The FCE broad gauge network
The Arrival of the Railway at Bariloche (1)
For many years the place called Pilcaniyeu was the rail head. The construction of the railway from San Antonio Oeste to lake Nahuel Huapi started in 1910, and advanced over the inhospitable Patagonian lands at the speed of a tortoise. It appeared that the chelonian (2) reptile, which is so abundant in the east of the region of the extended steppe, influenced the pace at which the construction proceeded.
Previously, Valcheta, Maquinchao, Jacobacci and Comallo had carried the same title, but it appeared that Pilcaniyeu would secure the laurels, as it appeared that in the last stage of construction there were major difficulties, amongst which it is possible to cite the crossings of the rivers Pichileufú, Pilcaniyeu and Ñirihuao, plus some problems involving differences in level, which were the result not only of technical reasons, but also of financial reasons, as the considerable sums required for investment were not available.
The railway's commissions for survey and construction, had, as their base camp, the spot called Pilcaniyeu, and where in the shelter of this encampment, a small village was formed, as it had at the other points when construction had stalled at the rail head. The staff there periodically visited Bariloche, a place which undoubtedly had a greater attraction and scenic beauty than Km 585, as the site about which we are commenting, had.
The prohibition of the Superior National Government on the exportation of the dividends generated by foreign companies to their home countries meant that the undertaking of the FC Sud had to invest its accumulated surpluses (there was a difficulty in writing this at that time) and among the projects submitted (3) [to the Government], in a spirit of co-operation, was the completion of the construction of the state railway, was still to reach lake Nahuel Huapi.
At once, the works in the area were seen to take on a new rhythm. Two commissions were formed, an English one under Plaza Constitución (4), the other, Argentine, that is the existing one (5), since augmented, and under the Director General of the State Railways, based on the centre of construction at Pilcaniyeu for the section from Km 585 to San Carlos de Bariloche.
That is to say that the original, and sympathetic, group of technical and fiscal staff, which operated under the direction of engineer Miguel Sanguinetti, and comprised the technicians (6) D'Arcet and Domingo Matarollo, Juan J. Castro, Juan Manuel D'Hiriart, Boffa, and, later, engineer Andres Detsy, was joined by the English group under the direction of engineer Henry Stevens (7) and comprised among others the engineers Eduardo de La Motte and Robin Stuart, Doctor (8) Jorge Black, the technicians Francisco Hruschcka, y Dunley Godfrey, and someone else whose name escapes me now. It was a group of really charming people. Sportsmen at heart, they quickly formed one of the most active groups in the Club Andino (9). Quickly too, they integrated into the population, sharing their anxieties, co-operating in all good works which arose, joining with the neighbours in their joys and vicissitudes, and forming part of everything that could be described as progress in the region.
The area was populated with the squads. The early embankments, which had been started by Primo Capraro (10), and which awaited better times, had suffered with the premature death of Don Primo. They were now invaded by men, bearers of tools and machinery, which gave them new life. On them the advance started of the quebracho (11) sleepers, one after the other, which had been stock-piled mostly in the Campamento Central [Ingeniero Jacobacci] and on which the rails extended. In a short while, a ballast train advanced over the work under construction close by Laguna de los Jurcos, where Don Carlos Cexow, manager of Estancia San Ramón owned by Lahusen & Co (12) did all he could to assist the works.
The majority of the works were tendered for. The bridges over the rivers were awarded to an undertaking whose Contract Agent was engineer Enrique Dickman (13). Messrs Lunde (14) and Beveraggi, who formed an undertaking at that time, took charge of the construction of the numerous minor culverts and the subsidiary buildings at the stations. The terminal station at Bariloche was contracted to the undertaking Hockinf & Gardum.
On the other hand, the site on which the station [Bariloche] was to be built, remained as defined. The livestock establishment, El Condór, owned by Don Conrado Molina, granted the necessary lands as close as possible to the built-up area which formed the village of Bariloche. The owners of pastoral plot Nº 116, today the property of the Heirs of Francisco Lera, had disappeared. It was not known whether they still lived in the country, in Europe or in North America, having proved impossible to establish any communication with them.
The other projects, which had been suggested for undertaking once the railway was completed, were almost forgotten. The first of these was the project which engineer Horacio Fernández Beschtedt (15), Director of the State Railways had promoted, consisting in the continuation of the line to Península Llao Llao, passing through the village by the edge of the lake, continuing half way up the slope to Puerto Moreno, and from there leaving the shore advancing (16) between lake Moreno and Brazo Campanario, touching lake Dietrich, today lake El Trébol, and reaching Península Llao Llao at the level of the present day chapel (17). Among this Director's projects was the construction of a big tourist hotel at Llao Llao to be owned by the State Railways. Some surveys were carried out, and until recently some old stakes [used for setting-out the line] could be found in the vicinity of the present day barracks.
