Arthur St. Hill, an English traveler about whom very little is known, arrived in Mexico in 1883. He was an observant and enthusiastic visitor. In the preface to his book Through The Land of the Aztecs (published in 1892 using the pen name ‘A Gringo’), St. Hill states that his object “is simply to give a plain account of several years experience in the country, to show its recent progress and to enable the reader to judge the future,” based on “prolonged periods of travel over the greater part of its territory, by rail, stagecoach and steamer, on horseback and in canoes [which] have afforded me exceptional facilities for studying the country and all classes of the people.”
One contemporary review called the work an “interesting little book descriptive of life and travel in Mexico from 1883 until a recent date,” and congratulated the author “on the felicitous manner in which he has performed his task.” The reviewer found that the book was “a pleasantly written handbook” though it lacked a map, an omission that “is really unpardonable.”
Arthur St. Hill’s visit to Chapala definitely took place prior to 1889, though he did not publish anything about it until a few years later. He starts by summarizing his trip to Chapala, which would have taken close to 12 hours:
“Taking a carriage, which ran weekly between Guadalajara and Chapala, a town on the border of the lake of that name, I set forth one morning, and, after climbing a hill, from which a grand view of the city and surrounding countryside was obtained, I reached Chapala.”
He provides only the briefest of descriptions of the village of Chapala, commenting on the inn where he stayed and the moonlight on the lake:
Chapala lies at the foot of a hill, overlooking the lake, the waters of which lapped the little garden of the inn where I put up. After a supper, with the agreeable addition of a bottle of lager beer, I spent the evening chatting with the pleasant old people who kept the inn, and enjoying the still night as I watched the moonbeams playing on the lake, on which loomed the black shape of the paddle steamer that was to take me tomorrow across its waters.”
Arthur St. Hill gives us a rare description of taking a trip aboard the Libertad (“Freedom”) paddle steamer around the lake to the various lakeshore villages. The San Francisco-built Libertad had been brought to Lake Chapala in 1868 by the Compañía de Navegación por Vapor en el Lago de Chapala (Lake Chapala Steamboat Company), whose managing director was a transplanted Scotsman, Mr. Duncan Cameron.
“It was a wonderful old tub, evidently built in the days when shipbuilding was “in its infancy, judging from its uncouth shape and old timbers, that creaked at every movement of the paddles. Our voyage took in several villages round the lake. At each stopping place we would land on the little mud jetties to suck a piece of sugar-cane or quaff a festive glass of tequila. At one of the villages a sad accident has since occurred; the crazy old steamer toppled over with her living freight of over two hundred passengers just as she reached the landing-stage, nearly all being drowned… One heroic American, employed on the Central Railroad, who was on board at the time, succeeded in saving the lives of sixteen by his pluck and great swimming powers.”
The tragic accident referred to by St. Hill occurred on Sunday 24 March 1889 when the steamship capsized at Ocotlán. Even though this took place only six meters from the shore, 28 people were drowned. The American referred to by St. Hill was the Railway Superintendent, Mr. C. E. Halbert.
Arthur St. Hill also noted that efforts had been made to exploit an underwater petroleum deposit at Lake Chapala:
“At one place the captain called my attention to a spot where the water was bubbling, and told me that at the bottom of the lake there was a petroleum well. Although efforts had been made to utilize it, they had hitherto been unsuccessful.”
Arthur St. Hill disembarked from the Libertad at La Barca, from where he continued his wanderings around Mexico.
If anyone can supply any biographical details about Arthur St. Hill, please get in touch!
[This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 35 of my Lake Chapala through the ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]
- Arthur St. Hill (writing as “A Gringo”). 1892. Through The Land of the Aztecs Or Life and Travel In Mexico. London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company.
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