Panama Railroad

The Panama Railroad Travelogues: The Panama Fever:

"MY dear, the captain says that to-morrow morning, early, we shall arrive in Panama, and I think it would be well for us to take a few grains of quinine to-day, to be sure and prevent any possibility of an attack of fever on the other side. You know how you suffered the last trip, and a little precaution this time will probably prevent a recurrence." I heard the above remark made by a lady to her husband, and am assured that the same occurs frequently among passengers to and from California for a day or two prior to their arrival at Aspinwall or Panama, so great is the fear of contracting disease during the day that intervenes between the arrival at one, and departure from the other port. We will follow this lady from one ship to the other, and observe what she does to aid the three five-grain pieces in their good work of preventing an attack of calentura, as the natives term it.

The steamer is made fast to the buoy, and then the passengers are informed that on account of the tide not serving, the steam tender with the mails, baggage, etc., will not leave for two or three hours, and that they must pass the time as best they can. Waiting under such circumstances is not pleasant, and our lady friend, whom for convenience, I shall term Mrs. Prudence, exclaims: "How provoking!" Now Mr. P., who is a staid, sober, sensible personage, sees no particular hardship in having to seek a cool, shady spot on the commodious deck, and waiting until the time comes to be transported from the anchorage to the railroad wharf; but his better-half can't stand it; her small traps -- even to the ice pitcher -- have been consigned to the tender care of the obliging baggage master, who for a fee will see them safe on the other side, and she is unable to remain quiet; at last, turning to her husband -- who has been watching the back fin of a shark moving about on the glassy surface of the bay, waiting for something or some-body to tumble overboard -- she remarks: "Mr. P., we have two hours before us; now, instead of staying here doing nothing, let us get into one of these boats and go on shore; we can see the city, and I can purchase some linen dresses and other matters very cheap and you know that I will want them this summer at the East, and will have to pay much more for them in New York. Mrs. -- has gone, and I am sure she will select the prettiest patterns if much before us. So come along; don't be so stupid -- it will do you good, and you will enjoy it, for it is not very warm." Poor P.! if there is one thing more than another that he dislikes, it is boating, even under the most favorable circumstances, but to be compelled to go three or four miles under a blazing tropical sun, with the thermometer nearly up to ninety degrees in the shade, is a little too much but Mrs. P. continues her importunities, and it does not take him long to discover that refusal will only add to his discomfort, and hence he gives a most unwilling consent.

For a few pesos fuertes a boat is secured, and Mrs. and Mr. P., with probably a few friends that she has persuaded to join the party, take their seats, and off they start with no other protection than a sunshade or, at the most, an umbrella. From the anchorage in the Bay of Panama to the puerto del mar, or seagate, is at least three miles -- a long pull even in a man-of-war's gig; but in an ordinary boat with only two oarsmen especially on the ebb tide, it is of prodigious length, and so our friends found it. They had not gone a mile before Mrs. P. even would have turned back; but pride gained the day, and she would not have said the excursion was not delightful on any account -- she would have died first! The sun first, and the reflection from the mirror-like surface of the bay, rendered the heat insufferable; and after an hour of such discomfort the boat is grounded on the reef, and the company are told that they'll have to walk some hundreds of yards before they reach the entrance of the city, for the tide being out the boat can go no further. They start off over the slippery, slimy rocks, mentally saying very many hard words, but trying to look pleased. The gate is reached and the city entered, and then another walk follows over rough sidewalks or cobble stones to the Grand or Aspinwall Hotel; and a more uncomfortable looking or feeling party it would be hard to find. The women portion, with muddy boots and skirts, from walking over the reef, and with faces red as so many poppies, are fanning themselves in the most frantic manner; the men, in scarcely better condition, are looking anything but pleased. All, however, seek a cool place, and throwing off all superfluous clothing, they seat themselves where there is a breeze, probably in a strong draft; and then sherry cobblers, or something of the like character, are sent for, to be disposed of while waiting for the break-fast that has been ordered: probably an orange or two may be devoured in the mean time as an appetizer.

