Panama Railroad

The Panama Railroad Travelogues: Journal of army life:

Six hours in transit, and only forty-nine miles of railroad. This was owing to the difficulty of passing over the steep grades. At these places the engines were reversed and the train run back some distance, when the effort was renewed with increased force.

April 30th.-- Left Aspinwall in the first train of cars for Panama at half past nine A.M. The civilians came in the second train a few hours afterwards. Six hours in transit, and only forty-nine miles of railroad. This was owing to the difficulty of passing over the steep grades. At these places the engines were reversed and the train run back some distance, when the effort was renewed with increased force. At the summit, two hundred and fifty feet above the level of the Pacific Ocean, we ran back five times before succeeding. The second train, being less heavily laden, excited considerable alarm by occasionally coming up to us rather suddenly; and to add to the annoyances, our train halted within a quarter of a mile of the road's terminus in consequence of getting out of wood. In the meantime the hindmost engine came puffing up apparently, at full speed, and some gentlemen on the platform of one car cried out that we would be run into, and at the same time sprang off. This created a panic among the men -- some of whom rushed for the door; others sprang out of the windows in the utmost confusion. I commended them to keep their seats -- but to no purpose. When the excitement subsided, those who had run were rallied by the others for their timidity. Captain Henry W. Halleck, formerly of the Engineer Corps, and now a resident of San Francisco, and his bride, were passengers, and occupied the seat in front of Captain Cram and myself. When the stampede took place Captain Halleck was outside, but rushed for his wife, who was fortunately asleep, and did not awake until the excitement was over. Captain Gardiner and some other army people were in the car behind.

Getting out of wood at this point was owing to the carelessness of the fireman -- or rather stubbornness -- for being piqued at the Superintendent because he put on a second engine to assist us over the heavy grades; he neglected to fire up properly, and take in fuel at the proper time. In the States such a man would not be tolerated a single moment; but here it is impossible to relieve him under three or four weeks at least, there being no one on the Isthmus to take his place. This is only one of the thousand difficulties which the company has had to contend with in constructing such a stupendous work so far from the States.

In the first place, the physical features of the country were such as to render it almost incredible that a railroad could be constructed over it. Their workmen, some five thousand, were only to be had in the States, and other distant places -- and the same difficulty obtained as in regards their material for the road and cars, which was obtained in Maine and Georgia; for although there is abundance of timber along the road, it is of too perishable a nature for the construction of a railroad. Medicines and provisions were also brought from the States.

The road cost seven millions of dollars. It runs through a picturesque country of alternate hills and dales, covered with perpetual green. Some thirty varieties of tropical plants are seen along the route: such as the cocoanut, cocoa, palmetto, orange, banana and mangrove. The latter form in many places impenetrable thickets; and one finds it impossible to unravel the mysterious involutions of trunk, root, branch and foliage -- as their roots shoot into the air, and their branches into the ground -- thus forming a dense jungle. Here and there are to be seen native shanties, consisting of a framework of small poles covered with palmetto leaves. The natives are indolent -- subsisting mainly on fish, game and the proceeds of fruits sold to emigrants. Yesterday being Sunday we found them in their best attire. We saw a few negresses handsomely dressed, but they were evidently not natives; probably importations from the States.

Living on the Isthmus is very expensive -- board is four dollars per diem at the hotels -- no distinction made for children or servants; miserable fare even at this price. Vegetables on the table are rari avi; and stale at that. It seems to be the general wonder of travelers, crossing by this route, why some enterprising Yankees don't settle down here and try their fortunes at gardening -- as vegetables are so scarce and dear, and the soil so rich. Upon inquiry, however, I find that the common garden vegetables of the States will not thrive in this climate.

As the steamer was waiting for us at Panama, we had but little time to examine that dilapidated old sea- port of the United States of Colombia. This fortified city has rather a pleasing aspect tom the sea, being situated on a rocky peninsula, jutting out into the Bay of Panama. Though perhaps cleaner than many Spanish-American cities, yet the odors arising from the accumulated filth in some of the streets are not like those of the attar of roses and oil of bergamot. It is built of stone in the old Spanish style. It was for many years the great centre of trade between the Pacific coast of America and Europe, but began to decline in 1740, when this trade commenced to find its channel around Cape Horn, but is now reviving again on account of the immense travel across the Isthmus to and from California....

Glisan, Rodney

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