home page English Site map Site map names of persons Databases recent additions News contact webmaster E-mail text search Search about this site Orientation página inicial Español
You are here:  Home Page  >  Historical themes  >  Tierra del Fuego  >  Gold rush  >  Gold fever
sutphen dredge house frozen dredge  stream rio verde Punta Arenas

Gold Fever: Tierra del Fuego (1906)


The accompanying U.S. newspaper article was published in August 1906, at the height of the Tierra del Fuego gold rush.

It appeared in several U.S. newspapers during that month; this is the most complete text found to date.

The unnamed author romanticizes the story, and the reader will rapidly capture the air of excitement that it is intended to convey. Prior decades had witnessed one gold rush after another, in different parts of the world: this one was portrayed as yet another opportunity for bold entrepreneurs such as Edson Sutphen to "strike it rich".

There are several factual errors (noted), but these do not detract from the overall tenor of the piece.
newspaper 1906 Article in U.S. newspaper

[start of quotation]

Gold Seekers invade Tierra del Fuego

Most desolate spot on Earth taking on halcyon aspect of Frisco in '49

Notable in the affairs of the world today is the enormous increase in the output of gold. In a comparatively brief period the product has almost doubled, and in the fierce quest for the yellow metal lies the story of the redemption by American and British enterprise of the most desolate, dreary and hopeless edge of the earth — land's end of this rolling ball, the jumping off place, sinister as the pit itself. If Tierra del Fuego is ever made healthful, or even habitable, that triumph will forever shine as a hope against the worst here or hereafter.

Had Ferdinand Magellan, when his adventurous squadron grated with lifting keels on the shoals of his stormy strait, ever dreamed that his ships had crunched into sands of gold, the great circumnavigator would in all likelihood have gone no further. But he knew nothing of the treasure that was under foot and it remained undiscovered and unsuspected until found by wretched, wandering convicts in the early eighties of the last century.

The discovery made a hurrah in Buenos Aires. A fierce flush of gold fever seized the European and Yankee colonies of Argentina, and a concourse of ignorant, desperate men, mostly criminals, set sail in Antarctica's argosy, and headed for the cursed little convict camp set midway in the Straits of Magellan by the Argentine Government. [The author may be confusing Ushuaia (Argentina), on the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, with Punta Arenas (Chile), located on the Magellan Strait; both were used as penal colonies. Ed.] Having for this venture little knowledge, less sense, a confusion of tongues and a shirttail equipment, they yet found much fine gold — gold which the wild Atlantic had garnered, beached and treasured in the stormiest place in all of the seven seas. For weather, glacier, stream and ocean are the eternal primal elemental gold, ruby, diamond and platinum miners of the world.

News of the first success bruited abroad brought many, some say thousands, mostly Austrians [the majority were from Dalmatia, in modern-day Croatia, Ed.]. These wandered in rain, sleet and snow in shelterless despair. Combing the beaches with bloody fingers by day; fighting, murdering and dying by night, and all the time drinking a devil's distillation of absinthe and Bahia rum.

The adventures of these adventurers make rich the story of the southern seas, akin to those of the lands where the red gods call. And there, in whispered awe, the name of Julius Popper is yet spoken with bated breath.

Popper was an Anglo-Austrian [Anglo connection unconfirmed; modern-day Romania was formerly occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ed.], a Flying Dutchman, a wraith aflit [sic] the fog and storms around the Horn. With short sluices, secrecy and mercury he made a start. He got together a semi-military riffraff, then appropriated by fraudulent leases and fictitious denouncements the best gold beaches around San Sebastian Bay. Strangers or Indians so luckless as to stray near his diggings were turned back or turned over, by grace of Winchesters, .44 calibre. But Popper showed a patriotic care of his own Austrian countrymen, tent-pegging these down to the beach. In thunder and lightning, under a heavy flat canvas cover and for days at a time. When liberated they vamoosed and never bothered Popper again.

