Translation of report on the Cabo Blanco salt flats and their exploitation
This paper appears in Spanish in the website at <http://farocaboblanco.com.ar/index.php>. This translation appears here by kind permission of the authors, señores Carlos Roberto Santos, Gustavo Marse, Diego Enrique Saborido, Humberto Brumatti, and Darío Ampuy. Señor Santos has since published a book on the Cabo Blanco area: Cabo Blanco, Historía de un pueblo desaparecido, Carlos Roberto Santos, Editorial Piedra Buena, Buenos Aires 2010.
A few kilometres from Cabo Blanco a salt flat ('salina') of large dimensions is found, access to which is by route 281, continuing onto Provincial route 14 as far as kilometre 35, and from there by Provincial route 91 to the zone close to the salt flat, approximately 83 Km from Puerto Deseado. Seen here are the remains of an old mineral working and from the infrastructure installed for that period it can be concluded that it was important.
The 'salina' of Cabo Blanco represented a source of wealth related to the local sheep production, bearing in mind the need to conserve the meat and skins by means of salt, and also to the exploitation of seals and elephant seals that developed at various points on the southern coasts, such as 'the Lobería', in the north of the Province of Santa Cruz, where the seals were hunted in large quantities during the 18th and 19th centuries because of the high value of their skins.
To prevent the decay of meat and skins, the salt acquired in past centuries a high commercial value, and the salt mines were considered a strategic resource, but after the construction of cold stores its value fell abruptly.
The salina of Cabo Blanco occupies a large depression in the land (900 hectares), and the desert climatic conditions of the zone favour the evaporation of the water from rain or from artesian sources that rise to the surface of the lagoon, forming in time what is called a 'saline harvest'. The extraction is done in the dry season, forming mounds of salt to allow it to dry.
On January 3, 1899, Don Miguel C. Martínez applied to open two salt mineral quarries close to Cabo Blanco and Cabo Tres Puntas, this being one of the oldest mining registrations of the National Territory of Santa Cruz. Only two older historic antecedents are known, one of June 21, 1887, where E. A. Ericson and Robert Forsyth communicated the find of a deposit of gold-bearing quartz and the other, December 29, 1896, when the Treasury Department of the nation granted permission at Cabo Blanco and also in Puerto Deseado for the establishment of a fish and shellfish processing factory.
Miguel Martínez, on April 29, 1901, requested the measurement and marking out of two mining concessions of 20 hectares each, composing thus 40 hectares in the salt working inland from the bay close to Cabo Blanco.
On October 7, 1901, the national government appointed the engineer Atanasio Iturbe to undertake the surveying.
On November 30, 1901 this civil engineer communicated in writing to the Governor of the national territory of Santa Cruz, Don Guillermo MacKinley Zapiola, that in accordance with the general instructions for surveyors, December 20 will see the start to the surveying operation. On December 20, 1901, the engineer Atanasio Iturbe, at 8am, initiated the measurement, basing it on two fundamental trigonometrical points, the first being number 82, situated at Cabo Blanco and the second number 8, situated on the coast, thus complying with the contract signed with the government on October 16, 1899, when they agreed to the measurement and surveying of the salt workings, and to identify the position of the same with respect to Cabo Blanco and other features that surround it.
The two holdings of 20 hectares each, belonging to Don Miguel C. Martínez, were located around the diggings that the discoverers of this resource had excavated near the marker stones “A” and “B”.
The distance between mine number one and Cabo Blanco is 5,875 meters, and it is noted in the details of the measurement that the road between the salt flat and the port was suitable for carts.
The engineer Atanasio Iturbe comments, referring to the features close to the salt working, that the vegetation that surrounds it was very poor and that there is no drinking water; the fresh water closest to the mine is found in a pool situated 3,500 meters to the south/south-west of Cabo Blanco, and that there are also freshwater springs in the cañadón of Cabo Blanco, in whose locality the grass is thick, and that this is located 16,350 metres from the salt working. In this cañadón is the only settlement that there is near the excavations, and it belongs to a Frenchman called Valentín Roquefulle who looks after sheep, on government land that he occupies. This is the modern day cattle estancia ‘La Estrella’.