A Panama breakfast is no ordinary meal; in fact, it is the meal of the place, especially with Americans, and ample justice is generally done to it, particularly by those who may have had the exercise that Mr. P. and party have been subjected to. There is a kind of novelty about it; and Mrs. P., in the variety set before her, forgot all about the little silver-coated balls that she had swallowed the day before to ward off the effects of a tropical climate. Mr. P. was in a better humor also, and thought, now that the trip was over, and he had "cooled off," that it was not so bad after all; and like the others, forgot all else than his appetite, and thought that while in Panama he would do as the Panameños did, and accordingly stowed away a large portion of a bottle of St. Julien, while his wife did the same -- it was "so very cool and refreshing." When breakfast was over, the time was found to be limited; the train would leave at a certain hour, and all the sight-seeing and shopping had to be done in a hurry. The latter being the first consideration, of course, the stores were sought -- and in Panama their name is legion -- and as a rule they contain the most obliging proprietors and clerks, willing to put themselves to any amount of trouble and inconvenience to gratify California passengers, who are all supposed to be heavy with oro Anericano, worth generally about five per cent premium. A lady can purchase a large amount of dry goods in a very short space of time when the necessity arises for so doing, and Mrs. Prudence and her friends proved no exception to the rule. Half a dozen dress patterns were selected, an indefinite number of yards of plain linens, and many dozen of them-stitched handkerchiefs were also purchased; and when all were tied up and delivered,. Mr. P. found out that the bundle under his arm was far heavier than the amount of coin his pocket bad been relieved of. Mrs. P. now discovered that the time was up; that if they did not "hurry up" they would be too late for the last omnibus for the station and that they might be compelled to walk; her shopping was over, she had secured all that she came ashore for, and more, too; she cared noting for ruined churches and mouldy, crumbling walls now; her only desire was to get to the train and into the cars, and give her female passengers a list of her purchases; knowing that thereby she would excite their envy, and make them wish that they also had come ashore, instead of waiting for the more comfortable passage afforded by the Ancon.

The omnibus was reached by our again overheated party, for the sun's rays were coming down in full power; fans were again moving; the perspiration was streaming down the faces of more than one, and it was with a sigh of great relief that Mr. P. deposited his bundle and seated himself in the "bus," at the moment of its starting for the station. On reaching the cars they found that the passengers had been ashore for some time, and it was with great difficulty that seats could be obtained, for it is seldom that the "steamer trains" of the Panama Railroad take more cars than there is necessity for; but they were found at last, and when all were stowed away, bundles included, then it was that more than one of our party thought that they had eaten too much breakfast. The pills were beginning to have their proper effect.

At the wharf of the Panama Railroad; when the California passengers arrive, the native merchants in fruit, birds, shells, and other comodities, appear in swarms; they are nuisances of the first class -- thought so by all who come in contact with them -- and yet they are liberally patronized; they will cheat you in the most unblushing manner; poison you legitimately and take your coin for it; in fact, they will perform almost any little service for you; provided they can get three prices for it. You are no sooner off the gang plank than they beset you on every side; they are in the cars and out of the cars; they take hold of you, if they cannot attract your attention in any other way; and if you resent their continued and repeated insults, you will get more than you bargained for in the shape of abuse, and a mob could be raised in a moment were it not for the squad of ragged, dirty, native soldiers that are always on hand to keep the peace. These natives are themselves quite sufficient to give one an attack of Panama fever, even if there was no malaria or other exciting cause in the place; and yet they remain the same all the time, and will, until some other power rules the country.

Mrs. Prudence doats on several things; among these are silks, laces, the last new bonnet, the Italian opera, and tropical fruits; the latter she has a decided weakness for, and says that Californians get surfeited with apples, peaches, pears, grapes, etc., and that when the opportunity offers of getting some really good bananas, oranges and pine apples, it should be taken advantage of. She acted upon this argument, but first purchased a parrot and pair of paroquets for some of her junior relations in the East, that she had not seen for years; for, as she said, " it will be so pleasant for them to think that they have been remembered." Mr. P. had, under her instructions, and to gratify his own tastes -- for he was fond of tropical fruits -- laid in a large bunch of bananas, some pine apples and oranges, and had also secured a couple of bottles of claret to last them to Aspinwall A young and interesting monkey had tempted him; but be had no way to carry it, the animal appearing too vicious for a passenger car; his wife had also taken a fancy to it, saying: "What a dear little monkey, how cunning it looks;" (she had no children) but the purchase had to be given up, and the sable son of Jamaica was compelled to leave with his monkey remaining upon his hands.

