PUNTA ARENAS is the southernmost city in the world. It is at the extreme foot of the South American continent, 1,200 miles nearer the south pole than Cape Town at the lower extremity of Africa. It is 7, 00o miles south of New York, in the corresponding latitude of Labrador. Still its winters are warmer than those of Washington city, and now, at its coldest, the earth is covered with green.
Situated on the northern coast of the Strait of Magellan, midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, more than a hundred miles north of Cape Horn, Punta Arenas is the commercial capital of a vast region of land and sea which is almost unknown to the outer world. From the spot where I write I can see the blue forests of Tierra del Fuego, on the opposite side of the Strait. There are a vast number of smaller islands about, and behind me, stretching away for hundreds of miles, are the mountains and sheep farms of Patagonia. There is no town of any size within a thousand miles. We have no telegraphic connection with the outer world, our only news coming from the steamers passing through the Strait.
Punta Arenas is a free port, and quantities of provisions and other stores are brought here to supply the steamers and sailing vessels which pass through the Strait of Magellan on their way to and from Australia and Europe, or the east and west coasts of South America. Just now there are English and German steamers in the harbour loading and unloading freight. An American schooner from Boston, with a party of a dozen men en route to the Klondike, is taking in provisions, and one of the ships of Grace & Co., bound for New York, passed by this morning. A steamer from New Zealand, with a cargo of frozen sheep for London, left yesterday. There are several wool schooners in the harbour, and the little steam-tug, which carries passengers three times a week to and from Tierra del Fuego, is just puffing out on its voyage across the Strait.
Punta Arenas lies right on the Strait of Magellan. It has a good harbour, the land about which slopes gently upward from the water. Upon this has been built a straggling town, more than a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. Back of it there is a hill perhaps a hundred feet high, and farther in the rear may be seen the last of the Andes, which here rise from three to five thousand feet above the sea, their tops covered with snow.
The city has been cut out of the woods, and as we enter it we are reminded of the frontier settlements of our wooded northwest. Its houses are scattered along wide streets, with many recurring gaps, and here and there a stray stump. The streets are a mass of black mud, through which huge oxen drag heavy carts by yokes fastened to their horns. At one place the sidewalk is of concrete, at another it is of wood, and a little farther on it is of mud, and the pedestrian must balance himself on a log to make his way over it. Many of the houses are built of sheets of corrugated iron, their walls wrinkled up like a washboard, and all have roofs of this material. A few are painted, but nearly all are of the galvanized slaty colour of the metal as it comes from the factory. None of the cheaper houses has a chimney. The stove pipes which stick up through the roofs, and which you see here and there coming out through the windows with upturned elbows, take its place.
There is plenty of building space, but when you ask the price of vacant lots you find that property is high. What in the United States would be a $50 shanty is here worth $500, and a good business corner will sell for several thousand dollars. Not withstanding, these same lots were within a few years given away for a revenue stamp. The Chilean government was then anxious to increase the size of the colony, and it offered building sites to all who would erect houses and pay the five-cent stamp which the law provides shall be upon every deed. « That lot,” said a man to me, as he pointed to a corner just above the Kosmos hotel, ” cost me a postage stamp, and I hold it to be worth now $5,000.” The days for such investments, however, are past, and better buildings are going up every year. Now every inch of town property has a fixed value, and there are several business blocks which would not seem out of place in an American city.
Punta Arenas has one residence which would be considered a mansion in Washington city. it is by all odds the finest house near the South Pole. It has cost $100,000, and its owner is a millionaire widow, young, beautiful, and accomplished. She is the sister of the American consul, and the daughter of a Russian who made a large fortune in sheep-raising. She inherited another fortune at her husband’s death, so that she can afford to build a palace even on the Strait of Magellan. Her house is made of red brick covered with stucco, so finished that it looks like light brown stone. The bricks in it were imported from Europe, and workmen were brought from Buenos Aires to erect it.
