Chapter IV. Passage of the Isthmus
WE entered the harbor of Aspinwall late at night (Dec. 29th), and at sunrise next morning, from the vessel's deck, had the whole landscape before us. It is a beautiful bay, with a little straggling settlement of one street which curves round in a semi-circle parallel to the edge of the water. The steamers formerly landed at Chagres, nine miles distant; but this place has been substituted for it, because at Chagres they were obliged to anchor some distance from the shore, and landing in boats was not only difficult, but also dangerous in stormy weather. Aspinwall has therefore grown up at once, as a depot. It consists merely of a few wooden hotels with imposing names, and residences for those connected in any way with the steamer and railroad companies. Thick forests hem in the line of houses, and cocoanut trees with their high tufts wave over them and grow to the water's edge. It presents a beautiful scene, and no one, in the warm and balmy atmosphere -which was so grateful to us that morning--looking forth on the deep green foliage, the golden sunlight bathing everything, and the clear waters rippling to the shore--would imagine that the air is loaded with miasma.
Yet so it is, and, for health, it enjoys a reputation equal to that of the coast of Africa. It is impossible, I believe, for any one to reside here even for a few weeks, without being prostrated by the fever, and sometimes a few days' detention, waiting for the steamer, will be sufficient to impart it to the passengers.
When steamers stopped at Chagres, passengers were poled tip the river Chagres to Cruces, against a rapid current, often taking three or four days, though they could descend in a few hours. Now, the Panama Railroad, which begins at Aspinwall, has partly obviated this difficulty. It extends about twenty-five miles, and by next autumn is expected to be carried through to Panama. When this is done, one of the greatest inconveniences of a passage to California will be over. The difficulty now is, not only the risk and trouble of getting yourselves over the Isthmus, but also your baggage. The safest plan is to send it from New York by express. This, however, is expensive, costing from forty cents upward a pound, from New York to San Francisco. Then it is necessary that all articles liable to be injured by water, such as silk dresses and papers, should be enclosed in a tin box with the top soldered in and with a light wooden covering; for the mules, in crossing from Cruces to Panama, will sometimes lie down in the water, and before they can be forced up, trunks are saturated. A person named Hinckley had recently established an express from ship to ship, that is, from Aspinwall to Panama. He charged twelve cents a pound, and it was probably the best and safest way for travellers to get their personal effects through. He sold transit tickets for the Isthmus, including railroad, boat and mule tickets, for thirty dollars each. Our whole expenses in crossing the Isthmus, including hotel charges at Cruces, Panama, etc., were about fifty dollars for each individual. This was probably the fair average.
The El Dorado from New Orleans and the Yankee Blade from .New York came in, a few hours after we did. After a bad breakfast on the steamer, we prepared to leave Aspinwall. This train started at nine A.M., and that morning it consisted of eleven passenger cars. The road leads through an unbroken forest, part of it a wet marsh, but everywhere something new to us from the luxuriance of tropical vegetation. The cocoanut, palm, and date trees were about us, while occasionally there was some giant of the forest which looked as if it had been attaining its growth since Columbus discovered the country. Many of them were draped with vines to the top, while the whole formed a dense thicket, which seemed impenetrable. Beautiful flowers occasionally bloomed in the forest; so that there was nothing to remind us that it was the end of December. Every few miles we found ourselves on the banks of the Chagres River, which winds round into all sorts of twistings. Now and then we passed a native hut. It was always thatched with straw, sometimes without any sides, perfectly open, or else with sides of light bamboo only. The natives wore lounging about, or reclining in their hammocks, almost naked, fine specimens of the dolce far niente. Occasionally, too, we saw groups of the Irish, who were employed as workmen on the railroad. They looked pale and miserable, and reminded me of the wretched peasantry seen in the vicinity of the Pontine Marshes in Italy. It is almost certain death to them to be employed here, and we were told that every foot of the road, so far as it has been finished, has cost the life of a laborer, and yet they are coming' out by hundreds to complete it.
At some little hamlet of the natives, between Barbacos and Gorgona, the railroad at present ends. Here passengers were discharged on the top of a high, steep, muddy bank of the Chagres River. This was "confusion worse confounded," and passengers, trunks, express bales and all, were tumbled down to the river in a miscellaneous mass. Here was lying a number of boats and barges of various forms, in which we were to embark. Our own was a broad, flat-bottomed boat, holding about thirty-fire persons, with a low, wooden awning over it, so that there was just room to sit upright. On the outside was a broad ledge, on which our six native boatmen walked up and down from the bows to the stern, as, singing a monotonous song, they poled the boat up the river. They were naked, but for a little cotton cloth around the loins. The distance was nine miles, and we were nearly five hours in accomplishing it; for the current was strong, and often we seemed to make scarcely any progress. The scenery, however, was wild and splendid, though the animal life which once abounded has gone. The waters were formerly filled with alligators, that basked in the sun, and the overhanging trees gay with parrots and monkeys, chattering among the branches; but the rush of Americans through this route, with the constant discharge of their revolvers, has frightened. them into other retreats.