Don Primo Capraro had had the idea of building the terminal station on land in his ownership, that is to say in Plot Nº 46, exactly in the grounds which today are alongside España and Picadero streets. In the old drawings of the urban area, a track 100 m wide is delineated for the railway through the village, restricting the blocks currently occupied by Obras Sanitarias (18), School Nº 71 and the transport department of the National Park. Time and urbanization have erased (19) the embankments in this area where the trains were to have run to reach their destination [Llao Llao].
For better or worse, the railway station was built in the anticipated and accepted location. Works were speeded-up, and the first ever specialist squads of workmen were seen in the area, primarily the stone-masons, who were the admiration of those who knew them. Looking at the work undertaken at the station confirms this appreciation.
One day, possibly motivated by the working conditions, all the manual staff went on strike. It was undoubtedly the first serious strike in the city. The squads, perfectly organised as in the large centres of population and industrial areas, knew how to act. It was obvious that their claim was serious, and the police available at that time were not only not sufficient in numbers to confront a problem which could arise, but also lacking in all knowledge of how to deal with it.
Reinforcements were called for from Viedma, which arrived in a few days, and more police were drafted in from neighbouring villages with which it was thought that the threat could be countered. Groups of workers were seen in the streets going about peacefully, but the general feeling was that the climate felt like one of a dangerous strike, particularly when compared with the celestial tranquillity which the area always had. I don't remember how it ended, or if it lasted a long time or not; the fact was that the work continued without interruption, and the station was completed in the anticipated time. After a few years the original roof of larch shingles was replaced by the current slates; this was to provide greater security against the sparks thrown from the chimneys of engines 500 and 501 which were often provided with wood fuel (20).
And returning to the construction of the railway, I had occasions to appreciate it at close quarters. It was due to my good friends, as much from the Argentine group as from the English. The small gathering of national employees at that time wasn't bad. My friendship, which I have maintained with Don Enrique Lunde, enabled me to visit sufficiently often the construction sites and in them, the rolling camps located in wagons, where the next visits of the staff to Bariloche were planned, the programmes of excursions devised, such as the simple and studied visits to families, where some girl or group of youngsters prepared one of those delicious teas, which have made Bariloche famous, and which in those years was a common feature of the families there.
It was thus on more than one occasion while there was some friendly or business meeting taking place in the camping wagon of the head of construction, that this was coupled to some engine, ballast train, or simply a rail car, and slowly on sleepers hardly bedded in, and rails almost loose, that we advanced one or two kilometres to locate the headquarters nearer the scene of operations.
In one of these visits we were with various friends, savouring a good whisky along with engineer Stevens, when we started a slows movement in which the groans of the sleepers were the most prominent noise. Little by little, the short train, made-up of an engine, one or two wagons and the chief's coach, lost contact with the ground (21). All we noticed was the click click as we passed over each rail joint, and soon we realized that we were not up to date with the progress of the works, in that we were crossing, for the first time, over the railway the bridge over the river Pichileufú. Engineer Stevens with a snide smile had given us this scoop, but also we had left the vehicles at the other side of the river.
We toasted again the progress of the construction, and in a while, walking on the sleepers and keeping our balance, we crossed the bridge, climbed down the embankment, and went to the cars which were quietly awaiting to return us to Bariloche.
And thus advanced the construction, the encampments, friendships and profits for the businesses based in Bariloche, since because the squads were getting nearer Bariloche, the movement of workmen and employees gravitated towards Bariloche, while each day Pilcaniyeu grew more distant. The Bar Fuller in Mitre street was the meeting place for almost all the technical and administrative staff on the works, providing an unexpected clientèle, for our friend Sam, and thus joy for the proprietor. Don Hernan Sott in the same street, converted his boliche (22) into a general encampment for almost all of the manual workers, formed largely by squads of Poles, Bulgarians, and men of other Balkan countries, which brought him extra profits.
The construction works for the railway station, and its ancillary buildings, gave the impression that they were far away. From the little wooden shack where School Nº 71 operated, practically it's better said that there was absolutely nothing. The little bridge over the Ñireco (23) was one of the many rustic bridges that existed on every rough track. And when the lorry passed along the road for some fishing trip, to go out hunting for wild boar in Jones's land, to reach Pilcaniyeu, San Ramón or whichever other place was served by this road, it was possible to appreciate how far away the station was from the built-up area. Nevertheless in a few years, this area was divided into plots and sold, and has given rise to one of the most populated neighbourhoods of the area.
Having the bridge over the river Ñirihuau and the “Egg” conceived and built between Ñirihuau station and the river of the same name, the rest was as they commonly say, “a steal”. And thus it was that in Bariloche was started a movement to celebrate the event of the arrival of the train in such a way as would be a real and a true holiday for all the neighbours. Never had the death of Don Primo Capraro been so lamented, as when it was certain that it was to be a done deal — the arrival of the train in Bariloche, since indubitably it was Don Primo who fought in an energetic and effective way, so that it would become a reality.