In the period in which the location of these holdings was surveyed, the salt constituted a layer from one to two centimetres in thickness, and the 'salina' was found occupied by water super-saturated with sodium chloride.
Nevertheless, in subsequent studies, it was determined that the floor of the salt flat “is characterized by a rock salt layer with a minimum thickness of 4.40 m, with a maximum of 10 m. and an average of 8.06 m. The salt according to its texture has been classified (Domínguez E. 1997), as partly ‘maciza’ (massif, ie without planes of weakness) and partly ‘cebrada’ (bedded, ie in flat planes with lines of weakness between each plane). The first one is coarse to medium grained, white or translucent. The second consists of a rhythmic alternation of fine layers of haloids, ie salts composed of a metal and chlorine, potassium or fluorine, and clays. The reserves are in the order of 35 to 40 million tons (Cordini 1967) without specifying of which category. From the drillings carried out by Domínguez, this defines a body with reserves of 15 million tons as a (conservative) estimate.
In the surroundings of the salt workings there are no notable landmarks that can be related to the boundary stones of the mine holdings, however these boundary stones can be triangulated from triangulation points 8 and 82, which latter points can be related to many landmarks.
The report of the surveying contains an analysis of the samples of salt measured by the licentiate Ruiz Huidobro, that gives the following results:
It is declared also in this report that this salt mine has no other workings nearby. The study of the composition of the salt that is found in the salt workings of Cabo Blanco, was carried out in Buenos Aires on September 11, 1902.
The lighthouse had not yet been constructed, but there was a numerous population that lived in the neighbourhood of the rocks, where several houses had been constructed, such as those of Guillermo Jenkins (son) and Pedro Fasioli (retail shop and ironmonger/drysalter), sheds belonging to the Grandes Salinas de Cabo Blanco company and a wholesale store belonging to Lucio Parmeggiani and Co., that operated the salt mine and paid the workers, with tokens on which it was possible to read on one side ‘L. Parmeggiani and Co’, and its face value; on the other side ‘Grandes Salinas de Cabo Blanco Santa Cruz’. Also there were a post office, a resident Justice of the Peace, police sub-station, and the boarding houses of Jose Deangelli and Gabriel Perez. In 1941 also there was a school.
At the start of working of the 'salina' carts were utilized to carry the salt to Cabo Blanco where it was loaded. This was one of the first jobs of José Font, (a carter by profession who became famous as a union leader in the strike of 1921, when he was known as 'Facón Grande'), to bring the sacks of salt to the neighbourhood of the narrow gauge railway, that in wagons dragged by a small locomotive carried the salt to the south side of the cape, travelling through an approximate distance of 5,600 meters.
On March 26, 1902, in Cabo Blanco, there were embarked upon the steamer 'Comodoro Rivadavia', 2,000 sacks of salt of the 'Grandes Salinas de Cabo Blanco', being the first shipment from the new mine.
On December 20, 1902, The steamer ‘Santa Cruz’ left Buenos Aires for Cabo Blanco where it disembarked 71 labourers for the salt workings. On January 14, 1903 four labourers of the salt mines of Cabo Blanco fled, after one of them murdered a companion and left another almost dead in the area. Commented the newspaper 'La Prensa' that “Constable Gebhrard acted quickly, taking prisoner the criminal Francisco Demarco ‘Lungo’, a Calabrian, and José Presola, who is injured seriously. He has not found the other fugitive, Carmel, of whom Demarco declares that he left the person almost dead, without being able to identify the place. The lost criminal ate for four days wild plants and has the aspect of a wild animal”.
“These persons fled from the salina of Cabo Blanco, influenced by Demarco, who proposed to steal for them a passbook of the Bank of London, pertaining to a deposit of two hundred pesos. The criminal was sent to Rio Gallegos and the activities of Constable Gebhrard were worthy of commendation”.
