“Tourism Takes off in Chapala (circa 1900)”
Reprinted by kind permission of Tony Burton, author of Western Mexico, a Traveller’s Treasury – abridged from Chapter 3.
The origins of Chapala tourism go back to the mid nineteenth century when a single guest-house, that on Dona Trini, existed in the town. In 1868, the machinery for a steamboat was brought from California by sea to San Blas and then over the mountains on burros to Chapala.
Later that year the “Libertad” (Freedom) was launched on the lake. In 1889, on March 24th, this boat sank while approaching Ocotlan at the eastern end of the lake, killing more than 50 passengers.
It is said that the sinking occurred because merrymaking passengers, returning from a fiesta, all rushed simultaneously to the same side of the boat as it approached the shore, causing it to capsize. Besides the steamboats, sailboats plied the waters of the lake, ferrying passengers and their goods from one small fishing village to another. These vessels had a distinctive Asiatic look to them. Even before the turn of the century, proposals had been made for a rail link from Guadalajara to Chapala, though these early proposals all came to nothing. Mexican National Railways, however, began to offer trips by train to Ocotlan, with connecting service to the town of Chapala by lake steamer. The boats, “Carmelita” and “Fritz”, made daily runs. Some visitors preferred taking the train only as far as Atequiza, followed by a three hour horseback ride into Chapala. Another alternative was to go all the way by horse or stage-coach, but this involved a change of horses near the present-day airport, and was a tough 12 hour trip, usually necessitating an overnight stop.
In 1895 Septimus Crow arrived. Don Septimus was probably English, and he fell in love with the lake, the local people, and Chapala’s thermal baths. He bought land and built a house where the Montecarlo Hotel is today. Then he bought more land and built the Villa Bell, and later the Villa Josefina. Crow was the area’s first real-estate developer, and was personally responsible for persuading many of his friends to settle in Chapala, beginning the influx of non-Mexican residents. He died in 1903.
He is perhaps best remembered today for having had a street named after him – the “Callejon de Mister Crow” – one block east of the Montecarlo Hotel, very close to where the flow of thermal water under the highway causes the road surface to buckle and tilt. President Diaz, who had been President of Mexico, except for a brief three year period ever since 1877, visited Chapala in 1904, and for a week each Easter for several years thereafter. He stayed in El Manglar, owned by Lorenzo Elizaga. Cocktails called chatos (christened after Elizaga’s nickname, “El Chato”, – ed: meaning “snub-nosed”) were served, and the State Band would be sent from Guadalajara to provide entertainment.
Diaz’s last visit to Chapala was in 1909.
The popularity of Chapala grew. The Presidential seal of approval encouraged many noted Guadalajara families to build or purchase houses on the lake. In 1906, a very distinctive, European-style house built by historian Luis Perez Verdia was sold to one Alberto Braniff, from Mexico City.
(ed. note: the Braniff building is just two houses west of the Hotel Villa San Francisco, which was also built by a prominent family during the heyday of Chapala’s early tourism; the Villa’s front gate is said to have originally been owned by President Porfirio Diaz).
Braniff was a member of the famous airline family, and spent up to a month each year in Chapala. He introduced many sports into Chapala, including bullfighting, and brought motorboats to the lake.
In 1918, a Norwegian entrepreneur, Christian Schjetnan, began plans to launch two new steam-boats on the lake – the “Vicking” (sic), with two decks, for passengers, and the “Tapatio” for freight – and to construct a private railway line from Chapala to the Mexican National Railway at La Capilla near Atequiza. The railway station, one of the most beautiful stations ever constructed in Mexico, finally opened in 1920, with twice daily service. The oft-repeated claim that former Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, was a frequent user of the railway station, however appealing, is thus without foundation – unless he did so posthumously – since Diaz had died in 1915! Sadly, the railway quickly ran into problems.
In 1926, the lake rose by more than a meter and flooded the picturesque station, built right on the beach. Later that same year, the “Viking” was battered and destroyed by storm waves, and then the railway ceased operation. Alternative modes of land-based transport, especially the new motor-car and motor-buses, proved to be both more efficient and cheaper.
The first motor-car to reach Chapala was “Protos”, which arrived at 11:55 a.m. on December 31st, 1909, driven by Benjamin Hurtado.
By 1917, solid-tire autobuses for 40 passengers were being operated from Guadalajara. The bus trip to the lake took about five hours each way. The closing of the railway station brought to an end a marvelous chapter in the dreams of the early twentieth century entrepreneurs and pioneers who raised the sleepy town of Chapala to national prominence. Their efforts initiated the influx of foreign residents which has continued to the present day. What more fitting monument to Chapala’s history and changing fortunes could there be, than a museum of local history housed in the lovely building?”