The early 'graserias'
Before the development of refrigeration for carcases and the introduction of ‘reefer’ ships to carry meat to distant markets, the Patagonian estancias relied principally on the sale of wool. However, the mutton carcases could be boiled down and the fat or lard extracted. A few of the larger establishments built ‘graserias’ or rendering plants for this purpose.
In Magallanes there were a number of such plants. These were clearly described in Señor Guerrero Bascuñan’s 1897 volumes (1), and railways obviously had a role in the transfer of the barrels to the local muelle.
The Estancia Oazy Harbour lies north-east of Punta Arenas on the sheltered bay of the same name. In the last years of the 19th century it was managed by the Englishman Henry Reynard and since 1894 had had a ‘graseria’. Dr, Lautaro Navarro Avaria in the second volume of Señor Bascuñan’s work, comments thus: "...el establecimiento tiene una línea de ferrocarril de sangre para llevar a la playa sus productos." or "the establishment has a man/mule-powered railway line to deliver its products to the beach." Señor Bascuñan himself glosses this as "una línea de ferrocarril Decauville" to take the barrels of fat to the muelle.
Another ‘graseria’ was at this estancia much further east opposite the first narrows (Primera Angostura) on the Straits of Magellan. The same source quoted above stated that Señors Waldron and Wood have "una sistema ferrovia Decauville" to their muelle. This location was run by the Sociedad Ganadera de Magallanes (owned by the Waldron and Wood families) and in 1910 was taken over by the Braun-Menendez combine known as the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego (SETF). It was at Punta Delgada that the eventual possibility of freezing Patagonian carcases for shipment to Europe was first tested. Waldron and Wood brought the refrigerated vessel Oneida, fitted it with equipment to do the initial freezing, and then used it to take carcases from the shore and cool and store them until a vessel of the Houlder line came along to pick them up and take to Britain (2).
Other locations in Magallanes
There were apparently similar graserias at San Gregorio, Husefull Hill, Otway Station and elsewhere.
There must have been similar plants in the sheep-rearing areas of southern Argentina too. The first site identified was at Rio McClelland near the Estancia San Sebastián on the east side of Tierra del Fuego. This was an early project of the 'Explotadora'. The graseria was in operation by 1901 with a capacity of 40,000 sheep per annum (3). Around 1900 there was also a graseria at Río Gallegos run by the La Blanca branch of the Mihanovitch company. This may well have been very short-lived for a 1902 report in The Review of the River Plate talks of the plant having closed suddenly and the sheep then being sent across the border to Punta Delgada.
In the Falkland Islands the first such boiling-down or 'trying' station was built at Hope Place as early as 1851. A much larger plant was set up by the Falkland Islands Company at Darwin in 1874 (4). Others later existed at Goose Green (Canning plant 1911 - 1921), Port Stephens and Port Howard though no proof of rail usage has been found other than in the first of these. Many years on a freezer plant was built at Ajax Bay on the Falkland Sound, in 1953, but it was unsuccessful and only lasted a couple of years.
It seems likely that mainland plants would have become redundant once the new ‘frigorificos’ were built around the time of the First World War. Of those locations mentioned, only San Gregorio gained a 'frigorifico' so presumably the other railways fell into disuse unless kept on for the transport of wool bales.
Whether such railway systems were indeed of Decauville design or make is uncertain. It is possible that they were of 60cm. gauge, but most later systems in Argentina or Chile used the metre gauge. Close examination of each of the locations above might produce some sort of evidence.
1 En el Territorio de Magallanes, (Memoria que el delegado del Supremo Gobierno). 1897. Don Mariano Guerrero Bascuñan. Ministro de Colonizacion, Santiago.
2 Patagonian Panorama. 1961. by Tom Jones who had been the manager of the Rio Seco frigorífico for 36 years. The Outspoken Press, Bournemouth, UK.
3 Summary history of the SETF in Donald Campbell's 'PatBrit' website, mostly culled from the authorised history Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego 1893-1943, 1943, Fernando Durán, Valparaiso.
4 The Falkland Islands.1972. Ian Strange, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, England. p118.