The Panama Railroad Travelogues: A Panama Riot:
IN 1856 it fell to my lot to make a journey to California, which included on unusual and startling experience. I was then a child of ten, coming with my mother and three younger children to join my father in California, under escort of an uncle, a returning '49er. His young bride was also with us.
Even before we left New York, the dangers of the trip began. We had come in from the West, ignorant of cities, and were waiting at the station in darkness and rain, weary, sleepy, and forlorn, while our escort arranged about our baggage. Two pleasant and very gentlemanly strangers fell into conversation with us as we waited - first with the children, and then with the elders. Their kindliness and their sympathy for our wearied condition won us. They seemed a benevolent minister and deacon, quick to take a friendly interest in strangers. Our uncle- a bluff, kind-hearted frontiersman, accustomed to the ways of California miners and mountaineers - was no less pleasantly impressed by these friendly strangers, and we chatted somewhat freely. Among other things, our intention to sail on the California steamer of the 4th of April was mentioned. At this they expressed much concern. We should not be able to secure passage, they feared. "There is such a rush for tickets, I fear every one is engaged already, or will be in a few moments after the office is opened tomorrow."
We were much concerned at this suggestion, and seeing our trouble, the ministerial stranger said finally; "I will tell you what I think I can do for you. I am well acquainted with the ticket agent, and I am satisfied that if we go right down to the office tonight, I can persuade him to let you have tickets at once"; then turning to his companion, "You don't think John has left the office yet, do you?" "Oh, no!" - referring to a very respectable gold watch -" No, he will be there two hours yet." Our uncle gratefully accepted this disinterested kindness, and after hurrying his charge to a hotel, took a thousand dollars in gold and notes - it was expensive traveling to California in those days - and went with the strangers. They traversed many streets and intricate passages, until, at last, they stopped before a dark little house in a rough looking portion of the city. The "deacon" gave a peculiar knock at the door, which was soon opened by another well-dressed man, to whom the "minister" explained that this gentleman desired to secure pas- sage in the steamer on the 4th for California, and he, knowing what a rush there was on the ticket office, had taken the privilege of an old friend to intrude after office hours, hoping they might thus secure tickets.
The other hesitated - didn't think it could be done; it was so irregular. But after some persuasion, he said there were yet three or four cabin tickets left for the "Illinois," to sail the 4th-and-"Well, under the gentleman's peculiar circumstances, and to oblige an old friend," he might be induced to transact the business at once. Then he invited them into the "private office."
Something in the appearance of the room aroused the '49er's suspicions, A detected wink between the "ministers" and "ticket agent" confirmed them; and when one of the confederates attempted to push him inside and lock the door, he quietly confronted him with a cocked six-shooter - a weapon with which the old Californian was always provided. So quickly was this done, that the three rascals were taken completely by surprise. 0ne attempted to draw a pistol, but as he was in range of the cocked revolver, changed his mind. "Gentlemen, I thank you for your kindness, and the use of your umbrellas," said the Californian, "but I believe I'll not invest in steamer tickets tonight; I wish you good evening," and backed out of the room, still keeping the trio covered by his pistol. The benevolent strangers had failed to obtain the item of information, that their "greeny" was a returned Californian.Whether the swindle was a regularly organized one, attendant on the California travel, or merely improvised for us, I never knew.
On the 4th of April, 1856, we sailed out of New York harbor. The steamer was terribly crowded; the steamship companies at that time were taking advantage of the "California fever" to crowd their steamers far beyond legal limits. We had paid exorbitant prices for cabin passage, but when we were assigned berths, our tickets proved to call for "third cabin," which, being interpreted, meant storage. In those days steerage meant dirt, crowded berths, foul air, food unfit for human beings, and many other horrors. Protestations and threats were in vain. Others were caught in this same trap; and, in fact, we found it was not at all uncommon for "third cabin" tickets to be sold at second, and even First, cabin prices to the uninitiated. I do not know who was to blame in this business - employers or employed. I only know we were the sufferers The food was certainly very bad - spoiled, even worm-infested, beef and bread, quite out of the question as food.
