Jeff Ehler on Frank Hilton

Home   The Camps   Site Map   General Interest   Ondas del Lago   Reunions   Links   Guest Book   What's New   Contact Me



Home Ondas del Lago Contributed Content Jeff Ehler on Frank Hilton

These ten (10) individual letters were generously contributed by Jeff Ehler. They are only a small portion of over 100 letters Jeff has in his possession that were written by a fellow by the name of Frank Hilton between the years of 1928 to 1936. Much is unknown about Frank, but what is known is quite fascinating.

Frank was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1891. After serving in World War I, Frank found a home in Maracaibo/Cabimas in the early 1920's, where he worked for various oil companies. He returned to the States for medical reasons in 1932 after the start of the Great Depression. Once released from the hospital, he was penniless. After writing a friend in Venezuela and discovering the possibility of work there, he decided to again go south. So he decided to return to Venezuela in 1933.

But because of the Depression and his lack of travel funds, he decided to make the return journey overland. His return included a swim of the Rio Grande river, an overland walk through Central America, and after 9 months, multiple sicknesses, jails, adventures, etc. he ended up in Maracaibo.

Jeff believes that Frank eventually moved back to the states sometime around 1936. He loses track of him from 1936 until WWII, when he was employed as a steamfitter's apprentice at Mair Island Naval Shipyards near San Francisco. After that, he believes Frank had a job at Ft. Barrow, Alaska, in construction at an unidentified Army base there. He retired to Los Angeles and died there in 1960 at the age of 69. His grave is in Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Jeff is currently planning on publishing his collection of Frank Hilton letters in the future, so please note that these letters are copyrighted. The bulk of the letters pertaining to Frank's amazing overland journey south are particularly fascinating. But these letters provide a unique & interesting glimpse of life in the Venezuelan oil camps back in the 1920's and 1930's. His letter of July 15th, where he describes the process of watching cinema shows at the club in some detail, is particularly interesting!

These letters were written to Jeff's uncle, Charles “Noisy” Payne. While the nickname's admittedly a bit unusual, “Noisy” lived in central Iowa and was a good friend of Frank. Jeff advises that “... Frank used him as a back-home contact in case of trouble.” Jeff also warns that Frank “…has some unkind words about the Motolone Indians in the first paragraph of the August 15th (first) letter … Frank was a man of his times and said what he thought about groups and races that today would be seen as inappropriate.”

Jeff's knowledge of Frank Hilton is somewhat sketchy, so he's attempting to find out more about him. Does aoyone have any more information about him?

I'm extremely grateful to Jeff for allowing me to post these private letters and images here, allowing all of us to share this glimpse into the past!

Frank Hilton, dates unknown
c/o Venezuelan Oil Concessions Ltd.

19th March, 1928

Dear Chas,

I was pleased to hear you had received the last letter I wrote, as it had some pictures that I thought would be of some interest to you. I have some more that I will send you and also one of myself that was taken last week for passport purposes – it flatters me, I think. There will be an opportunity for more pictures of Cabimas, as our Club will have its opening the 1st April – also the new Golf Course is rounding into fine shape, and I understand the Club will have Camp pictures for sale. Incidentally, I haven’t seen a picture of a locomotive for so long that it would be a feast for the eyes now.

When this reaches you, your winter will have seen its worst weather. It’s mighty fine to remember the weather in Iowa in April. I have noticed that even the tropics look their best in the spring. There are many trees that shed their foliage as in the North – to blossom out afresh here, as there. It is also the commencement of our rainy season; it will last to the first of October. I observe that it is also the mating season for the birds and animals. It is the time of the year that the call of the North is the strongest, and I see more men going home now than at any other time of the year. Believe me, I envy them.

I have seen other times when it was a time to be happy, but nothing like the joy in these parts when it’s “Estadas Unidas” bound. I have heard a good many “Vivas” for this, that, and the other, but for real enthusiasm, witness the departure for a couple of Yanks, who have completed a three year contract in the tropics. It generally means a Champaign bath for all concerned, and the homeward bounders are “poured” onto the boat happy and carefree.

You mention the clothes that Joe has of mine; you might tell him to give them to anyone who can wear them as I have no need for them. There are some letters and other papers that I would like to keep, so tell him not to destroy them. I have written him several times, but he was always very weak in writing letters.

The enclosed draft for $50.00 is for Decoration Day purposes, and the renewal of the Monitor and Oil and Gas Journal. I also wish to subscribe to the Cosmopolitan Magazine for one year; also enquire about my Legion dues for 1928 – this is quite a large order Noisy, but it won’t happen again this year.

April 4th – Since writing the above, I have had seven days in the Hospital due to an infection to my eye, which was caused by a scratch in the Monte. It is now fine, other than one eyebrow missing I’m O.K. I have an interesting letter to write concerning the political situation here, and ask you to use discretion in showing it around.

Hastily, Always,


Cabimas, Venezuela

June, 15th 1928

Dear Noisy,

It is great to be in tune with the fine weather we are now having. Really I have never been in better health... as my work is rolling along smoothly, everything looks bright to me. I have never written very much about our leisure time pleasures, so while I am in the mood it might be interesting to you.

The Club Commitee of course, is in charge of all entertainment, sports, bar etc. In the case of sports; each sport section has its committee member to represent them. I believe at this time there are five sections of sprts – i.e. golf, base-ball, cricket, foot-ball and tennis. In addition to this they have committee representatives of purchasing, dancing, music and transportation. The Club organization functions smoothly and of course the card is full at all times. Last evening I saw “Alias the Deacon” and a few days ago “The Campus Flirt”. Both films were very good. The cinema shows here are quite different from anything of its kind in the States – its best you come along with me Noisy, and I’ll explain as we go.

