[D8828AAK], Letter from Frank McGowan to Thomas Alva Edison, February 18th, 1888


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[D8828AAK], Letter from Frank McGowan to Thomas Alva Edison, February 18th, 1888

Editor's Notes

[Quito, Equador] "I arrived here on the 12, inst., from Iquitos, Peru. To use a pugilistic expression,-"I got it on the neck", on this trip up, as you will see by my remarks later on. I will now speak of what I was sent here to obtain. ### GRAMINA ### Prof. Orton, in his book entitled "Andes and the Amazons" says:--"The Gramina, the king of grasses, forms a distinctive feature in the Nappo Landscape, frequently rising 30 feet in lenth though not in height, for the fronds curve downwards. Fancy the airy grace of our meadow grasses united with the lordly groth of the poplar, and you have a faint idea of Gramina beauty." (I quote from memory as I have not the book). Orton deliberately lied when he made us of the above expression, and it is was well for posterity that he died soon after. I had my mind made up that long ere this I would have sent big rafts of the stuff down the Napo to Pebas to be there taken to Nanaos and shipped direct to New York. I never allowed a day to pass that I did not examine the Gramina on the banks of the river under which the canoe was poled, but never came across anything at all comparable with the samples furnished me, and I have had this statement corroborated by people who know the country. Of course, I could not be on two sides of the river at once and can only speak of the stuff I happened to see on the nearest bank poling up against a five mile an hour current. Then again the Napo is full of islands and very often we had to take side channels and literally cut our way through with hatchet and machetta huge trees that had hallen across these side streams and it was impossible to pole up against the current in the main river. Therefore, there may be big Gramina on the Napo, but a passage down stream can alone decide that. However, I take the word of the Governor of the Orient (all that portion of ecuador lying East and South of papallacta-who told me that I must go to the Andes for the proper Gramina, and that it was not to be obtained on the Napo. I destroyed my machetta cutting the Napo Gramina, and have likewise almost spoiled my hatchet cutting the largest I could find to get a creditable thickness, but never came across anything with more than 1/2 an inch, or possibly a little over. IN the valley of the Archidona I saw the best specimen of Gramina to be found in the Orient, but they lacked the necessary thickness. In fact I have a theory of my own, viz:--that the Napo valley being enclosedon all sides but the South by huge mountains and a dense vapor prevailing there always it is not the right place for big Gramina. In other words it requires salt water air to bring into life what I am after, and that is why I am going to the mountains of the Esmeraldas (where I was on the coast 19 Years ago), which I told you about five years ago, and which I suggested to you we should try first on this trip. ### I now send you some speciments of fibrous tree which grows on the Napo and which is called Gonta. It grows in abundance there but the fibres seem to decay very quickly. I also, send you a piece of Gonta as it grows. This piece is all that I saved my indians having lost my samples, so they said, but I know that they deliberately threw them away to lighten their load as they did not know of course to what use they could be put. All my troubles have been with these Indians. For instance on the Napo river I noticed a sort of Bamboo or cane which grew in great abundance. It was small sized but the fibres were very strong. But the great fault was that there was only five or six inches between the joints. I was greatly disappointed at not finding anything of this kind that would be suitable, and had come to the conclusion that no large sized stuff grew here, when on climbing a range of mountains called "Cordillera de Guacmayo," between Archidone and Papallaeta, I discovered the self same cane with plenty of space between the joints. Being far in advance of my Indians I cut down two large pieces and commenced to extract the fibres. On the Indians coming up I gave the two pieces of cane to one whom I had paid to do nothing but carry my shot gun, and carry whatever I happened to meet with. When I arrived in Papallacta and proceeded to look up my various samples, I found to my consternation that the Indian had thrown them away and could give no satisfactory explanation. I immediately proceeded to thump this fellow in the most orthodox fashion, when he took to his heels an dwas out of sight in two minutes. However, I have just now arranged with Father Tobias, the vicar of the priests in the Orient, to have two samples sent to me through good parties in Quito, the same Indian who threw my samples away being the one who will be ordered to get more. All there Indians are theives and cannot be trusted a moment out of sight. I send you also, a piece of Palm tree which I cut on the road between the Archidone and Papallacta. The Indians call it Palma, and I could find but that one tree. Ecuador has some splendid [unclear] near Quito, but I am told that in Rioamba and Ambat the best is to be found. I send you three samples the long plaited one is called Pita here and can be bought from the Indians for 5 and 10 cents