Oh! those days of hunger to the poor little children! We lived only by buying food at most exorbitant prices, of the ship's bakers and others, who probably stole it from the Company. I used to hope they did. For a small pie we paid one dollar; for a loaf of bread, the same. For a handful of small withered apples, perhaps twenty in number, I paid two dollars and a half in gold.
We hailed the sight of Aspinwall, as a sinner hails the gates of Paradise. As soon as we could get to shore, we had a dinner at last. We laid in here a good supply of provisions for our Pacific voyage, as we were not likely to fare much better on the "John L Stephens," which had to take not only our passengers, but also those of the New Orleans steamer.
At Panama, outside the walls of the strange old city, a new one had sprung up, by reason of the travel across the isthmus; and in this new Panama were situated the railroad depot, hotels, eating-houses, and fruit-stands patronized by travelers. As we passed along the quaint, stone-paved streets, we passed crowds of fierce-looking, dusky natives, from whom we children shrank half in fear, as we noticed that they all bore arms - a sword and gun. We had reason to remember this in sorrow before twenty-four hours bad elapsed. We entered a hotel kept by an American, and a waiter showed us up two flights of stairs to a sitting-room. On the way we passed through a long dining. room, the tables of which were nicely furnished with crockery and glassware; several people were dining at these. I recalled vividly the appearance of this dining-room then, when contrasting it with its appearance some hours later, when we passed through again. At the sitting-room door our uncle left us for a few moments, to transact some business, remarking that we should have dinner in about half an hour. This sitting-room was comfortably filled with passengers, chatting sociably about their experiences on shore. I joined a childish companion near a window, and we became absorbed in watching the street.
A strange sight was soon to be seen there. Crowds of fierce, angry natives were gathered in front of and around our hotel, shouting, screaming, and flourishing weapons. Suddenly one pointed towards our window; a louder shout was raised, and a shower of stones and other missiles was hurled at the two children standing there. This was almost instantly followed by a volley of balls from their firearms.
In an instant all was dismay and confusion inside the room. Every one crouched on the floor or behind some object, to escape the bullets and missiles which were now showered incessantly in our midst. Every pane of glass in the three or four windows was shivered to atoms, and one could distinguish nothing but a confused uproar of screams and sobs and prayers from the terrified women and children - and even men - of our party, mingled with the whistling of bullets and the yells of the black demons below us. The fact of our being in the third story of the building saved our lives, for the bullets and stones struck the ceiling before falling, and could easily be evaded.
Darkness came to cover our misery, and the rain began to fall heavily. After a while - we could not tell how long - a lull was perceptible in the attack; then it ceased altogether. Our enemy had gone to some other portion of the town. Then came a hasty council of war. It was known that the ferry-boat which took passengers to the steamer was lying aground, waiting for the rising tide to float her, and nearly every member of our company was in favor of attempting to run to her, trusting to the cover of darkness for safety. Our own group alone, with its four little children, seemed unable to venture upon such a retreat, and the two women decided that we must remain where we were for the present. One companion decided to remain with us and help us. This was a boy - from Michigan, I think -a lonely lad about eighteen years of age, who had attached himself to us on the journey.
It was with sad hearts and dark forebodings that we saw our companions depart. We afterwards learned that they made the ferry without accident. When we were alone, we went into a small ante-room adjoining the sitting-room, and crept under the benches which ran about the walls on three sides for greater safety.
