Panama Railroad

Mountains and molehills; or, Recollections of a burnt journal;

A Gold Train

The bargaining for mules in Gorgona was in every respect similar to the canoe transaction at Chagres; and after passing a day in the sun, and accomplishing in the evening what might, but for the vacillation of the natives, have been done at once, we started for Panama in company with the baggage, Barnes walking from choice with the dogs. With Our mules in a string we plunged at once into a narrow, rocky path in the forest, where palm-trees and creepers shut the light out overhead--splashing through gurgling, muddy streams, that concealed loose and treacherous stones--stumbling over fallen trees that lay across our road--burying ourselves to the mules' girths in filthy swamps, where on either side dead and putrid mules were lying--amidst lightning, thunder, and incessant rain, we went at a foot-pace on the road to Panama. The thunder-storm changed the twilight of our covered path to darkness, and one of my mules missing his footing on the red, greasy clay, falls down under his heavy load. When he gets up he has to be unpacked, amidst the curses of the muleteer, and packed again, and thus losing half an hour in the pelting storm, file after file passes us, until, ready once more to start, we find ourselves the last upon the road. At Gorgona a flaming advertisement had informed us that half way on the road to Panama the "Washington Hotel" would accommodate travelers with "forty beds." Anxious to secure a resting-place for my own party, I left the luggage-train under the charge of Barnes, and pressed forward on the bridle-road. At nightfall I reached the "Washington Hotel," a log hut perched on the top of a partially-cleared hill; an immense amount of fluttering calico proclaimed that meals could be procured, but a glance at the interior was sufficient to destroy all appetite. Round it, and stretching for yards, there were mules, drivers, and passengers, clustered and clamorous as bees without a hive. To my surprise the crowd consisted for the most part of homeward-bound Californians--emigrants from the land of promise, who had two days before arrived at Panama in a steamer. Some were returning rich in gold dust and scales, but the greater part were far poorer than when first they started to realize their golden dreams.

And these latter were as drunken and as reckless a set of villains as one could see any where. Stamped with vice and intemperance, without baggage or money, they were fit for robbery and murder to any extent; many of them, I doubt not, were used to it, and had found it convenient to leave a country where Judge Lynch strings up such fellows rather quicker than they like sometimes. They foretold with a savage joy the miseries and disappointment that awaited all who landed there, forgetting that there traveled on the same road with them those who had in a very short space of time secured to themselves a competency by the exercise of industry, patience, and temperance. The Yankee owner of the Washington was "realizing some," judging from the prices he charged, and that every eatable had been consumed long before my arrival. The "forty beds," respecting which we had met so many advertisements on the road, consisted of frames of wood five feet long, over which were simply stretched pieces of much-soiled canvas--they were in three tiers, and altogether occupied about the same space as would two four-posters: they were all occupied.

Wet with the thunder-storm, I took up my station; on a dead tree near the door, and as night closed in and the moon rose, awaited the arrival of my man and dogs with impatience. Hours passed, and I felt convinced at last that fatigue had compelled Barnes to pass the night at a rancheria I had seen a few miles back. Rising to stretch my limbs, I became instantly aware of a succession of sharp stings in every part of my body; these became aggravated as I stamped and shook myself In sitting on the dead tree, I had invaded the territory of a nest of ants of enormous size --larger than earwigs; they bit hard, and had sufficiently punished my  intrusion before I managed to get rid of them. During the night file upon file of mules arrived from Panama. These were unloaded and turned adrift to seek their supper where they could; and travelers, muleteers, and luggage were spread in every direction round a large fire that had been lit in the early part of the evening. Deserting my inhospitable tree, I found myself comfortable enough among a heap of pack-saddles, buried in which I slept till morning. With the first streak of day every thing was moving; luggage was replaced on kicking mules; the sallow, wayworn, unwashed tenants of the "Washington," with what baggage they had on their backs, started for Gorgona on foot. The morning oath came out fresh and racy from the lips of these disappointed gentlemen; nor could the bright and glorious sun reflect any beauty from their sunken, bloodshot eyes; when they disappeared in the winding road leading to Gorgona, it was quite a comfort to me to reflect that we were not about to honor the same country with our presence. In less than an hour I found myself alone at the half-way house; the crowd had dispersed on either road, but as yet my baggage had not arrived. When it did come up at last we were all very hungry; but as there was nothing left eatable at the "Washington," we started for Panama without breaking our fast.

Through a tortuous path, which had been burrowed through the forest, we stumbled on at the rate of a mile and a half an hour; at times the space between the rocks on either side is too narrow to allow the mules to pass; in these instances all our efforts are directed to the mule that is jammed heaven knows how we get her clear--several shouts, some kicking, a plunge or two, a crash, and, the mule being free, proceeds on her path, while you stop to pick up the lid of your trunk, which has been ground off against the rock, as also the few trifles that tumble out from time to time in consequence. And shortly afterward we meet more travelers homeward bound, some on foot, with a stout buckthorn stick and bundle, and others on mules, with shouldered rifles. Each one, as I passed, asked me what state I was from, and if I came in the "Cherokee" steamer. I had been questioned so much after this manner at the "Washington," that I began to think that to belong to a state and to arrive in the "Cherokee" would save me much trouble in answering questions, for my reply in the negative invariably led to the direct query of Where did I come from? So along the road I surrendered myself invariably as a "Cherokee" passenger, and a native of Virginia, and was allowed to pass on in peace. At last the country becomes more open, huts appear occasionally, and the worst part of the journey is well over. Still the human tide flows on to Gorgona, for another California steamer has arrived at Panama; and now we meet some California patients carried in hammocks slung upon men's shoulders, traveling painfully toward a home that some of them will not live to see. Trains of unladen mules are going down to meet the emigration, some with cargoes of provisions for the Washington Hotel perhaps.