On Saturday January 24, 1903 the steamer ‘Chubut’ left Puerto Deseado on course for San Julián. As soon as they disembarked the labourers of the 'salina' of Cabo Blanco, a bloody incident occurred, resulting in an injury. Being ill, Constable Gebhrard had handed over to Constable Wilson, who was thus at Cabo Blanco, the task of capturing the delinquent. As the personnel of the saltmines include individuals with criminal records and the majority are armed, the Inspector of Police has also ordered Constable Wilson to confiscate the weapons.
The newspaper ‘La Nacion’ of Friday February 13, 1903, commented: “In view of various facts and disorders occurred in the saltmines of Cabo Blanco, Constable Gebhrard, has been obliged to issue four warrants for arrest. in 20 days, to protect this new industry against the absurd demands and tendency to strike by the personnel. The salt workings produce in Puerto Deseado clear benefits, since they have numbers of caponada (birds), for which to date there was no market”.
I'm unable to find what caponada are. The word looks as though it is related to capón. Could they be hens which have ceased laying? The Real Academia gives only a meaning of a type of small bonfire for the word. There is a verb caponar which means something like to castrate or to prune unwanted growth off a plant – were it caponado I would have guessed that it was male sheep that were not being kept for breeding.
“The caponada, on account of the great consumption of the salt mines, north of Deseado, are almost exhausted and they will continue now buying from further south. With the sale of these animals, that up to now were worthless, and the good prices of the wool, a previously unknown affluence in this area is noted. The salinas signify a great advancement of progress for the territory, and especially for this locality, to date so abandoned by our government”.
It is regrettable that the police station in Puerto Deseado has no government horses, which would assist Constable Gebhrard to improve the security of the area. The landowners have promised to provide the necessary horses for any emergency. As the constable has to attend not only to Cabo Blanco, but also to the town and south of Deseado, it will be very necessary to establish in Cabo Blanco a police station, equipping it with personnel, horses and the necessary equipment”.
On December 23, 1903, the frigate ‘Sarmiento’, in one of its various voyages along the Patagonian coast, logged a visit to Cabo Blanco. “This is the fourth training voyage of the glorious frigate (which would begin its 9th trip in 1910 and the 17th in 1917)”.
On February 12, 1904 from Buenos Aires, bound for Cabo Blanco, set sail the steamer ‘1st of May’, with elements to counteract the effects of the banditry in those vast areas. One can read in an article of ‘La Prensa’ of February 17 that a police detachment has been sent there, but would be a very wise measure of the governor to create a permanent police patrol to travel through the territory.
On the 2nd June 1904, during the night, in the port of Cabo Blanco the steamer ‘1o de Mayo’ arrived, en route to the south, and at 11am the following day began loading 250 bags of salt for Rio Gallegos. The newspaper ‘La Prensa’of the 14th July 1904 under the title of ‘Shipwreck denied’ publishes the following commentary: There has been received in the Ministry of Marine a telegram from the Captain of the vessel ‘1o de Mayo’, in which this gentleman communicates that being around Cabo Blanco and by request of the (sailing) ship of the same name, that had a load of seven hundred fifty tons of salt, he took it under tow, because it could not make sail for want of favourable wind. ‘1o de Mayo’ took the boat up to two miles to the east of the Cape, from which point, helped by the current that ran to the north and taking advantage of the wind from the northwest, it made good progress towards Golfo San Jorge. With this news is weakened the rumour of the shipwreck that was received by the national telegraph.
On August 16th 1904 arrived at Cabo Blanco, originating from Punta Arenas, the steamer ‘Rio Gallegos’, embarking three passengers. It should have loaded in this port five hundred tons of salt, but could not do so on account of a temporary interruption in the service of the railway from the salt workings to the port, caused by the recent storms.
At 7am on October 27 1904 anchored in the port of Cabo Blanco the steamer ‘Chubut’, disembarking Messrs. Poli and Gandolfi and a group of labourers hired for the saltmines worked by the firm of Parmeggiani and Co. The ‘Chubut’ loaded salt over several days and continued its journey toward the south.