In a short time, the enemy returned, and renewed the attack, firing several volleys of cannon into our building. We afterwards learned that the United States Consul had endeavored to quell the riot, and troops had been ordered out to protect the helpless passengers; but they joined the rioters, and fired on us: hence, the cannon. While we lay in breathless silence, we heard some one creeping softly up the stairs and along the hall. Then a faint voice spoke, "Can any one hear me? I am wounded and fainting, and want help." At this, our mother and aunt crept from their hiding places, carefully took off their shoes to prevent noise, and admitted the suppliant. He was an American, and had been on the Isthmus some length of time - as a conductor on the railroad, I believe. His wants were carefully attended to, as best we could; and in turn, he gave us much information. He spoke the native language, and so had understood all the rioters were saying. They were first aroused, he said, by the conduct of a drunken passenger, who behaved in a very lawless manner, snatching fruit from the stands, cutting melons, and refusing to pay for the damage, and doing other insolent things. A fight with a native followed, in which a pistol was discharged, killing the native, but, unfortunately, not harming the drunken wretch, who had brought all this trouble upon us. In an instant the excited populace had sworn vengeance against all the men among the passengers; but they were not going to intentionally kill women or children.
"They are a drunken, furious mob," said our stranger. "They will soon begin to plunder, and will come up here. When they do, you must all stand up bravely and face them as coolly and fearlessly as possible: then they will not hurt you. That is your only chance. If there is a man here, he must keep hidden; he will certainly be killed if he is discovered. I trust I may escape by being able to speak the language, and also by my personal acquaintance with many who were working under my direction today."
After a brief lull in the noise of attack, we were aware that the mob had broken into the building, and had begun the work of plundering and destruction. Soon they entered the sitting-room, and speedily demolished chairs, tables, mirrors, and everything breakable. We had all crept from our hiding places, excepting the boy before mentioned, and now stood in trembling expectancy.
A black wretch, carrying a lantern, pushed open our door, and fiendish yell announced his discovery of travelers. In an instant our little mom was filled with fellows. I shall never forget their appearance - men and women mingled in drunken disorder, swinging lanterns and yelling like wolves. Many were naked to the waist, their draggled, mud-splashed lower garments almost covered with blood. One woman stood like a fiend incarnate, flashing her lantern in my childish eyes, clad solely in a light, cotton skirt, draggled and muddy, from which blood was al- most dripping. Her black, coarse hair hung in wild confusion over her savage face, and her bloodshot eyes gleamed like burning coals; she carried a large knife still wet with blood. It was a scene to seem like no reality but a frightful night-mare to the children as she stood in their midst. It may have been this dream-like feeling, or it may have been terror, that kept us so quiet; but as I look back I am astonished that we showed so little trepidation.
The wounded stranger hailed the mob in an off-hand manner as "compaņeros," and began a bantering conversation with the leader - which was for life. They debated the necessity of killing him, but at last decided that if he would go with them and bear a lantern, they would spare him. To this he assented, while the leader relieved him of a gold watch. In the meantime we bad been searched for valuables and money. They took jewels from the young bride, tearing the ear-rings out without waiting to undo the fastening, and roughly drawing her rings from her fingers. They demanded "More money." Our mother carried several hundred dollars in a belt around her under her clothing. She whispered to her sister-in-law,
"What shall I do; shall I let them know I have more?"
This settled the matter; and the robbers secured only our jewelry, email change, hats, shawls, shoes, etc.
In a few moments after the mob entered our room, we noticed a man behaving in a peculiar manner. He was a quiet, gentlemanly person, with apparently nothing in common with the herd of ruffians, yet in some way possessing a mysterious influence over them - enough to sway them, yet not to check them. He was evidently a Spaniard, with the bearing and manners of an aristocrat. He gently and unostentatiously drew aside and pushed into the now vacant sitting-room, first our aunt, then one after another of the children, while another person, apparently in sympathy with him, guarded the door. Our mother and I, with my eldest brother, six years old, alone remained in the room with the mob, when a most unfortunate blunder broke in upon his efforts to save us. The boy under the bench, who had remained unobserved, came creeping out. We never knew why he did this insane thing, but could only guess that the fright caused by the noise so confused him that he forgot the stranger's directions. Poor boy! the folly was his destruction. When the fiends caught sight at him creeping out, they pounced upon him and dragged him forth with yells of savage joy, demanding "money! money!" He had no money; he was poor, and had paid all for his passage. He knelt before them, pleading for life - offering his coat, his vest, his boots, with tears streaming down his boyish face. But all in vain. The furious savages struck at him with their knives. He flung himself at our mother's feet, wrapping her garments around his head, and begging for mercy. She had been talking to him all the time, urging him to stand up firmly and make a show of bravery, and trying to inspire him with courage. But all courage and self-control seemed to have forsaken him in this awful extremity. He was but a child, and clung to her garments, sobbing piteously. Blows came faster and more furious, until one cleft the young head, and dashed her clothing with the blood and brains of the victim. The sight almost froze my young eyes.
