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Early writings from Southern Patagonia
Title: The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn
Sub-title: A study of life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia
Author: John R. Spears
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1895



When the ordinary citizen of New York city hears anyone speak of Staten Island the name at once recalls to his mind a host of pictures of ferryboats crossing a beautiful bay; a landing where vociferous men in uniform and rapid-transit trains await the rush of passengers; shady avenues leading over rolling green hills; charming cottage homes with grassy lawns and tennis courts about them; booming town sites; a sea beach devoted to fun that is hilarious rather than joyous; oyster beds and fishing smacks – a most remarkable conglomeration of metropolitan, rural, and alongshore life, and all within a half-hour's journey of the city which he proudly calls his own. To a few – to a gray-haired merchant here and there down town, a few grizzled watchmen about the shipping, sundry skippers of the ships where the watchmen are employed, all of whom have seen service in the sealing ships of twenty-five years and more ago – a reference to Staten Island awakens memories of an entirely different nature. Instead of the smooth waters of New York harbor they think of a boisterous sea; instead of leafy avenues, bordered by charming homes, they see only foaming surf, with dark and threatening cliffs; instead of the pleasures of tennis court or the hilarious dance, they remember only the whizz of a hurricane in a ship's rigging, and work on deck when drenched by icy sleet and rain. The one knows only the Staten Island that bounds the south side of New York bay; the other knows as well, perhaps is much more familiar with, that other American Staten Island lying more than 7000 miles away in the Cape Horn region.

No more lovely Indian summer day was ever seen than the first day of the Antarctic winter, June 1, of the year 1894, as enjoyed by the passengers and crew of the Argentine naval transport Ushuaia, as she steamed out of the east end of Beagle Channel and headed for the Strait of Le Maire, bound to St. John harbor, in the east end of the Antarctic Staten Island. The air was soft and warm, the water dimpled, the leaves on the waving trees ashore flashed in the sunlight, the distant snowcapped mountains rose through a dreamy haze. And so the conditions remained until the sun went down and the slender arc of the new moon appeared among the luminous mists of the western sky. To the passengers the prospect of a delightful night was all that could be asked, but the old salts shook their heads.

"You just hold fast all till midnight," said one to whom a passenger spoke enthusiastically of the weather. "To-night is the change of the moon, eh?" and he nodded his head toward the west.

Sure enough, by midnight a northwest gale fit to twist the life out of a ship was roaring over the water, and the little Ushuaia was pitching and tossing along like a Newport catboat in a cross Sea. She was then in the Strait of Le Maire, and a worse current for a contrary wind can probably be found nowhere in the world. It is a rush of broken water hurrying along at from five to six and a half knots an hour, while the tide rips, formed by the eddies off the capes on both sides of the strait, are something to make a seaman gasp. Luckily for us, we had a seaboat of a model fit even for a maelstrom, and with scarce a sea on deck we labored through the worst of it, and at daylight next morning the outline of "the rugged inhospitable Staten land was visible amidst the clouds" on the starboard bow.

Thereafter we cruised along, heading to the east, for several hours within a very few miles of the coast, and the passengers gathered on deck to gaze on such landscapes as only those who travel out of the usual way may enjoy. And certainly it was a view worth all the discomforts of a long and stormy voyage, for here is found the end of the mountain system of all the Americas. Cape Horn Island is, in a sense, the south end of the Americas, but the backbone of the hemisphere bends to the east at Mount Sarmiento on Tierra del Fuego, and running along the shore of that great island is broken by the Strait of Le Maire, as it was broken by the Strait of Magellan only to appear again beyond the narrow water in the cliffs and ridges and gulches of Staten Island. It is not until one has been on or around Cape St. John, on the east end of this island, that he can accurately say he has rounded the southern end of the American continent.

It is true that at first glance one would scarcely recognize any relationship between the Rocky Mountain system and the ridges of Staten Island, but one does not need to be a geologist to recognize a certain similarity on a closer inspection. And nowhere will the similarity be recognized more quickly than when passing New Year's Islands, just off the north coast of Staten. Here on these islands, small as they are, the traveller sees a tiny picture of the plains of Colorado, below Pike's Peak, and if he will but land there, and wash a panful of dirt, he will find at the bottom the kind of dust that has made Cripple Creek famous.

