September 20, 2010
Lost in the Jungle: The Seljan Expedition and Two Chicagoans who Never Returned
The following article was submitted by Croatian journalist and explorer, Mladen Postruznik. It is the story of the ill-fated Seljan expedition and includes the disappearance of two Chicagoans in 1913. While speculating on what happened to the adventurers, the article leaves more questions than provides answers. The author hopes that others can provide additional information.
By Mladen Postruznik
In 1912, the Peruvian government was more interested in commerce than conquest. President Guillermo Billinghurst, and the rest of the country's officials hoped to open the Amazonian parts of Peru, and connect them to the coastal ports. The Panama Canal was being finished, and very soon the coast of Peru would become more interesting for merchants from Europe and the East Coast of the United States. The Amazon had a lot to offer: rubber gum, mineral wealth, even precious and rarely seen fruits. But, a road would need to be built and hostile land explored. In an unlikely alliance of the Peruvian government, two experienced Croatian explorer brothers and two Chicagoans, with their eyes on adventure and free land, an expedition was launched. But, the dream would become a nightmare. The Chicagoans - Wilbur F. Cromer [a civil engineer from Evanston] and William L. Page [a one time Latin teacher at Lake View High School]and one of the Croatian explorers - would never return.
A Road Over the Andes
It was in 1899, when two brothers left their small town in Croatia, armed only with their military and artistic knowledge. Mirko and Stjepan (a.k.a Stevo) Seljan had chosen the life of explorers. Their first target was Ethiopia, known then as the Abyssinian Empire and ruled by Menelik The Second.
During the next 13 years the brothers' adventures became very well known among the Croats: mapping South Ethiopia, earning the title of the governors of south provinces of the empire, traveling to Brazil to explore many unknown rivers. They were the first to take photos of Iguazu Falls, they wrote a book on Guayra Falls (that was later sunk by the building of the Itaipu Dam), and they even explored Xingu River. Revolution in Mato Grosso in 1906 stopped their plans to explore Central Amazonia. But, in 1911, they went on, to the western side of the South American continent – looking for new projects in Chile and Peru.
They found what they were looking for in Peru; a contract from the Peruvian Government for the construction of a road across the Andes, from Juanjui to Trujillo. In exchange, the brothers were to be gifted with some very fertile land along the river Huayabamba, a tribute of Huallaga.
Chicagoans Join the Party
The Seljan brothers had one problem. In order to accomplish this task, they needed some initial funding. They established the Peruvian American Corporation, and started to look for investors. But, where? Croatians in Peru were mainly miners, not yet rich, and many of them were very doubtful of the project. So, Mirko and Stjepan decided to go to the United States. After all, that big country is always ready to take advantage of an opportunity and embraced adventurous ideas. They were sure to find funding in America.
And they were right. During their American tour the brothers gave lectures and musical performances (they are said to have been fine musicians) in Croatian Clubs across the country and it was during one of those appearances in Chicago that they met Ernest T. Gundlach, (who had also attended Lake View High School) an entrepreneur who had once worked for the Inter-Ocean newspaper and later established an advertising agency, Gundlach Advertising Co. Gundlach would provide the backing but he and the Peruvian government decided to also provide the expedition with a little help. The Seljan expedition was finally planned: Stjepan would remain in Chicago and Mirko Seljan must go back to Peru, to start his part of the job from the Amazonian side of the Andes; another party would start a bit later, headed by two Chicago explorers – Wilbur F. Cromer and William L. Page. That party would take another route across the Andes, to make it's way down to the Huayabamba Valley. The plan was for the two routes to merge on the river Jelache.
At the end of 1912. Mirko Seljan started to make his way from Lima, on route to Cerro de Pasco – Huanuco – Tingo Maria, and down the Huallaga River. At the time, that area was considered remote and very dangerous. Mirko was accompanied by another American, Patrick O'Higgins. Higgins, an engineer and representative of the American Syndicate funding the venture may have also been from Chicago, but not much else is known about the man.
Cromer and Page arrived at the Huayabamba River. Here they got support from a local governor named Eduardo Pena Meza, and landlord don Antonio Lopez. After careful preparation, they chose an Indian girl, Juliana, to be their guide, and 12 strong men to escort them into the jungle. The slopes of the Andes, with deep canyons and rivers awaited them. And, this is where the mystery begins.