It is scarcely necessary for me to say, that the majority of the passengers that waited for the steam-tender to bring them ashore comfortably were refreshing themselves after the fashion of Mr. P. and his friends. Fruit met with more ready sale than other articles, but occasionally a passenger could be found driving a bargain with a native for what he exposed to be pearls, but which were nothing more than imitation carved from pearl shell, very pretty and having a tendency to deceive any but a practiced eye; many passengers being taken by these worthless arises, only finding out their mistake when taking them to a jeweler to be set. This desire to purchase everything the natives on the Isthmus offer for sale, is another description of Panama fever that quinine will not reach. The foreigners who reside on the Isthmus, and who flock to the station when the steamer arrives, look on at the excesses of those in transit, and laugh quietly when they think of the almost certain result of them. They "have been through the mill;" and are willing that others should partake of their experience as a penalty for their imprudence.

There is always more or less delay in leaving after all the passengers are seated, and Mrs. Prudence has even found time before the train started to give her experience, and tell what a delightful time she had among the old buildings and dry goods stores; and it was not without strong remonstrance on the part of the husband, that she refrained from opening the bundle to show the pretty things she had purchased. The climate had for a time ceased to be thought of, the imprudence she had thus far been guilty of never entered her brain, and it was not until the moving of the cars told her that the train was off; that she remembered her situation, and discovered that she was in that unhealthy locality -- the Isthmus -- then it was that a shudder passed over her, and she exclaimed that she did'nt feel very well; that the atmosphere appeared heavy, and that she'd better take another pill -- and she did.

We will leave our party to themselves for a little while, and go through the train to see what the rest are saying and doing. It is a singular fact that so few among the passengers who pass from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, find anything to admire in the varied and beautiful scenery of the Isthmus of Panama; they can talk of its miserable inhabitants; their dirty hovels and naked children; its fevers and other diseases; its venomous reptiles; its deluge of rain, and everything that is unpleasant about it; but seldom have a pleasant word for the numerous beautiful views that are to be seen, especially between the Chagres River and the Bay of Panama Nowhere can tropical scenery be found more diversified than between Aspinwall and Panama; you have the dense jungle, the impenetrable forest, the mountain range, covered with foliage to the summit, the tortuous river and smaller streams, with the mangrove bushes growing to their edge; birds of the most brilliant plumage, and such flowers as are only seen within the tropics; and yet with all this to please the eye, and to call forth the admiration of those who profess to he fond of the beautiful, how seldom it is that an exclamation of delight is heard at such a combination of all that is lovely in nature! In the dozens of times that I have crossed the Isthmus with passengers, and at all seasons of the year, I have not failed to notice what I have stated above; and really, when I did hear some one break out with an exclamation of pleasure, I have felt like rushing up and embracing him or her for being an exception to the rule -- for evincing some appreciation of a picture such as nature only can paint.

The principal topic of conversation, especially with cabin passengers, appears to be about the passage just concluded. The ship, her captain and officers, the accommodations and the table, are all raked up and overhauled. Gossip with her mischievous tongue pulls to pieces this one or that one, that may, in the eyes of these models of pity, as gossips generally profess to be, have been guilty of some act of indiscretion, in their opinion unpardonable. Captain --- is abused by some who did not have places at his table; they charge him with favoritism. The purser comes in for his share of fault-finding; he showed partiality, of course, and the Company should find another to put in his place who would be the same to all. The table was, if you believe what is said, miserable; fit only for the lower grade of passengers; and as for accommodations -- why, each person should have had an entire state-room to himself. The steamer the other side, the one they are to embark upon, is everything she should be; and reaching her deck is looked forward to with great expectations by those who, though claiming to be slighted on one side, suppose they will have everything their own way on the other. There must be something in the air of the transit of the Isthmus that causes so much complaint, and it may be one phase in the disease, for I have seen more than one person worked almost into a fever by recounting the terrible hardships passed through on the voyage just ended.