Popper Issued Coin

Full of resource, Popper sought to turn every wheel. He actually issued gold coin, when all South America was on some false or fictitious money bottom — one and five dollar pieces, stamped with crossed pick and shovel, and whose superscription was "Popper". These are now numismatic gems. But Popper loved tropical Paris too well, and in an evil day got an overdose of knockout drops in Buenos Aires, and the world knew him no more.

After Popper, things languished. Organized labor ceased. Chaos and the elements resumed their reign. The country had never comprehended its wealth and resources. It merely had assumed there was gold all over the surface of the country, but too thin to pay. Everything lay hidden, awaiting the man, and the man eventually appeared in the person of Lieut. Edson W. Sutphen, a young Knickerbocker graduate from Annapolis in 1882. In 1887 [1888, Ed.], in the United States gunboat Alliance, he cruised through the innumerable islands, islets and fjords of America's Antarctic archipelago, studying land and sea.

Amazing was the sweep of this fledgling from far North. Charles Darwin, reading the soul of nature like a scroll, lingered for weeks in Tierra del Fuego and saw only desolation and darkness. Britain had surveyed, sounded and scanned the island for every and any nautical or commercial possibility. Then a stripling did a masterpiece of spur-of-the-moment thinking and made himself a marvel in the navy to this day. He didn't breathe a word of his discoveries, but determined then and there to come back to the strange island and seek for gold on his own account.

On her homeward trip the Alliance lay in Buenos Aires long enough to convince young Sutphen that the Argentines did not know much about asphalt; furthermore, he discovered that the Government contemplated letting a concession for asphalting the city. The young lieutenant saw in this an opportunity, and having served his country for more than twelve years on small pay and slow promotion, decided to take up the virtue of resignation. After his resignation had been accepted by the Navy Department he secured the contract, asphalted the city, and having thus gained a start in the financial world, turned his attention to his cherished scheme of mining for gold in and around Tierra del Fuego.

The wonders of the new gold dredging plants in New Zealand had come in frequent reports, and with the reports a realization that these same methods might avail in this bleak south land. Following many preliminary borings, denouncements and claims, the best gold bearing lands were silently secured. Everything of promise was taken in without opposition or suspicion on pioneer government mining grants. Sutphen suffered little competition and no rivalry.

There is but one dredge as yet in Tierra del Fuego, but another, a $300,000 structural steel monster, the largest of its kind ever made, is on the way, under charge and construction of Sutphen's right-hand man, Capt. Albert Burnstine, formerly of the navy. This dredge has a minimum digging capacity of 200 cubic yards of gravel per hour to a depth of 40 feet. The old dredge, running steadily night and day in eight-hour shifts, sluices through 200 cubic yards of gravel per hour to a depth of 25 feet. Both machines are steel throughout.

Sutphen ran his dredge full blast all the while, and the news went travelling broadcast to the gold mining fraternity throughout the world. Word came from prospectors that all was velvet — gold plentiful and more accessible, with wood, coal and water handier than elsewhere in the mining world, the Transvaal and Alaska not excepted. Naturally, upon the heels of such tidings every ship brought throngs of mining experts, engineers and capitalists, and Sandy Point resembles now the halcyon days of 'Frisco in '49, its town — Punta Arenas — being a booming place owning water and electric outfits and in telegraphic touch with the outer world. It is now the recognised center of the South American gold dredging area, and the magnet which has drawn to itself the many prospective speculators, dredging engineers and the innumerable others who ever follow in the wake of conquest.

Alaska and Fuego! America's polar gems, which with California give now a sunset vision of three golden graces, crowning the continent with argent coronet.

Furthermore, the Argentine, across the strait, [actually, it is the Chilean section of Tierra del Fuego that faces Punta Arenas, Ed.] has been found to be surprisingly auriferous, and as a proof of the excitement going on down there, no less that twenty local Chilean companies have been organized and financed to do serious business. In consequence the Chilean Government, as far back as September 1905, had been asked by Chilean companies alone for 120,000 claims, covering over 600,000 hectares. Orders for the most powerful and best dredges have been placed. The names and the capital of the later companies are as follows:--

Rio del Oro £35,000
Rio Verde £70,000
Gallegos Chico £35,000
Brunswick £35,000
Lennox £62,000
Oro de Magallanes £60,000
Lavaderos de Oro de Tierra del Fuego $300,000

Dredge mining is essentially a mechanical return to glacier and stream mining, to nature's first principles in gold mining. Instead of the glacier grinding out and the glacial stream sluicing down the gold, a continuous chain of steel buckets does the work. Upon a giant dipping steel crane, which can be raised or lowered, this procession of large steel buckets, turned by an endless steel chain, eats into beach or river bed and carves out the gold-bearing sand or gravel. Mounted on a moveable platform or boat, this powerful digging tool gouges down to bedrock, where most of the gold collects.

