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Service of Steam Tugs in the Magellan Strait: Three Proposals (19th century)
A vision never to be fulfilled

In the wake of the tragic loss of the US sailing ship Golden Hind near Cape Horn, the US diplomat stationed in Santiago (Dr. Joseph P. Root, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary) entered into a correspondence with the Chilean government, proposing the idea of a steam-tug service, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the Strait of Magellan. [letter]

Just such an idea had been under discussion in Chile since as early as 1843, and in the US press since 1857. At first glance, it sounded both logical and attractive. Theoretically, a passage guided by tugs would save shipowners time and money; equally important, from a different perspective, it would reduce the loss of human lives.

The Chilean government, through its Navy Ministry, referred the proposal to the Magallanes Governor Oscar Viel. In his carefully considered response [letter], Viel drew attention to the differences between the abstract idea and its practical feasibility. While noting the humanitarian issues, he focussed on logistical issues; such as the lack of ports and the need to operate beyond the Strait proper, out into the respective oceans; and on cost issues, such as the towing time required, the growing proportion of steamships, and the capacity of sailing ships to generate sufficient revenue.

Root's proposal did not prosper, but he did not abandon the idea. Doubtless with a view to seeing conditions on the ground, he accepted the invitation of the Minister of Foreign Relations, Adolfo Ibáñez, to pay a joint visit to Magallanes, travelling south in January 1873 on a PSNC steamer.

En route, he observed the existence of a safer western approach to the Strait — the Smyth Channel: all that was missing were a couple of navigation buoys to mark dangerous rocks. [remarks on ship transit]

Once at Punta Arenas, a deeper concern started to emerge. Across the narrow stretch of water lay Tierra del Fuego, still an unknown and almost unvisited land, its inhabitants distrustful of the white race, and rumoured to be killers and cannibals. Root saw at once that contact would have to be established, sooner or later, between the Fuegians and the "whites" on the mainland. Doubtless from his successful personal experience of working with the Wyandot Indians of Kansas, he argued for developing a meaningful, respectful relationship. At the back of his mind was the belief that these people were the "front-line" of rescue for shipwrecked sailors, such as the survivors of the Golden Hind: better that they treat strangers kindly than ignore or attack them — ideas, fitted to another time and place, which unfortunately were not to take hold in Magallanes. [remarks on Tierra del Fuego]

Letter from Root to Ibáñez: 4 September 1872

Santiago de Chili, September 4, 1872

SIR : In view of the fact that the navigation of the sea, while doubling Cape Horn, has been and ever will be fraught with great danger to the commercial interests of the world, always causing great anxiety in the minds of all parties interested in the fate of ships of every class whose voyages oblige the traversing of the waters lying south of the bleak and inhospitable shores of Tierra del Fuego, and also in view of the fact that a much shorter and safer route for steamers lies through the Straits of Magellan, and, if the same can be made available for sailing vessels, an untold advantage would accrue to the commerce of the world, I, therefore, desire, if not inconsistent with the views of your excellency, and if not too much trouble, to learn what, if any, efforts have been made toward placing a line of small steamers, usually called "tugs," in said straits for the purpose of towing sailing-vessels through from one ocean to the other; also, if it is known what the probable expense of such an enterprise might be, and whether it is supposed that it would be self-sustaining, or whether it would at first require the fostering care of such philanthropic commercial nations as might desire to assist such a most laudable undertaking, which, though at first initiated in the interest of humanity, would speedily, in my opinion, prove a very profitable investment to any parties having it in charge, and of incalculable importance to the commercial interests of the world. I would, also, like an estimate of the time it would take to tow sailing vessels through the straits, and any facts or suggestions bearing upon this subject which can be readily obtained, my object being to lay this correspondence before my Government, hoping that thereby something may eventuate in the interest of so important a matter. In my opinion, the direct benefit to Chili of this enterprise would be very great, and, when is taken into consideration the vast saving of life, time, insurance, interest on money, wear and tear, and loss of shipping, delay, vexation, annoyance, anxiety, &c., &c., which would result from a successful navigation of the Straits of Magellan by a proper and economical system of steam tow-boats, it would seem that a project so urgently demanded and apparently so feasible should soon be put into operation.

