Panama Railroad

The Panama Railroad Travelogues: The Isthmus and Panama:

The people who cross the Isthmus of Panama, either way, are always in the best of spirits; a fine hilarity pervades the cars, and sounds of mirth and revelry burst out with abundant spontaneity.

From twelve to twenty narrow, yellow, cane-seated carriages, together with a few boxcars for the baggage and two stout, wood-burning engines, make the train for transporting the ships' passengers, and so long is it, and so abrupt are the curves in some portions of the road, that the steerage-passengers forward and the cabin-passengers aft have admirable opportunities for saying what they think of each other face to face. The majority of men when turned adrift in a new country, with through-tickets in their pockets and with not a relative in sight, will trump the suit with knaves and let out the savor of the devil that dwells within them. It is the absentees from sweet country homes and charming villages that torment city policemen the most, and the foster-fathers of most humbugs and minor vices are the buyers of goods from other towns, and itinerant salesmen who carry their gayeties about with their samples. By the same token (as Mr. Lever's Irishman put it), emancipated tourists are the same. A bachelor on his travels is twice the bachelor that he is at home, and the father of a flock when he passes out of the shadow of his wigwam, renews his youth at many springs long since thought to be closed and over-grown. Daughters and mothers, too, fling a little wider and wilder when quit of neighbors, and, if by chance they have an obscure town to overrun, and a foreign people to laugh at, they do it well, and chuckle forever after.

This train, like all its predecessors, started on its journey with not only furious shrieks from the engines, but hilarious cheers from the male travelers to the males that staid behind, and with effusive adieus from all the ladies to all who cared to be so saluted. The "good-bys" belonged to no one in particular, but, being thrown out in spendthrift quantities, were picked up by all the natives, Jews, children, topers, and dogs, that happened to be standing close by, and were responded to with all proper violence.

The air, of course was hot; indeed, warmer than hot, and yet it did not scorch. It boiled in and out the open windows and doors setting all loose things in a flutter that seemed cool, but that was not. One was fanned from everywhere, yet the torridity increased, and the struggle to temper matters grew tolerably fiercer. For the first few minutes of the journey, to look out at the flying (or trotting?) landscape was imperative by sheer curiosity, but nature shortly reasserted itself, and the poor traveler, panting, perspiring, outstretched upon his seat, with his fingers apart, his throat bared and his hair disheveled, surrendered all, and gave himself up to the misery of the hour without a struggle.

It was a piece of great and extraordinary good fortune that the day was marked by a driving shower - a rain that tore suddenly down between the hills in a cloud, and lingered long enough to give the region a grateful drenching.

It would be hard to describe the swoon that the forest-covered land lay in before the blessed flood came down. The tropical verdure - a verdure distinguished by a marvelous and graceful exaggeration of northern shapes and colors - hung pale and languid from its branches; and the branches themselves seemed tired of their hard offices.

The tall reeds bent over toward the ground, the ferns sank listlessly upon each other, and the pendent vines and creepers seemed cast in metal, so motionless were they. The green was a dead and gloomy green, a shade that yielded no rest or solace to the eye, tired like the rest of the body with so much warmth. Had the whole landscape been cut in begreened copper, had it been carved out with a knife and chisel, and had it been wedged, riveted, and bolted, it could not have seemed more rigid nor could it have been less inspiring.

The glare and stare of the vertical sun were shut out in a flash at one o'clock, and every passenger, looking hard through the sudden darkness at his neighbor, thought, in a spirit of gladness, "All hail, most foul disturbance!" The air grew cool by faint degrees, and the people thrust out their heads and shoulders, and crowded upon the rattling platforms to give an early greeting to the coming deluge.

The murmurs from the forests and hillsides grew into ominous roars. Reaching over the mountain- tops, and rattling swiftly down like smoke poured form the throats of innumerable batteries, there came the most tremendous clouds, with black centres and with edges of portentous gray. The host rushed broadcast over the placid heavens with a certain savageness, careering like some huge, triumphant cavalry, with swords miles long and breasts acres broad.

The rain descended with but little warning. The haste with which the torrent followed the first few drops was a little startling, and even the Intelligent Lady, whose conduct on land had thus far been marked by a notable serenity, was so far thrown off her balance that she clutched the arm of the one who sat beside her, and gave a scream and a shudder that proved indisputably that she was human.

Down came the windows with the noise of musket-shots, up went prayers to stars and mercy, and then came a half-scared stupefaction of the whole carful. All turned their faces toward the storm, and looked with wonder at so much fury. There was neither thunder nor lightning. yet so great was the noise of the falling water, and so deep was the darkness that it caused, that the absence of these two terrific allies to ordinary summer storms remained entirely unnoticed.

It must have been that the rain fell with all possible density, for it shut out the sight of objects ten feet distant from the car. It made a broad, gray curtain marked with stripes of white where the water churned as it fell. Besides the roar, there arose a furious hiss, like that produced by the escape of steam, and it added a significance to the tumult that was not altogether agreeable. To one accustomed to the rain-storms of northern latitudes, there is likely to occur a sense of mingled awe and fear upon encountering an exhibition such as this was. The effect upon the travelers was marked enough.

A pallor overspread the faces of some of the ladies when the storm made fresh outbursts, and even the men shook their heads at one another to signify that they had never seen anything like this before.

The rushing and surging continued with few cessations for quite half and hour, when it ceased almost as suddenly as it had begun. There was a sudden flush of pale light from overhead, a sudden opening of the landscape to view, and then a sullen "drawing off" of the great noise to other quarters of the country.