On November 5 1904 returned to Cabo Blanco, from Rio Gallegos, the steamer ‘Chubut’, and it remained there for two days embarking an important load of salt. On the 8th at 5pm this steamer left bound for Buenos Aires, carrying five hundred tons of salt. They embarked, among others, Messrs. Poli and Ernesto Gandolfi.
Under the command of Captain Jenaro Biagio, on November 16 1904 left at 5pm bound for Buenos Aires, the Argentine sailing ship 'Cabo Blanco’, with a cargo of 1300 tons of salt, consigned to Señores Parmeggiani and Co.
On November 20th 1904 the steamer ‘Presidente Roca’, loaded in a day and a half 3,800 large sacks of salt. Almost all the steamers that served the southern coasts, both outbound and on their return, paused at Cabo Blanco to load salt.
On January 16th 1905 this same steamer, ‘Presidente Roca’, upon hoisting in its steam launch, the jib of the davit broke, resulting in the death of the crew member José Maciel and injuring, though not seriously the dining room waiter Walter Gonling and the sailor Vicente Igorra.
In the year 1905 the Compañía de las Grandes Salinas of the firm Parmeggiani and Co., worked at a distance of 7km from the coast the splendid salt lake and there was constructed a narrow gauge railway that was employed in the transportation of the salt to the coast.
The little train was formed of an 0-4-0T locomotive, manufactured in 1890 by the firm Krauss in Germany, and various wagons for carrying the salt.
In the vicinity of the salt mines numerous houses existed that offered comfortable lodging to the workers. The newspaper ‘La Prensa’ of Monday 3rd April 1905 reported: “Constable Suárez continues committing offences” and commented “On 2nd April, at the place named Mangrullo, where Pascual Claro has a staging post (where horses may be changed), the one in charge of this, Señor Sepúlveda, proprietor of a wholesale store, did not want to give to the constable a horse which the postillion had ready saddled (for his own use). Sepúlveda set out the reasons for his refusal, but Suárez leapt the counter and grabbed him by his neckerchief and threatened him with a whip. As a result Mr. Sepúlveda agreed to provide the requested horse, but the still unsatisfied Constable Suárez arrested the former and took him to the police sub-station of Cabo Blanco without further ado. When passing through the estancia of Alarcón, Constable Suárez fired several shots from his revolver, that consequently sounded the alarm throughout the establishment. Many of the neighbours worry about the future and doubt if their lives and interests will be safe with such officials. Until today no action has been taken by the Governor on these facts that I reported on the 19th of this month.
On September 1 1905 arrived at Cabo Blanco and on the 2nd departed the steamer ‘Presidente Roca’, that loaded two hundred tons of salt bound for Buenos Aires. In this period, the land around Cabo Blanco was being populated quickly, having founded several estancias of considerable importance.
The sailing ship ‘Cabo Blanco’, of Argentine registry, anchored in that port on September 18, 1905, under the command of the Captain Jenaro Biagio and loaded one thousand three hundred tons of salt bound for Buenos Aires.
On the 8th November 1905 the steamer ‘Presidente Roca’ left for Buenos Aires, having in a single day unloaded here twenty-six tons of general merchandise and loaded two hundred tons of salt. All the neighbours of this town offered a picnic lunch to Colonel Gutiérrez, ex-governor of Santa Cruz, who came on board the same steamer accompanied by his wife. The lunch was attended by the captain of the steamer and his officers. Colonel Gutiérrez commented that as in the establishment of the salt mines they employed already nearly 100 people, Cabo Blanco needed police and a school. In December of 1905 the Salesian father Ludovico Dabrowski undertook a tour around the growing villages of Cabo Blanco and Mazaredo. On the 9th June 1908 was appointed to the police station Constable Rafael Varadlo, to the satisfaction of all the neighbourhood. On 24th June 1908, at 3.30pm, the steamer ‘Camarones’ coming from Buenos Aires anchored, unloading general merchandise.
