A backdoor to the south
The Istmo de Ofqui canal construction project
Travel by ship through the fjords of southern Chile can be accomplished almost entirely in sheltered waters, with one exception. It is necessary to go out into the open Pacific to round the Peninsula of Taitao. This is intensely frustrating, as the peninsula is joined to the mainland by a low and narrow isthmus - the Istmo de Ofqui - made up of loose moraine material. In fact a canal would only need to be about two kilometres long, as the rest of the link could be along the Rio Negro. There have been dreams of such a canal for more than two centuries, and a portage route is used to this day by canoeists dragging their craft over wooden beams laid out like sleepers.
In 1908 the Belgian engineer Sr. Emilio de Vidis was employed by the government to design a suitable canal. At the end of 1937 work began on the ground, under the management of the railways department of the Ministry of Public Works (1). Work continued until May 1943 when funds ran out. A series of photos by Don Augusto Grosse Ickler survive to show that these excavations were conducted with the help of a typical 60cm gauge construction railway, with skip wagons and at least one Germanic-looking tank loco (3).
The excavation of a cutting through the unconsolidated material, originating as a terminal moraine of the San Rafael glacier. 60cm gauge track is visible, with typical small skip wagons and a small steam locomotive.
Another view along a cutting. It can be seen that the morainic material typically contains large boulders as well as smaller material.
The track in this view seems to disappear into the distance on an embankment. The locomotive is in the distance.
A siding with two skip wagons being filled by hand.
A number of large boulders temporarily left between the tracks.
At one end of the canal works. A muelle juts out into the water, with behind it several buildings and a steam loco. The lumps of ice behind the rowing boat will have originated in the nearby glacier and may have been towed to this point to provide a source of clean water.
Whilst it would interesting to dream of the canal eventually being completed, even in the 1940s there were more cynical voices (2). A canal suitable for small 'goletas' does nothing for today's 10.000 tonne car ferries. Equivalents are the Crinnan and Caledonian Canals in Scotland; built for small coastal trading 'puffers' but nowadays only of use to leisure craft and the odd fishing boat.
1 A summary of the past proposals for this canal is contained in a webpage belonging to the Ghisolfo engineering consultancy, who are proposing that the scheme be resurrected.
2 A rather negative contemporary assessment of scheme in the 1940s was written by Sr. Guillermo Arroyo Acuña and published in Revista Cruz del Sur, October 1944.
3 Photographs kindly provided by Señor Pablo Moraga.