The gray curtain of drops went trailing away up the hills a dozen miles a minute, and the clouds dragged their skirts over the cliffs in forlorn haste. The the sunlight burst out again. At the moment the train had reached a spot beside a deep gorge filled with vegetation, and from which there arose mountains of considerable height. The scene was grand in the extreme, and the presence of the glittering rain-drops upon the leaves made it a poet's vision of heaven. One gazed in silence, and the stillness of the car, induced by the lovely picture, was as deep as the stillness that had been induced by awe a moment before. The verdure was unlike that best known to most of the passengers, in being dense, and bold in its shapes. Forests and inter-forests retired within each, copse within copse, as far as the sharpest eye could reach, and each feature of them, oaks, or palms, or banana-trees, was separated and developed to the eye by the vast shifting glitter of water-drops.

There was a brown, tortuous, and very muddy river, that crept among the hills and often beside the railway, which added a certain contrasting deadness to the vivid life of the great bright spectacle. It was dull, dim, sluggish, and looked all that it was-thoroughly unclean and poisonous.

Close to this stream there were many thimble-shaped huts, and a few settlements formed of other thimble-shaped huts and a few sideless sheds for cattle. All these were overhung by prodigious trees, from whose strangely -twisted branches depended, in flowery loops and festoons, innumerable vines that swung to and fro in the cool breeze that had followed in the track of the rain.

It happening to be Sunday, the men, who were herders, fruit-raisers, laborers, and scoundrels, were all at home, surrounded by their chocolate-colored wives and children. All were gathered to the front to behold the daily spectacle of the train, and a faint enthusiasm for it was manifested among the infants, who swung leaves and sticks of wood for joy. There is a spirit of dandyism abroad on the Isthmus, and not a few handsome fellows in white pantaloons, embroidered jackets, and broad-brimmed hats, took up advantageous positions for the benefit of the lady-passengers, who responded nobly with their handkerchiefs. Many of the huts are exceedingly neat, and some exhibit not a little taste in their belongings, and surroundings.

At intervals along the route are two-storied, hotel-like structures, made of wood and painted white. These are well built, and the fences and out-houses are in good order yet. The places are tenantless, however, being the way-stations and restaurants for the accommodation of that enormous migration that, in the imaginations of the "projectors," was soon to set in across the Isthmus from all parts of the world. They are shut tight, the doors and windows are nailed, and decay has set in around the underpinning and under the eaves. At one place, about half-way across, I think, the train stopped for water close to a village of some sixty huts. the settlement was quite alive, and it fairly swarmed with children. (These, by-the-way, were not weaned to dresses much earlier in life than the climate required.) Five minutes before the train came to a standstill, it had become clear that there were meat and drink somewhere ahead, for there had come on, beside the cars, clutching watermelons and beer-bottles under their arms, a dozen or twenty anxious-looking boys and girls, whose impatience to do business had led them a short distance out of town, doubtless with strong impressions that the early sight of customers had much to do with ultimate profits. They stumbled along uneasy and breathless until the train stopped, when they closed in upon it with their dangerous weapons. The melons were wretchedly small, the bananas were green, and the oranges were greener. These were offered with fluent addresses and many a dulcet smile and lamentable whimper, and grief was theirs who bought.

There was one feature in the traffic that cannot be recommended too highly. If the young rascals sold wretchedness, they also sold relief. To every melon and bottle of Bass there was to be found an egg, hard boiled, with pepper and salt to boot.

The temptation to be tropical in the topics was not to be resisted, and so, with one of these eggs in his pocket or in her lap, as an antidote, every man and woman fell to eating with a vengeance. There is a much-neglected philosophical remark that is attributed to Artemus Ward that these travelers seemed to have remembered. He declared on one occasion that he took no thought as to his food. If he liked the "wittles" he at them, and let them fight it out among themselves. The sublime height to which he must have arisen to have said that was easily attained by these travelers in a hop, skip, and a jump. The most fragile of the maidens present devoured the half-ripe fruit with gay recklessness, and the pockets of every child were bulbous with joys (and griefs) to come. The frolic grew a trifle wild before the train got away, and the cars echoed once more with loud laughter and the noise of songs. The air became heavy and sweet with the perfume of the fruit, and the ladies, munching and laughing, looked prodigiously happy.

The road mounts the ridge of the Isthmus and begins its descent toward Panama on the other side, when it has completed about three-quarters of the distance. It is a short span of earth to cover (forty-seven miles, or thereabout), yet the road was frightfully costly in lives and money. The histories of the surveying expeditions and the building-gangs are veritable tragedies, being filled with records of suffering and mortality that are unparalleled. Disease laid a heavy hand upon the engineers and laborers, and every step of the way is marked with a hard story. Remembering the perils of those that did work here, it is impossible to gaze upon the glades and hillsides even, adorned as they are with the most beautiful attire that Nature can afford, with entire tranquility. There constantly intrude upon the attention and delight grim remembrances that here was a hospital, that there is a lagoon or swamp that played horrible mischief, or that here is now a graveyard, where many a brave and diligent man was brought to his halt. The sweet, cool green, and the tranquil shades, that , under other circumstances, would excite in one the liveliest pleasure, here arouse only a sense of dread and suspicion, and what is charming seems to be but a mask to hideous dangers. Seen with eyes so informed, the rivers are sluggish, the green is deceit, and the fruits are harmful, the atmosphere is thick with malarial vapors, and the people are animals. Nearly all the pleasure that one might feel, had the land been more gracious to his kind, is swallowed up in dread and aversion. One shudders as he rides.

To complete the forty-seven miles, the train takes the ample time of four hours. But it tears into Panama with exceptional speed, as if the engineer was desirous of showing off the cars to an entirely fresh set of natives.....

Albert A. Webster
19 Feb. 1876

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