As on the railroad, we saw nothing but native huts, and frequently passed women washing clothes on the banks. After travelling about three miles, we reached Gorgona.
This is the dividing point from which the other route is made. From Gorgona there is a road to Panama, but at this season it is hardly passable for mud, and travellers are generally obliged to take that by Cruces, which is twenty-three miles long.
Between five and six o'clock we came within sight of Cruces, and were beginning to felicitate ourselves on our journey's end, when the owner of the boat, who is called the patrone, discovered that two or three of the passengers had not paid. (They had in fact been directed by Hinckley to take the boat and settle with him afterwards.) He therefore toot advantage of this and demanded of them .more than double the ordinary fare. This they of course refused to pay, when he quietly stopped his boat on the opposite shore, within a quarter of a mile of the town, and there we lay. No attention was paid to the remonstrances of the thirty passengers who had tickets, and for nearly an hour, with the miasma of the evening gathering around us, we were kept there, jeered at by the other boats as they passed. Had there been a less respectable company on board, ho would have been pitched into the river and the boat poled over; but it was filled with ladies and gentlemen, who finally made a contribution and complied with his extortionate demand.
We reached Cruces just at evening, to find that, in addition to our own shipload of several hundreds, the hamlet was crowded with returning Californians on their way over from Panama. Cruces has a population of a few hundred natives end mongrels, all the original houses being the usual thatched bamboo huts. There is an old dilapidated stone Church, built two centuries ago by their Spanish conquerors, now fast falling to decay. At one end of the town a wooden tavern has been hastily ran up. It has no glass in the windows, and is about as enticing in appearance as the long shanties erected for Irish laborers. This was our only stopping place. We found it filled with hundreds of ruffians, and with great trouble secured for the ladies a place upstairs containing half a dozen beds. Here, they had at least a partial retirement, though the noise within and without forbade all sleep. The lower story was filled with long tables, which wore spread again and again for a succession of dinners, where very many, with oaths and imprecations, as they struggled for their places, got what they could at one dollar each. The only chance for the decent portion was to get together .at one end, and procure something to eat, if possible. I have taken my meals in many queer places when travelling, but I confess never before under such repulsive circumstances. The company, the conversation, the dirt, formed a union which, to the ladies particularly, was appalling.
But the worst was to come. At bedtime the gentlemen of the party were shown to a large garret. The walls were covered with wooden bunks three tiers high, two more rows through the centre, and the intervals filled with cots. On each of these cots and bunks was a single sheet, (which looked as if it had been used for a year), no bed, but a pillow without any case. Here we were to sleep with some two hundred others, of the class we saw downstairs. We threw ourselves down in our clothes, but sleep was out of the question. All around us was one wild confusion, kept up through the night. I have heard sailors talk in the forecastle, and prisoners in the galleys, "but never aught like this." There were not only the most awful blasphemies that human ingenuity could devise, but the most foul-mouthed ribaldry that could be conceived by a perverted imagination. They called each other "Texas," and "Red River," etc., showing which parts of the country had the honor of claiming our associates. A party would rise from their beds, and, under the dim lanterns which hung from the beams, produce their brandy-bottles, and with oaths drink until they reeled again to their bunks. Then a man would treat the assembly to a tune on his fiddle, which was followed by a round of applause, including all the low slang calls of the pit and gallery. To make matters worse, next to us was a pen (I can call it nothing else,) of boards about ten feet high, intended to afford a private room for females. This happened to be occupied by some "women of the baser sort," whose loud ribaldry infinitely amused the kindred spirits on our side of the partition, who accordingly replied to them in the same terms. Altogether, I set down that scene as more like Pandemonium than anything I had ever before witnessed. It was enough to convince one of the doctrine of total depravity.
We endured it till about midnight, when my son and I rose and wandered downstairs. Here, every place was full, men sleeping on benches and under tables, till about one o'clock, when a tremendous noise arose out of doors. There was a rush, then were heard shouts and blows, and oaths in Spanish, all ending in a regular fight which drew every one to the doors and windows. It was the arrival of some hundreds of mules, which were to take on the express. It took an hour to load and get them off. At this time, too, in one of the native houses near, a fandango was going on, and singing and the music of castinets were united with the other noises that "murdered sleep." We secured some chairs in which to sit, and thus passed the night at Cruces.
At three o'clock in the morning the tables were again spread, and then commenced a succession of breakfasts, lasting till all the assembled company had gone, some to Panama and some to Aspinwall. At daylight we called the ladies and paid our bill,--one dollar apiece lodging for those who had bunks, and two dollars each for the ladies who were in the private rooms. The evening before, we had selected one of the most decent native houses, and made a contract for breakfast for five persons for six dollars, stipulating particularly for a clean table cloth. Our host performed his part well, and we felt better prepared for our long ride.