a pound. The other can be bought equally cheap. I brought a big pot all the way from Iquitos to boil this argaves in, but found a quicker way. ## PASSAGE UP THE NAPO. ### My last letter to you was dated I think Nov. 28, on which day I left the steam launch to wait for the Indians. In that letter I undertook to state how much I had expended out of the $ 440 for my passage up, but found that I could not do so, for the reason that the provisions which I had expected to buy from the Captain of the steam launch were not forthcoming. He was short of stores himself and I had to look elsewhere for eatables. The fact is I preformed this trip under the most disadvantageous circumstances. I had but four hours in Iquitos in which to provide for a passage of I knew not how long. I was furnished by Orelland & Company of Iquitos with a lot of stuff which was no good for food and I was told that I would have to feed the five Indians in the Canoe. This was not so and is not expected, although the passenger might as well do so, as the Indians do not provide anything for themselves and of course a man cannot sit in a canoe for an indefinite time while those fellows go fishing or begging. I did not have any bed all the way from River Curaray to Quito and had to sleep on wet sand banks and the ground every night with nothing but a rubber cloth and hammock under me. My shorthand notes show that I embarked in the Canoe on Dec'r 6. The passage up to La Coca occupied 30 days, and out of these 32 days we had but one whole day and night that it did not rain in torrents. It was impossible to sleep in the canoe and it was too hot and literally swarmed with Mosquitoes, so I had to sleep on the sand banks until the water would drown me out and force me to go into the Canoe. Knowig that I had a long passage before me I meant that there should be no drones in that canoe, so I had a pole cut for myself and helped the Indians in every way I could, but the 16, Dec. on rounding a point where the current ran with unusual violence the Indians lost their hold with the poles and the canoe was whirled downward towards a point on which were stranded big trunks of trees. Their shouts of terror were awful to hear, as they lose all self-possession in a case of this kind. I was stationed in the middle of the canoe and knowing well the danger undertook to save the canoe from upsetting. Motioning the Pilot,-or Popero-to swing the canoe as it would go broadside on, I saved my pole, and planting myself in a good position luckily planted the pole in a hole of the trunk of a stree, and bracing myself against the inside of the canoe held on to the pole with all my might. The velocity with which the canoe was goint at was too much, however to be restrained by one pressure on the pole and consquently it slipped through my hand tearing the flesh off in ribbons into the very bone. But I would not let go and hung on until the pole struck the tree but did not hurt anything. We were saved and the Indians almost cried fro joy. I doctored my digits and in a week commenced to use my pole again. Many canoes are lost in this way with cargoes and Indians. I had exchanged 50 pouns in Iquitos getting in exchnage $300 Mexican dollars, Ecudorian, Columbian, Chilian &c &c., I had it in a cash box. I twas a source of constant anxiety to me and sleeping or waking that confounded box was ever before my eyes. I cursed money. Day and night I had to watch that box and I grew thin thinking about it. The wind was always from the North, and I looked in vain for a change, as I would have put outriggers on the canoe and used my two blankets for sails. The night were enlivened by deluges of rain, with accompanying tropical thunder and lightning. Time after time I was forced to sit the whole night thriugh trying to escape the rain, and would hav ethe Indians in the canoe at 4 A.M. to work until 7 P.M. some days we did not advance five miles and still I curelly kept these Indians hard at it when it was next to impossible to proceed. I made them crawl along the bank hanging on to shrubs, parasities or anything that grew above water. When they tired I gave them native whiskey and got two or three more hours work out of them. On Xmas night about 11 o'clock, I was lying on a sand bank when I hard the Indians shouting "Patron the water". Hastily picking up my few traps I made for the canoe and then began a battle for life. The river had suddenly incrased and down came huge trunks of trees tearing everything before them and woe to the canoe if it rver came in contact with one of them. It commenced to rain with heavy peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, and I was frequently daxed by the lurid flashes for a few minutes. Until five A.M. did we dodge here and there losing ground all the time until daylight enabled us to hug the shore and make a landing. This was but one of many simila nights but it was the worst by far. Then came the time when a bright look out had to be kept for wild Indians inhabiting both sides of the Napo. My Indians would fall asleep immediately they composed themselves for rest. Not so with me. I did not intend to be caught in any trap and lay awake night after night with loaded revolver and shot gun taking note of every sound I heart. You would scarcely credit me with not sleeping six hours in a week, but such was the case. My arch enemy insomina stood to me in this emergency. Traders have been murdered