[D8828ACJ], Letter from Frank McGowan to Thomas Alva Edison, July 18th, 1888


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[D8828ACJ], Letter from Frank McGowan to Thomas Alva Edison, July 18th, 1888

Editor's Notes

"Immediately after the receipt of cablegram from G ace & Co., authorizing credit with Simmonds here, I started off to send you my first shipment of gramina. I thought to infuse a little American energy into the enterprise, but I might as well try to scull myself up the falls of Niagra with a crowbar as to try to have anything accomplished in a satisfactory manner here. I started off on horseback some 25 miles up the Cauca River company with a Mr. Pedro Trujillo, son of a former Liberal President of Columbia, and a young man of more than usual force of character and intelligence. Our path for miles and miles led through deep marshes and over swollen rivers, with long stretches of treacherous mud up to the horses flanks. Arrived at the field of gramina, my clothes were literally torn from my body by encoutering thorns, branches of trees &ct., in getting to the place. There I met the peons engaged to do the necessary cutting. Having been shown the samples of gramina that I requested, I gave orders to cut some 4000 pieces of the length of 3ft each, 10 inches between the joints, nothing less than an inch thick in the shell and for everything over an inch I offer to pay a smalll premium. These peons are accustomed from boyhood to this kind of work. Having arranged everything satisfactorily as I thought, I sent a messenger to Mr. Simmonds with a request that he should have 150 miles in rediness to take the stuff to Buenarentura to be shipped on the steamer going to panama on June 16th. I, of course, had to provide the peons with new machetts, new axes and new saws. I also engaged the necessary rafts to float the material down the river oposite Cali. Meantime I was arranging an expedition to start for the Eastern slope of the Western Cordillers to find the big stuff spoken of by Humboldt. I was 10 days in trying to find peons to accompany me, as no one thinks of going into the mountains here where tigers, bears and snakes abound. After the most unremitting efforts by Mr. Trujillo, I managed to get 10 peons to go with me. Whilst this was going on, word was brought that the first raft of gramina had arrived at the Ca landing oposite the Cali road from the river. Surmising that something must be wrong in thus having 400 pieced of good gramina ready for mule truch in the space of four days, I got on my horse and rode to the place, and never was there a more disgusted being South America than I was. In utter disregard of my most stringent orders, that they should not cut the gramina at the joints, I found every piece out in that way. Besides, some of them had but 8 inches between the joints and others were so rotten as to be useless. Seventy mules were on hand to take the stuff to Cordoba. I could only give cargos for 16 mules as then the pieces did not satisfly me. The mule drivers made a great kick because a great many of the pieces exceeded 3 ft., in length and absolutely refused to cary any for me. I therefore had to engage peons to reduce them to the necessary length. I then dispatched a messenger to the gramina plantation with orders to immediately suspend all further work until I called to examine what had been cut. The same afternoon I started for a town on the opposite bank of the Cauca, Palmira, by name. Having examined all I could land there, in the course of three days I returned to the spot where the remaining 3600 pieces had been cut, and decided that out of the whole lot forty pieces would suit me and that I would not pay for any more. They had cut everything that came in their way, big and little, and had cut them at the joints to get the necessary inch. Upon my reproaching the foreman who had charge of the job, he admitted that he had been suddenly attacked with sickness and did not give the matter his personal attention. But here I have to make a confession. The fault was entirely mine. I was the one that ought to have seen to it, that everything cut was first submittted to me, and I will explain why I did not do it. As I have already said, the road led through morasses, across swollen rivers where the horses and riders had to swim across, through miles of deep mud, across fields of matted grass where the best horses were liable to stumble and woe to the unfortunate duffer who happened to get pitched into one of the numerous pitfalls along the whole pathway. Now I am no horseman. I am willing to climb any mountain, no matter how high, swim any river, no matter how rapid, ascend any river, no matter how furious the current, sleep anywhere, starve and in fact put up with anything that comes along. But when it comes to horseback riding under the above circumstances, I frankly admit that I desire to take a back seat. It is not exactly cowardice on my part, for I have had some hard mule back riding in Ecuador, but I hate the idea of being thrownoff in one of these rock rivers and have my head smashed and thus put an end to my usefullness to you before I have gotten the stuff that suits you exactly. On the occasion of my visit to the aforementioned gramina plantation, it was only by the stern efforts on the part of those accompanying me, that I came out all right. Mr. Trujillo kindly gave me a magnificent horse to ride and rode mine himself. In the gramina patch there wouse of any kind within a distance of 8 miles and the place literally swarmed with mosquitoes wasps &c., &c. I would have had to leave for the place every morning about four