Pass on filth, squalor, and poverty, and make way as you should for wealth, for here, with tinkling bells and gay caparisons, comes a train, of mules laden with gold--pure gold from Peru; as each mule bears his massive bars uncovered, glittering beneath the cordage which secures them to the saddle, you can touch the metal as they pass. Twenty of these file by as we draw on one side, and after them, guarding so much wealth, are half a dozen armed natives with rusty muskets slung lazily on their backs; but behind them, on an ambling jennet, is a well "got up" Don, with muslin shirt and polished jack-boots, richly-mounted pistols in his holsters, and massive silver spurs on his heels, smoking his cigarette with as much pomposity as if the gold belonged to him, and he had plenty more at home. This gentleman, however, is in reality a clerk in an English house at Panama, and when he returns to that city, after shipping the gold on board the English steamer, and getting a receipt, he will change this picturesque costume for a plaid shooting-coat and continuations, and be a Don no longer. As the gold train passed, I thought, in contrast to its insecurity, of the villains I had parted from in the morning, all of whom were armed. Then followed a train much larger than the first, and just as little guarded, carrying silver. For years these specie trains have traveled in this unguarded state unmolested, not from the primitive honesty of the natives, for a greater set of villains never existed, but from the simple difficulty of turning a BAR of gold to any account when once it has been taken into the jungle. Since the time of which I am writing many attempts have been made to rob the gold trains, but, when pursuit has been active, the bars have invariably been discovered in the jungle a short distance from the scene of the robbery. ......

THE weather being fine, the roads were in tolerable order when we arrived at Panama; we made light, therefore, of the journey, and, having arrived at Gorgona, we dismounted from our mules, and, taking boats, went swiftly down the rapid river, landing at the village of Barbacoes, to which point the railway was now completed.

The station-house consisted of a large shed, in which hundreds of fowls and thousands of eggs were being cooked, eaten, and paid for with astonishing rapidity. I observed, among other things, that the coffee was just as weak and scalding hot at Barbacoes, as at Wolverhampton, or any other refreshment station.

There was no time-table here at this period; but the line had this advantage over most others, that the train started at the time specified by the authorities; for they waited until it suited them, and then gave the order to "let her slide."

On this eventful day, however, we had not "slid" above two miles when the train stopped. Returning Californians are of a vivacious temperament generally, and are seldom at their ease when sitting down inactive; therefore, the instant the train stopped, every man jumped out to see what was the matter.

The cause was soon apparent; we were ascending an inclined plane, and the little engine - which, Hercules by name, was not Hercules by nature - had declined to proceed any further. In vain the sooty stoker emptied his oil-can into the fire to induce, if possible, more steam; the little engine, as it ineffectually tried a fresh start, looked piteous, and seemed to say, "How can you expect a little chap like me to pull nine hundred of these big fellows up a hill like this? Let 'em get out and shove me over."

This argument seemed to strike the conductor, for, without further preface, he said, "Now, lads, heave together," and at once we all set our shoulders to the concern, and got more speed out of it than "Hercules" had done from the start. There was but one line of rails laid down, and, although the authorities were not particular with regard to the time of starting, we had the comfort of knowing that a collision with the other train could not be very serious. I wonder what we should have done had we been met by an up-train; one of us would have had to retire, for "Hercules" could not have taken us back, and it was not likely we were going to shove ourselves back to Barbacoes.

The scene would have been splendid, for like the two goats that met on the narrow bridge, one train would have tried to force the other back, and in this contest of personal strength I think the nine hundred returning Californians would most probably have won the day, and entered Aspinwall in triumph.

Having reached the top of the hill, we all got in, and Hercules making the most of the descent ran away with us for three miles, when we got out again, and so on. The road lay through a thick jungle of splendid teaks, and palms, and ferns of every variety; the rich epiphytes brushed against our carriage windows, and the air was suffused with that sweet fragrance which is alone known in a tropical forest after rain has fallen. Myriads of little land-crabs of a turquoise color lined the banks, and as the time had now arrived when we might discharge our revolvers and put them away, the blue land-crabs had the advantage of several hundred bullets, and while Hercules rushed impetuously through the jungle, pop, pop, pop, went the "six shooters," and as the land-crabs turned over on their blue backs to die, they presented to the astonished beholder yellow bellies and green eyes.

In a pouring rain we arrived at Aspinwall, and this being the terminus, we proceeded at once on board the steamers that were waiting to convey us to New York. There happened to be an unusual number of opposition boats in the bay, so that fares were so reduced that the roughest fellow there could take a first-class berth. This was very unfair to those of us who had booked our places through at the office of the Mail Line in San Francisco, for we had paid a certain price for a certain degree of comfort and room, and this was denied to us so soon as the price of the saloon fare rendered it so overcrowded that the tables had to be laid twelve times each day to accommodate the first-class passengers with first-class fare.

Frank Marryat
May , 1852.

Marryat, Francis Samuel, 1826-1855.
Frank Marryat (1826-1855) left England for California via Panama with a manservant and three hunting dogs in 1850, hoping to find material for a book like his earlier Borneo. On his return to England in 1853, Marryat married and brought his bride back to California that same year. Yellow fever contracted on shipboard forced him to cut the trip short and return to England where he died two years later. Mountains and molehills (1855) is a sportsman-tourist's chronicle of California in the early 1850s: hunting, horse races, bear and bull fights. It also includes an Englishman's bemused comments on social life in San Francisco, Stockton, and the gold fields.

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