In the coming months, when the sweltering humidity of Buenos Aires becomes too much for daily trips to the heladería to overcome, a journey south to the cooler regions of Argentina serves as a necessary relief for many weary travellers. Ushuaia, the proudly claimed southernmost city in the world, is a great option for breaking out of the concrete jungle.
The city is also the jumping off point for explorations into Tierra del Fuego National Park, and all the outdoors activities the park has to offer. As tourism in Argentina has grown in general over the last decade, Ushuaia has become a popular destination for those venturing beyond Buenos Aires. A century ago, however, this was the destination of a very different sort of visitor.
The Prison at the End of the World
At the turn of the 20th century Argentina and Chile were both pursuing southern expansion and several battles had already been fought over territorial claims. Control over Tierra del Fuego was considered especially important because the Magellan strait was an important strategic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. European powers were also becoming increasingly interested in the region.
For these reasons the government in Buenos Aires decided it was necessary to establish a population in this far-flung territory. In 1883, president Julio Argentino Roca proposed that the nation establish a penal colony at the southern most tip of the Republic. Three years later colonists arrived and began building primitive shelters to house convicts, who according to the penal code of the time were being condemned to a punishment, “one step shy of the death penalty.”When the construction of the national penitentiary began in 1902, there were already a dozen prisoners living in wood and tin huts. The convicts sentenced to the penitentiary in Ushuaia were dangerous repeat offenders and political prisoners sent down from jails in Buenos Aires province.
The prisoners themselves were forced to construct the penitentiary. When the building was finally completed in 1920 it included a central hall and five pavilions, each with 76 individual cells. The prison, however, was habitually overcrowded and often crammed over 600 prisoners into its 380 single cells. Throughout the ’30s the prison population equalled that of Ushuaia.
Off to Work They GoThese prisoners were not spared the time to sit around tallying off their days left “inside” on their cell walls. Many were serving life sentences, and they were forced into tough manual labour. Besides building the penitentiary, they also constructed the basic infrastructure of the city of Ushuaia. Projects included the construction of Ushuaia’s first electricity generator and grid, roads, bridges, printing press, telephone wires, sewage system and fire department. As compensation for their labour prisoners received a tiny salary and a primary school education.
The prisoners were also compelled to venture out on the infamous “prisoner’s train” to retrieve lumber from the forest which today makes up Tierra del Fuego National Park. The first tracks were laid in 1910 and during the next few years they cut through the centre of town and out into the surrounding wilderness.
The lumber gathered by the prisoners fuelled Ushuaia’s growth. Every morning two trains departed from the jail, the first travelled to the end of the line, where armed guards oversaw the prisoners as they lay more tracks. The second train stopped in the forest so that the prisoners could chop trees into lumber.Despite the freezing rain and usually bitter, damp conditions in the forest the prisoners cherished their time away from the jail because it was the most freedom they were given. Only those with records of good behaviour were allowed to work on the train. Though a couple of escapes were attempted, each time the runaways returned to the prison begging for shelter and forgiveness.
Okay, That’s Enough of That
In 1947, with Argentine territory in Tierra del Fuego firmly established and Ushuaia a functioning city, president Juan Domingo Perón closed the national penitentiary for humanitarian reasons. Today, the former penitentiary houses The Maritime Museum of Ushuaia. The museum complex includes the Prison Museum, The Antarctic Museum and the Marine Art Museum.
If you plan on making Ushuaia your Patagonian summer destination be sure to visit the museum and put the city in its proper context.