to arrive at about 10 a.m., and then would have had to leave on my return about 2 p.m., to get back by 8 p.m. Thus I would have had but 4 hours to superintend. I hate the sight of a horse, but it is an indispensible adjunct to a man down here. I have a pretty good animal, but it is hard for me to get used to riding. I get so tired and often get on the road on foot and walk for miles and drag my horse after me. At the present time it is the dry season here, the roads are pretty good and I get along nicely. For instance, 2 days ago I started for Cali at 4 a.m. and rode 21 miles before 8.a.m. But at the end of September the rainy season commences again and then the roads are impassable for all but the most experienced horsemen. Now when I am overtaken with darkness and [unclear] my way, I unsaddle my horse, tie him to a bush take the saddle for a pillow, double myself up on the ground and sleep until daylight when I again mount and proceed on my journey. Thus did it come to pass that I failed ignobly to send you a goon shipment. It behoves me to see that I redeem myself in the future and time alone will tell. ### My expedition to the mountains I entrusted to Mr. Trujillo with orders that he blaze the trees on both sides of the road as he traveled along so that I could join him later on. As he had an idea that the position of the mountain we were about to pass through was rich in quartz, both gold and silver, I bought a pick and a couple of drills so that should anything show along the road we would be able to claim it. When I joined the party I found they had proceeded slowly owing to having had to cut their way through dense undergrowth and also having to make long detours along the mountain side, because to attempt to ascend or decend in a straight line is impossible. Mr. Trujillo reported to me having discovered a mine that had been worked by the Incas Indians that the channels were closed and that on an immense stone he found a representation of the sun cut in the solid rock with Indian hieroglyphics below, the representation of a road cut into the rock, &c. I had fancied that after I had ascended the first high mountain after leaving the Cauca Valey, I would then encounter the highest Gordillera looking toward the Pacific. I imagined that I would then find the old Spanish road taken by Humboldt and tht of course would have been the Eastern slope of WesternCordillera. Fancy my chagrin and disappointment when I found another immense intervening the slopes of which were so steep as to make ascending it impossible, except by taking detours which it would take weeks to accomplish as we had to cut our way through every particle of undergrowth. I then gave orders that every hand should ascend the most level stream we found running out of the Central Cordillera, hoping by that means to gain the summit. My scheme was a good one had my poens been equal to the task. But the ice cold water which they had to wade with their burdens on their backs, the terribly cold weather as we ascended, the tracks of huge tigers discovered as also the tracks of monters bears and the utter loneliness of everything around, struck terror into their hearts, and day after day one or more became deathly sick and I was forced to await their recovery before proceeding. Then the high falls we had to get over (sometimes 100 ft high) knocked their wanning courage clean out of them. I, of course was in my element. The colder the weather and the harer the wind blew the better I felt. But the poor devils could not help it. Accustomed to the warm vally of the Cauca and content to earn an easy living, they are not the class of men to surmount obstacles or put up with hardships. I many times wished that I could have some of those old Spanish freebooters with me, and I could have made things hum. But with the best of help I do not think I could have gained the Pacific Cordillera, because to do that would require relays along the way to bring me provisions and I would have had to start 4 men ahead clearing the way. Day after day, therefore as I looked upon the corpse-like looks of some of my peons, I knew that I must bury some of them ere I gained the summit, and their pitiful, pleading looks forewarned me that I must not needlessly imperil human lives that nature had never intended for such work. Besides my provisions were getting scarces. So after 23 days of laborious effort, I gave the order to return. Perhaps you have seen happy looking men in your time but I doubt if ever there were happier mortals on this earth than my peons were. On the retret I took good care to look out for signs of mines and in all we discovered 16, taking with us quartz samples. On the 5th of July we discovered a mine that had been worked by the Spaniards when they had posession of the country. We found five channels all of which had been closed up with big rocks. One place we discovered where they had wokred out the solid rock for 40 feet or more, when we found ourselves in a huge chamber hewn out of solid rock and unmistakeable signs of the main channel having been closed up purposely. We had an old native miner in our party and he was in raptures over what he said would prove to be a very rich mine. The underground explorations we could not continue, as we feared that snakes and serpents might have taken possession. We called this the Edison Mine. I have made a contract with Mr. Trajillo, giving him half of the time and the other half going to me, he to pay half of the exploration expenses on the first business transaction that takes place bringing in any money, and also in the event of a company being formed in the future