Panama Railroad

What I saw on the west coast of South and North America, and at the Hawaiian Islands.

Aspinwall was reached in a little over eight days from New York -- distance two thousand miles -- and too late to make the railroad connection with Panama; hence we must stay all night in this miserable abortion of a town, which is destitute of comfortable accommodations, but affords an undoubted chance of our imbibing a sufficient quantity of malarious poison to produce yellow fever, a malignant type of which has been prevailing here for some weeks. The voyage was formerly made in less time, and could be now in perfect safety, and with great economy of time to travellers, but for the parsimony of the monopolist of this end of the California steamer route.

Aspinwall cannot be surpassed for filth, nuisance, and noxious effluvia, The houses -- mostly shanties of deal boards -- are built on piles in the midst of a marsh, with the railroad similarly supported, and filled between the cross-ties with earth brought from a distance, forming the main street, a few alleys crossing these at right angles, being nothing but bog pathways, with logs or planks to keep the pedestrian from premature interment, or submersion. The water-lots (there are no yards) are covered with green, offensive, and poisonous scum, oozing up between the mooring of the lower stories; and everywhere, in and around, the premises are surcharged with animal and vegetable matter, in all stages of putrefaction and decomposition.

With the exception of the employee of the Panama Railroad Company, the inhabitants are of the inferior races, from the Jamaica negro through all grades of cross and hue, up to the Chiriqui Indian; and having the filthiest and vilest habits, knowing no restraints of appetite or passion, is it surprising that this seething cauldron of physical abomination and moral degradation is a pest-house of the Isthmus? Many of a population of seven hundred to eight hundred are now down with malarious fever, of the fatal types Chagres and yellow. It is dangerous for a native of the North to tarry at Aspinwall in summer; and the natives are by no means exempt from these climate diseases, owing to their uncleanliness, debauchery, general vices, and consequent impairment of vital energies. A physician of the town informed me that "more than half of the population changed hands every year." I did not inquire into whose hands they had gone; the specimens left removed any doubt.


FROM Aspinwall to Panama the trip is made by railroad forty-seven miles long; the time varies from three to four hours. This road, commenced in 1850, had its conception in the remarkable forecast of the trade and travel destined to demand facilities of travel between the two great oceans, and was commenced and prosecuted to completion under circumstances of peril, privation, and difficulty, unparalleled in the annals of similar improvements, and constituting it an imperishable monument of the skill, enterprise, and energy of Messrs. George N. Totten and John C. Trautwine, engineers; and in the finality of its construction, and subsequent management, of the administrative ability of David Hoadley, Esq., the present President. In the building of this great national highway, laborers were gathered from the various countries to be benefited by it; and especially did thousands of Irish, Germans, and Coolies suffer, sicken, and die, in their efforts to bring into closer commercial relations distant countries of the globe. Such, indeed, was the terrible mortality attendant on the employment of unacclimated foreigners, that it was, after much and sad experience, found necessary to employ the natives of neighboring provinces and of Jamaica, with whose labor the road was finally completed in 1855.

Leaving Aspinwall on the east side of Navy Bay, the road soon crosses the narrow channel that separates the marshy island of Manzanilla, on which the town is built, from the mainland. Rounding the head of the bay the road then stretches across the peninsula between it and Chagres River, occasionally following the windings of the stream, while at other times it makes the chord of its curves, and reaching Barbacoas, twenty-five miles from Aspinwall, crosses by a magnificent wrought-iron bridge, six hundred and twenty-five feet in length, from the right to the left bank of the Chagres, along which it runs to the mouth of the Obispo River, thirty-one miles from the Atlantic terminus. The river scenery is picturesque, and pleasing to look upon, considering that we were journeying in a few hours over a distance that formerly required several days to make by boating. The Chagres has made itself memorable in the annals of death. Every mile of its turbid and sluggish stream can tell sad tales of suffering and dissolution produced by its poisonous waters, and the no less fatal malaria resulting from rank luxuriance and rapid decay of vegetation along its banks.

Abundant rain, uninterrupted heat, and a virgin soil, give an unsurpassed richness of coloring to nature's foliage and flowers in the valley of the Chagres. Crimson, purple, orange, blue, pink, and white, flit across the eye in such continued and rapid succession, as to seem an ever-varying and endless kaleidoscope; and green throws in and around its sombre and its brilliant shades, to heighten the general charm. So emulous of continuous life is this region, that it conceals the proofs of death and decay; clothing the sapless trunk of the giant cedro and other trees, branchless and toppling to their fall, with parasitic vines; twining their fibrils and clustering leaves around, and even at times weaving for their heads coronets of flowers that cheat the gaze. The representative tree of all sketches and engravings of tropical scenery, is seen along the line of the route in great variety end luxuriance; and no one can contemplate the uses to which it is put by the natives, from the posts of their rude huts, and its thatch roof of broad leaves, to their food, beverage, and domestic utensils, without considering the palm as great a blessing, as it is a beauty, in this tropical region. The super- stitious native may be excused for believing the soil favored of heaven, which produces so great a boon; and especially when thereto is added the spontaneous bread-fruit, plantain, yam, banana, pine-apple, orange, mango, papaya, alligator-pear. Nor would it be a libel on his simplicity of character and credulity to suppose, that he regarded as an unquestioned proof of that favor, the growth here of that "Flor del Espiritu Santo"-- the flower of the Holy Ghost; its graceful blossom, of alabaster whiteness and delicious perfume, enclosing the image of a dove, perfectly proportioned, subdued, and meek, the emblem of innocence and celestial purity.