As seen from the passing steamer, Staten Island is a continuous ridge varying for the most part from 2000 to 3000 feet above the sea. The sides seem steep and the tops are rounded. The snow line in June was about 1000 feet above the sea, but the use of the word line should not be understood to imply that the snow ended at any well-defined limit. Not all the crests 2000 feet high were white, and on the sides of the mountains the drifts and blotches of snow sometimes reached down to within 500 or 600 feet of the surf. Still, there was comparatively little snow below an altitude of 1000 feet, and not much bare ground above that limit. At a distance of five or six miles the colors of the uncovered parts of the mountains were dark grays and black. The rocks looked very like the rocky declivities one may see all along the Hudson, though in no other respect was the scenery like that on the Hudson. A closer view of the island showed that the darkest shades of the mountain sides were green rather than black, and were due to wide masses of vegetation, among which tree trunks could be distinguished with a glass. But there was no sign of animal life ashore.

Over the sea, however, as we steamed along, the air fairly teemed with antarctic life. Ducks in flocks a half mile long drifted and sailed hither and yon. The little Cape Horn pigeons, whose black backs and wings are most beautifully mottled with white, floated in scores and hundreds in the air about the ship, sometimes so closely that one could almost touch them with the hand. The huge white albatross, with its ten-foot spread of wings, careened up and down and around, as if for the pure love of the motion, while coal black gulls – the web-footed ravens of the sea – contested with their light colored cousins for the refuse thrown from the ship. Then there were the penguins. Once, as we steamed along, we ran into a flock of them, and sent them diving from wave to wave – in on one side and out on the other – in a way that at first sight made the spectators think that they were a school of fish, short and thick, black on top, and with a white stripe on the side, skurrying away for life. Even now, as I think of them, I am haunted with a doubt as to whether, after all, when I thought I saw webbed feet and outstretched neck, I was not mistaken, so great was the resemblance of the fleeing penguin to a fish. And then there was a tiny kind of gull, the male of which was almost pure white – a bird that seemed little, if any, larger than a robin. It was a most wary and most sprightly little fellow, and it almost always preferred diving to flying. In short, nowhere in the whole voyage of the Ushuaia, of which the trip to St. John harbor was but a small part, did I see bird life so abundant, so varied, or so beautiful and interesting as off the coast of Staten Island.

By ten o'clock in the morning we were plainly approaching the barren, bold promontory that faced the giant seas at the east end of the island. The gale of the night before had moderated considerably by that time, but the nearer we approached the headland the more boisterous did the sea seem to be before us. To the passengers who did not know the place we seemed to be rushing into a tide rip more dangerous than anything we had seen, but just when we were preparing for the tossing that appeared inevitable, the frowning coast line opened. A fiord between the mountains was seen off the starboard bow, and we at once headed in for it. The tide rip off the east end of the island, a rip that has mention in all the coast guides and charts of the Cape Horn region, begins at this harbor.

As we entered the mouth of the fiord, we could see that on a rock jutting out from the westerly side was a building in form and apparently in size the exact counterpart of the six-sided peanut and candy pavilions one can see about the picnic and other resorts near New York. Its peaked roof was surmounted by a bulbous cupola like the top of a tower of a Jewish synagogue, and near by was a tall flagstaff from which the blue-white-blue Argentine flag flapped vigorously in the gale.

By and by we got pretty close under this rock, and then we could see some men in naval uniform standing on a ledge beside a little cannon, which they fired off just as we ran from the breaking waves that were dashing across the mouth of the harbor into the oil-smooth water within. The ship answered the salute with a roaring blast of her whistle, and then we rounded the crag where the pavilion stood, and found ourselves in what looked like a bowlshaped bay, walled in by precipices so high as to make our vessel seem utterly insignificant. Then on one side of this bowl, fifty feet or so above the water, was seen a row of little light-colored wooden houses, built on a narrow bench on the mountain side. There was a flagstaff before the largest of the buildings, and a neat picket fence before the whole row. From the centre of this fence a stairway ran down the steep decline from the bench to the beach, and from the foot of the stair a narrow pier projected a hundred feet into the bay. There were davits on both sides of the pier, with boats hanging to them, and not far away was a big lifeboat of heavy model lying at anchor. The grass that had grown below the water line of the lifeboat was so long that it could be seen a hundred yards away as she rolled lazily in the dead swell.

As soon as we had cast anchor a couple of officers and a crew of sailors came down to the pier, and then rowed off to us in one of the boats. There were enthusiastic greetings between those in the boat and their friends on the ship.

The little row of houses built on a cleft, so to speak, in the side of the rugged mountains that border St. John Bay is known among Argentine seamen as the "SubPrefectura del Puerto San Juan del Salvamiento." It was established late in the Antarctic summer of 1884. It should be kept in mind that the chief object of creating the Government post on Staten Island was for the support of a light-house to guide ships bound around the Horn, but a secondary consideration was the providing of a place of refuge with a depot of provisions for the crew of any ship so unfortunate as to be wrecked thereabouts. It was estimated that from seven hundred to one thousand ships of various nationalities pass within sight of Staten Island every year, and that before this light was established about one in a hundred was wrecked there. These estimates were wrong, but they had the effect of establishing the station.