Arriving at the club we enter a large well furnished and well lighted dance pavilion. There are six rows of tables with five tables to the row and four chairs for each. They are all set with fans, drinking-pads, and ash-trays. Although the hall is surrounded with electric fans, you will find the service fans are welcome as well. You will notice that different groups will be talking in several languages; that the women are just as free with their drinking as the men and as time goes on you will see a lot of flushed faces and an atmosphere of general good feeling. The catering is done by four native waiters in whites --- so to start with we will make use of the electric button to call a boy. Perhaps you will like a gin and bitters so early after dinner? – I would suggest a Vermouth. For myself, a cold glass of beer will do. You will notice there is no fumbling for the check; that everyone seems eager to buy and in turn you too, will join in this thing. An exchange of the news of the days work and a bit of gossip and we are all set for our second round of drinks. In the interval you have noticed that the native waiters have been real busy. That the piano or victrola is doing its best and the tables are all taken and the waiters are arranging chairs in the rear of the hall for the overflow crowd.

It will do you good to see the Spirit of good fellowship among the people in the Club. This for the reason that blood is much thicker among the white people in the Tropics. After all we are all in the same boat when it comes to trouble. – We have our third drink and we are ready to settle back and sip during the first reel. Noisy, did you notice what I was wearing? Khaki shirt, khaki trousers and a pair of Chinese slippers with no socks. You will notice many others with a like outfit. On the completion of each reel time is taken out for service and another buzz of conversation. You will notice the increasing number of men visiting the bar which adjoins the hall and every now and then you will recognize a strain or two of the “Old Songs” – in fact a medley of “Ober All”, “The Faterland” and “Katie”. Each group in the bar will be augmented by their kind until the wee small hours they go their happy way home.

Well, did you enjoy you first visit to the Club? Did you think it would be otherwise? Sorry to have taken so much time in just going to a movie, but it is much more common place when it becomes a habit. Some time I will tell you more of our entertainment or will take you into the Monte or a trip down the Lake --- just now I am coming back to work with a jerk. Rest assured I am OK in every way and you have my permission to use any of my letters as you wish.

P.S. I have just heard that the Town of Lagunillas is on fire. I went to the window and although it is located about fifty kilometers from here, the smoke is plainly visible.



July 23, 1928
Dear Noisy,

I have just returned from a wonderful vacation in the Andes – accounting for the break in our correspondence – I also find a letter which was overlooked before going away, which is enclosed.

Have been hard pressed for time and will write a letter later. In the mean time I’m just OK and real busy.



Cabimas, Aug. 12th, 1928

Dear Noisy,

I have been mindful of my promise to write of my trip into the interior, but I have been so confounded busy that even now my work is way in arrears. While on my vacation the order came to start a competitive drilling campaign, and I arrived back just in time to take over four new wells. Production is a constant source of work and of late I have often thought that there are other ways of making a living that would require less effort. Have no fear that I am tired of my present work however, as it makes me go my best to keep in the swim and like other fish I am better off in the water.

The fields are growing daily; we now have 176 wells in this field and 130 wells are on our production daily. Gas Lift and general field work has reached a point where it now requires considerable more organization. With all the proposals in the budget for the last half of 1928 I should be in line for further advancement. I am now the oldest man in my department in length of service here and our former Supt. has been transferred to Maracaibo as District Supt. of Venezuela, which looks favorable to those who have been with him the past two years. You will remember that I sent you a small snap of him in this office a few months ago. His present position pays him 1200.00 per month and it is the biggest job in S.A. production.

Golf and other sports have been on the shelf the past three weeks but I hope to get more time for the game soon. Among other things I am a member in the Literary Guild and receive a book a month through them. To-date I have received four books: “Trader Horn,” “Bad Girl”, “Harold the Webbed” and “The Happy Mountain”. With all the other reading material I now have, I manage to use all my spare time of an evening very nicely. The Monitor arrives regularly but seemingly there is a little news of the RR men.

Thanks very much for your attention on Decoration Day. Certainly pleased to hear that everything was in good order. Surprised to hear that Ora still has an interest there. What, may I ask, does she work at? This leaves me Noisy the very best of health and spirit and with plenty of work for both.




15th August, 1928

Vacation time this year found me in a general run-down condition. I would have liked very much to go to the States, but I put it off for at least another year. I decided on spending my leave in the Andes in the State of Tachira, which is located a little over 500 miles south of Maracaibo. This would serve a twofold purpose; a healthful rest in a higher altitude as well as an opportunity to see the Motolone Indian country. It is called the Sajarri, which means the unexplored. At different times I have mentioned the barbaric nature of the Motolones but I have been speaking from a distance. Nothing would be more appealing to me than to say that I had been there. The Motolones are without doubt the most savage and cruel tribe of Indians in South America - not to mention their cowardice. They have withstood all our late methods of pacifying them; millions of dollars in equipment have been left behind to decay in their country and many men have lost their lives thru their bows and arrows. Even now one of the greatest oil fields in the world is standing idle, abandoned in fact, on account of their hostility. The former camps, warehouses and means of transportation have all been burned by them, and with the help of the Venezuelan government the oil men retraced their way down the Rio Palmar, Tana and Catatumba rivers. Surely seeing this country would be interesting.