who would send down the necessary machinery. Mr. Trujillo would part with such a share of his half as would recompense the company fully for their outlay. Of course when I mean that is while I am down here. When I return to New York it will be made over to you, as it was whilste I was in your service that I made the discovery. If you do not care to follow the thing up, you can make your half over to whom you like, or I will take your half in conjunction with anyone you may designate who will attend to their development. To Davis, the California mining expert is very well pleased with the samples shown him and says that whilst some of the quartz comes from bleeders, there is no doubt but that we were in the richest mining districts of South America. But what he does not know anything about is the Spanish mine and the Indian mine. The ancient tribes of Indians were never known to work a mine 2 days unless it was rich with gold, and they never attached any value to silver as is shown by the fact that they nevr made any of their figures from silver. So now Mr. Edison you can add your Spanish Gold Mine to your many other accumulations with of cousre seven others. ### But how comes it that Humboldt speaks of meeting with such immense gramina on the Eastern slope of the Western Cordillera when there are in reality three separate mountains? You did not mention any thing about this to me and I have no map and no book on Columbia. I thought that there were but two, the main one on the Pacific Cordillers and the other one facing the Cauca Valley. It is a very doubtful question in my mind whether I would find any gramina on the old Spanish road, were I to find it. If H. found such material on the Eastern slope of the Pacific Cordillers, why did he not state so specifically, at the same time stating that there were two ranges of mountains lying East of the Pacific Cordillers. Remember I am speaking only of the Western Cordillers and not of the Central Cordilleras lying on the Eastern side of the Magdalena River. I go next week to the Central Cordilleras, striking in just eastward of a place called Buga, where I am told there are splendid gramina, and from there I go about 160 miles further to a river called Rio 'Vieja or Viega about 12 miles South of Cartago, where sometime ago, I cam across a fine speciman, and where an old residenter told me that the gramina grew so high that one could hardly see the tops of them. Mr. Leiman, German Consul and a celebrated botanist who knows Columbia and Ecuador from end to end, also says that this River Vieja is the place to go. I have then to visit the mountains on the road to Buenaventura, and by that time the rainy season will come and travel will almost cease. Of course rain will not stop me if you wish me to continue my explorations, and you have only to say so to make me keep on. I am continually on the go now whilst I have the dry spell to help me over the ground. My lbject in thus flying from place to place is to get you the best stuff so that in the future you will know just where to send a man. Then the aforementioned 4000 pieces were cut, I noticed a great difference in the fibers in so many graminas and that set me to studying whether mountain stuff was not superior to the valley material. Then again, gramina has to be cut at a certain time, that is to say, when the mood is beginning to wane. Of course this may not hold good in the case of fibers and I must watch that with care when I strike a good patch. In many instances I come across fields of cramina which contain some big stuff, but in order to get at them, I have to cut down a great many small ones for which I am asked to pay. This I object to, for I think I am doing pretty well in clearing off the land which these lazy snoozers would never do. Whenever I visit a hacienda containing good gramina, I am immediately asked by the proprietor to sign a contract consenting to take gramina from that hacienda only and to pay for every one I cut whether I want them or not. Thus I would have to buy expensive cargo miles, feed them whilst cutting a road into the middle of the field, hire 6 or 8 drivers &c. and all this to please the selfishness of a fool who does not know how a business negotiation should be managed. What I want to do is to come across good stuff in the mountains and buy the whole surrounding country up. Then I can put 3 or 4 nigger peons on the place who can send regular monthly shipments. I send you a sample sent me from a place called La Bolsa where I called but could not stand the rigid terms of the contract they sought to impose on me. You will see that I am in the right place. I only want to find out where the best stuff is and then I'm all hunk. But think of how I am to do this. This Cauca Valley is some 500 miles long and I should judge 60 miles wide. The gramina are scattered all over the valley. To enter the patch and ascertain where the best are to be found, I must have 4 peons constantly with me. I have to feed them. It is awful slow work doing this. The vegetation is dense and on reaching the gramina great care must be observed least a man is ru