In the United States the crew of a first-class lighthouse consists of three men. That of a life-saving station consists of a coxswain and not less than six men. To man the third-class light-house on Staten Island four men were provided, while in addition to the coxswain and crew of a life-boat there was a naval officer of the rank of a lieutenant, known as the prefect; a second in command of a lower rank, a secretary to the prefect, a valet, a cook, a baker, and a file of soldiers.

Having learned this much while on the ship, it was with a great deal of curiosity that I climbed from the boat to the pier and walked ashore.

The foot of the bluff had been terraced with spiles to keep the seas from washing out the soil there, and it was said that a northeast gale sent an ugly swell into that part of the bay in spite of the shelter of the point on which I had seen the pavilion. Under such circumstances, the only perfectly safe anchorage for a vessel was further up the fiord around a bend. Although the Ushuaia seemed to be anchored in a bowl-shaped bay, there was really a passage through what seemed to be the western wall of the bowl, and a plan of the whole fiord as laid down on the chart was really of the shape of a sock.

The stairway up from the pier had a railway of wooden timbers, with a winch at the top designed for hauling up and lowering the boats, but it seems never to have been used. At the head of the stairs was a bell that had been taken from the English ship Guy Mannering that ran into the rocks not far away during a fog in 1892. From the stairs we went to the Governor's house. The Governor was at home in Buenos Ayres on a vacation, but his assistant, with the secretary, did the honors. They had a very good quality of brandy, and very good wine, also. The house was built of planed pine. It was somewhat in the form of a right-angled U, open toward the fiord. The house was ceiled instead of plastered, and was plainly but comfortably furnished. That is to say, it was comfortable for one who could enjoy that climate unmodified by artificial means. To a citizen of the United States the Governor's house was lacking in the one thing most necessary for comfort in a climate where cold and stormy weather is the rule and the thermometer never goes above 12° centigrade. There was no heating stove in it. With the exception of the cook, the baker, and one sailor, that entire crew lived day and night in a moist atmosphere, where the thermometer ranged from 30° to 40° Fahrenheit almost every day in the year.

From the Governor's house a trail led along the mountain side, across a roaring brook, with waters as black as those in an Adirondack stream, and off over the crest of the promontory that half closes the mouth of the fiord. The Governor told me it was a well-made road, and, except for a ten-rod strip across a swamp, it was paved with stone. In the swamp there was a stone here and there – almost enough to enable an active man to cross dry shod. For the last thirty yards before reaching the end of the promontory the trail was a narrow goat path on the crest of a precipice one hundred feet high, facing the sea. With the mighty waves from across the ocean thundering against the foot of that great wall, throwing their spray high over its crest, and at times sweeping pebbles from the pathway, with the solid water rising up as if to grasp the wayfarer, that is a trail of which one may well think with a feeling of awe as well as of delight.

On a level table of solid rock at the end of this path stood the little six-sided pavilion I had seen from the sea. It was built of wood, with an iron roof, and the three sides toward the sea were filled with window glass in frames that could be removed. Inside the pavilion and facing these window frames stood two benches like two steps of a stairway. On the lower bench was a row of three locomotive head-lights. On the upper were two head-lights with a ship's anchor light (Fresnel lens) between them. The little pavilion was the light-house of St. John's Cape, Staten Island, in the route to the Horn.

In a little room at the back of the pavilion were the materials for keeping the lamps clean and bright. The place seemed to be well kept. A small wooden shanty near by was the bunk-room of the four men who attended to the lamps. A telephone was in one corner of the pavilion, but the line to the prefect's house was out of order.

Returning to the little settlement, I found that the bakery was a log-house, and so was one of the storerooms. In store it is said that a sufficient supply of dry and salt provisions for six months is kept.

While looking about the buildings one of the sailors came to me, and, speaking in English, said he had heard I was from New York city, and thereafter for ten minutes I was kept busy answering questions asked with the eagerness of one who has a great longing to hear from home. By and by he was willing, to talk of himself, though anxious to conceal his name, "because I do not want my people to know how I am living. They would rather I was dead than what I am." He had been the unruly member of a wealthy German family in New York, and had a great desire for the sea. He was placed on the schoolship St. Mary's, and in the spring of 1883 when almost ready to graduate, had had a fight with one of the ship's naval officers, after which he jumped overboard, swam ashore, and later shipped on the Yankee war ship Nipsic, which some time later sailed to Buenos Ayres. There he deserted her, and, having picked up a little Spanish, shipped in the Argentine navy as a fullfledged seaman, the navy department there preferring men who could speak English. He was afterward sent to Tierra del Fuego to man one of the stations established there in 1884. Then he went back to Buenos Ayres, where he readily got employment in a mercantile house because he spoke two languages, besides Spanish, fluently. He lost his job through dissipation after a while, and then drifted back to the navy. Once more he went to Tierra del Fuego, and there picked up a good-looking young squaw for a companion. When transferred to Staten Island he was allowed to take her along. I visited the strange couple in their home. It was a house 8 x 10 feet in size and 7 feet high. The frame was wood, and the covering sheet-iron. It had no ceiling of any kind. The furniture consisted of a bed, a chair, a table, a packing case, a couple of chests, and a heating stove for burning wood. And that was the only stove of that kind I saw south of Buenos Ayres.

