Paraná River steamers

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Rio del Plata basin

The Paraná River is the second longest river in South America. Rising in Brazil, the river winds from the coastal mountains through tributaries and travels over Iguazu Falls 3,000 miles (4,828 km) into Paraguay, Argentina and the Rio de la Plata at Uruguay. The river allowed for transport and exploration of the continent. It also was the scene of some terrible wars, including naval.

The River Plate Republics arose from the fall of the Spanish Empire in South America after 1811. The devolution of the colony into smaller republics because of Napoleons conquest of Spain first allowed the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata into an autonomous country, and then it followed the trend that transpired over Latin America—dissolution into a patchwork of fractured republics. Part of this was the result of insular territories and regionalism owing to the great distances involved. This was the age of travel by oxcart.

The arrival of the steamboat helped shorten those distances. The wars of independence and the intervention from European powers meant that the colonies were slow to modernize.

The Europeans had large steam merchant and naval ships became capable of sailing up rivers at a good speed and with a heavy load. Lord Palmerston was the first to propose the use of steamers for commerce along the internal waters of Argentina in 1841. This technology allowed the British and French governments to avoid Argentine custom houses in Buenos Aires by sailing directly through the La Plata estuary and engaging in commerce directly with the Argentinian inland cities. This avoided taxation, guaranteed special rights for the Europeans and allowed them to export their products cheaply.

Rosas' government tried to stop this practice by declaring the Argentine rivers closed to foreign countries, barring access to Paraguay and other ports in the process. The British and French governments did not acknowledge this declaration and decided to defy Rosas by sailing upstream with a joint fleet, setting the stage for a military confrontation, which eventually took place at the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado,

The first steamers on the Paraná River were around 1840 with naval vessels. The Argentine navy built the PS Merced in 1849. The ability of vessels to go upstream was an asset. It allowed the supply of inland republics like Paraguay.

The rivalry between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in the 1840s meant that Argentina closed the river to international trade, bottling up Paraguay.

A new Argentine government under Justo José de Urquiza opened the river to international trade in 1852.

Platine War[edit]

A civil war in Argentina over government and urban versus rural forces led to battles. In the process Brazil invaded. A fleet was sent up the Paraná River in 1854.

US Paraguay Expedition[edit]

The US sent a paddler gunboat USS Harriet Lane up the river to Asunción in 1858 over a diplomatic incident, while Captain Sullivan RN, sounded and charted the river in the 1840s up to Corrientes for the Royal Navy.

Paraguayan War[edit]

See the article Paraguayan War.

Naval battle of Riachuelo[edit]

Naval battle of Riachuelo

On June 11, 1865, Brazilian and Paraguayan vessels squared off on the Paraguay-Argentine border.

Paraguay's naval squadron consisted of 23 steamboats and five ships[citation needed] that could navigate the river ... The Paraguayans passed in a line parallel to the Brazilian fleet and continued down the stream. Upon Captain Meza's order, the entire fleet opened fire on the docked Brazilian steamers.[3] The land troops hastily, upon realization that they were under attacked, boarded their own ships and began returning fire. One of the Paraguayan steamers was hit in the boiler and one of the "chatas" was damaged as well. Once out of range, they turned upstream and anchored the chatas, forming a line in a very narrow part of the river. This was intended to trap the Brazilian fleet.

1866 Naval battle at Humaita

Admiral Barroso noticed the Paraguayan tactic and turned down the stream to go after the Paraguayans. However, the Paraguayans started to fire from the shore into the lead ship, Belmonte. The second ship in the line, Jequitinhonha, inadvertently turned upstream and was followed by the whole fleet, thus leaving Belmonte alone to receive the full firepower of the Paraguayan fleet—it was soon put out of action. Jequitinhonha ran aground after the turn, becoming an easy prey for the Paraguayans.

Four steamers (Beberibe, Iguatemi, Mearim and Araguari) followed the Amazonas. The Paraguayan admiral (Meza) left his position and attacked the Brazilian line, sending three ships after Araguari. Parnaíba remained near Jequitinhonha and was also attacked by three ships that were trying to board it. The Brazilian line was effectively cut in two. Inside Parnaíba a ferocious battle was taking place when the Marquez de Olinda joined the attackers. Barroso, at this time heading upstream, decided to turn the tide of the battle with a desperate measure. The first ship that faced Amazonas was the Paraguarí which was rammed and put out of action. Then he rammed Marquez de Olinda and Salto, and sank a "chata". At this point Paraguari was already out of action. Therefore, the Paraguayans tried to disengage. Beberibe and Araguari pursued the Paraguayans, heavily damaging Tacuary and the Pirabebé, but the nightfall prevented the sinking of these ships.

Admiral Barroso, on board the steamer Amazonas, trying to avoid chaos and reorganize the Brazilian fleet, decided to lead the fleet down the stream again and fight the Paraguayans in order to prevent their escape, rather than save Amazonas.