through with one of the big thorns. These places are marshy all the year round, as the sun rarely gets on the ground. Whenever I go to these patches on horseback. I am sure to come away with torn clothes or a bleeding body. The paths are so narrow and the mud holes so treacherous that I go stumbling along having to stoop down to avoid thorn, and then do the same in rapid succession for a couple of miles. Sometimes whilst I am going this and my horse is floundering in the mud up to the flanks, I happen to give the reigns a wrong yank, up he starts pawing the air and giving me all the work possible to keep on his back. I don't know which is the most disgusted, the horse or I . It will be a happy day for me when I sell him. ### To give you an idea of what these people are would requore pages by the score. Up North, when we desire to express disgust with a man we say, 'he eats with his knife' and that is what they do down here. A more useless good-for-nothing race of beings cannot be found anywhere. They grin and stare at me because I go around with a corduroy suit and a pair of long boots. One fellow had the gall to ask me satirically what Mr. Edison would say if he came across me in such a rig. I replied that if he (the Columbian) had been insipid enough to mention such a thing to you that you would do as I felt like doing them, viz; kick the duff clean off out of him. ### But I must stop. I make a start in an hour for a 40 mile ride to a place where I expect to make a good shipment to you. I am told the owner of the place is a good man to do business with. I am without advices from you as to my future movements, so I assume that I am to use my own discretion, and examine everything high up and low down. How is it that Tate has not sent me the map and book I asked for? I understand that you have alloted to Hanington a soft snap traveling on first class ocean steamers. What is there around Buenos Ayres to suit your purpose? It is nothing but a vast pampa. I thought that Hanington's shameful desertion of me in Lqitos when he would not go up the River Napo, would have opened your eyes as to what he was. A bigger coward I never came across. He gave it out in N.Y. that he was going to lay me out in S.A. He didn't happen to wake early enough for me though. Why the cowardly never entered a forest from Paror to Inquito. In mandos I get some tanglefoot into me and called him everything I could think of and reproached him for his perfidy. It was no use, the man is shameless. When I get back he will hear from me. I have some sympathy for a lazy man who is not a coward, but when a man unites the two, I have no use for him. I will be mean enough by and by to try and bound him out of N.Y. To think what you lost in money by my having to hire so many canoes in those Ecudorian rivers, when if he had been along with me I could have bought a canoe and done all our work in good style. But what am I talking about; Hanington to work; I have to grin at the thought of it. It reminds me of the tramp sleeping in the station house in N.Y. Who suddenly awakening from a deep sleep alarmed all his brother tramps by his unearthly yells. Being asked the cause of his terrible excitement, he exclaimed; shutting his eyes to keep away the vission; 'Oh, that terrible dream, I dreamt that I was working.' It is a question in my mind whether that fellow was not H. Give him the go by, and let a good man take his place. ### Will write you soon again as I get my work narrowed down. ### Will you please authorize Tate to send me $600 American currency for my account. I have that sum in the Seamans Saving Bank but I have to apply in person at the Bank before it can be drawn. My bank book is in the keeping of my Uncle, Captain M.F. McGowan, 18 Varick St., N.Y. City, who will show it to Tate in order to verify my statement. On my return I will pay it back promptly. I want the money to pay for the announcement to this Government of the aforementioned mines. Then I have to pay the Gov't., Engineers expenses for measuring the mines. All this of course is on your atc, but as I have no authority to spend your money for any such purpose, I will do so myself, and if you think well of it by and by you can give it back to me when you take possession of your mines. This is going to be the country for mines. I heard yesterday that the leading men of Cali had formed a pool to gobble up all the best mines around here by sending bad reports to the U.S. and England. My journey to the mountains and subsequent discoveries have started them. No one here thinks of going into the mountains and ranging around as I do. So by and by I will make you all rich up North. ### Why don't Mr. Hastings write to C.H. Simmonds, Cali, giving all the information as to putting the Edison light in this place? It will be run by water power as the river is near at hand with pleanty of power. The company I organized here has obtained necessary rights of way &ct., and now only await exhaustive information from N.Y. or perhaps Mr. Vail is the proper person to send the information. These people will commence morning for another campo full of gramina. It will take me sometime to examine this as I am told there are millions of them there. ### Will you please direct Tate to cable me what you think of the sample I now send you from La Bolsa. If it is good and you want 50 tons cable as follows: ### Magowan, ### Cali Columbia, ### "Certainly." ### Tate. ### If not up to the required standard, ### Magowan, ### Cali Columbia, ### "Depressed." ### Tate. ### Meantime I will send two of my peons to cut good stuff, but everything will remain on the ground before I examine it and before I engage rafts and mules to take it away. In the winter time a canoe will become necessary as the Cauca River overflows its banks for miles and miles." MAC. "Aug., 3d. Have just got Tate's letter of July 2nd, informing me as receipt of rotten gramina. Will act on your suggestion as to quick season by fire. Am preparing fine samples to send you. I go in a few days to the mountains again, where I expect to get good results." Mac.




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