On the trail of a catastrophe

As my husband and I made our way around San Sebastián’s plaza on the Day of the Dead, with real sadness we encountered the altar dedicated to the memory of Doña Conchita Sánchez Encarnación, who had departed without our knowledge. Her ofrenda was located under the gazebo in the center of the plaza, perhaps an acknowledgement of her civic importance, while the other dozen or so took shelter under the portals that fronted many of the town’s most venerable buildings. At each altar there were careful arrangements of photos and candles, dresses or jackets, bowls of corn kernels or beans. In front of the altars, religious designs were made with sand and golden flowers on the pavement—not here the showy pom-pom, marigold, but a modest, wild variety from roadsides and back gardens. And to the right of each altar was a metal washstand of identical rebar manufacture (What strange local industry was this?) holding a simple white enamel bowl and pitcher, chipped and dented, without water. Jews and Muslims wash before praying for the dead; symbolically, so does Catholic San Sebastián. And on Doña Conchita’s ofrenda was a mirror. Remember you too must die.

San Sebastián del Oeste (not to be confused with the one in Spain) is a remarkably intact rustic colonial village in the mountains four and a half hours from Lake Chapala. It had about 650 residents during the six years we lived there, spending half our time away from the heat of the coast. It’s both a remote and insular pueblo and a popular tourist getaway with picturesque houses—all painted white with a dark red dado—comfortable hotels and good restaurants. Spanish colonists had found metal deposits near a colossal volcanic outcropping about 50 kilometers inland from the Bahía de Banderas, which laps Puerto Vallarta, on the feast day of San Sebastián,

January 20th, 1605. From that beginning until the revolution upended the system, haciendas de beneficio processed gold and silver from nearly three dozen mines. Some say the population was once as high as 20,000. The church is properly magnificent, and one of the original ten haciendas is a popular tourist attraction. Another is a B&B, or was, and the rest are in ruins.

When we first came to San Sebastián, Doña Conchita was elderly, vigorous, and famous for the museum in her front room where visitors listened to her recitation of  “I’m My Own Grandpa”-type interactions of three families (los Aguirre, Encarnación, y Sánchez) who had vowed to intermarry exclusively in order to preserve la purissima sangre, their pure Spanish bloodline—Inquisition, Conquista and all. You might think this would have resulted in a town of imbeciles with six toes, but if there was anything special about the Aguirre, Encarnacíon and Sánchez cohort, it had to have been their exceptional longevity, never mind that a life of trekking up and down the steep streets of the town over rough cobbles while breathing pine-scented, pristine air had to constitute an excellent regimen whether your sangre was pure or contaminated.

Back in her museum, Doña Conchita would recount how her relatives married spouses who were cousins, in-laws, nephews or nieces, once or twice removed admittedly, and how thus fathers or mothers could also be nephews, cousins, and aunts. Her collection of studio wedding pictures, old furniture, porcelain dolls, chests and safes, scrip from the area’s mines, a silk-and-lace christening dress fit for royalty—and professional photos of generations of babies wearing it—showed San Sebastián in its heyday. She knew all the names and all their somewhat incestuous interrelations.

My husband and I often visited the museum. Soon our 20-peso fees were rejected, as though we were family, and we often left with kilos of avocados or peaches—whatever her orchard was overproducing at the time. It occurred to us to archive Doña Conchita’s stories and we brought an electronic recorder. We didn’t have to beg for more tales of her life and the history of the town. We heard how during the Mexican Revolution her family had locked their valuables in a room and fled with the key. Years later some of them returned with the key and their expectations. The room was still locked (!), but proved to be entirely empty. And she told us about a famous tragedy: In the celebrations leading up to an important San Sebastián boda, the wedding party made the trek to Lake Chapala and went out on an excursion boat. As the boat prepared to dock, the revelers rushed to the shore side and the boat overturned. Many drowned. The bridegroom was one of the heroes, going back in the water again and again to rescue people, looking for his novia, but when he went back out for a struggling child, he was drowned. The bride-to-be was pulled from the water by another man. Doña Conchita said that man tried for the rest of their lives to get her to marry him. Her answer remained the same: “I am already promised.”

Now a resident of that Lake Chapala area myself, I recently told the story to our boatman who took us out on an excursion. I didn’t get far into it before he was supplying details, though none of them about San Sebastián, novios, and promises unto death. Of course the disaster would belong as much or more to Lake Chapala communities as to San Sebastián. Tony Burton in Lake Chapala Through the Ages gives us an account by A Gringo (Charles Manwell St Hill) who arrived in México in 1883 and died here around 1900. After visiting Chapala, he described the paddle steamer, Libertad—“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 around 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 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.”

