Panama Railroad

The Panama Railroad Travelogues: A California tramp and later footprints:

Although we had paid for our breakfast in advance, many of us got none through the landlord's rascality, as the train left before half could get to the table, but as it did not look fit to eat, it made little matter. We had been told the night before the cars left at 9 o'clock, when 6 was the hour. Our way to the terminus was through the eastern gate, and then amid the suburbs of thatched huts which lay along the margin of the bay. The half-wild denizens were all ready for us, and with pernicious activity waylaid us with fruits, corals, seashells, whisky, cigars, monkeys, squirrels, parrots and similar goods, dead and alive. We were much amused at a monkey-merchant, whose wares had been captured in the neighboring forest. In his efforts to show the tameness of one of his half-human specimens, that he might the easier sell it, it got away from him and struck a bee-line for its former home. The last we saw of the twain their speed was so nearly matched that we were in doubt as to the result of the race.

The starting of the train rid us of these mercantile pests, and we were soon rolling over the fever-breeding swamp which marks the first section of the Isthmian crossing. The lives lost in building this road were fearfully numerous; but thirty years since they are being more than duplicated in digging the canal. When we came to the ridge we used two locomotives to ascend it, and from its slope we took our last view of the Pacific near where Balboa had his first, and also of the ruined old city on its shore.

Nothing could exceed the denseness, luxuriance and gigantic proportions of the vegetation through which we rode. The surface of the fever-breeding slope was covered with a matting of creeping vines above which rose a growth of mammoth plants, with leaves eight or ten feet long and a foot or more wide. Far above these giants of the lower vegetable kingdom towered the stately mahogany and the slender, tufted palm, the forms of some hidden from view by parasite plants. But this prolific place, where nature has so recklessly showered her bounty, is a vast plague Spot, where death stalks silent and ghostly, seeking for victims.

Though since dwarfed by the great enterprise of De Lesseps, the building of this railroad was a great undertaking when we think of the natural obstacles to be surmounted; but when we consider that the placing of each tie severed a human life, we are tempted to wish it had never been built. Thousands died in its construction, but at last the road was built, and now the shrieking locomotive, like the Juggernaut of India, rolls over a road-bed of human corpses, drawing in its wake a living freight, which concerns itself little of the sacrifices made for its convenience.

We frequently stalled in the ascent, although we had but one section of the passengers. At the summit the rear engine was sent back to help up the other half. The descent was quickly made down the valley of the Chagres. On this river we passed some collections of huts, whose people were lounging about them. We cannot expect much snap in a community which can pick its dinners off of trees as wanted, and don't have to build a fire to cook them. Crossing the Chagres on an iron bridge we rolled into the modern built city of Aspinwall. Here we met a ship load of people who were to fill the vacancies we left in California. How they plied us with questions, and how patronizingly we answered these "tenderfeet." How differently were the two portions situated; one having seen the elephant, the other just entering the menagerie!

The people of Aspinwall, like those of Acapulco and Panama, live on the pickings they get from travelers passing through. We experienced the Same vicissitudes as in the last named places, although the pirates were more villainous looking. Many of these were Jamaica negroes, and a more repulsive set of beings I never saw, unless they were the Diggers on the Great Desert. Some were giants with feet like those of "Dandy Jim of Caroline." Many of the venders were females, who, in their outlandish English, addressed us affectionately as "Come my lub, buy dis bottle Jamaky rum, brot it from dar meself;" or, "Here honey, hab one dese big pine-apples." They looked like scant-frocked gorillas.

Our Atlantic steamer was the "Northern Light," which we boarded in the afternoon. In San Francisco we had our berths, such as they were, numbered, so that there was no confusion; but here the earliest bird got the choicest worm; thus there was much rushing and crowding to get bunks on the first deck. Each one had to show his ticket, and "stowaways" had a poor show. There were several of these who beat their way from San Francisco, and in their impudence boasted of their doings. But one of these got on to the "Northern Light." He was a rowdy New York boy, who, when he was refused passage, watched his opportunity, jumped into the water, climbed up the paddle wheel and got through an opening to the deck when he was discovered. The officers were going to put him ashore, but he pleaded so hard and looked so forlorn in his drenched clothes that he was allowed to continue on his way by working his passage heaving coal. He was a "Bowery Boy," and had been full of his pranks; but now, when we saw him, he was crestfallen enough, and so remained until his old haunts on the Battery met his gaze.

Whenever we left a port the people showed the greatest regret, which was greatly to our credit. At Aspinwall they crowded on the wharf, and howled and yelled and swore as they thrust long poison-filled bottles at us, and pine-apples and bunches of bananas, and so continued until the vessel left.

Aspinwall is underlaid with a coral reef, and the water is so bad that for drinking purposes the people depend on huge cisterns, which are filled in the rainy season. To supply the ship-tank we were obliged to diverge from our homeward course and proceed down the New Grenada coast for twenty-five miles, where we took in water. I was glad of this, as it gave me a chance to see the scene of an exploit I read of in my young school days in "Parley's History;" namely, the capture of Porto Bello by the buccaneer Morgan and his piratical gang.