As the chain turns, the buckets bring up and dump their contents into a large, long sluice or trough. In the sluice the large boulders are screened off as valueless. The fine gravel is washed on down the sluice, in the bottom of which the large nuggets settle into wooden pockets. The fine gold dust is caught in large auger holes bored in the bottom of the sluice and filled with liquid quicksilver. This dust is directed into these quicksilver pockets by little troughs or riffles, placed in the sluice's bottom. All the stuff in the sluice is washed onward and kept agitated and moving by water from the buckets and a powerful centripetal pump.

Alluvial dredging for the recovery of gold has taken many years to develop to present proportions. About thirty-four years ago dredging was first started on the Molyneux River [modern Clutha River, Ed.], New Zealand, the swiftest of rivers. The first operation was conducted by a spoon, curiously wrought from bullock hide, and a steel cutting lip fastened on the end of a pole. This pole was pulled in by a hand windlass, placed on a floating barge made of planks and barrels. Results were so surprising that steam was introduced on a dredge, constructed with a belt of buckets. This proved to be the forerunner of the big steam dredges which are in operation today.

The Fuegian rivers are too small to float the huge barge on which the dredge sets. Flotation is provided by damming the river behind the barge. As the dredge eats its way forward a waterway follows. The dam is made of cast back, used up for gravel. An almost unlimited supply of water is necessary for such work. Through lack of it some of the earth's best gold bearings must remain unharvested. This is sadly true of a large part of Alaska, where the dredgable year is but three months long, the water being locked at other times in icy fetters. Also it is impossible to get coal and machinery by dog convoys into interior Alaska, where some of the best placers abound.

Whether glaciation cut out and deposited more gold north or south is a question, but certainly under the prows of the glaciers at the top and bottom of the world lie hidden great deposits. One difference in the situation north and south is that Alaska has been explored to limits by gold experts of two governments, and by gold seekers from everywhere, while the southern gold and its possibilities are yet so new as to be untouched by eminent expertism [sic].

The Contrast of Alaska

In Alaska a small army of American miners -- the best, bravest, most alert and ambitious the world ever knew -- searched and sifted, combed and harrowed for fourteen years, and only found nominal results. In the face of starvation and freezing, of seemingly insuperable difficulties, they fought on with increasing courage, until McCormac [either McCormick or Carmack, Ed.] in 1894 [1896, Ed.] struck the 2,000 ton Klondike bonanza. History has no parallel for the campaign and conquest of Alaska. In contrast how insignificant and unknown has been the inquest [sic] of Fuego! For years Popper, like the dog in the manger, defied and held away experience and capital.

All the gold so far secured in Fuego, by much wear and erosion, shows it has traveled far from the veins where it first cooled and set. When gold goes traveling it is with the rush of water or ice, and when gold has been traveling for ages in such a sloping country as Tierra del Fuego some of it lingers on the route in nooks and crevices in river bottoms, but most, from the hurry of ice and water, will be swept along until it comes to rest in a permanent pocket, or until met by the dash of the surf of the sea at the mouth of the river.

Some of the Alaskan miners now making New York headquarters until Alaska opens in the spring say surface beach gold which pans out $2.50 per day, which is the unbroken record of Fuego since 1880, means something big below. They say, moreover, that nowhere on the Alaskan coast, not even at Nome, would such surface sand pan out similar sums.

[end of quotation]

Source: "Omaha Daily Bee", Nebraska, 18-XI-1906, p.39; accessed in US Library of Congress digital newspaper archives
Last updated: 29-VI-2012