Mrs. Prudence is one of the kind mentioned. Very little on the passage has pleased her; she has not received the attention from the officers her well known position in society entitle her to; being the wife of one so well known as Mr. P. is, she should have had more privileges, and her husband must speak of it on his return. Tropical scenery has no charms in her eyes. She can see only wrongs,and the little affairs that have occurred on board ship, which are termed by her, "horrible conduct." She continues her observations in the cars, and although not feeling well, keeps a sharp look out on what is going on around her. Turning to her friend, Mrs. Caution, she remarks: "Do you see how Miss Flyaway carries on with that Mr. Easy? really, it is abominable, and her family should put a stop to it; the night before we reached Acapulco, I found her sitting with him on the guard, after all her friends had gone to their rooms, and dear knows how long they stayed there; she should be ashamed of herself, and have more respect for her reputation; but you know that she was always called fast, and would have been cut long ago, only for her parents." Mrs. C. fully coincides with everything said, and adds her portion to the conversation by wondering aloud if the widow that Mr. Savage is and has been so attentive to all the time, has any idea that he is a married man with a family?

Mr. Prudence, tired of wading through the columns of a New York paper that he managed to obtain at Panama, has succeeded in mixing a claret punch, and interrupts his wife in her conversation, by suggesting that, as the weather is very warm, she should take some -- to which no objection is offered. There-upon Mrs. C. produces a lunch, prepared on board the ship, among which are several hard-boiled eggs; and these are devoured with much gusto, and are washed down with the above-mentioned beverage. By the time this is over, the train is at Matachin, the half-way house, where some minutes are allowed for refreshments. Here, as at Panama, all kinds of fruit are offered for sale; cocoa-nuts, prepared in various forms, also, and the latter are seized upon with avidity. Mrs. P. takes her share, and expresses great amusement at the original and tasty manner in which the junior members of the society of Matachin are clad, and wonders if they never suffer from the heat by reason of having so much clothing. She soon tires of this, however, and yawning thinks the trip across is very long and tedious, and that it occupies more time than there is any need of. She has a slight headache; she closes her eyes, and leans against the back of the seat; she is not feeling as well as in the morning, and longs to be on board the other ship and in her state-room. Something is the matter. Is it the debilitating effect of the climate; is it the malaria? Who can tell!

In the seven or eight cars that compose the train, you will find many that are in the same languid condition. Of course, there are exceptions: you may find couples that have formed acquaintance on board ship,from which serious flirtations have arisen, carrying them on with the same energy in the cars; you will see jolly parties, that manage to make merry and keep alive at all times; and you may tumble over a crowd in the baggage-car, keeping up the "spree" that commenced within an hour after the steamer had cast off from the wharf. The latter are case-hardened individuals, that fever won't touch; they drink Bourbon to keep it off, and take the same to cure it; they make friends with baggage-masters and conductors; they are always on the right side with captains, pursers, and superintendents; they have money, and they spend it freely; they are on their way East to have a good time, and they commence early; they appear to have their own way in everything, and to control matters as if the steamships and railroad were their exclusive property.

Willie Thompson -- of the two regular passenger conductors of the road -- like his brother in the service, (Mr. Lee) -- allows every license possible to steamer passengers, consistent with the regulations of the Company. He is part and parcel of the concern; his good-humored Scotch face has nearly always a pleasant smile upon it, and be knows the passenger characteristics; he can tell you those that are soon to be sick by reason of imprudence; he knows a gentleman from a snob, and the lady from an upstart; he can "spot" a stowaway, and can put him out of the train if compelled to; and if the time is given him, he can tell you more of the Panama railroad than almost any man belonging to it. He delights in laughing at those who are afraid of the climate and who, like Mrs. P., take medicine to prevent ill effects therefrom. Years and years he has lived at all points on the road; he has been through wet and dry seasons so often, that he could scarcely do without the regular change from one to the other -- and yet he looks the picture of health. He has had the fever over and over again, and laughs at it now; and if you want to know how to get it, and how to get rid of it, ask him -- he can tell you all about it, and can tell you why it is that so many foreigners have died in the vicinity of Panama, and after leaving it; and why it is that so many live there, year after year, and retain almost unbroken health. You can find out from him, also, the reason for passengers taking the Panama fever, after being only a few hours on the Isthmus. Indeed, he is a guide-book of all such chatters; and if you can get a chance at him, when off duty, you will find out in an hour more than you ever knew before about the Isthmus. Mr. Lee could give you nearly as much; but he is not talkative. In that respect he is Thompson's opposite; in others, he is much the same. Both are clever fellows.