I left Cabimas on our company launch on the evening of the 28th of June. Supplied myself with an outfit in Maracaibo and finished all company business in connection with transportation, accommodations, etc. Had a very pleasant three day wait for my boat which would take me 300 kilometers south on Lake Maracaibo to the Boca (mouth) of the Catatumba river, While in Maracaibo I was a guest at the Ida-Isola, which was formerly the palatial residence of the Governor of the State of Zulia. Owing to his generous nature, with other people's money, he is now in the Barbados Islands living in his accustomed splendor perhaps, but doing so without the help of his former revenue. He accumulated several million dollars and departed, unannounced of course. While -staying at the Ida-Isola I observed the good taste this dude showed throughout in its furnishings. The ceilings and wells of all the rooms and also the patio were done in hand paintings. In fact I saw so much fine work of this nature that I tried to learn more about the artist. Seemingly he was sent over from Europe for this purpose. The servants' quarters and grounds are interesting and I spent some time in his gardens which are made up of tropical trees, plants, ferns flowers. Withal a great show place.

We left Maracaibo on the evening of July 2nd aboard a launch that had accommodations for eleven passengers and its crew of six men. A good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast aboard and at eight the following morning we arrived at San Lorenzo, which is the most southern producing oil field in Venezuela. A short stop and we soon leave the shore line and steer a course southwest directly across the lake, which at this point is 100 miles wide. A couple of hours later and we are completely out of sight of land and for all the world one would think we were in the middle of the Atlantic. In the early afternoon we notice the taint of river water on the lake and two hours later we make out land, arriving at the mouth of the Catatumba about four o'clock in the afternoon. We transfer our luggage to a small river launch in midstream and we are soon on our way thru a jungle that is primeval. The launch is a veritable fortress; sufficient guns are aboard for passengers and crew. We notice the man at the wheel has his rifle leaning against his stool and we commence to think that some of the tales we have heard of this country might have some foundation.

The Catatumba has been used for centuries by the Indians. It is the longest means of water transportation between the Maracaibo Lake basin and the Orinoco water shed. The country it travels is today as virgin and unsettled and hostile as one would be able to find in any part of the world. The haven, offered by its wide jungle valleys to the Indians makes it most impossible to run them down. There are many wandering tribes over this expanse of country and seemingly they are always at war. At its mouth the river is about as large as the Missouri at Kansas City. It enters the lake thru a low, swampy marsh country that is Paradise on earth for water fowl. We see thousands of pelicans, egrets, cranes, ducks and geese of all kinds. The banks of the stream are covered with color in tropical flowers. Parrots of every hue are constantly chattering and we don't go very far before we see our first crocodiles. Every sand bank has its quota out sunning themselves; big fellows, some I noticed were ten and twelve feet long. The crocodile is quite different from the alligator in that the 'croc is a killer and will tackle anything in the water, while an alligator is content to live on the small fry that happens to come its way. Rest assumed we are content to be aboard and not in swimming altho the day has been real sultry. The monkeys in the trees along the banks seem to make an effort to stay abreast of us. I watched a colony of them swinging along from tail to hand and feet end surprising how fast they can travel. Before dark overtook us we passed thru a country that must have been the home at one time of the wild turkey. We saw hundreds of them - they made no effort to fly away, they seemed as interested as we were.

Soon after dark it commences to rain and shortly thereafter we are in a tropical downpour. With the help of a carbide flashlight we continue on and arrive at Encontrados (encounter) about 1.50 a.m. We have a lunch of sardines, canned sausage and crackers and put up at a thatched-roof company hut that has bamboo beds, electric lights and clean linen. We are soon sound asleep. At sun-up we are awakened by cannon and gun fire end we are relieved to learn that the populace is celebrating the 4th of July. The fourth and fifth were decreed holidays here. In our walk about the village we see many Indians and from their attitude we know they dislike us. Encontrados has been under siege for years. The constant warfare carried on by the different tribes among themselves has been a great advantage to the Spaniards, who have tried to establish farms, homes and a semblance of civilization. We hear of many instances of the cruelty of the Motolones, the Carribs (cannibals) and other savage tribes who live, animal fashion, throughout this region.

We listen to the story of a Frenchman, established a home after a great deal of sacrifice and effort. Apparently the Indians seemed friendly enough and he in turn gave them tobacco, sugar and other foodstuffs. In fact he believed them to be his friends. Upon returning home from Encontrados a few months ago, he found his wife dead, her body had been ripped and terribly mutilated; he found his five year old daughter pinned down, spread-eagle fashion, with lances, and she was still alive; his home was in smoldering ruins and you can imagine the poor man's helplessness. Appealing to the Government he was told that they could not punish those guilty off this act as the government had an understanding with the Indians over this territory, and he was warned of this before starting to establish his home.

He recruited several friends of his in Encontrados and they surrounded an Indian village close to his former home. When the smoke had cleared away they had killed forty of them. This reprisal will undoubtedly keep them mindful of the consequences of any future dirty work they might do, but at the same time it won't fare well with those they encounter on the trails.

We learn the river is very low below here; that our trip up the Tarra to El Cubo, which ordinarily takes 36 hours, might take us weeks of hard poling over sand bars and river snags. This, too, would afford us but very little protection from. ambuscade, as from this point up the country is hostile. We also are in poor condition physically as the two years in the fever country has by no means been kind to us. Upon a good deal of reflection we change our plans for the time being. We had originally planned to go down the Catatumba to the mouth of the Tarra Rio, then continue on down the Terra to the El Cubo oil fields. We now decide to transfer our luggage across country to the Tachira railroad, which will take us 125 kilometers South to the Estacion Tachira, which is now located in the foothills of the Andes. The railroad skirts the worst of the Sajarri country to the east of the Tarra and is also in the Motolone country. Our luggage is taken to the station and the following morning we decide to make this side trip in hopes that in the interval the rivers will be higher and we will be able to follow our original plan.