In the midst I was quietly drawn from the room by our mysterious friend, and soon followed by my mother and my little brother. Then began a contest of will between the ruffian leader of the mob and the friendly Spaniard who stood with his assistant in the doorway of our refuge, both with drawn swords, allowing no one to enter the room.
At last the leader of the mob said in broken English, that if we would give him my little blue-eyed, fair-haired, six-year old brother, we could go unmolested. Otherwise, we could not. The child's mother, terror-stricken, knew not what to do, and despair came upon us, as the fellow insisted resolutely. Some unaccountable childish impulse of desperation suddenly prompted me, his eldest sister, to step forward and offer the leader a little gold ring, which had been overlooked in the search. I asked him to accept it, and give me my little brother in exchange. Something in this, asked by a little child, struck the drunken humor of the savage, for he took the little ring, saying: "Bueno! Muchachita! I take the little boy I give him to you." And I led the little fellow - for he had already seized upon him - triumphantly back to his mother.
With shouts and yells the mob was led down the stairway. Alter a few moments of silence our protector beckoned us to follow him quickly and silently. With trembling hearts we obeyed, while his companion followed in the rear. Down the tottering stairway we went, through the long dining-room thickly hewn with broken glass and china, which pierced our shoeless feet cruelly; through the kitchen, and at last climbed out through a back kitchen window, where we were met by a native woman who seemed waiting for our guide. Then began a swift, silent retreat for the walled city, where alone was safety At intervals we encountered parties of drunken rioters, and then our protector would hastily motion us behind him, face the enemy with drawn sword, or gun presented, speak in a rapid, commanding tone, and the crowd would invariably fall back and let us pass unmolested.
Thus, at last, we found ourselves inside the walls, and a little later safe in the garrison. Then the gallant Spaniard said "Adios, amigos!" and left us. Who and what he was, we have never been able to solve. May God bless him.
Ah! that desolate night in the garrison, surrounded by the dead and wounded. We thought my uncle dead, and mourned, without hope, our desolate condition. In the morning we were taken out to the steamer, with several others, in a row-boat. And a sorry-looking party we were; nearly all weeping for some friend dead or missing, and some of us hatless and shoeless. Soon after we reached the steamer, great was our joy to see our lost uncle come on board. His adventures had been exciting. Upon leaving us at the hotel he was cut off by the rioters from the possibility of a return. He lay concealed behind a building, while be vigorously used his pistol among the wretches. A retreating passenger told him that all the passengers in the hotel had gone to the ferry, and thither he followed, and sprang on board as it was pushing off, only to find, when near the steamer, that we were yet in the hotel. Nearly frantic, he came on shore at the first opportunity, and almost immediate met a friend, who told him of our safety.
Several passengers had been killed, and many wounded. Many lost everything but the garments they wore. One heroic boy, who had been left by his father in charge of their baggage at the depot, refused to leave his trust, and was cut terribly and left for dead. He lay for many days of our passage to San Francisco in an unconscious condition, watched by his anxious parents, and the object of deep interest to the sympathizing passengers.
We arrived in San Francisco on the first day of May, 1856, after a hungry and dreary voyage, thankful that we escaped with the loss of come money, clothing, and valuables, while others had lost so much.
Carrie Stevens Walter.
Carrie Stevens Walter.