Our friend, Mr. Prudence, was a kind and considerate husband; he would do anything within the bounds of reason, to oblige his spouse; his means were ample to gratify every expensive want; and he would submit to personal inconvenience, at any time, to keep peace in the family. Now, when the train stopped at the summit, ten miles from Panama, to take water, his dearly beloved wife saw among the bushes, at some distance from the track, a quantity of beautiful and rare flowers, and thought that a few of them would serve to adorn her state-room and counteract, in a measure, the smell peculiar to all ships, even to a first-class steamer. A wish so easily gratified was equivalent to an order, and Mr. P., without further thought, plunged boldly into the bush with all the ardor of a young man desirous of serving his first love. Poor P. -- he thought that he might run through the grass, on the Isthmus, with as much impunity as he used to at home, when a boy; he little dreamed of what was in store for him; and when the flowers were seized and brought back in the train, he imagined that his trouble was over -- that his work was fully accomplished. If he had known of the garapatos (wood-ticks) that were on his person in that short space of time, and that were destined to cause him many sleepless hours, by reason of the intense itching they create, he would not have felt so joyous at having given his wife gratification, by complying with a wish so moderate as hers. There is a moral in this for all men who maybe crossing the Isthmus: Never, under any circumstances, when passing from Panama to Aspinwall, rush away from the track into the grass, or bushes, to cull flowers for a lady -- no matter how young or attractive she may be -- unless willing to submit to the torture of those little insects that are there to be found in countless numbers. Many, through ignorance, have done what Mr. P. did, and have suffered for days before knowing the cause of their trouble, or where the "confounded things" came from.

The train has passed Gatun, the last station before reaching Aspinwall, and little change could be noticed in the situation of the Prudence party. True, the claret punch had disappeared; many of the bananas and oranges had gone the same way; but a cloud was there, and hardly energy enough was left to express pleasure at so soon being at the end of one portion of the journey. When the prolonged sound of the whistle came which announced the approach to Aspinwall, and the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the masts of the vessels in the bay appeared to view, they did begin to brighten up; and as they gathered up the articles that had not been given to the baggage master -- the precious bundle included -- they did, with one voice, almost say, that if they had not felt so dull and languid, so oppressed with the heat, the journey would not have appeared so long after all. 'T was over at last, however; the train had been brought to a stand-still; the cars were disgorging their loads of human freight; the Jamaica negroes in crowds were hanging on to the skirts of the passengers, seeking for a "job" as porters, and abusing those who did not see fit to patronize them. All Aspinwall had turned out to see who had arrived, as Mr. P., family, fruit; dry goods and parrots, descended from the car and sought the shelter of the Howard House, the hotel whereat first-class passengers most do congregate. The site of one of these Isthmus palaces is enough to give one the fever almost. And so Mrs. Prudence thought, for depositing her packages in a safe place, she insisted that Mr. P. should take her a walk up the track, to see what was to be seen of the town. It was about four, P,M., when this little piece of exercise was taken, and still very warm, for the sun was nearly as powerful as at noonday. Mr. P. did'nt want to go, but his wife insisted; she wanted to walk off the dull feeling that had bothered her nearly all day; it would do her headache good. These with other excuses were enough -- and away they went. About the time they started, certain dark, heavy clouds were rolling up from the southwest, and the mutterings of distant thunder could be heard from time to time. This is nothing uncommon in the tropics; but as the sun was shining at the same time, they gave it no attention. The north portion of the island was reached, the new church had been examined, the company's mess house had been peeped into, and they were on the return, when drops of rain began to fall; the sun was obscured, and it had become almost as dark as night. Soon the drops increased in size and number, and our devoted couple, with no other covering than the sun umbrella of Mrs. P., hurried forward in the direction of the hotel. Before they reached there they were wet to the skin, and in this condition they remained, for a change of clothing could not he had. True, the sun came out again, and they tried to dry themselves a little thereby; but they had wet feet, and when the gun fired from the steamer, giving signal that the passengers could come on board, they were chilled through and felt anything but comfortable. They soon found their state room, and after undressing, Mrs. P. concluded that it would not pay to go on deck again, even to see the steamer go out of the harbor. So she wisely "turned in" and thought to get warm: the chill and headache remained, but they gave her no uneasiness. She thought they would pass off soon, and that the next morning she would be as bright and as merry as ever, and congratulated herself that she had got through the transit so well.