Within a short time we arrive at Estacion Tachira. It is a small mountain village of perhaps 35 natives. Owing to the impossibility of finding quarters for the night my friend insists I accompany him to the small city of Colon, which is located 19 kilometers further south. We soon decide this best, and while our luggage is being cared for we feast our eyes on a tropical mountain scene that is unsurpassed in beauty.


Production Department.

Aug. 25th 1928

Dear Chas,

The promise I made to you in regard to the writing up of my vacation trip has turned out to be my biggest literary effort. I have also discovered that I am not equal to it. However, there is so much that was interesting to me that I feel you, too, would be disappointed without at least an effort from me.

The narrative is written from notes that were hurriedly jotted down and later I made an effort to verify the truth of some of the stories that in part make up the whole. Of course, you know I am no historian, neither am I gifted when it comes to descriptive or any other kind of writing. When you realize that all of my information was gathered through conversations in Spanish and that there is nothing in the line of books at my disposal that would be a help to me, then you know at least, I tried. The trip itself would make material for a large book. I have cut the whole down to possibly ten typewritten sheets. You can use it as you wish. Each week I intend to send you a part.

The enclosed part covers one leg of the trip to the edge of the Indian country. The next I send you will cover my trip through a jungle country by narrow gauge railroad to the Andes, and my stay there and return to the river country. And last my trip up the Tarra Rio to the very heart of the Motolone country.

Rest assured I make no more rash promises, for in addition to my effort to make a living days I am now occupied writing nights. I am pleased though to be busy in this fashion although I make such a mess of it.

Conditions in the fields are still humming, we are busier than ever; so much so that I think fondly quite often of the United States. I read considerable of an effort to curtail production here but don’t think it will ever materialize for the good reason that Venezuelan oil can be laid down so cheaply in the States that the major operating companies will shut down their fields in the north while they draw on this country’s resources while drawing is good.

I have been feeling much better since coming back from my trip and good health permitting I am still put indefinitely.

Regards to all,



3rd September, 1928

The Tachira Railroad was built and is owned by President Gomez. It affords the only avenue of transportation between the Tarra Rio and the Andes Mountains in the south of Venezuela. Its source of revenue is derived mainly from the coffee, cocoa, platino and tobacco planters, who live in the higher Andean country 200 miles south of Encontrados. Its southern terminal is the city of Cucuta, which is only 200 miles east of Bogota, Colombia, I was surprised to see the amount of business this little narrow gauge handles daily in the course of our trip to Tachira we met several stock trains, we also set several scheduled trains. The produce of the higher country is carried thru this jungle valley to Encontrados, It is then transshipped to the river dugouts which ply up the Catatuma from Lake Maracaibo. These dugouts are interesting. They are poled by crews of half-caste peons and Indians; to me it seemed the most primitive transportation I have ever seen. With the hardest kind of effort they manage to creep upstream slower than a walk.

We pay Bs 30.00 ($6.00) for our 1st class ticket to Tachira, the end of our train trip, which is 125 kilometers due south. I noticed that I was the only foreigner aboard and of course the center of all interest. However, all seemed friendly end eager to render any assistance. We shortly strike up an acquaintance with a native who speaks English with an English accent. He furnished me with several notes on this part of the country end we soon were on the best of terms. Amid a great deal of noise and confusion we leave Encontrados and at our first stop I made a few notes on the class of engine and equipment we have. The engine is a hooded wood- burner type, jacketed with a water reservoir. It has three 28" driving wheels; Handcock injectors; Detroit lubricators; no air but sports a generator for cab and head lights. A 28" x 3' fire box; the eccentrics clear the ground by three inches; link end pin couplings. Its name plate said, “'Made in the Baldwin Locomotive Works at Philadelphia in 1888.” We recognize a fine old specimen of ancient R.R. power for some museum. The train consists of one box car for baggage and one coach. The latter was lighted with oil lamps and had wooden benches for seats for 18 people. It rode with a swaying comfort that was a cross between a merry-go-round and a small schooner in a cross swell.

We bounce along thru a country that is verdant with palms - date, coconut, banana and bamboo. We notice a new species that rises from the ground in a single drooping stem to a height of ten feet, to take a leaf form 3 feet in diameter. We are soon in a natural paradise of grandeur. Looking from the car window it seems as tho the jungle rises in tiers in a maize of variety and colour. Huge multi-colored butterflies and birds of every hue, all in a grandiose setting of splendor that beggars description. We see parrot-billed black -birds, every specie of song bird and we realize we have found the gathering place of the northern birds, who migrate this way when the season reminds them of their original birthplace.

The scene becomes more awe inspiring with each mile into the Jungle. We have the desire to cut our way into this maize of nature's best, but realize it impossible. We have noticed the snakes, turtles and crocodiles that infest the mossy pools along the way and we are thankful we are so comfortable here. We pass a vulture tearing at the carcass of a sloth; quite often we notice thatch-roofed villages rising over the under brush in small clearings. We stop at several small stations with platforms piled high with bananas, sacked coffee, cocoa, tobacco and sugarcane, the whole covered with palm leaves as a protection from the sun.

We connect up our history in connection with the source of wealth of the old Spanish “conquistadores”. We see it all came from this country's wealth in agriculture. We see a source of natural richness that is unsurpassed in any part of the world; a climate that requires no clothes 365 days a year; where stores are unknown and it would be impossible to be in want of food. How little the world knows of this wonderful country. What a pity it is so far removed from foreign markets. The conductor just brought in two ripe pineapples; the people in the seat ahead are now peeling them, and they eat the choicest part and throw away nearly the whole. We become accustomed to the spicy sweet aroma of the jungle. We think of the student in botany who could pitch his tent here and complete a life study with a variety of material, which, to me, seemed unsurpassable. We have a visit from a hummingbird, which stays motionless in front of my window. The train stops at a wood rack and I am an interested witness to the refueling of our engine. We note the kind of wood and see it is Vera, and one of the most costly and useful of hardwoods. Many musical instruments of the reed section, drumsticks, bowling balls and the keels of the beat wooden ships are made of Vera. The U.S. Government selected this wood for the construction of the Panama Canal lock gates. Its specific gravity is very little less than iron.

