Lake Titicaca is one of the largest lakes in South America being more than 115 miles in length and over fifty miles across at its widest point.
Although over 12,500 feet above sea level and at least 200 miles from the coast, it is also home to a small fleet of ships which makes it the highest navigable waterway in the world.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (seen above), as a young student, crossed Lake Titicaca aboard one of these steamers.
The two largest steamships to ply their trade across these remote waters in the twentieth century were the Inca (1800 tons) and the Ollanta (2000 tons). The Ollanta is still there, a testament to the engineers who designed and built her.
Although these ships are part and parcel of Lake Titicaca’s rich history, their origins lie far from the Andes or indeed from South America. Both began life on the Humber foreshore, no more than a stone’s throw from the mouth of the River Hull, in the vicinity of what is now the Victoria Dock Estate. This is the story of these vessels and the men who built them.
Both of these ships were constructed by Earles Shipbuilding & Engineering Company of Hull. The firm had been started by the brothers Charles and William Earle in 1853 and, after a spell building ships in Victoria Dock, the firm took over more extensive yards along the Humber foreshore, along the edge of what is now part of the Victoria Dock estate. The firm was restructured as a joint stock company in 1871 and Sir Edward James Reed (1803 – 1906), formerly naval architect and chief constructor to the Admiralty, was for a short period the chairman and managing director.
During the period Reed was in charge, the yard acquired an international renown. Earles won a series of orders for naval vessels for both the Royal Navy and overseas countries. These included the ironclad, Almirante Cochrane, built in 1874 for the Chilean government and its sister ship, El Blanco Enscalada which in 1891 acquired the dubious accolade of being the first armoured warship to be sunk by a self propelled torpedo. The firm also built the steam yachts Slavanka and Czarevna for the Tsarevitch, later Tsar Alexander VI of Russia. They were launched in 1873 and 1874 respectively. Another yacht, the Bosphorous, was also built for the Khedive of Egypt and others were later constructed for the Duke of Malborough and various wealthy patrons.
The company was in many ways in the forefront of marine engineering technology and amongst the first to embrace the development of the triple expansion steam engine and produce them on a commercial scale. The new design of engine was initially installed into the liner Draco which Earles built for the Wilson Line in 1882 and proved far more efficient in terms of fuel consumption than her forerunners which used compound engines.
The company won a number of orders from the Admiralty, including the cruisers Endymion and St George, built in the early 1890s, as well as many commercial orders from the Wilson Line and later steam trawling firms. However, the firm struggled with a combination of labour and cash flow problems during the later 1890s and in June 1900 it went into voluntary liquidation. The following year Charles Wilson of the Wilson Line bought the yard for around £170,000 and formed a new limited liability company. After this hiatus, shipbuilding resumed and a few years later, in 1904, the yard embarked on what must rank as one of its most unusual projects when it secured an order from the Peruvian Corporation to build the 220 foot long steamer Inca. What made the contract so unusual is that this substantial ship was not intended for service on the high seas but for far higher waters. The Inca was destined to ply its trade amongst the Andes mountain range, on the waters of Lake Titicaca, more than two miles above sea level.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century British investors had invested heavily in Peruvian railways but the combination of a war with Chile and a series of natural calamities meant that by the end of the 1880s Peru was saddled with immense and seemingly unsustainable foreign debts. The Peruvian Corporation was formed in London in 1890 to take over the main government railways in Peru in return for the cancellation of the debt owing to British creditors. A large number of lines were transferred to the company, initially for a period of 66 years. The Corporation also committed to building more railway lines and soon became involved in trade on Lake Titicaca.
There were already steamers on Lake Titicaca at the time the Peruvian Corporation was established. The oldest of these, the Yavari, had been built on the Thames in the 1860s and then shipped to the Peruvian coast in bits before being carried up the Andes on the backs of mules to the edge of the lake where the ship was reassembled and launched in 1870. A sister ship, the Yapura also followed it in bits up the tortuous mountain trails.
During the 1890s the Peruvian Corporation supplemented this small fleet by ordering another vessel, named the Coya, which was constructed by William Denny of Dumbarton. By 1904, however, traffic on the lake had increased to such an extent that the Peruvian Corporation contracted with Earles Shipbuilding and Engineering Company for the construction of a much larger vessel, to be named the Inca. The new vessel was to be some 220 feet in length. Under the terms of the contract, which was signed on behalf of Earles by Charles and Guy Wilson, the vessel was initially erected at Earles yard on the Humber then each section was marked and the whole ship taken to pieces. The engines and boilers were also assembled but the contract did not require these to be fitted in the ship at this stage. They were erected in the shipyard’s engine shop before also being marked and dismantled. All the parts of this ship were then placed in packing cases. No part of the dismantled ship weighed more than 12 tons and the largest packing case did not exceed ten feet in breadth and eleven feet in height.
