It’s a short and lovely boat trip from the Caleta to this tiny isle located south of Tortel’s Bay. You’ll be immersed within a dreamy landscape that includes the turquoise waters of the Baker River Delta, the intense greens of the native forests, snowy peaks, giant waterfalls, and hanging glaciers. Perhaps the serenity of the landscape makes the isle’s chilling monument that much more surreal; 59 worn wooden crosses peeking out from between giant ferns and nalca leaves, quietly memorializing a tragedy, that was anything but “serene”.
For years the events that led to the 59 crosses on the isle were shrouded in mystery.
There was talk of famine, accidental poisoning and even a premeditated mass-murder. But, everything was a matter of legend and rumor, until social anthropologist, Mauricio Osorio, uncovered new evidence that has helped to reveal true events that led to the catastrophe.
All of the excursions to the Isle of the Dead pass through the Bajo Pisagua Sector, where there is an incredible waterfall that pours down into the fjord. This sector is the scene for the drama that was to unfold. At the end of 1905, the Explotadora del Baker Company contracted around 200 workers from Chiloe and Puerto Montt, to come to the Bajo Pisagua sector and work, building roads, logging and working in construction of new infrastructure. Work moved forward during the spring and summer months and workers began to anticipate the winter break, when they would return home to their families.
A ship would arrive to transport the workers back north in June of that year; their contract stipulated a break during the winter months when the climate included sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and rains. Accommodations were not adequate for housing so many people during the harsh conditions of winter when clearly, the weather prevented work from moving forward. So, rations were provided through the end of May when the ship would arrive. But, it didn’t arrive on the indicated day, or the next.
The ship scheduled to transport the workers never arrived; they had been abandoned!
It was almost four months later, on September 27, 1906, when the Araucanía Steamer, from Punta Arenas, picked up the 157 survivors of the Bajo Pisagua tragedy. Fifty-nine workers had died during the harsh Patagonian winter, due to lack of food and an outbreak of scurvy, and their remains rest under the worn wooden crosses on the isle. Eight more victims died aboard the Araucanía on the way back. It’s especially sad to notice the short lives memorialized by many of the crosses on the isle, whose dates reveal that many of the workers were young men, some only 15 years old.
Today, thanks to the efforts of Don Osorio’s research, the mystery of their deaths can finally be shared and the forgotten, remembered. So, as you walk through the isle surrounded by such incredible beauty, take a moment to remember a few of the names that are hand written onto the crosses. Then, as you make your way back to the comforts of Caleta Tortel, take a few minutes to remember the names of those forgotten for so long.