Had we been under the Equatorial sun the weather could not have been hotter or the scenery more tropical than what we saw and felt while going down the coast. The high mountain shores were covered with a network of vegetation that hid the earth down to the edge of the water which duplicated it in reverse. The stillness was oppressive, even the beautifully plumaged birds flitting among the fever-suggesting shrubbery being silent.

Slowly steaming along we came before sunset to a scene of picturesque quietude, whose equal I never saw. This was Porto Bello, the "beautiful harbor," discovered in 1502 by Columbus, and settled one hundred years after. The ruins of the old town were close to our anchorage, consisting of remains of towers, churches, convents and other buildings, overgrown with tangled vines, and with limbs of trees projecting through the windows, and shrubbery growing from the joints of the stones. How different from two hundred years ago, when the town was the northern terminus of an isthmus highway, paved with stones and extending over the ridge to Panama. Then Porto Bello was the point of exchange where the gold and silver of Peru met the costly merchandize of Spain, when convoyed by armed vessels it was landed here. At stated times fairs were held, to which the merchants of the western coast of South America came to make their purchases which were carried by mules and llamas to the Pacific shore, and thence shipped. Porto Bello grew in wealth so that the buccaneers resolved on its capture, which, in 1668, they effected by surprise.

The church ornaments and wealth of the town, however, were placed in the castle which defied the pirates. Morgan made use of a stratagem by which he thought to accomplish his ends without bloodshed. Collecting the priests and women whom he found in the city, he commanded them to go in advance and plant the scaling ladders, thinking the garrison would not harm them. The heart of the Spanish commander was, however, proof against the prayers of priests or tears of women, and he ordered his men to fire on all who advanced. His scheme failing, Morgan stormed the castle and secured an immense booty. Porto Bello never survived this blow, for Spanish commerce was swept from the neighboring waters by this same bold buccaneer. The fleets which once rode here at anchor are unrepresented now except by the occasional steamers which coma here to water. So abrupt is the shore that we anchored within twenty yards of it, the slope being covered with tangled vegetation to the lower edge. The water with which the ships are supplied is from "Columbus' Spring," which, high up the hillside, pours its rich tide from under a mass of rank growing plants, which, through botanic ignorance, I must term mammoth weeds in the likeness of caladiums and ferns. An iron pipe runs to within connecting distance of vessels, to which a hose is attached, and the tanks quickly filled with the best of water.

The deck was covered with the passengers, who, quietly commenting, looked on the surrounding scene. Birds of beautiful plumage, but voiceless, Sew from bough to bough, preparing for their night's rest. Among these were brilliant parrots and paroquets and others I did not know. Larger ones, such as pelicans and cranes, Sapped their wings clumsily amid the branches of huge lignum vit and mahogany trees, whose mossy trunks seemed to grow almost parallel with the steep mountain side. A hut stood near the edge of the water, built of reeds and thatched with broad leaves, a sample of the dwelling places of the few mongrel descendants of the old population of Porto Bello. The owner of this was paddling around us in a canoe in which, on its back, lay a huge turtle, whose angry eyes showed that it would turn, like the worm, if it were possible. The owner made no effort to sell his prey. Another boat was loaded down with bananas, which also had to sell themselves or go unsold. Such independent merchants I never saw. At last these mercantile representatives of Porto Bello's vanished glory left us and lazily paddled toward the ruined town, which the setting sun was now gilding with its last rays. As it sank below the hills a mantle of golden light lingered awhile on the vine-covered walls and towers, as if to redeem the place from the loneliness and desolation surrounding it.

The silence about us was really oppressive, and the darkening waters so still that the steamer hardly moved, while the air of that mountain-hedged harbor was sultry beyond endurance. These, with the sight of the ruins, which looked ghastly in the twilight, and as if some of the old Castilian knights and priests, friars and nuns which once dwelt in its castle and convents might crawl out of their former haunts, and, mistaking us for buccaneers, smite us with ancient engines of warfare and harry us with exorcisms and consignments to pits bottomless, gave us such feelings that we grew impatient of delay and glad to leave what had been such a picturesque place, but which now was getting unbearable.

From some unexplained cause we did not leave till midnight, and when we awoke in the morning we were gaily steaming over the Sea of the Caribs. On the 23d we passed between Cuba and Hayti, and on the 25th entered the warm waters of the Gulf Stream--a river flowing through an Ocean. Soon we were plowing waters afterwards familiar to me in 1862 and 1863; but who could have dreamed that in ten years our country would experience the horrors of a Civil War. On the 26th we passed Cape Hatteras, and the 28th brought us in sight of land, which was the coast of New Jersey.

Thaddeus S. Kenderdine

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