But few of the richly-feathered tropical birds are seen by the passenger as he speeds his way along the railroad; perhaps, because of the noisy and startling encroachment upon their domain. Parrots, black and yellow turpiales, and a few scarlet breasted toucans with huge bills, having a less body of a bird attached to them, embraced the only ornithological specimens observed.

It was a great relief to have this beautiful nature without, to attract attention from that less pleasing within. "Black spirits and white," with brown, yellow, and copper, had possession of the cars, and mingled their interminable shadings as if envious of nature's surrounding varieties. And the representatives of these closely-approximative tints, free and familiar as their near relationship of mongrelism authorized, ignorant or reckless of the comities of life, were, both men and women, busily puffing the vilest weed known to the vegetable kingdom, raising clouds of smoky stench to offend eyes, nose, and lungs; accompanied by such extravagant gesticulations, and vociferous jargon of spurious Spanish, as revived the scene of the weird witches.

Seated before me in one of the cars of the accommodation train were two negroes, with their arms tied behind them by strong ropes, and near them four others unpinioned, but all under military guard. I took them for convicts, but was informed by the conductor that they were impressed soldiers; part of a contingent called for by the Executive of New Granada, to meet the exigencies of an existing revolution. The two guards were of like color, uniformed with extraordinary simplicity, a striped cotton shirt and pants hiding so much of their natural ebony as a paucity of material would allow; while belt, bayonet, and rusty musket, which might probably have been the original of the comprehensive description, "without stock, lock, or barrel," made up the formidable accoutrements of the imposing warriors, under the command of an officer a shade lighter in complexion, and of more pretentious costume, for he was both capped and shod. This system of military impressment to supply the wants of the army, I was informed, was the frequent and favorite one of the authorities; certainly it is an inconsistent example of free negroism of one of the young Republics, whose universal liberty and equality are much boasted of. If an undesirable element of Central American population in other respects, the negro seems here to be considered at least fit "food for gunpowder."

At the several "way-stations" along the line of the road native villages are seen, the huts of which are built mostly of bamboo, with steep pitched palm-leaf thatched roof. Sometimes four posts support the roof, the space below being unenclosed, while a notchy upright post in the middle serves the purpose of a ladder or rude stairway to ascend to the garret above, the dormitory of the whole family. At some of these stations variegated women presented themselves with the fruits of the country for sale. They wore heavily-flounced thin muslin dresses, hanging slatternly off the shoulder, and close to the unshapely person; not uncommonly with a child astride the hip and clinging to the mother's neck, while she had both hands and head supporting baskets. Most of the inhabitants, however, not engaged in traffic with the "seņors" and "seņoras," presented a near approach to nudity; a simple cotton skirt (crinoline is a myth) hung from the hip of the women, and with men pants similarly supported, being the almost universal costume, except where nature, always with children, repudiated even the artificiality of a palm leaf. But whatever the style, material, use, or freedom from dress, two customs were always observed, the wearing of plaid kerchiefs or straw hats by the women, and the retention of a filthy and knotty apology of a beard by the men. A razor would be regarded as a sign of modern civilization, and a barber's pole a harbinger of cleanliness and decency, along this highway of nations.

Hurrying along the winding way, thinking of our own disturbing and dangerous doctrine of "squatter soverignty" exemplified, too, by the pseudo-Spaniard and half-breed, the Indian and African, who occupy and hold as much land as seems to them good, without let or hindrance -- and who, from attaching no value to what cost them nothing, are correspondingly lazy and negligent of cultivation, merely living as benificiaries of a bountiful nature, we finally reached the "summit," two hundred and fifty-eight feet above the Atlantic level, and thence descending rapidly a grade of sixty feet to the mile, the surrounding scenery becoming bolder and more picturesque than that already passed, we came to a singular basaltic cliff; the huge crystals of which were scattered round, disjointed, broken, and jagged, proofs of the utilitarian spirit which has cast down and crushed its massive columns; the pillars of earth's great architecture, perhaps, in ages past, but degraded now to the baser use of ballasting a railroad.

Basaltic Cliff

Mountain peaks here become striking features in the scenery, and the little babbling brook of Rio Grande leads the way hence to the valley of Paraiso; beyond which is seen, lifting its bold brow above the Pacific Ocean, the proud Mount Ancon, which, long before the generations of man, looked haughtily and unabashed upon the great sea that humbly washes its graceful foot, on which now sits the historic city of Panama. We approached this through a fine undulating country, showing better cultivation, adorned with groves of cocoanut and palm trees, through which were revealed, near at hand, the quaint tiled roofs, dilapidated fortifications, and pearl shell towers of the cathedral. Landed at the depot my companions of voyage proceeded forthwith aboard of the California steamer awaiting them in the bay, while I sought the omnibus, and soon found myself trundled over narrow streets familiar with ancient paving stones, and dumped out, without pity for person or purse, at the entrance of the "Aspinwall Hotel" of Panama. ...

Baxley, Henry Willis

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