At the village of Guajapo the train stops 20 minutes for lunch. The Posada, (restaurant) is a thatched roofed abode. We enter a very neat and surprisingly clean room, altho it had an earthen floor. The meal consisted of a course of rice, another of a meat cake the covering of which was of a corn mixture. The service and food was clean and far better than I expected. We have several other courses; cabbage, roast-beef, a mixture of boiled eggs and onions and lastly some fried cheese. We drink bottled soda water (unbelievable I'm sure, but there was no ice and warm beer never was appealing).

Leaving Guajapo the country continued to unfold a panorama of rank Jungle. We are amazed at the variety of bird life. The tufted and crested headed types seemed to be in their element. We see flocks of parrots, parakeets and guaquomas. They keep up a constant chatter. There are many bright plumaged birds that are strangers to us as they are only to be found at or near the equator. Many times I tried to learn the names of some of them. Generally I would get the information: "Estan bonitas, pero no cantan." (They are pretty, but they do not sing).

Awakening from a short nap we, see the country's vegetation is changing; here and there are small clearings planted to corn. The ferns and vines are out of the picture, so we know we are commencing to climb. The palms and trees are smaller and the underbrush is tinted with dieing foliage. We arrive at a little village set in a bower of roses. Roses of every hue; and we know it would be quite impossible to grow them in the hot-houses in the States with so much fragrance. We have a wonderful view of the cloud-capped Andes in the distance and notice a decided drop in the temperature. It isn't very long before we recall the times on Clarksville (C.S.W.) grade when we only had a few yards to go, but would slip down on sand and double to Allison. The "hogger" on this two-car express -- one a box car for baggage and our coach- is having a world of trouble making each grade. We jerk along at a snail's space. We just high-balled a station 200 yards back and I'm betting even money we don't make the next grade; sure enough the old boy stalled on a bridge. They pull a pin on the coach and while they make this Andean double let us see where we're at.

The stream beneath us could easily be mistaken for any mountain stream in the West. I am thinking of the Truckee River above Reno. I feel certain this would make an ideal spot for a few days' trout fishing. I am told the fishing is good but that they are bony and are not eaten by the natives. The roar of the water is real music to me as I have not seen or heard this sort of thing for several years. We watch a native reduce a piece of sugar-cane to eatable size with a few slashes of his machete, and we see their expertness with this weapon. The engine is back for the passengers and here we go. In the course of the next 100 yards we are in a tunnel. I make an effort to close my window but discover there is some trick in the operation of the latch; we are out in the open here I know how it works. We double over our excess tonnage and with a frantic toot we are off amidst a smell of wood smoke. We pass alongside a shear wall of mountain that seems to overhang the train and stays put only thru a heavenly act of mercy- a breath of relief on our deliverance.


10th October, 1928.

My friend has a Chrysler car waiting. I am surprised to hear that throughout this mountainous country there is a system of roads, which I am told, are the best in South America; that we now can travel by automobile with comfort. We lose little time in leaving Estacion Tachira as we both are eager to reach an altitude before sun-down, which will give us a view of the valley country. The climb to the small city of Colon in the glow of a tropical sunset is one of the most beautiful trips I have ever made. The road is paved with small cobble stones, (we learn that all the roads here have been made by peon convicts) and as we climb I picture the Catskill and Blue Mountains of New England and the Cumberlands in Virginia - we see all the splendid beauty of the Northwestern Sierras, the whole in a tropical setting that beggars description. We notice the palms, ferns, vines and flowers are giving way to the hardier foliage of a higher altitude; we have a fleeting glimpse of a canyon which I likened to the grand canyon of the Arkansas in Colorado.

The trip up to Colon is a grueling effort for the car as in the 19 kilometers we rise 3000 feet. The car was in second the whole distance and it was necessary for the chauffeur to cool his engine several times. The sunset prompted us to continue our journey for the day to the beautiful gem of a mountain town, Rubia, (Ruby) which is rightly named. My friend is enjoying as keenly as myself every new panorama as we take the turns. He insists that there are many wonderful views in the gathering twilight which we will be able to see while at their best. The cool temperate mountain air to my fever infested lungs; the keen appetite; wearing a coat the first time in two years; the transformation to transpire in the course of a few hours are some of my thoughts while at this part of my trip.

Around a sharp, bend in the read we enter the city of Colon, (population approximately 3,000) . It is spotlessly clean, cobble stone streets, narrow side walks, with varicolored houses all tile roofed. This presented a vision for longing eyes after two years of mud, thatch and heat.

We think of Salt Lake City with its running water at the curb. We have the same circumstance here, differing only in that the water gurgles along in a small paved hollow, six inches deep in the middle of the street. The town is decorated in Venezuelan bunting; flags are flying from each house; and remember it is the 5th of July, National Independence Day for this country. Incidentally the 4th of July was decreed a holiday here for the yanks. This is quite a new thing and so far as I know sets a precedent. What we can expect on the National Days of the European countries represented here is to be seen.

We have a small cup of very strong coffee (grown locally) and my friend leaves me to write while he attends to business interests. Seemingly he is a partner in a Caracas wholesale textile house and judging from appearances he is successful end withal a boon companion.