I improve this opportunity to offer renewed assurances of the sentiments of distinguished consideration and esteem with which I have, &c.,


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Letter from Aníbal Pinto to Ibáñez, conveying letter by Oscar Viel:
14 October 1872 [translated in source text]

Santiago, October 14, 1872.

The governor of the colony of Magellan, with date of the 24th of September last, from Sandy Point, writes me the following:

"In compliance with the wish of your excellency for information relating to the desire expressed by the honorable minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary of the United States of North America upon the possibility of establishing a line of steam tow-boats in the Straits of Magellan, I have the honor of submitting to your excellency my opinion upon the subject.

"Nothing can be more laudable than the idea put forth by the honorable North American minister, since, without doubt, a business of steam tow-boats would give great facilities to the sailing-vessels that cross Cape Horn; it would economize time interest on capital invested in the vessels and merchandise that they transport, and more than all, personal misfortunes, which more than once we have had to lament; but this is not without difficulties; it is nevertheless possible; but will it be practicable to establish it? Under a humanitarian point of view it is excusable to enter into great expenses, since whatever might be the cost, the prevention of the loss of life would more than compensate for it, for, unfortunately, such accidents are very common with vessels that double the stormy Cape Horn. But, considering the economical question, my humble opinion considers it disadvantageous. I do not know but my calculation may be false; in any case the high penetration of your excellency will give it the merit which it deserves.

"Without any knowledge of the amount which the tug-boats would be obliged to charge, and whose number to commence with ought not to be less than four, I will not enter into details to your excellency on this point. The first difficulty which offers itself is the want of ports of waiting in the two mouths of the channel — that in Cape Virgin and Cape Pillar. Though the sea is boisterous in these latitudes, it is not inconvenient for the people of the sea to confront it if there is a free road and an open port always exists that can be reached from the tempest; but the lack of these, as I have said before, will oblige the vessels that desire to be towed to maintain themselves in the high seas at no less than thirty miles distant from the shore. This supposition is not entirely ventured, since, being of the profession, I can assure your excellency of it. The maintenance of the vessels, as I have indicated to your excellency, is not exempt from danger in these ports, especially on the Cape Pillar side; and so much so is this the case that the regular steamers are many times obliged to remain one or two days without being able to approach the mouth of the straits, and many vessels whose captains have desired to pass through have been obliged by the stormy weather to continue their voyage around Cape Horn. Supposing, nevertheless, that vessels can maintain themselves in these places, it would be necessary that the tow-boats should be looking for them thirty miles outside, which would not only lengthen the distance, but also present other inconveniences — as that of towing in the high sea, and especially if there is stormy weather a tow-boat ought to have great power in order to counteract the force of the sea and wind; and this your excellency will be able to understand, since you know that many steam-vessels have been obliged to recede, while looking for a port of refuge, from not having power to conquer the force of the tempestuous waves and strong winds when going out by the west mouth. Nevertheless, other and better judges may not consider these difficulties, and I have only enumerated them with the idea of possibly being more exact.

"I will call your attention to another question, which is that of the time it will take and the expense it will require to perform the towing.

"The straits being three hundred miles long, and supposing the vessels were taken and left only twenty miles away from the coast, it would result that there would be three hundred and forty miles of travel for which to pay the tow-boats. Taking it for half time, the velocity which the tow-boats can make, perhaps five miles per hour, it will require, without counting the time that they will pass anchored on account of weather and dark nights, which in winter are very long, sixty-eight hours of constant towing. What ought to be the cost of towing per ton? Taking the half that vessels pay in the harbor of Constitution to the tow-boat of the state, it would be five dollars per ton for each mile. Suppose a ship of 500 tons register, the common size of the vessels that sail on the Pacific, it would result that each mile will cost $25, and $500 for the three hundred and forty miles, which I have shown your excellency they ought to earn. [These calculations seem to be flawed, Ed.]