Late 1880s. The bride-to-be must have been tightly corseted and layered with petticoats, underskirts, bustle, and some 15 yards of fabric, according to patterns of the day. Her wedding dress, perhaps doomed to hang forever in a corner of her room, was likely the more lavish. It could have been white, I suspect, because Queen Victoria had set the style in 1840, and the San Sebastían quality, as Doña Conchita’s museum proved, always wanted to be up to the minute.

Burton continues in Lake Chapala Through the Ages to set the record straight, presumably. He writes that Libertad capsized on Sunday, March 24, 1889, near Ocotlán, only six meters from shore. But in his account, the number drowned has plunged to 28—from “nearly all” of 200—while the American railroad gallants have increased to five. They received medals from the railroad, he says.

I suspect that the tales of this 134-year-old event touch me in a way that has to do with my reaching tercera edad status. How quickly my mind gnaws again at the thought of the questions I neglected to ask my departed relatives, who took with them the hypothetical answers, however unsatisfactory. And Doña Conchita is gone and I can’t go back to her and ask how many she thinks died or whether the rejected suitor was an American who worked for the Central Railroad.

I had always pictured survivors being dragged onto the beach at Chapala when Dona Conchita’s version was all I knew, but no. I now see that Ocotlán was the epicenter of the tragedy. Is there a beach and malecón there? We went to find out.

After a dry-run visit and a few phone calls, we met with Don Javier de la Cruz, historian, at the visitors’ center just by the river that flows through town. He had a fine panza and was elegant, handsome, and warm. He showed us the wordy plaque that describes the event on the wall outside, pointed out the very location where it all occurred, not in the lake at all but in the town center, and told us the sad tale.

In March of 1889, the ferrocarril had only just connected México City with Guadalajara and Ocotlán, then the third largest city in Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta coming in second. On the 24th, a Sunday, a festive event was planned: The train would leave Guadalajara between seven and eight, reach Ocotlán at ten, and the paddle-wheeled steamboat, Libertad, would be waiting to provide a cruise on Lake Chapala. She had been making Sunday excursions since 1885 when travel to and from Guadalajara had been by mule-drawn carts. How could one exaggerate the excitement of this brave new high-speed world? How could the gentry of San Sebastián miss this?

So I see that my San Sebastián hacendados would first have had to make their way to Guadalajara and the train to rendezvous with the Libertad. The route to Guad comes down out of the mountains at Mascota, leads on past Talpa and Ameca—one hundred fifty-five miles. Traveling in the area, beginning 30 years ago, our cars have suffered innumerable punctures on dirt tracks and river fords, been halted by landslides, and dodged boulders. I cannot imagine much better in 1889, even though San Sebastián was at the time much larger and more important. I am reminded that I do know something about travel in the day, if I may count forty-six years earlier as the day, from Life in México by the redoubtable Fanny Calderón de la Barca. Fanny was a Scotswoman, married to the first envoy Spain deigned to send to México in 1841, after the split 20 years earlier. The couple spent over two years in México City, being feted as though the viceroy and vicereine had come amongst the city’s nobility once more. From their arrival in Vera Cruz to the many excursions they made around the central valley and beyond, Fanny tells us in detail how travel was accomplished.

Though there was a stagecoach that could have taken Fanny and her husband to México City from Vera Cruz, for comfort and convenience they traveled by horse or mule back. They thought nothing of sitting a saddle all day, day after day. And when the couple traveled round and about to see a famous cave or waterfall, they traveled the same way, along with guards and servants and the drivers of pack animals. Apparently no one with good sense would want to be jolted and hurled about in a wheeled vehicle. We’ll imagine the San Sebastián party did the same, though they may have been trailed by a mule-drawn vehicle with luggage and supplies; if they didn’t have a large wagon with them on the way out, they unfortunately would have had to procure one for the trip back.

People of Fanny’s station went from hacienda to hacienda when they traveled, not that they were passing up other accommodation. The San Sebastián party must have overnighted with friends and relatives whose hospitality was a given and likely a delightful diversion. You can see great houses in their compounds off in the distance when you travel that road today. How many days to Guadalajara? Minimum three, likely more, given that hospitality and the desirability of rest, but there was no forgetting that they had to be at the train station first thing on that Sunday morning.