The vessel cost £22,285 when delivered in boxed parts to the South American bound steamer in Hull docks in 1905. After arrival in South America the packages were transported by railway up to the Lake and the vessel was assembled and launched in the first half of 1905. The Inca soon made a substantial impact to the traffic on the Lake and was the mainstay of the Titicaca fleet during the following decades. In the late 1920s, Earles constructed a replacement bottom for the vessel which was prefabricated in Hull before being shipped in sections to South America.
Although global economic depression and even competition from road transport was already having an adverse effect on the Peruvian railway system by the late 1920s, traffic on Lake Titicaca was still very buoyant. The 1930 AGM of the Peruvian Corporation noted with approval that the total tonnage of goods carried by the Lake Titicaca steamers continued to increase but by now the little fleet was really showing its age. Even the Inca, the newest of the steamers, had been working for almost a quarter of a century. The Corporation’s answer was to order a new and even bigger vessel and once more the contract came to Hull and to the Earles Shipbuilding & Engineering Company.
The new vessel was to be named Ollanta and at 260 feet from stem to stern she was forty feet longer than the Inca. Like her older sister, the Ollanta was first assembled in Hull: her keel was laid down by Earles on the banks of the River Humber in June 1930 and within five months all sections had been fabricated and then bolted together, masts and derricks were all fitted; engines and boilers were also assembled. The vessel was then stripped down, packed in cases and shipped out of Hull’s King George Dock on board the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s motor vessel, La Paz. After arrival at the South American port of Mollendo, the packing cases containing the ship were carried by railway up to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The man tasked with the re-assembly of the ship was William Reginald Smale, perhaps one of the most innovative, talented and practical engineers at work in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in the West Country, William Smale had started his working life as an apprentice at Earles in Hull and later became an engineer on various ships including the Melrose Abbey which used to sail between Hull and continental Europe.
Smale’s task was quite formidable. At first, he watched over every stage of the vessel’s initial assembly in Earles yard but for the South American reconstruction he had to recruit a lot of local labour, many of those people available high in the Andes were unskilled in the business of modern shipbuilding and engineering. He even had to construct a suitable slipway from scratch from where he could reassemble and then launch the vessel. The lack of locally available machinery up in the Andes meant he sometimes had to improvise, often using old railway equipment to make suitable drilling and milling machinery. Despite everything, Smale’s team made remarkable progress. The first plate was laid on the 24th March 1931 and the ship was completed and launched on Lake Titicaca on the 18th November of the same year. Smale’s original instructions were that he should wait until a team arrived from England to assist with the launching but by then he had such great confidence in his locally recruited team, and not least his own ability, that he did not wait. The Ollanta was safely in the water and in the final stages of being fitted out before the launch team sent from England arrived.
The new vessel was in many respects the epitome of 1930s steamship travel. She had a deadweight cargo capacity of 950 tons and her four oil fired engines gave her a top speed of 14.5 knots. Accommodation was provided for 66 first class passengers in a large deckhouse on the upper deck and there were also twenty second class berths forward. Large dining saloons and smoking rooms were provided on the upper and promenade decks. Electric lighting and steam heating was installed throughout the vessel.
The Inca survived until the early 1990s when the vessel was finally scrapped and today her Earles builder’s plate adorns a ticket office on the lake. However, the Ollanta is still very much around, a substantial reminder of travel 1930s style. In the 1980s the vessel featured in the BBC programme Great Railway Journeys and hopefully its long-term future is assured.
The Ollanta was the 679th ship to be built by Earles. Only three more ships were constructed before the yard fell victim to the 1930s depression and a government sponsored rationalisation of the shipbuilding industry. The yard was taken over by the Shipbuilders Security Company, the tools and machinery were sold off in 1932/3 and the large Earles crane, together with much of the remaining equipment, was dismantled and shipped out east to Kowloon. Under the terms of its closure, no shipbuilding could take place on the site for at least sixty years.
After the Ollanta project was finished, William Smale stayed on in South America for a number of years occupying a senior engineering position on the Peruvian railway system. He eventually made his way back to Britain in the mid-1930s but not by the easiest of routes. Together with a colleague from Doncaster, he made an epic overland horse journey across South America to a port on the Atlantic coast. Later, he worked on a major engineering project in India but by the time of the blitz he was back in Hull, helping to keep the city’s infrastructure functioning during the worst of the bombing: afterwards, he played an important role in the Mulberry Harbour project for the D-Day landings.
William Smale died in the early 1990s but the story of the Inca and Ollanta lives on, testimony to the ingenuity and engineering skills of the both the Humber and Peruvian workforces that played such a crucial role in their design and construction.