Then came a new scene of confusion, the selection of mules. Hundreds were brought up and we who had Hinckley's tickets selected from them as we could. But not being wise in the subject of mules, it proved to me a matter of chance. Those I received for Mrs. Kip and my son Willie were good; mine was miserable. The express baggage is bound on mules, two trunks on each; sis mules are put under the charge of two natives, and so they set off in small parties. The wonder to me is, that half the baggage gets safely to Panama as it is in the power of these natives at any time to drive their mules to one side in the woods and rifle the trunks. This undoubtedly is sometimes done; for when we left Panama several mules had not yet arrived, and the passengers had to go without their trunks, though the express agent assured them, of course, that the missing baggage would probably soon be in, to be forwarded by next steamer.
In this way, in small parties, the passengers set out from Cruces, and struggled across the Isthmus for the twenty-three miles, as their mules' speed and bottom allowed. With a first-rate mule, it may be pleasant, and those who had one enjoyed it. The distance is thus passed sometimes in four or five hours; but to whip an obstinate mule, as I did, for eleven hours, is quite a different matter.
As Soon as we left Cruces, we plunged into the forest. The road is but a narrow bridle path through the gorges of the mountains, often just wide enough for a single mule to pass, with high rocks rising twenty feet on each side. Trees overhang it, and in some places it is so dark that a Kentuckian present said, "it reminded him of the entrance to the Mammoth Cave." It turns round sharp angles, so that one halting behind, fifty feet, cannot be seen by his party. Now, there is a high shelving rock to scramble up,--then, one equally steep to descend; so that we involuntarily shut our eyes, and do not pretend to guide the mules. In these rocks there are often holes for the mule's feet, into which he invariably puts them, for they have been worn by the use of those who have passed over the road for centuries before him. These deep ravines are sometimes filled up to the mule's knees with mud and water. Into this he dashes, splashing it over his rider, so that when he reaches Panama he is in anything but a presentable state. At times, the road expands into a broader space, where there are a few native huts, or a Spaniard has a place of refreshment for travellers.
There is some historical interest about this road. For centuries it was an Indian path across the Isthmus. Thru the Spanish conquerors came, who improved it, paved it in some places with heavy stones, and over this brought on mules' backs all their treasures from Peru to ship them to Spain. Since their day, it has been suffered to go to decay. The heavy upturned stones form the danger of the road, and if a mule loses his footing or goes down, it is at the risk of his rider's limbs. The scenery, however, is magnificent, and now and then, we have a wide stretch of landscape as we rise on the side of a mountain.
My party soon outrode me, and in the course of the day I was with four or five companies for a time. Most of the day, however, I was alone. On one occasion I came up with Mrs. Kip and our party, resting at a native hut. Finding they intended to remain some time, I passed on, as my mule went so slowly. I had hired a native to accompany me as guide, to prevent my getting off the path; but after going with me for a couple of miles, he deserted, and went back. Beaching the native hut, he was recognized by Mrs. Kip and questioned as to why he had left me. He stated, in reply, that I had got into a by-path and been murdered. As such things do happen on the Isthmus, and she knew I was alone and unarmed, it can be imagined what an excitement was produced. The Spaniard at whose hut they were stopping, and who, I afterwards learned, was one of the greatest scoundrels on the Isthmus, did all he could to augment her fears, that he might induce her to employ him to send an express on. to Panama. Fortunately, just at that time, some returning Californians who were crossing towards Cruces came up. They remembered me by the description my party gave, and having seen me after the native had left, assured them that I must be safe. However, they were left in the greatest uncertainty till they came up with me, two hours later.
In the meanwhile I had gone on alone about six or seven miles, whipping up my lagging mule till he and I were tired out. Now and then some of our own passengers passed me, or two or three almost naked natives, armed with their machettes or long knives, but we only exchanged greetings. Perfectly wearied, I thought I must be near my journey's end, when, riding up to a little romantic river, I found some of our passengers resting there, and learned that I had yet six miles to go. Just then, others, who had passed Mrs. Kip, came up and told us of her fright, and we waited till she arrived.
I subsequently found that this travelling alone was a foolish risk. The natives, once harmless, have become so civilized as every month to be growing more dangerous and untrustworthy. One of our passengers, who was alone, was knocked senseless and stripped. The express party found him in that state and brought him in. A lady who got behind her party was robbed in the same way. My son Willie, when at one time he had loitered out of sight of his friends, met some natives who put their hands on him and demanded brandy, but finding he had none, let him go on. No molestation, however, was offered to me.
A few miles from Panama we leave the mountains and descend into the open country. Just outside of the city we meet with massive ruins--the remains of former generations--now entirely buried in the rank tropical vegetation, everything showing that a greater race formerly held the country.
We straggled in, as our mules were able, at different times. Willie got in with one party at half past three o'clock. Mrs. Kip came in, with another at five, having sustained no injuries except from her fright, though her mule had twice rolled with her. I reached Panama alone, at six, perfectly wearied out. It was the hardest day's ride I have ever had, worse even than the ascent of Vesuvius.