On November 8th 1908 the steamer ‘Lidya’ arrived at Cabo Blanco, of the new shipping company of the south coast, Perino and Co., bringing the labourers for the salt workings, as well as general merchandise, machinery and fine animals.
Señor A. Pratto, tenant of Don Lucio Parmeggiani, on the 9th March 1909 asked for the Ministry of Agriculture’s permission to exploit substances of the first category (combustible) (presumably coal – MCC) in the territory of Santa Cruz, Cabo Blanco zone, and the President of the Nation granted exclusive rights to Mr. Pratto on an extension of approximately 2,000 hectares, not infringing on the salt mining properties previously allocated.
In March of 1910, on occasion of the appointment of Don Tancredo Mazuchelli, medical officer of the railway from Deseado to Nahuel Huapi (eventually halted at Las Heras), the settlers from Mazaredo to Cabo Blanco, Deseado, Sea Bear Bay (Bahía Oso Marino) y Bahía Laura, resolved to offer a gold medal to him for the services that he had rendered unstintingly over seven years, without a doubt a well deserved tribute (When he had been appointed to this position, he was in Cabo Blanco).
Around 1930 the salinera company abandoned its operations as unprofitable, because others located to the north, near the railway lines and populated centres, were more competitive than those of Cabo Blanco which had difficulty recruiting and transporting workers to so distant a place, as well as the sea transport costs. Until 1941 the warehouses of the Sociedad Anónima Salinas de Cabo Blanco existed, but as time went on they were dismantled, and the tracks of the narrow gauge railway and the locomotive were sold as scrap iron. It is possible that this railway was the most southern at the time of the world (Not true – MCC).
In 1941 the engineer G. Prilutzky completed a ‘Report on the possibility of operation of the salt mines of Cabo Blanco’ (Expte. 202.9701), It considers the possibility of extraction of salt from 15 mines, of which 12 belonged to concessionary Sr. Adolph Eiras forming a group of 36 properties over 720 hectares.
The study includes details of the importance of the deposits, the quality of the salt at different depths, the transport possibilities from the salt mine to the port in the south bay, the route to Puerto Deseado, the antecedents of the first operation, mentioning that the new possible operation would not involve harvesting of surface salt in drying heaps, but the mining of salt by means of large compressed air drills and dynamite explosives. Thought is also given to the problem of floods during rain, which must be solved with drainage works, so as not to harm the quality of the salt nor to have to stop the works in operation.
Also noteworthy is the mention of three mines whose licences had lapsed, and that they will be auctioned off again by the Directorate of Mines and Geology.
It was commented that the present owner of the salt working, Señor Juan Carlos Lupídio, tried to sell it to a Peruvian group, but the deal failed when it came to light that the salt was not suitable for human consumption. Nevertheless in the report of 1941 of Ing. G. Prilutzky, talking about the quality of the salt, it says: “… has considered previously the enormous reserves, excellent quality and ease of transport of the mineral…” and further on it adds “All the tests of preparation of the characteristics of salt for food use, have been carried out carefully by Sr. Eiras, who has secured success in order to offer several products of superb quality…”
There existed at that time a bias against the salt of Cabo Blanco (the same as against the salt of Pirámides or San Blas), by an unwarranted hostility to this Patagonian product, perhaps due to an old prejudice to believe that the salts of Cadiz or of Ibiza were superior for the conservation of meats. But on the other hand they were recognized as more suitable for the conservation of cheeses, by the greater quantity of deliquescent chlorides that they contain. From chemical analyses performed under the direction of Dr. Pedro Arata it can be deduced that this salt can be compared with that of Cadiz as of similar quality, and shown to be of superior quality to that of Ibiza.
The Peruvian group had thought to make a very large investment that would have included the loading of the salt by means of a conveyor belt in the south bay of Cabo Blanco. This bay traces an ample curve of about two kilometres in length with a gentle slope in its coasts for protection against winds of the north, making it safe, and with a splendid beach for operations. The best anchorage is in the centre of the bay with 6 fathoms of water over a sand bottom.
Salt carrying railways