This house, however, is the only one of its kind in Punta Arenas. Most of the dwellings are one-story structures, which in the United States could be built for from $500 to $2,000. Many of the poorer houses, however, are occupied by rich men; indeed, Punta Arenas has as many rich men as any frontier town of its size. It is the metropolis of the sheep industry of southern Patagonia. It has thirty-three men, each of whom owns or controls from 25,000 to 2,500,000 acres of land. Each has tens of thousands of sheep, and the wool clip of some of these sheep farmers is worth more than the annual salary of the President of the United States.
The citizens of Punta Arenas come from all parts of the world. You hear English, German, and Spanish at every corner, and your ears are dinned with the jargon of the Austrian, the Italian, and the Russian. Some of the richest people are Russians; others are Scotchmen, who have come here from the Falk-land Islands to engage in sheep-farming: among them also are treacherous Spaniards, smooth-tongued Argentines, and hard-looking brigands from Chile. The lower classes are chiefly shepherds and seamen, and among them are as many rough characters as are to be found in our mining camps of the West. There are no licensed gambling dens or sporting houses, but there are saloons managed by hard-featured young women, who sit in the door-ways during the day and smoke cigarettes.
The Governor of the Magellans lives in Punta Arenas. He is appointed by the President of Chile, and rules not only the Magellans, but the whole of the islands of the Tierra del Fuegan archipelago. He has four hundred soldiers stationed in the city. You hear the military bands playing at nine in the morning, when they begin their drill, and again at sunset about four o’clock in the afternoon. The soldiers act as police, keeping excellent order: each has a long sword at his side, which at times he does not scruple to use in making arrests. Of late some of the soldier-police have been using sword-canes. They apparently have nothing but walking sticks, but when resisted they jerk the stick apart and give the offender a thrust under the fifth rib with a sharp blade of steel.
It is curious to think of a social club down here in the home of the guanaco, the seal, the whale, and the naked aborigine. But Punta Arenas has its clubs, where the men meet to have a good time, to play a game of poker, and have some liquid refreshment. The club is also the fire company, for here, as in many of the South American cities, the fire company is composed of the best men in the place. In Punta Arenas the club parlours, which are well furnished, are over the engine room. In the club you will find besides billiard rooms, two poker rooms, a reading room, and last but not least a bar. The bar is to be found in every club as well as in every hotel in South America.
Sheep-farming has now become the great industry of the region. A large part of lower Patagonia is given up to it, and all the available lands in the Chilean territory of the Magellans, including Tierra del Fuega, have been either bought or leased. It will give the reader some idea of the growth of the industry when I state that in 1878 there were only 185 sheep in all the Magellans. Seven years later there were 40,000, while in 1892 the number had increased to 480,000! In 1895 it was estimated that there were 900, 000, and now on Tierra del Fuego alone there are considerably more than a million sheep. The sheep-farmers came first from the Falkland Islands, but more recently Australians, French, Germans, Russians, and others have joined with them in appropriating the lands. The majority, how-ever, still are English and Scotch.
The management of one of these large sheep-farms is interesting. Take that of a company which has two and one-half million acres in Tierra del Fuego. Its one hundred thousand sheep are divided up into flocks of two thousand each. Each flock has a pasture of about six miles square allotted to it. This is just the size of many of our American townships, and if you will imagine a township as one field you will have an idea of the ordinary Tierra del Fuego pasture. This, to many of our farmers, would seem a large area of land for two thousand sheep, but the grass is short in Tierra del Fuego, and from two to three acres of pasture are required for the grazing of each sheep.
Every flock has its own shepherd, who on horseback watches the sheep. The sheep-tender has a number of dogs, mostly intelligent collies, which he so trains that they will obey his signs. The collies understand their master’s signs almost as well as if they could understand language. When the shepherd makes a motion to the front, they know that they are to go ahead, a motion to the rear calls them back, and the raising of his hand in the air brings them to a standstill. Other motions send them to the right and left; in fact, they act for him nearly as well as if they were human beings.