"Supposing these figures exaggerated, and considering them only the half, which will reduce the sum to $250, the question presented is, will it be practicable for the vessel to pay for the towing? Certainly if the cargo is valuable, but undoubtedly not if the cargo is not very valuable.

"With the traffic of the steamers, which increases each day, as is well known to your excellency, it is not venturesome to predict that many years will not pass before the steamers will transport the valuable merchandise; leaving the number of sailing-vessels reduced, which will remain solely for transporting articles of little relative value, such as iron, coal, &c.; and will vessels carrying such merchandise be able to pay the sums indicated? It is not possible for me to answer this question, since I am ignorant of facts necessary to this end, but, considered in a general way, I hesitate not to decide in the negative.

"By this exposition your excellency will know that I have referred alone to vessels that ought to be towed, and, fearful of committing errors of judgment in the calculation able to be made upon the probable number of ships that would pass the straits, the cost of the tow-boats, their maintenance, and other things connected with an undertaking of this nature, I leave to others who, with dates [data?, Ed.] more valuable, can lay before your excellency the reasons they entertain.

"It is possible and I desire greatly they may contribute to make the obstacles disappear which I have exposed, and which alone the desire of being exact has influenced me to manifest, obeying thereby the dictates of my conscience, since it imports nothing in this subject to be carried away by the imagination, forming flattering dreams whose realization, if not insuperable, presents, nevertheless, great difficulties; and I believe it is worth more to know the truth, although it deprives us of a pleasant delusion.

"Among the advantages which ought to present themselves for the foundation of such an undertaking not the least that offers itself is the establishment of a coal-yard at Punta Arenas, (Sandy Point,) which will facilitate greatly the movements of the tow-boats, and where they will come in immediate contact with the traffic of the steamers, recourse to which undoubtedly would need the vessels employed in that traffic.

"If the exposition which precedes is not as extensive and precise as it would have been desirable, I expect your excellency will please excuse it in view of the lack of statistics and official information which so delicate a business requires."

For the information and other purposes of your excellency the above has been transcribed.

God guard your excellency.



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Letter from Root to Fish [Washington?]: 26 February 1873

Santiago de Chili, February 26, 1873. (Received May 5.)

Extract #1

The difficult and often dangerous navigation in the vicinity of Cape Pillar (Cabo Pilar) can be easily avoided by the navigation in Smyth's Channel, which opens at its southern extremity into the Straits of Magellan at Cape Tamar, about sixty miles from the western entrance of the Straits of Magellan, in latitude about 53°. The entrance to Smyth's Channel from the Pacific Ocean, between latitude 47° and 48°, from the Gulf of Penas, is very easy for all classes of vessels, and the navigation of this channel can be performed with perfect safety at the present time by small steamers, and when two hidden rocks in the English narrows of said channel are marked by proper buoys, all classes of steamers can pass with ease; in fact many of the largest vessels of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company have already navigated this route. But one or two accidents in the narrows above alluded to have caused an order for no further attempts of this kind to be made until the rocks spoken of can be properly marked, a thing which ought soon to be done, and thus many hundred miles of dangerous and unpleasant navigation would be avoided. Cape Pillar then can be left to its stormy, gloomy glory, the dread of even experienced navigators, and the terror of all travelers with sensitive stomachs or delicate nerves.

In a former dispatch I transmitted correspondence had with the Chilian government upon the propriety and feasibility of placing a system of steam tow-boats in the Straits of Magellan, the tenor of which was unfavorable to such a project. I am satisfied now from personal observation of the truthfulness of the report of the governor of Magellan contained in said correspondence, relating to the difficulties to be encountered in the Pacific entrance to said straits. All of which, however, may be obviated by the navigation of Smyth's Channel, the entrance to which, as previously stated, is easy, and near which there are plenty of places suitable for the rendezvous of all classes of vessels; and I am convinced more than ever of the importance of a line of tow-boats through these waters, not only in a humanitarian point of view, but as a great financial saving to the commerce of the world now passing around Cape Horn. My dispatches and correspondence on this subject were largely prompted by the great loss of life and property in the past while navigating the waters in this vicinity, my attention being especially aroused, by the loss of the American vessel Golden Hind during the last winter, when many lives were lost, and those saved only so after passing through untold hardships, and being preserved from actual starvation by feeding upon the bodies of their dead companions for many days; and since my return I have learned of the loss of a vessel near Cape Pillar, whose surviving passengers and crew we must have passed in the night or fog unnoticed, as they were found in a boat a few days afterwards, with only one woman and two men living, twenty-two having starved to death.