on the Napo by wild Indians and their canoes gutted. In the day time sleep never troubled me. I was constantly on the look out for the Gramina Orton spoke about. Dam him for a liar. To what trouble he put me and what time I spent hacking into those trees. On Christmas I wanted to treat myself to something extra in the way of eatables. I found that my Indians had eased me of a lot of boxes of sardines, canned meats biscuits, rice &c., so I had to content myself with a very frugal supper. For two hours I toyed with my revolver, consider whether I would not make an example of one or two, but I knew the remainder would take fright and decamp with the canoe leaving me stranded. Had I been on my own hook no Indian would have robbed me thus. Five would have hit the dust and then I would have built a raft and taken my chance of looting down the Napo. I luckily fell in with a Columbian who was bringing provisions up the river Aguarico, and bought $30 worth of grub from him, having of course to pay him exhorbitant prices for it. Even then the Indians stole from me. The fact is no provision had been made for this Napo trip, despite the fact that your orders were imperative in that direction, and there should have been a strong box provided with a lock and key for putting food into. On new Year's day the river rose so high, that more than two miles were made amidst constant and heavy raining. On Jan'y 3, we had to wait two days in the woods, as the water over flowed the river banks. On these occassions I used to take three Indians into the woods with me and leave two to watch the canoe and inform me when water was falling. I arrived in La Coca on Jan'y 3,-32 days from Curary. Here I was detained four days on account of the swollen state of the river, and spent two days in woods with three Indians, but found same sort of vegation as below. Here made arrangements to ship Conta if it proved to be a good thing. Left La Coca on the 12, and arrived in Cumo same evening, where I had to wiat until the 15, to get Indians to take me Santa Rosa, where I arrived on the 15, and reached Aguano on the 19, where I had to wait until the 20, to get another smal Indian village, and there had to wait until the 22, to get to Napo, where I arrived on the evening of the 22, and immediately called at the house of Geo. Edwards from Conn., and took in the surrounding country with him for two days, with same results as before. He told me that in his 35 years residence in that vicinity, he had never heard of any such Gramina as I wanted. Left ther for Archidona (18 miles) on 26, at 12 and got to A. at 7. Here had to remian one week to get Indians to carry my effects Papallacto. On Feb'y 5, took the rail for the mountains with four Indians and made the ourney to Quito in nine days. The road was in terrible condition. Mud over you, below you, on the right of you, on the left of you and all over you. Yet I stepped from a canoe and without a moments training undertook a journey on foot which is a terror even to the Indians. I headed my guides all the way and often had to turn back and stir them up as they loitered on the way. For 36 hours I footed it up these mountains with only four sardines and two small pieces of plantain for food. You may ask why I denied myself in this way when I was told to feed so well. The answer is that on the Napo I knew not how long I would be on the river, if such heavy rains continued, and to be caught without food would be a grevious mistep. As it was four days before reachign La Coca I had to feed my five Indians altogether from my own stores. On the Land passage I had to look out for the terrible rivers,-Hondachi and Casanga, which are utterly impassable during heavy rains, and I did not quite relish the ides of having to wait four or five weeks on the river bank feeding four or five Indians. As I have before said the Indians were the torment of my life. They are born theives and will steal every article of food they can grab. Often have they left an unfortunate traveller on the roads without a particle of baggage or anything to eat. They were a red hot tell to me and I can never tell how glad I was when I shock them here. With some one to keep watch with me all they would have been right but alone it was a hardship. [unclear] in my journey from New York to Quito, occupying as it did five months and two days, I have not been unwell a minute and have not taken a single remedy of any kind. In New York it was given out that I was to be hustled about in the liveliest kind of manner. I was even told by two parties who wished me well that they thought it very foolish in a little man like me to undertake such a trip, and with such a hustler as companion. I certainly thought myself from the formidable preparations that I was going to have the hardest tilt of my life. I was not afraid but I wanted to see the man, and know him well, who could lay me out. I had to do the hustling myself and even then could not knock myself out, for the more hardships I endured the better I felt. ### FUTURE MOVEMENTS ### I have now before me a very indefinite journey, and one that commands the losest attention and scrutiny. I am after that big stuff and intend to locate it if it busts in the attempt. What is to say if it is in the Andes. All parties here whom I have consulted, and shown the samples to, give me to understand that no such gigantic Gramina grows anywhere on the Andes. Some suggested that it may be found in the Guayaquil valley. Others that it may be found further North. All agree that
