Lago Bertrand. On this road, we were obliged to spend no less than half a million Chilean pesos; a good shed and Jetty for a steamer to lie alongside at the Lago Bertrand which is connected by a narrow channel with the far larger Lago Buenos Aires.

On these lakes, we had to put a steamer capable of navigating them at all seasons of the year. We were obliged to build another shed and Jetty at Puerto Ibáñez where it was expected the proposed road from Puerto Aysen would reach the lake. There were other lesser obligations, but we had spent too much and gone too far to draw back now, so these conditions were accepted and have since been fulfilled.

But even now, our difficulties were not over. When the late President Don Pedro Aguirre Cerda took office, presenting a "Frente Popular" Govt., a wave of joy swept leftward through the ranks as far as the Anarchists who believed that the millennium had arrived.

One of our intruders, who had been to Puerto Aysen telling his woes, I believe, to a sympathetic under-employee, came back with news that the Company's days were numbered, and all their possessions would soon be divided among the needy, of whom he was an outstanding example. This glorious news spread and grew like a forest fire and new settlers poured onto our land, driving, in some cases, some sheep or cattle, to show that they were the farmers that the country needed. The Police Sergeant did not know what to do to oust the trespassers, so that he did not act after all. The Intendente of Aysen came to see us, and, on my request, he surveyed the farm on horseback during a week, with the ultimate result that, on his return to Aysen, [he] gave the Prefect of Carabineros instructions to the effect that the newcomers should withdraw from the land [...] to whence they came, within a month. They certainly went away, but not as the Intendente had intended, for they rode to Puerto Aysen where the Frente Popular took up the cry and the good Intendente thought it advisable to go to Santiago himself, and explain the situation to the President.

The bold intruders came back and settled in as comfortably as possible for the winter. The following year we might possibly have gone over the same old game and paid them for the so called improvements they had made, which would belong to us. We were not however, doIng that again and at last decided to try to get the Govt's permission to give up nearly a third of the land we were still renting, some seventy thousand hectares, and retire to the remaining 144,000. The fences, bridges, dip, and buildings at the Colonia were Govt property according to our contract, so we removed our stock, wool press, tools and steam engine on to the land [...] we occupy now. This for the most part is surrounded by natural boundaries and you may be sure, we watch them closely.

One after another of the original eleven shareholders had fallen out (not able to keep the pace), in some cases paying their share of the net liabilities as well as losing the original capital; and in 1933 even my own family refused to accompany me any longer in this hopeless struggle, and then only three of us remained, each with an equal part; Messrs Mauricio Braun, Francisco Campos and myself. The place started in 19[..] but had never paid a cent in dividends, but today it has no debts and is gathering a respectable reserve fund against a rainy day.

I read once of an Arab proverb which said that "A well fought defeat can bring more honour than an easy victory," but I feel that Victory after a desperate struggle brings more satisfaction than either.