The Panama Railroad Travelogues: Railroad to Aspinwall:
The railroad to Aspinwall, costly so it was, both in life and treasure, opened up a pathway across the Isthmus to the commerce of the world, and Panama stands at the gate. In another land, or with a better people, she would soon become a mighty metropolis. But we found her much like Acapulco, though with broader streets, better houses, and more population. I believe she claimed four or five thousand inhabitants then; but they were chiefly a mixed race, in which the most of what is really valuable in humanity seemed to be dying out. They had no public schools, and scarcely knew what popular education meant. Their churches, venerable only for their age, but in this dating back to the Spanish conquest, were crumbling to ruins. Their religion was only an ignorant superstition or savage fanaticism. And their government, so-called, was in a state of chronic revolution, so that nobody seemed to know when it was up or down. Of course, the real business of the town was in the hands of foreigners -- chiefly Americans, Germans, and English -- and these "pushed things," with much of their wonted skill and energy, notwithstanding the climate. The natives, as a rule, contented themselves with driving a petty traffic in parrots and shells, oranges and bananas; and literally swarmed around us, until we were weary alike of their clamor and dirt.
We reached Panama, as I have said, early in the morning, but did not get off for Aspinwall until about noon. All this time was spent in disembarking passengers, with their baggage, and fast freight; but, at last, the impatient locomotive whistled "up brakes," and we moved slowly off. The ride across the Isthmus is fifty miles, and is usually made in two or three hours; but half-way across, a baggage-car broke down, and we were detained four hours in an impenetrable jungle. It had rained that morning at Panama, and the sun was still obscured; but the air was dense with heat and moisture, that hung as if in strata and folds about you, without a breath to disturb them -- and to say we steamed and sweltered, during those four long hours there, would only half express our perspiring experience. All along the road, there was a tropical luxuriance and splendor, which no word-painting can describe, and here in this jungle both seemed to culminate. What we in a sterner clime grow in hot-houses and conservatories, as rare exotics, there rioted in the open air, as well they might, and all nature seemed bursting with exuberance and richness. Underneath, grasses and shrubbery so dense, that only the machete could clear the way, or keep them under. Overhead, the lordly palm and gracious banana, with flowering vines, pendent, interlacing, creeping, and twining everywhere. Bread-fruit and bananas hung every- where, in clusters as big as half-bushel baskets; and here and there, birds of brilliant plumage flitted to and fro, fit denizens with the chattering monkeys, and screaming parrots, of such a wilderness. The whole ride, indeed, through the heart thus of the tropics, after all, was a rare experience; and the transition from the steamer to the railroad, notwithstanding the heat, a welcome change.
The railroad itself seemed well built, and fairly managed. It was said, indeed, to rest literally on human bodies, so many poor fellows perished in the deadly miasmas, while constructing it. The ties and sleepers were of lignum-vite, and the telegraph poles of terra-cotta or cement, as nothing else would withstand the insects and moisture of the Isthmus. The stations were well apart, and seemed maintained solely for the convenience of the road, as hardly a passenger got off or on, except employés of the company. We could see the natives, as we passed along, lolling in their hammocks, or stretched out on mats, in their rude huts of poles and palm-leaves; and their herds of children ran everywhere at will, as naked as when born. Sometimes, a few of the inhabitants clustered about a station; but as a rule, this required too much effort, and they preferred to take their dolce far niente in their huts. The taint of the Spaniard seemed to be over them all; or, else, nature was too kindly to them, removing all incentive to exertion, by omitting the necessity for it.
We ran into Aspinwall at 6 P.M., and remained there until 8 P.M. We spent the time in exploring the town, but found little to interest any one. It had no storied past, like Panama; and its future depended on -- Pacific Mail. Some found cheap linens, wines, and cigars, as Aspinwall was a free port, and laid in a stock for future consumption, to the damage of our Customs Revenue. But the most of as were sated and weary, with the day's rare experiences, and were glad when the steamer's bell rang " All aboard! " Our High-Church chaplain proved to be our only really useful man, at Aspinwall, after all. He married a couple, while we halted there; and would have married another, had there been time. Both had been waiting several weeks, much-enduring souls -- Aspinwall, it seems, not affording a minister.
Our complement of passengers had been swelled, by acceesions from Valparaiso and Melbourne; and hence, from Aspinwall to New York, we were rather overcrowded. Our good ship Rising Star was staunch and sea-worthy; but without the roomy accommodations of the Constitution, or her thorough appointments. Her beef and mutton were all brought from New York on ice, to last for a ......
Rusling, James Fowler