Jequitinhonha had to be put afire by Paraguari and Marquez de Olinda. In the end, the Paraguayans lost four steamers and all of the "chatas", while the Brazilians only lost the Jequitinhonha.

Growth of Argentina and Uruguay[edit]

Immigration and the growth of the agricultural fields after 1880 spurred an explosion in the Republics' markets. British interest and European immigration expanded the republics. Wheat, beef, and wine were the principal exports and the port cities and towns of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rosario, Santa Fe, and Fray Bentos grew.

British capital and coal was exported south on British ships. Argentine wheat and beef went north. Most of the steamers on the river were built in Scotland at A. & J. Inglis.

Railway ferries[edit]

Ferries were needed to move people and trains across the wide Paraná river mouth. Argentina has a riverlocked province to the north that needed a connection.

Eight ferries were built between 1907 and 1929 for the Entre Rios Railways Co. in Argentina. These were used between 1907 and 1990 to cross the Paraná River and join the Buenos Aires province and the Entre Rios province, until new bridges were built over the rivers they crossed:

Argentinian railway ferry Lucía Carbó
  • Lucía Carbó (1907)
  • María Parera (1908)
  • Mercedes Lacroze (1909)
  • Roque Saenz Peña (1911)
  • Exequiel Ramos Mejía (1913)
  • Dolores de Urquiza (1926)
  • Delfina Mitre (1928)
  • Carmen Avellaneda (1929)

To the north in the Misiones Province the ferries Roque Saenz Peña (1911) and Exequiel Ramos Mejía (1913) paddled train ferries across the Paraná River at Posadas. Three other train ferries were added later: the Dolores de Urquiza (1926), the Delfina Mitre (1928) and the Carmen Avellaneda (1929) to cover the service in the Zárate-Ibicuy crossing.

Rise of Mihanovich[edit]

Nicolas Mihanovich was from Dalmatia and who emigrated to Uruguay in 1864. He then became a shipping magnate in Argentina. His company dominated trade and passenger steamer traffic on the Paraná and Paraguay rivers until 1948.

Next is an excerpt from US Commerce Department, 1920. Paraguay. A commercial handbook.

The steamers in the Buenos Aires-Asunción service leave Buenos Aires on Sundays and Thursdays and Asunción on the same days. Four steamers are employed on this run. The upriver trip requires a little over four days and the return about three days. The fares for passage between the two cities are as follows: First class, one way, 110 Argentine pesos ($46.76) ; round trip, 192.60 pesos ($81.76) ; second class, one way, 66 pesos ($23.36) ; round trip, 96.26 pesos ($40.90). The round-trip tickets are valid for three months. The baggage allowance is 50 kilos (110 pounds), but this maximum is liberally interpreted. Accommodations are very comfortable, and in general the trip is one of the most pleasant that can be made in South America.

On the lines north of Asunción fares are higher and accommodations for travelers are poorer. Between Asunción and Buenos Aires the Mihanovich steamers are forced to compete with the international train, but in the Alto Paraguay there is no competition whatever. Stops are more frequent, as the steamers heave to at any estancia house on^he banks where a signal gun is fired or for which there happens to be cargo or passengers. Moreover, the steamers tie up at the shore for two or three hours each day, while enough firewood is taken on to stoke the boilers until another woodpile is reached the next day. This wood costs the company at the rate of 3 centavos gold per stick.

Although the service is much inferior to that on the larger Buenos Aires-Asunción steamers, the boats themselves are comfortable and the scenery is more picturesque than in the more low-lying country through which the river flows to the south. The time ordinarily required for the trip between Asunción and some of the more important points on the upper river is as follows : To Concepcion, 40 hours up- stream, 27 hours downstream; Puerto Pinasco, 54 and 33 hours; Bahia Negra, 84 and 77 hours; Porto Esperanga, 90 and 81 hours; Corumba, 96 and 85 hours. The fare to Corumba is 90 gold pesos, or at the rate of over 11 cents per mile. A ticket purchased in Corumba for Asunción costs 495 milreis, which is equivalent to approximately $125, or nearly 17 cents per mile.


For fast freight the Mihanovich Co. uses its regular passenger packets, but for most of the ordinary heavy freight it operates a fleet of special cargo steamers, besides tugs for drawing lighters.

The Viena was an Inglis product and was launched into the River Kelvin on 8 June 1906. Viena was built for Nicolas Mihanovich's Argentine Navigation Company. Viena was about 330 feet long with a beam of about 40 feet. Her gross tonnage was 2376 and she had accommodation for 340 First Class passengers and 120 in Second Class. The vessel was powered by a triple expansion steam engine built in Inglis' own engine works.