A word concerning him won't be amiss; from our casual meeting in Encontrados and later our dinner together in the small Posada, we built up an acquaintance that has been mutual and really agreeable. Several incidents have come up since that have given us both an opportunity to be helpful and here we are, like old chums completely at ease. He insists that I also travel with him tomorrow. I promise only after he will allow me to meet my expense. Ordinarily car hire here is at the rate of $3.00 per hour and cars are not to be had at will.

While I was writing the last paragraph I met two native Spaniards of this region. We had a lengthy conversation in Spanish and I gathered a number of pointers on this part of the world. I learn we are on the Orinoco divide; that in the course of the next half hour's travel we cross from the west to the east and we will have wonderful views of the llanos and savannas of the Orinoco head waters; that we now are in the great coffee country of Venezuela; that we will have need of heavier clothing as we will be in snow before reaching Rubia.

I watch the arrival of a pack train. The mules are all blinded with a head-band of gunny-sacking about 5" wide. They are kept this way to .keep them from eating along the trails. The scene reminded me of a time in northern Washington when I hired out as a packer. After considerable trouble and with the help of other packers, I managed to get my packs slung and we started for Mt. Baker with cruising supplies for a government survey party. We didn't get very far, but the distance was nothing to the amount of trouble I had. Mules are really of a complex nature, but pack mules are temperamental; they know their packer, and when they aren't properly slung they proceed to unload themselves in short order. In fact my whole outfit were rolling around in the weeds with packs at all angles; they were stretched out from Mt. Baker to the Canadian border and altho I made a heroic effort to straighten them out, they really caused me to loose my job the very first day. Since then I have been a spectator only when it comes to pack mules.

Before leaving Colon we service the car at a small service station which is under government supervision. However, it had this sign: “Su Agencia Ford” (Your Ford Agent). We are now obliged to register our names, car number and destination on a slate that is given to us by a bare-footed policeman. On arrival at Rubia we will have to register into town at a similar station.

With an ever winding and climbing effort we continue on up to summit. We sit back and are thrilled by a panoramic mountain scene that holds us spell bound; we notice the cold freshness of our altitude; we breathe deeply and live again with a snappy tingle of life as in Iowa; we cross a range at 8,000 ft. only to be confronted with another range slightly higher. Far below us, thru the gathering dusk, we see a small Pueblo, from the distance it appeared as a gem setting in this remote fastness. Here and there we see small white adobe houses and we wonder what manner they have of living in a place so far removed from civilization. We fail to see the coffee bushes which cover the mountain's sides lower down as it is becoming too dark. (I was unable to make any more notes but continued from memory on our arrival at Rubia, which is 62 kilometers south of Colon.) Venezuela here raises most of the coffee which it exports, (a kilometer is 660 feet more than our half mile).

We notice a ringing in our ears; our temples are commencing to pain and we are soon in a drizzling cold rain. In the course of a short time the rain turned to spitting snow and believe me, my teeth were chattering, altho I had on more clothes than I ever wore in an Iowa winter. We top another summit (approximately 11,000 ft.) and we are certainly glad to start down. From this point we drop to approximately 4,500 ft. The trip down mountain was a creeping careful cautious affair as the snow offered a hazard that I won't soon forget. A short way down we come upon a lodge of President Gomez. He has quarters and a garage here as he was a native of these parts. Incidentally the mountain we just came over is called the Zumbador. Gradually we leave the snow area; into rain once more and finally out into a starry night above the clouds. Passing thru them on our down trail we finally come out into a beautiful night. We can see, far below, the lights of Rubia. We are two hours arriving there. We arrived at 1:30 A.M. Put up at a very good hotel but went to bed hungry as it was too late to have a meal prepared. A good night's sleep on a canvas stretcher bed under two blankets - the first I have used since being in the tropics. A good breakfast in the morning and while my friend looks after his affairs, I start to take a stroll about town but a downpour interferes and we are compelled to stay indoors until afternoon. Seems impossible to continue our trip today as I know the mountain roads will be dangerous.

In the afternoon I accompany my friend on his business visits to several stores. The courtesy these people show each other upon meeting impressed me so that I am prompted to tell you their custom of greeting. With their exchange of salutations they embrace each other and while doing so, they pat each other gently on the back. We finish our business in the course of an hour and as the skies are now quite clear, we decide to leave for Oranea, another Mt. town about 85 kilometers further south. You will find it on the map at the extreme Southwestern border of Venezuela. We cross the boundary there into Colombia.

Before leaving Rubia, a word about the hotel where this is written. The building is a Spanish adobe; one story high, built around a patio that is planted to flowers; a dozen bird cages are suspended from the edge of the patio and their song is keeping the place alive. The hotel is managed by a matronly old woman who has all the graces of an aristocrat. I had quite a conversation with her and felt as tho I was in the presence of one who in younger life must have been of a very distinguished family. Her Spanish was a ripple that was pleasant to just listen to. We enjoy a well cooked meal here we leave: fried eggs, fried cheese and hot buns, the coffee was delicious. We dress in lighter undergarments and change to a linen suit and provide ourselves with light blankets as from here we drop down to where the country becomes real hot again.

The trip from Rubia to Oranea was quite uneventful, a series of up down but always the temperature became warmer. We stopped at Oranea just long enough to service the car and register. It is 125 kilometers from here to San Cristobal, the end of our side trip. I will then part with my friend and I am certain I will miss his good fellowship.

