Today in Transportation History – March 6, 1874: An Argentine Ship With Wide-Ranging Duties

The Argentine Navy steam gunboat ARA Uruguay was launched in England, where she had been built by the shipbuilding company Laird Brothers. The new vessel arrived at the city of Montevideo in Uruguay (Argentina’s ally and neighbor) about four months after being launched. It was there that the Argentine Navy formally received the new vessel and commissioned her. Over the next half-century, ARA Uruguay performed a variety of important and interesting roles that went beyond original plans to have her serve as only a gunboat.

Not long after being commissioned, for example, she was put to use as a naval training ship. The vessel even briefly functioned as the floating headquarters for training exercises for Argentina’s fledgling naval academy when student unrest at the land-based campus made the place temporarily unusable. She was also used as a support ship for scientific expeditions.

In 1903, the ship undertook her most famous mission when she rescued members of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition after that group became stranded on Snow Hill Island in Antarctic waters south of Argentina. Swedish geographer and geologist Otto Nordenskjöld was the expedition’s leader, and he and several in his party had been dropped off at Snow Hill Island to spend the winter there. The ship that was supposed to pick them up sank after getting crushed by ice, however, so ARA Uruguay – under the command of Lieutenant Julián Irízar – set sail from Buenos Aires to retrieve the marooned explorers. The ship rescued Nordenskjöld and his party, making it back safely to Argentina despite a fierce storm on the return trip.

The ship’s other wide-ranging assignments included providing supplies on a regular basis to a scientific station in the South Orkney Islands and an Argentinean Fisheries Association whaling station on South Georgia Island. The vessel was retired from service in 1926, and is now a museum ship in Buenos Aires. She is widely believed to be the oldest South American ship still in existence.

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