Our Sister Cities: Ushuaia

Many American cities have ‘sister cities’ all over the world, and we are no exception. In fact, our city is nominally partnered with municipalities from every continent except Antarctica. And we’re not very far from having a partner down there, too.

Our sister city in South America is Ushuaia, Argentina (pop. 30,000), the southernmost city in the western hemisphere. Ushuaia is situated on the northern shore of the Beagle Channel, its streets steeply climbing towards snow-covered Cerro Martial to the north. It was the first city to claim sisterly status, due to our city’s native son Oliver Edison Mackey, the nineteenth man to reach the South Pole (1914). Beginning in 1908, Mackey spent seven winters (which is summer ‘down under’) in Ushuaia, trying to organize a polar expedition that would bring him worldwide fame. After Roald Amundsen of Norway reached the pole first in 1911, Mackey continued his efforts with the revised goal of being the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent. His 1914 expedition reached 90 degrees south latitude on St. Valentine’s Day, but managed only 100 miles beyond the pole before being forced back by a massive storm. Since they had expected to exit the pole in the opposite direction, no supply caches had been left behind for their return journey, and all seven explorers, including Mackey, froze to death on the Antarctic plain, briefly sparing the lives of their 16 sled dogs, which the group could not bear to kill for food.

The frozen bodies of Mackey and his six companions were finally discovered in January 1917, and a funeral service was scheduled for April 15th, 1917 in Ushuaia. Four members of our City Council, and Voornaam Goossens, a local celebrity, were scheduled to attend. However, on April 6, 1917 the United States entered the First World War and travel restrictions went into effect that prevented their attendance. The ceremony was indefinitely postponed pending the outcome of ‘The Great War.’ When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, a memorial service was hastily rescheduled for December 21st of that year.

The journey to South America had unintended consequences. Ushuaia was one of the few cities in South America to suffer the full effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic, which decimated the town’s population in early 1919. It is widely suspected that the virus was introduced to Argentina by tourists from North America in December 1918, and the Mackey funeral party bore most of the blame. When the epidemic abated, Ushuaia was offered ‘sister city’ status as a gesture to ease the tensions that arose due to the unfortunate incident. Each year since 1924 (except 1942–1944 and 1982), a delegation has traveled from one city to the other, with a group from the U.S. heading south in even numbered years, and visitors from Ushuaia touring our city in the odd.

Though O.E. Mackey achieved his greatest fame in South America by unwittingly becoming the cause of a massive public health crisis after his death, his name lives on in North America at the O.E. Mackey Regional Center for Hypothermia Research at Nilsson Hospital on the city’s west side.
– D. Andrews

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