hat I saw on the Napo is about as large as it grows here. This is tough, but I am not to be discouraged until I have journeyed and seen for myself. Now in making this trip through to Bogota I intend to take but two changes of clothes with me and ship all my unecesary truck to New York. Such an equipment has been an awful burden to me. If a man comes down here to rough it why let him do it like a man and put up with cold and wet clothes. To buy a horse outright would cost me over $100 I cannot afford this. To hire a horse from place to place would be about bust me so I will have to divide it up between hiring a horse occasionally and footing it. I can walk a horse off its feet when I start in, but of course cannot make much time. Time you will have to give me Mr. Edison on this trip as I intend to scoop in everthing up to the East and West. Natives of Columbia tell me that a grand stuff grows in that country, but these descendents of Spaniards are born liars, and will tell you anything to please. However I will give Columbia the first trial, and leave the Esmeral das to by & by. I willl therefore leave Quito on the 23, inst., for Pasto, Colombia, on horseback, and you will have to wait my coming out of the mountainds before any word can come from me. Should I fall in with the stuff I will immediately dispatch a horseman either to Quito or Bogoto to telegraph you or rather Tate the word "Eureka". You will know by that word I have found gigantic material. If I find it away from all source of communication but still am able to get about 50 or 100 down to some river, or the coast, I will send a cable message of one word to Tate "POSSIBLE". If I come across it far removed from all communication, I will send message "IMPOSSIBLE."-Thus: ### "EUREKA" Have found fine stuff and am shipping it immeiately, 50 or 100 tons. ### "POSSIBLE" Have found find stuff but will take some time to ship. ### "IMPOSSIBLE" Have found fine stuff but cannot ship any. ### QUITO. ### I got here in Carnival wekk when everybody was merry-making and rejoicing. For three days the Quitoman's pelt each other with all kinds of perfumed waters, blow aniline into each others faces, and in the evenings rotten egg each other. I found the American Consul out of the City nad he did not return until yesterday the IV,. I have received from him a letter of credit for $526.75 beign the equivalent of 50 pounds, at 3 1/2 % off, kindly sent me by you. As no letter accompanies it I presume you could not very well communicate with me in so limited a time, so I will go on my own hook with the understanding that I am to give every available place a trial and scour the Andes from right to left. I have just counted what I have left from my trip and find that I have $265 in my posession, thus making a total of $576.75 enough I think to bring me through in grand style. I have 28 pounds English soverigns for each of which I think I can get more than I got in Iquitos, which was 6. But I intnd to hold on this gold as converting it into silver makes it awful to tole along. Thus my trip up the Napo and by land to Quito, with a weeks board here cost me, or rather you $263. That is to say getting 528 S.A. dollars for the 88 soverigns I took with me. I spent 283 in about 90 days. Not so bad when you remember I had to buy all my cooking utensils, that my grub was stolen by Indians, and that I had to pay for my passage up the Napo in a steam launch, and pay Indians on Napo, and carryign my things from Napo village to Quito. Now I start off with but two changes of new clothing, hatchet, saw, revolver, oilskins, and a curious determination to succeed. ### In Quito my lengthy trip from New York here without stopping has excited the admiration of all with whom I came in contact. They make mention of people going dow to Iquitos, but [unclear] childs play alongside of the other, and you will never [unclear] Mr. Edison. What information is reserved for the period when I am a grewy haired aire, and tell my grandchildren of the time I made the Napo passage and climbed the mountains, carrying out to the extreme letter the wishes of the Great Maestro. ### Respectfully yours ### (SIGNED) ### F. McGowan. ### Please pass this letter to Mr. Johnson. ### By the way Mr. Edison, how about that tombstone you were to send me to the head of the Amazons? No, [unclear] Mr. Edison, I have not to be of more service to you yet before I gave in in that way, keep it for the sweet By and By, and put on it: ### "Here lies wee Hae, who kept on the track ### "As long as life's wheel went around; ### "Now he lies on his back in a different tack,- ###" But,-he don't take up much ground." ### I am sending you a box with Argave fibres and Gonta fibres, as also two or three pieces of Palma. There is a strict quarantine kept at Guayaquil against the cholera now raging in Chili and Peru, and no U.S. mail have been rec'd here for the past four weeks. When you get the box you will know the fibres as follows:-- ### Argave A.26 ### Gonta G.30 ### Palma P.12. ### The other marked "ARKA" iswhat the Indians lost samples of and which I am to get by and by."




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Thomas A. Edison Papers, School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers University
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