Mr. P. was better off; he had tuned over a new leaf, i.e., got on dry clothing, and had taken the deck for it, watching the last moments before the plank was hauled ashore. He made the acquaintance of the U.S. Consul at Aspinwall, who is always in Panama, and listened to his story of how he was obliged at one time to visé the passports of all California passengers; and how the rinderpest had broken out among the cattle; and how he had to have an order issued that no hides coming from the Isthmus could be landed in the States without his certificate that they had covered the bodies of healthy cattle -- indeed, he was going on with a history of his trials and vicissitudes as Consul of the United States in Acapulco and on the Isthmus, when the "all ashore" cry came, and the conversation had to be broken off much to the sorrow of M . P., who being a practical business man, had listened to the information given by our Consul with more than ordinary interest. He had hoped to learn something of the Panama fever, but was too late, and this information had to be postponed for another visit.

The following morning broke bright and clear; scarcely a cloud was to be seen, except the heavy bank that hung over the land to the southward. The mountains of the Isthmus had sunk below the horizon, and the Caribbean Sea -- that dread, as a rule, of California passengers -- was as smooth as possible; the long, heavy swell rolled from the northward, to which the noble steamer bowed and courtsied as politely as a French dancing master; but the surface of the water was not even broken by the gentle easterly breeze; that served only to fan the cheeks of those who had ventured on deck to enjoy early morning in the tropics. Although Mr. Prudence made his appearance at the breakfast table, Mrs. P. did not -- her place was vacant; and to the questions asked him by every one about her absence, he replied, that although not seasick, she was far from well. The truth is, that when Mrs. P. awoke, instead of feeling refreshed, and ready for a pleasant day on deck, she found that her headache remained and had become worse; that pains in her back and limbs had set in; that her skin felt dry and parched, and her mouth seemed unnatural. As all these symptoms remained, she thought it best to send for the doctor, and ask him what was the reason of them all. The medical officer came and had a talk with his patient -- for Mrs. P. would talk even when a little under the weather. After hearing all she had to say about how she felt, his diagnosis was a mild case of fever -- Panama fever. This he told her at once, and was about prescribe the necessary remedies, when she broke out with great vehemence, and said it could not be so, it was impossible! The doctor asked her if she had not been guilty of any imprudence. "No," she replied, "I have not. I only went on shore from the steamer at Panama in an open boat; cooled off at the hotel with a sherry cobbler; refreshed myself with claret; ate a hearty breakfast with fruit; went shopping afterwards; ate lunch with fruit and claret on the cars; and got a little wet in the shower last evening at Aspinwall; besides all this, both myself and Mr. Prudence took fifteen grains of quinine before reaching Panama. So you see that I have not been imprudent at all." This argument was, of course, all-sufficient with the medico. He saw through the case at a glance -- only another of the many he had treated of the same kind in travelling to and from Aspinwall. He dared not contradict the lady; but he told her that notwithstanding her prudence she still had the fever; not an alarming case, or one that would not yield in a few days to proper medical treatment; but still it was the fever. Her reply was: "Now, doctor, you don't say that with all my prudence and care I have the fever?" "Yes, madam, you have, as I have told yes." "Well, then, doctor," she said, "it must be the climate alone that caused it; for with the precautions I have used, nothing but malaria could have bought on this attack." The doctor left his patient in no pleasant frame of mind. She vowed that she never would return to California until enabled to do so overland. She still lives, however, and in her daily habits and tastes is a remarkable example of the insidious character, which no precaution can avert, of the Panama fever.

Thos. M. Cash
Dec. 1868

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