Missing Chicagoans and Speculations
The other party, headed by Mirko, also gathered in Lima, in January 1913. Cromer and Page got another companion – Peruvian engineer Alejandro S. Lezcano. Their bad fortune is described in the Bulletin of the Geographical Society in Lima, in 1922. That report is somewhat controversial; it mentions Pataz, a mining town over the river Maranon, to be their point of interest, on the other hand, it is known that they went north through Cajabamba to get to the town of Bolivar, at the time called Cajamarquille. That route is described in the articles in the Chicago Daily Tribune.
The Peruvian government persuaded the relatives of the missing Chicagoans that not only the perpetrators of the violent crime against them were found, but also that Page and Cromer, the victims, were laying in marked graves. I do not believe that was then or is it now.
On July 30th 1913, after it was obvious that Cromer an Page were not going to return, 41 members of their families asked the Peruvian government for a report of the events. According to that report, "They advanced to the mining town of Pataz, searching for Pampa San Juan, looking for the missing expedition in Pajaten, from which on the day of March 20th they returned their animals and the expeditionists proceeded on foot." [Pajaten mentioned here is an old Franciscan mission, not Gran Pajaten – famous ruins of Chachapoyans, now known as "The cloud people." Arturo A. Cuadra, an engineer that visited this area six months later claims that Cromer and Page never reached mission Pajaten or the area of Santa Rosa del Huambo.
William L. Page in his last letter to his brother, Dr. Charles S. Page wrote:
"Well, here I am in Cajabamba, safe over the Black Cordilleras of the Andes, and, believe me, I have been in some hair curling places....Will try to get across the Maranon within three days."
The same route was taken by a Croatian expedition, led by Mladen Kuka, in 2001. In order to get across Rio Maranon, the Americans went south, to the town of Huamachuco, and then to the east, crossing the Maranon in Chagual. Crossing that river, you have to descend from passes at some 4,000 mts, to the bottom of the canyon at some 1,250 mts. From there, it is a steep path 25 km long to the miner's village Pataz. Some 5 km, in another valley, is the village of Los Alisos, and that is the path to get across the Andes once again. The highest passes here lie at an altitude of 4,200 mts above sea level, there are many small lakes that locals describe as "the eyes of the mountain." It is also very cold.
There is little doubt that it was foul play; they were attacked, robbed and murdered in an unknown place. Later, their weapons, clothing and other possessions were found in Condomarca (closer to Cajamarca). The Indians claimed that they were not payed as escorts and guides, so the white men gave them their weapons and other belongings. According to the locals, after that they simply left them in the wilderness.
The same explanation was given regarding the portion of the expedition headed by Mirko Seljan. He did not return either. And in the years to follow, legends of cannibalism emerged although nothing has ever been proven.
The Peruvian government did find Mirko Seljan's hand drawn map. The map emerged after English war hero George T. Dyott had found it in possession of the Indians; on the map there was a hand drawn cross that marks the last known position of the Seljan expedition. So, they concluded and said – that is the place where Cromer and Page also ended their lives. I doubt that. That place lies on the mouth of the river Bombonaje and Jelache and has nothing to do with Cromer and Page. But, the explanation was convincing, and families and relatives stopped asking questions.
Mirko Seljan's memory lives on. In the town of Karlovac there is the First Croatian Explorer's Club, established in honor of the Seljan Brothers, that keeps this tradition alive. It should be noted that after Mirko disappeared, Stjepan continued to explore South and Central America until 1917 when he settled in Brazil. Stjepan died in 1936.
When I came across the names of the deceased Chicagoans, Cromer and Page, I decided to publish this story in Chicago; a virtual tombstone for them. Perhaps descendants of Cromer and Page still live in the Chicago area and can provide more information. If so, please contact me. (see contact information below)
There are many historical stories about Chicago. Many famous persons dedicated their lives to the city; but to us, explorers in Croatia, the small story of Cromer and Page is very inspiring. It is a tale of exploration and courage and, of course, re-establishes the bonds between Croatia and the United States. As Mirko Seljan wrote in his last letter: "You will be celebrating Christmas in your warm and enlightened homes; I will be in the forest, on the border of civilization, trying to make some modest advance for humankind".
PHOTOS (provided by the author are credited to Mladen Kuka)
Fertile valley is still a mystery, although Rio Abiseo National Park was established
Santa Barbara: don Antonio Lopez farm on Huayabamba –
Hand drawn map of Seljan Expedition; unknown hand added the cross to mark the place of his tragedy
Mladen Postruznik is a journalist, writer and secretary of First Croatian Explorer's Club in Croatia. If you have additional information on this story, please contact him at: email@example.com
Life and Work of Brothers Seljan
Croatians (Encyclopedia of Chicago)
William L. Page: Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1913