The drive to San Cristobal gave me a chance to see the extensively cultivated mountainous low country. Mile after mile of coffee, sugarcane and tobacco. I never saw a plow however, and my friend told me they use the fork of a tree for that purpose, We notice the peculiar color of the natives and we are surprised to learn that they are South America's White Indians. They are direct decedents of the Incas. They are hardy, industrious and I believe represent the highest standard in semi-civilized advancement. They make everything they use; wear clothing that has been woven by their women; their homes are generally made of stone and I noticed many works of art which were crudely hewn from granite. All their harness, tools, looms, and utensils for their manufacture are made by them. Their weaving is recognized as the best. A hat for instance, of the type known in the States as a Panama, would cost from $40.00 to $100.00 if it was genuinely from here.

Their dyes and pottery are famous, and withal they are peaceful and very religious. Spanish is the universal tongue. However, there were some words which I was quite unable to understand.

We think this would be a great country to live in, but we know these people earn very little money. (Coffee picking is about all there is to work at and this is all done by the Indians).

At the crest of a range we have out first car trouble, a broken front spring and repairs are 50 miles away. We make a temporary repair by placing a 3" block of wood between the axle and frame of the car; wired the block in securely, and we are on our way. While making this repair I had a severe headache as the altitude must have been approximately 7,500 ft. In the descent, which was our last range to cross, we could see the lights of San Cristobal thousands of feet below us. We stop at the small pueblo of Tarriba. Here the temperature is fine in the day time but real chilly at night. The country continues to be one of coffee, sugarcane and tobacco. We see fine herds of cattle and we wonder where their market can be. The people look us over with a good deal of curiosity - at a distance. It was a balmy ride from Tarriba to San Cristobal. Arriving there about 8.50 P.M. San Cristobal is well located and has every appearance of being prosperous.

Our hotel in San Cristobal, while not as good as we expected, altho the best the city afforded, was located facing a park in the heart of the city. We are quite pleased with everything and decide to take time to conjugate the Spanish verb "Hogar" which means, to play. We, or better I, met two American Geologists stopping here and like all good yanks we had to celebrate.

This little city (population 10,000) is built on a ledge overlooking the Rio Fria. By far the greater part of the people are Indians. We see their industry on every hand; we notice how healthy they are; small in stature, but robust physically. The mountain climbing they have done for ages shows in the well developed muscles of their legs and thighs. We see women with heavy loads of panela, (bars of brown sugar) sugar cane and other produce which they carry on their heads. We notice their healthy, clear complexion; the manner they have of dressing their hair in a fashion that affords a cushion for their packs.

The hotel furnishings were meager. A canvas stretcher bed; one untanned leather chair; a wash stand and a cement floor. The food too was primitive. I found it necessary to purchase canned and bottled imported food which the Geologists and myself opened at meal time. In fact we had no other choice, as the sameness on the menu became trying. The two Geologists, I learn, are in the employ of the Standard Oil of N.J. We soon are acquainted and as they have been on the trails in a hostile country for two years, I am kept busy answering questions concerning conditions in Maracaibo, the oil fields, etc. I find them very good company in the course of the next few days; to see us together you would think we had known each other for years. My friend takes his leave and we regret very much his going.

While staying in San Cristobal I enjoyed my first real rest since coming to S.A. This climate proves to be just the required remedy for one with fever. My appetite was never better and everything I do is done with more zest than I ever knew I possessed. I am invited on a working trip with the geologists. I learn considerable of the geological nature of this area. In the course of eight or ten kilometers we find outcroppings of coal beds, oil bearing shales and many fossil specimens of the Cretaceous era. We come upon a solidified oil sand that is rank with the odor of oil, and we know we are in a very shallow oil territory. We cover 18 kilometers by mid-day and while we eat our lunch we hear more of our location geographically.

It would be quite impossible to follow me on any maps you might have in the States of this country, as Rand McNally and other mapping companies in the States, undoubtedly never had an engineer in these out of the way parts. There are however, some good maps of a confidential nature, which have been obtained at a tremendous cost. You might be able to locate the Rio Fria, a tributary to the Torbeo Rio. The Torbeo in turn flows into the Orinoco. At this point the Rio Fria is a swift moving mountain stream that one could use, with only a few portages, all the way to the Orinoco and on to the Guannas. We find ourselves eager for this bit of adventure, but it is quite impossible.

My friends are occupied in geological survey and stratographic research. This work is interesting. Notes and maps are sketched covering: anticlines, domes, formation outcrop-pings, Barometric reading and of course gathering samples. We gain first hand knowledge of the work they perform, which later is the basis of exploitation. We learn that close by there are some natural oil-seepages; that the Indians have been using this oil for ages. The gravity is 34° Baume (approximately the gravity of commercial kerosene). Later we buy two oil lamps which are used by them. It would be difficult to find their like in a museum. The lamps are a very crude receptacle made of pottery. A small indentation on one side of the saucer like affair holds a wick, which floats in the oil. The overhanging wick furnishes the flame. We also buy a dozen tobacco boxes made of cow-horn, polished and carved crudely with Indian design.

In the course of the next week we make plans for our return. We were ready on the 13th of July. We have been away 17 days. It will be necessary to lose very little time in getting back to the Catatumba, as we still have the trip up the Tana to El Cubo before us.

The trip back was quite uneventful; we arrived at Encontrados in good time and on the evening of my arrival I was fortunate in meeting a company launch which would leave at 12.00 mid-night. The night offers more protection and I found that it was the regular practice to leave for El Cubo at this time.


16th October, 1928.

The evening of our leaving for El Cubo found us in the best of spirits. I learned that there would be one other white man making the trip with me so of course we soon were getting acquainted over our glasses. He was an Englishman on Company business and this was his first trip to the Indian country. At 11:45 PM we went aboard and I was again agreeably surprised to find that two cot-beds enclosed in mosquito netting had been prepared for us. The launch was so arranged that a part of the fore peak could be used for two beds. We learn that we have two extra peons aboard to help the boat off sand bars as the river is still low.