In Ocotlán, the boat’s dock was on the Rio Zula where it passes within a block of the plaza and grand cathedral. The river joins the Rio Santiago a short distance later and the two empty into the lake, twenty-eight kilometers of ruffled water beyond. Libertad was two stories high, twenty-two meters long and seven wide, with bar, restaurant, dance floor, musicians, seats for 150 (but packed with over 200 on the fateful day.) After she loaded and reached the lake, the Libertad made a stop in Jamay, turned around, probably dawdled a bit, and eventually returned upriver to Ocotlán, arriving at five o’clock for her appointment with destiny. One can imagine that children found each other and exhausted themselves running, shrieking, from one end of the boat to the other, that ladies danced or sat enjoying the breeze, dined off their laps on plates of enchiladas, sipped agua frescas, and exchanged the news of the communities from which they came, while their gentlemen clustered with cigars and shots of tequila . . . in decent moderation. But for the young men, the “libertad” of the bar proved too much. It was all due to borrachos, says Don Javier. They drank the bar dry and then got it restocked in Jamay and finished that off, too. On the way back to Ocotlán they began entertaining themselves with frightening the women by surging from one side of the boat to the other. The plaque on the visitors’ center wall describes Libertad rocking dangerously to the rhythm of a waltz floating over the waves. As the boat made her way to the dock, the game finally drove one side the hull so far down that it was pierced by a sunken log, and not only the hull, but the firebox in the engine room, caldera in Spanish. Deadly steam erupted, killing a grandmother and granddaughter and burning many more. Water rushed into the boat, capsizing it. Many were trod upon in the futile effort not to be tipped into the river where the fight for survival only intensified. Townspeople rushed to help, canoes joined the rescue. Bravery and cowardice ensued.

In a melee of bodies, some reached the dock or bank or clung to the little boats, while at the same time others leapt among them to help. There were rescuers who were successful; others ended among the dead. A woman screamed and cursed the drunken jovenes upon discovering her drowned children and husband, a nursemaid was pulled from the water somehow still clutching the little girl in her charge, both dead. Survivors were precipitated into grief and trauma, with burns or other injuries to recover from, some unsuccessfully. The priest must have raced to the riverbank, ministering to the departing souls of one sad bundle after another. It seems it is not known how many eventually died.

And what of our contingent from San Sebastián? Don Javier does not know of a wedding party, a drowned heroic bridegroom, or a vow of eternal faithfulness, though he pronounces it a very fine story, but other San Sebastián loses are well known. Sra Victoria Encarnación (of the purissima sangre) was undone by the death of her sister María and of her father who jumped in to save her, without knowing how to swim, and Concepción Sánchez (again a product of the intermarriage pact) was also lost, and at least one more, according to the official history.

The town must have been called to take on the comforting, feeding, and housing of scores of survivors as night came on—those who did not need the overwhelmed hospital—and the gathering together of twenty-eight coffins for the dead (facilitated perhaps in a town that specialized in the manufacture of furniture), all with dark guilt hanging over them at the unforgivable end of their popular civic feature. On Monday, the train carried the coffins and survivors back to Guadalajara.

Among the many remembered as rescuers, some with gringo names—perhaps those being the railroad heroes Tony Burton knew about—one of Ocotlán’s own, Policarpio Presiado, was especially mourned. He returned to the water again and again, saved three souls, but when he tried once more, he disappeared and his body was never recovered. A local street bears his name. To this day the people of the town gather on the anniversary to remember the catastrophe. Perhaps our elegant Don Javier de la Cruz is called upon to mount a stage and tell the story to be sure that each succeeding generation of Ocotlense learn of the city’s sad heritage.

Doña Conchita’s grandparents were likely born around the time of the sinking of the Libertad. They would have grown up hearing the story and sensing how important it was to their parents. I am inclined to think that there really was a wedding party and that Doña Conchita knew more about the losses than Ocotlán could manage to record in all the confusion, but in any case, the catastrophe is San Sebastián’s heritage, too. Imagine the long, slow, sad return to the pueblo from Guadalajara, hauling coffins, at least four, instead of party dresses. Believing or trying not to believe the telegraph, all the intertwined family, church, municipio, virtually the entire pueblo, must have ridden out to meet the survivors, to honor and help and accompany them and the dead home. I think I can almost hear the renewed outbursts of grief as the parties meet.

BIO: Carolyn Kingson was born in New Orleans and received her PhD from Tulane University. Her field of interest was the physiology of sexual behavior; she published a number of articles in scholarly journals, one garnering attention when it was cited in Playboy under the heading “Use It or Lose It.” In 1970 and ‘71, after teaching in Michigan, she and her then-husband traveled around the world, beginning in Japan and reversing the hippie trail to Europe. Later, she returned to teaching, had two daughters, dropped out and built a house in a village in New Mexico, made high-end jewelry, painted, and wrote five novels. She helped compile and contributed to Viva San Pancho, an account of life in the village where she and her second husband bought a home in 1996 and to which they retired in 2005. She has also lived in San Sebastián, and now, Chapala.


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Carolyn Kingson
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1 thought on “On the trail of a catastrophe”

  1. A fascinating tale, made richer by the wealth of details Ms. Kingson researched and included.
    And what a loss to communities when amateur historians like Dona Conchita are no longer around
    to tell and retell their stories.

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