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Service of Steam Tugs in the Magellan Strait: Three Proposals (19th century)
A vision never to be fulfilled
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. /1/
1857: Unnamed writer to Philadelphia newspaper supports idea of tug-boat service. /2/
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 same proposal 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 nations. [proposal/5/
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 accepted.] /6/
1887: French syndicate petitions for a service of tugs; also for the erection of lighthouses, telegraphs etc., for a period of 100 years. /7/
1894: Huge line of steam tugs reportedly being built in England. [This same year, the Punta Arenas newspaper "La Razón" highlighted the commercial 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 materialize.] /9/
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 Tarapacá 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 [US proposal]
/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" website
2. National Library of Australia. "Trove: Digitised newspapers" website
3. United States Library of Congress. "Chronicling America" website
4. New York Times. website
5. Photo of tugboat, Municipalidad de Puerto Natales