It was a rather quiet affair, our leaving we noticed that there seemed to be an air of friendliness which had more feeling than you would find on the departure of a launch on the Mississippi, for instance. The night was black with a million stars, but no moon. As we backed out into mid-stream I was unable to make out the opposite bank of the river. We lost sight of the lights of Encontrados at the first bend. I am told that we won't see another light until we reach Los Manuelas about 175 kilometers south. The chug of the launch's engines, the night full of fire flies, the damp sweet smell of the jungle; the few cold bottles of beer with our conversation and finally turning in for the night, are still vivid in my mind.

We are awake at sun-up and find we have been on a river snag since 4 A.M. The peons now go over board and we are soon off and on our way. I was interested in watching the peons in the water as the river is full of crocodiles and it looked to me like a game of tag with one's life.

However, the water was generally so shallow that Mr. Crocodile could easily be seen coming, and with the long poles the peons carried it presented more safety than appeared. We had breakfast aboard and settled back to view a wilderness primeval.

The Tarra Rio, being a tributary of the Catatumba, is much smaller. In high water it could easily be a large stream, but now it looked as tho we would be compelled to wade most any time. During the day the peons worked heroically poling us off of sand-bars - in fact the day was one sand-bar after another. Sundown found us still chugging along at a snail's pace. At three A.M. the following morning we arrived at Los Manuelas. We stop just long enough to throw off and pick the mail tags and take on fuel. We learn that 10 kilometers back from the river there is a drilling well and its crew of three yanks. They have a body guard of 40 natives to guard from surprise attack by the Motolones. We are soon on our way again and altho I kept my eye a peeled for some sign of the Indians I am glad to say we seen none on our way to El Cubo. It is about 30 kilometers further up the river to the end of our trip. We arrive there about 8.50 P.M. after considerable effort and hours lost fighting low water. Arrived real hungry, thirsty and tired.

There are many friends of mine working here and I soon locate several. We make a large night of it ere we turn in. The following day I cover the country around El Cubo with a friend on mule back. I thank myself many tines that I have so far escaped a transfer to a place so near the grave. The very air seemed to have a fore-bidding heaviness which I am unable to describe. All the men were eager to leave, leave for any place just so they were gone from there. Life in a place so remote is terrible. Newspapers, mail and news of any kind is a month old ere it arrives. Entertainment of any kind is lacking. A man would be strong willed indeed, who could stay here any length of time without taking to drink. The Company furnishes good accommodation. The food is the very best and the quarters are on a par with the better class of bungalows in the U.S. There are no women and of course that offers a problem.

During my three day stay at El Cubo there was no excitement further than seven arrows had been collected which had been shot across the Tarra at men working on the opposite bank. No one was hit. I had a good opportunity to examine several of these arrows. They all were very primitive. The stocks are made of a black bamboo which gradually tapers from 5/8" at the butt to 3/6" at the point, where a hard wood head is inserted in the hollow of the reed. The head is held in place by being tightly wrapped with dried gut string. All the arrow heads I examined were three cornered and well notched with four notches on each corner. They make a terrible wound. Many men have made the long tiresome trip to Maracaibo with these arrow heads in their bodies as it is most impossible to withdraw them. The arrows vary in length, some I seen were 6-1/2 ft. long; others 3 1/2 ft.

We learn that a new well location is about to be started which is located about 40 miles from El Cubo. The drillers are concerned as to who will make the sacrifice - that's what it really amounts to. I understand that the Company is sending 85 natives for guard duty while this well is being drilled. On my last night in camp I, with several others, climb a high hill back of camp and we are able to see five different camp fires and they are the camps of the Motolones. It would be interesting to know their full strength. I don't believe they number more than five hundred in all.

We learn the particulars concerning the death of a geologist who was bitten by a jungle spider a few days previous to our arrival. He had been in the Motolone country for four years and one of the very few white men who they never molested. It was his custom to put food stuffs where it would be readily found by them; raw corn, rice, salt, sugar and tobacco. They always took everything but the sugar, pitiful indeed, that he should die so painfully. He lived three days of terrible agony and never reached medical attention altho all speed possible united in getting him to Maracaibo. The spider bite was just above the left eye. In twenty-four hours the swelling was so great that the man's features were unrecognizable.

We are pleased to learn that we leave in the early morning on our long river and lake trip to Maracaibo. The launch was much faster and with the current in our favor we made good time. In all the trip back was without incident. We amused ourselves by tossing oranges into the open jaws of the crocodiles as we passed.

We were eager to sea the lights of Maracaibo in the early morning of our fourth day on boat. We have a keener appreciation of our lot in general and are anxious to get back to work. My only regret is the breaking of a camera which prevented me having a collection of pictures which would be unique.


October 16th , 1928

Dear Noisy,

Undoubtedly you have been at a loss to account for this long period of silence. Any fears you might have had you can now lay aside, as I am still kicking altho feebly. Since writing lest I have had another session of fever and I am still taking treatment. The return from the higher country so quickly, I believe, had a good deal to do with my becoming sick again.

This part of the country is the most severe in fevers. It's not unusual to see fine big strapping men carried away on stretchers and sent home. Lord! I have wished and longed to leave here. But I have so much to lose by leaving that I intend to stay until I can at least clean up some business deals that I have on my hands.

The oil fields are at their highest peak. We have been producing 7,400 M.T. (51,800 bbls. daily) and we still are behind our contracts. It looks as tho we will go to the two million bbls a month mark in the course of the next few months.

I am enclosing two parts of the yam I wrote - it will furnish you a little amusement.





Home   The Camps   Site Map   General Interest   Ondas del Lago   Reunions   Links   Guest Book   What's New   Contact Me