The shepherds are usually Scotchmen, who come to the country on a five years’ contract at from $25 to $35 gold a month, with the understanding that they are to have meat, fuel, and house rent free. The meat is mutton, the fuel they cut themselves, and their houses are little two- or three-room shanties scattered over the farm. All the feeding the sheep get is from the pasture, for the grass is always green, and sheep can graze in Tierra del Fuego all the year round.
The shepherds do not need to work hard most of the year; nor have they much work at shearing time, for most of the shearing is done by professional shearers and the shepherds only assist. The shearing time begins in January, and on a big sheep station it lasts for two months. The sheep are not washed be-fore shearing. The wool is cleaned after it reaches the European market. The price paid the shearers is $4.50 per hundred sheep, at which rate an expert can make fair wages.
Within the past year or so some flocks in Tierra del Fuego have been sheared by steam. A set of knives or clippers, like those used by our barbers for clipping the hair short, is attached to a cord running on an overhead pulley, and a man moves these clippers over the skin of the sheep shearing off the wool. This is said to make a cheaper and closer job than by hand and does not cut the skin. After shearing, the fleeces are carefully spread out, being laid one on top of the other, and packed up ii bales of five hundred pounds each. Most of the wool goes to the English markets, where it brings from eight to twenty-five cents per pound. All of the large stations have their managers, over-seers, and bookkeepers.
Every large sheep-farm has its own store, where the men can get their supplies; and most of the farms are managed after the best business methods. There are, however, heavy expenses connected with the business, and the losses are often excessive. I heard of one farmer, for instance, who paid $40,000 for “dip” last year. ” Dip ” is the fluid in which the sheep are washed several times a year to free them from the scab. The scab is the greatest enemy of the sheep; it is a parasite which spreads so rapidly that it will infect a thousand sheep within a few days. It eats into the flesh, getting under the skin, and if not soon destroyed it breeds so fast that the sheep die. The preventive is a bath or dip which kills the parasite. The dip-fluid is put in a great vat, ninety feet long, six feet wide, and so deep that a sheep must swim to get through it. The sheep are put in at one end and made to swim the length of the trough, when they step out upon a draining board; the dipping is usually resorted to three times a year.
Among the other enemies of the sheep-farmer in Tierra del Fuego are vultures, foxes, wild dogs, and panthers, besides the more savage Indians. The sheep are usually so fat that if one of them fall down and roll upon its back it cannot turn over of itself; it can only lie there and kick. The vultures watch the sheep, and when such an accident happens they attack the help-less animal and pick out its eyes. After this it may live some days, but as soon as it is dead the vultures finish their work by tearing its flesh from the bones. The foxes of Tierra del Fuego are as large as dogs, and they have the look of wolves. They attack the sheep and often drive them into the streams and drown them. There are, moreover, wild dogs in the forests that often come out in packs of from ten to thirty and worry the sheep; there are also panthers, one of which may kill a hundred sheep in a night; and last and worst of all are the savages, who will steal and drive off five hundred sheep at a time.
Yet with all this it may be asked, does sheep-farming pay ? Yes, if you can get the land and the sheep. But the pasture lands of Tierra del Fuego are now all taken up, although I am told that there is still some to be bought in Argentine Patagonia. Much of the Chilean lands are held under leases from the government; nearly all is in large tracts, which is necessary on account of the thinness of the pasture. Sheep in Tierra del Fuego are worth on the average $2.50 gold per head. It is estimated that the ewes will produce an increase of about forty-five per cent of the flock per year, and taking the wool and the increase into consideration, every sheep in a flock should net its proprietor about a dollar a year. The number of employés needed is comparatively small, and the need is being considerably reduced by fencing the pasture-fields with wire. At present it takes a large capital to go into sheep-raising in this part of the world, and considering everything I should say that the chances for the ordinary American farmer or small investor are hardly worthy of consideration.