A few years after building Viena, Inglis used the same basic design when they supplied the two large paddlers CABO SANTA MARIA and CABO CORRIENTES for Hamburg Sud Amerika Damfschiffarts in 1913. After World War I they were taken over by the Argentine Navigation Co and became GENERAL ARTIGAS and GENERAL ALVEAR respectively. Viena was renamed WASHINGTON in 1915 (picture of Viena as WASHINGTON).

Other large paddle steamers supplied by Inglis to the Argentine fleets about that time included the LAMBERE, PS Bruselas (1911) and Berna.

Other Paraná-Paraguay River steamers[edit]

Among other freight services offered to Paraguayan shippers are those maintained by the Domingo Barthe Co. and Augusto Bisso. Though the Barthe interests are largely confined to the Alto Paraná region, this company still operates freight boats between Asunción and Buenos Aires. By an agreement with the Mihanovich Co., they offer the same scale of freights as are in force on the former line. Augusto Bisso has chartered a number of freighters and is now conducting a general shipping business between Puerto Max, Concepcion, Asunción, and the River Plate.

The present fleet of the company consists of four steamers of 150 to 370 tons, two of 600 tons each, and two of 1,000 tons. The latter, the Cerea and the Miranda are the largest boats using the Paraguay River. In addition to these, there are 36 lighters, three of which are of 700 tons burden each, representing a total tonnage of 8,165. There are also eight tugs in the fleet. Twenty oil-burning steamers have been contracted for construction in the United States, to be employed in the company service. Most of the vessels in the existing fleet have been rented from the Lloyd Brasileiro, which before the war maintained a navigation service on the Paraguay-Paraná. In fact a very close relation exists between the two companies. The Brazilian Government exercises a large measure of control over the operations of the new company's transportation service and the officers of the company's boats are at the same time officers in the national navy. The Llovd's schedule was too intermittent to be relied upon and its operations were in general too leisurely, but its successor has promised local shippers the same facilities offered by the Mihanovich Co. The Companhia Minas e Viacão plans to operate at least one boat a week between Corumba and Montevideo. The only Argentine port of call is Rosario, as the Argentine law prohibits foreign-owned ship companies from carrying on a coastwise trade between Argentine ports. In Paraguay its vessels call at Asunción, Concepción, and other river ports. The company has promised to facilitate the transshipment or merchandise at Montevideo between ships plying from the United States and Europe arid its own river boats. As the expense and delays occasioned by transshipment at River Plate ports have been one of the greatest obstacles to Paraguay's foreign commerce, any attempt to relieve this condition and establish more direct and expeditious connections with the outside world is heartily welcomed by Paraguayan commercial interests.

Later Paraguayan gunboats[edit]

Gunboat Humaitá in Genoa, shortly after being launched

The beginning of an unusual career, the SS Clover was built 1907 by Messrs. T. & J. Hosking, Ireland, as the steel-hulled yacht Clover.

She arrived to Paraguay in November 1911 together with Constitución, a former ocean-going freighter converted into the gunboat, and the transport General Díaz. Clover served on the Paraguayan navy through the Chaco War until the 1980s under the name ARP Tacuary.[1]

At the eve of the Chaco War, the Paraguayan government enhanced its riverine firepower with the design and building of two large gunboats in Italy, the Humaitá and the Paraguay, which arrived to Asunción in 1931.

Perón's government[edit]

Perón's populist government nationalized the Mihalovich holdings in 1948, as Perón had also done with the large railway system and companies. The Army led two insurrections in June and September 1955 which resulted in his removal, not before 500 people died in both uprisings. Perón went into exile aboard the Paraguayan gunboat Paraguay.

Tension increased during the next few weeks, as factions within the government and the military maneuvered for position. Finally, on September 16, insurgent groupings in all three branches of the armed forces staged a concerted rebellion; after three days of civil war, during which approximately 4,000 people were killed, Perón resigned and took refuge on a Paraguayan gunboat in Buenos Aires Harbor. On September 20 the insurgent leader Major General Eduardo Lonardi took office as provisional president, promising to restore democratic government. Perón went into exile, first in Paraguay and later in Spain.

Alto Paraná navigation[edit]

The upper Paraná River is navigable. Paraguay and Brazil run navy and passenger boats on this stretch. In Brazil the Paraná River becomes the Grande River.

The Estrada de Ferro Oeste de Minas met the Grande River at Riberao Vermelho, from where the railway ran a steam navigation service down the river for 208 km (129 mi), as far as Capetina. There were six stations on the river between Riberao Vermelho and Capetinga, and a passenger and freight service was operated between 1889 and 1963. The railway operated a fleet of 6 stern-wheel paddle steamers, together with barges and launches.


In the 1880s, Nietzsche's sister took a steamer ride up the river to establish Nueva Germania, a Germanic colony in Paraguay .

See also[edit]

External links[edit]