As in all acts that are valued, scrolls had to be given to the heads of construction. Those whom I have previously noted were engineer Miguel Sanguinetti of the State Railways and engineer Henry Stevens for the FC Sud and a search had to be made among the inhabitants to head-up a task of such importance. Then it was the general wish, that this would represent a recognition from the whole population. On the other hand, these scrolls had to be made in their entirety. In the village nobody could be found who could recall, even in the slightest, a record of this nature; of course it had to proceed to a conclusion, as all the dwellers of the district wanted to add their signatures.
In the end, the Municipality sent two beautiful sheets of white cardboard, which would be better described as bed-sheets, to Don Adolfo López Gramaje, and on them he wrote with the greatest willingness and knowledge on the art of scroll-making that we could secure, preparing each of them as a work of art for each of the said heads on the day of the arrival of the train.
Since then we accepted such an honourable distinction, and I headed the work destined for engineer Stevens, and López Gramaje the one which I gave to Sanguinetti. The dedication was lengthy.
It comprised eight or ten lines. It started with the sentence “The Neighbours of Bariloche, to engineer Henry H. Stevens, as a recognition. . . . . . ” And the same for the other. But the worst was how to fill in between the borders, which between the width of the paper and the length, reached easily a metre in length. We tried as much inventiveness as we had, dedicated principally to railway motifs. After much work, the scrolls became a reality, good enough, and we proceeded to send them to the municipality.
The aim that they would be signed by the larger part of the population was accomplished. The police were charged with collecting the signatures of each citizen, as much in the lower part of the village, as in the upper. The agricultural community was also present, and at the moment of arrival, both sheets were completely filled with the signatures of the whole population. Perhaps an act of recognition so complete has not been achieved since then, as this one to toast the constructors of the railway.
The day of 14 April 1934 arrived, noted as the date of the arrival of the first train to Bariloche. From early on could be seen a ceaseless movement about the station, and the surrounding districts were completely empty. It was a feast day without precedent. The nearby livestock establishments did not skimp on donations of cattle and sheep for the asados (24), The spectacle, which was presented, was more than a whole block of asadores (25), bordering the patient line with all the paraphanalia of bonfires, tarpaulins, wine skins, bottles of wine and good humour, and will always be an unforgettable memory.
The train was due in at mid day, that is before the start of the official celebrations scheduled to take place before the asado. The whole population turned out to the place. The wind was strong that day, but did not spoil the activities.
About the appointed hour, the spokesman of the people announced the approach of the train. Slowly it approached with its plume of smoke from an engine which was bedecked with flags. It whistled vigorously, pulling a reduced number of vehicles. None of the passengers, all by invitation, staff of the construction, and some gate-crashers, were in their seats. All took to the windows and the balconies, returning the shouts which the people offered the train, which had at last reached its destination 24 years after the starting of the works.
1 The Author's name is not recorded, but from the content of the writing, it is quite likely that he was a member of staff of the FCE, who was not directly involved with the work on site.
2 Chelonian = tortoise.
3 This suggests that the involvement of the FC Sud in this project was initiated by the FC Sud.
4 This was the location of the Head Office of the FC Sud.
5 This must imply that although the works had been stalled that must have been some technical staff left at Pilcaniyeu.
6 Note that the Author makes a distinction between (professional) engineers and technicians.
7 Author of a paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers (London) describing the work carried-out.
8 Medical doctor who ran the first aid post and medical service for the works.
9 The Argentine mountaineering club.
10 Well-known Italian immigrant in Bariloche, known as a businessman and building contractor.
11 Quebracho is a dense rot-resistant hardwood from the north of the country, much used for railway sleepers.
12 Lahusen were a German owned and run conglomerate in the wool purchase and general stores business.
13 There was an Argentine engineer Emilio Dickman, son of Enrique Dickman, who was active at this time. The Author may have got Christian names mixed up.
14 Enrique Lunde was Danish and became well-known for his building activities in the area.
15 Who was responsible for the shady dealings with the 75 cm gauge purchases of materials, described elsewhere.
16 This is the most detailed description of the intended route to Llao Llao which I've seen.
17 If reference is being made to the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor, the only one in the area of which I am aware, it means that this writing dates to after about 1938, as it was only then that the chapel was built.
18 The Argentine national organisation responsible for water supply and sewerage in many parts of the country.
19 This means that earthworks were carried out on this line and explains why they are not visible today as might be expected.
20 This would suggest that the fuel (oil / solid) used changed from time to time and that the solid fuel used was wood.
21 That is we became unaware of our surroundings.
22 Boliche is an Argentine remote rural establishment functioning as a pub, general store and often lodging house.
23 A large stream that discharges into lake Nahuel Huapi at a point between the railway station and the town centre.
24 Argentine cooking of meat over the embers of an open fire.
25 The cook of an asado.