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Extract #2

On my arrival I made great efforts to get an interview with the inhabitants, but there was no proper and safe means of so doing. I have the promise, however, that within a few months a Chilian man-of-war will be stationed at Sandy Point, and the governor will make, I think, successful efforts to form a friendly acquaintance with his Fuegean neighbors. It is said of them that they are cannibals, and all sorts of bad tales are told of them, but I am not prepared to believe these reports. It is said that the captain of an English vessel, a few years ago, while on the island with some of his crew, was killed and eaten, the latter part of which is not believed by those best informed, and my information is derived from the gentleman who visited the place afterward, and found the remains of the captain and buried them, and who is of opinion that his death was caused purely by his own folly and madness. Other circumstances corroborate his view. The facts are, these Indians, like most others in all countries, have been treacherously dealt with by their white neighbors, and cannot be blamed for having unpleasant feelings and those of distrust against said neighbors. As, for instance, many years ago, before the advent of the present governor, the then governor of Sandy Point, having for some purpose several of these Fuegeans with him and in his power, had some of them unmerciful1y whipped. These people, not understanding and not enjoying this kind of international courtesy and kindness, sought in haste their own homes, and have not since ventured near the settlement. But if it is true, which I do not believe, that these people are as savage and blood-thirsty as represented, seeing that they live directly on the track of a great thoroughfare traveled by the growing commerce of the world, it is only another argument in favor of the importance of a speedy effort being made to secure their civilization and friendship. My anxiety in this direction, as stated before, has been heightened from the fact that not many months since one of our own ships was wrecked near Cape Horn, and had these Indians been on friendly terms with this settlement so that they had dared to have taken those starving, freezing mariners under their guidance, they might and unquestionably would have cheerfully shown them the way to a harbor of safety and plenty, instead of only being able to throw them a duck or two from their own scanty fare, as those Indians at the best can scarcely obtain food for their own consumption, and travel long distances in their canoes, even away up Smyth's Channel, for the purpose of getting something to eat. I am in this connection happy to know that nothing in the history of our beloved President has endeared him more to the hearts of all true philanthropists than his attempts, in the interest of humanity and true Christianity, to ameliorate the condition of our own Indians, and show his recognition in the wild Indian of the mountains and plains of a brother man. And I may be allowed to say that in this one recognition lies the final and easy solution of the whole Indian question. I hope I shall be able to report before many months an arrangement peaceful and satisfactory with these heretofore badly-reputed Fuegeans. And, in view of the actual concern the commerce of our country has in this important matter, I would suggest the propriety of an official manifestation to the Chilian government of the interest and sympathy the Government of the United States has in any successful attempt to cultivate peaceable and friendly relations with the said Indians. I ought, in this connection, to state that a small English mission on Narvarrin [Navarino, Ed.] Island [at this date, the Anglican mission was actually located at Ushuaia, on the mainland of Tierra del Fuego, Ed.], connected with the Anglican mission on Falkland Island, has been established, the good intentions of whose authors and workers are praiseworthy. Such enterprises, however, should not be left alone to the philanthropy of a few individuals, especially as nations as well as individuals are to be benefited by the civilization of these people. From the appearance of some Fuegeans living among the Patagonian Indians, with whom I had frequent interviews, and from many other sources, I am able to state that the Fuegean is by nature a smart, active, and intelligent being; his stature is about that of the average European, with bright face, well developed and regularly formed head, and when brought under the influence of education he will hold his own with any other race of human beings.

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Source/Fuente: "Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, transmitted to Congress, with the annual message of the President, December 1, 1873", Part 1, Vol. 1, pp.104-117