The young man was an excellent penman, and so had what he called a soft snap. He kept the books and did the writing generally of the station, while the other members of the crew of his rank had such hard work to do as the station required. I asked him if he was ever homesick, and he said he was not, except when he happened to meet a Yankee, and that had not happened before since leaving Buenos Ayres. He was receiving $30 paper (say $7.50 gold) a month, with rations and clothing for himself and squaw. The squaw took good care of him, and did laundry work besides for the officers.

"I do not care for what you call civilization," he said. "I have everything I want that is within the reach of a poor man anywhere. I am very much better off than the workingmen in New York. Why should I not be contented? If I ever make a pile I'll go back, of course. I may take Cheenah there sometime, anyway, if I can do it without being recognized. She wants to go and I want to please her. But if I don't strike it rich, what do I care? " I have given this much space to the young man, because it is the true story of a boy who ran away to sea, and so will be of interest to other boys who would like to run away as he did.

A tour afoot over the island would be interesting, though a journey of great hardship. The coast line is but a series of fiords and bays. Behind New Year's Island, on the north side, is a bay that sets in almost to the centre of the island. Another from the south comes almost to meet it, the waters being separated by a low neck of sand, say 300 steps across. The traveller can find here the wreck of an old tramway by which the Yankee sealers, say fifteen years ago, used to run their whaleboats from one water to the other. It is certain that this neck of sand did not always exist. The scientists say that Staten Island is rising rapidly – that some of the bays now too shoal for a ship to enter afforded good harbors in the days when the discoverers of the region were beating to and fro. However, these two bays are still fair harbors, and the sealing crews used them every year. One finds old kettles and vats used for trying out the oil of the hair seal and the sea lion, as well as of the whales that were once numerous. There is also an old shanty that would be useful still to any one so unfortunate as to be wrecked there. A couple of goldhunters who worked the sand on New Year's Island with success in 1893, used the old shanty as headquarters. A whale may be seen about the island now and then in these days. So, too, may a few seals and sea lions, but there are not enough to pay working as yet, although the hunt was abandoned there some years ago, and the game is slowly increasing.

To travel along the beach of the island is impossible, save for short stretches. The sea breaks against the almost vertical cliffs for the greater part of the way. The way over the mountains has been attempted occasionally. Singular as it may seem to one who sees the rounded contour of these mountains – a contour which one thinks would give a perfect drainage – the chief obstacle to a tramp overland is the long succession of bogs and swamps. There are bogs that are impassable to a man without snow-shoes, which lie at an angle of thirty degrees with the horizon, if one may believe the crew of the St. John station. The bogs are masses of moss, roots, and rotten vegetation that hold water like a sponge, and yield under the foot as slushy snow would do. Where the bogs are not found there are wide breadths of forests, and very interesting as well as impassable forests they are. At the sea level the trees may be from thirty to forty feet high, with slender trunks and flat, thick, interlaced tops. As one works his way up the mountain the trees are found to be smaller, but standing closer together and having the tops more closely interlaced, until at last, with a forest three or four feet high, one can almost walk on the flattened tops of the trees – one could so walk with the aid of Norwegian skees.

Since the fur and oil industry was destroyed, Staten Island has produced nothing for export. That some part of the island could be devoted to sheep-raising there is little doubt. The Falklands, where M. Bougainville vainly endeavored to plant a French colony, now support about 2500 people, who are all well to do through raising sheep. The centre of Staten Island has the best climate, and, according to those who have climbed about the region, a ranch properly located would make its owner rich. An advantage which Staten Island has over the Falklands is in the supply of wood, but this, on the other hand, would compel the building of fences to keep the sheep out of the brush. Besides, there is so much good land for sheep in Tierra del Fuego yet unoccupied, that no one is likely to try to develop such resources as Staten Island may have for many years to come, unless, indeed, some one be found bold enough to brave the certain dangers of the seas for the sake of the gold on New Year's Island.

[end of Chapter VI]