MY first view of the Pacific was from the high grounds which overlook Panama. It would perhaps have been proper to have got up a sensation on the occasion, but after eleven hours spent on an obstinate mule, I was incapable of any emotions but those of utter weariness. The prospect, however, from that point was a fine one, with the city below partly hemmed in by its old walls, and then the widespread bay beyond.
The old city of Panama was some nine miles further south, but after various sieges, and sacking by the buccaneers, it was entirely abandoned, and the present city founded at the head of the bay.
It possesses the advantage of being further from the ocean, and in a place of greater security against attacks from that side, as vessels of any size are obliged to anchor at least two miles off. The old city, we were told, is entirely in ruins. Dense forests have now grown up where it stood, and all that can be seen among the crumbling ruins is the old church tower rising through the foliage. In this climate, when a place is once deserted, nature immediately asserts her claim to it, and in a few seasons the luxuriant tropical vegetation buries it as entirely as if centuries had passed since the occupants were there. Any one who has read "Stephen's Central America," will remember this fact. We were told that at n very short distance from the side of our road over the Isthmus, were to be found ruins of the kind described by him; but now entirely concealed in the depths of the forest.
The present city of Panama, like all these old Spanish cities in New Grenada, has the appearance of having been built by an entirely different race from that which now inhabits it. And such is the case. The old Spaniards who erected these massive buildings have been succeeded by degenerate descendants of a mongrel race, without enterprise or energy. They are contented to live in the residences of their predecessors till they fall into ruins, but seem to have not even the skill to repair them. Panama, indeed, before the emigration to California, had sunk down until it was gradually dying a natural death. The rush of Americans through it has galvanized it into a temporary animation; but as soon as the railroad is finished, the depot of which will be without the city, it will relapse into its former repose. The walls around it, massive in their day, are now crumbling to pieces, as is the fine old battery on the point where some enormous pieces of Spanish brass cannon are still mounted.
The greater part of the city seems at one time to have been owned by churches or monasteries. Most of these are in ruins, the wild vines growing over their walls. The Cathedral of the Grand Plaza is a very large building, with two high towers, and the front ornamented with statues of saints in niches. It is built of a rich brown stone, but the sides and towers have been whitewashed, for want of energy to clear away the moss and dampness which were gathering on the surface. We stopped for a few minutes to see the interior, and found it wretched and tawdry in the extreme. Mass was celebrating, and we noticed that several of the assistants were natives, or showed very plainly the mixed race to which they belonged.
The Aspinwall House, with its fine large rooms, reminding us by their polished floors of a French or Italian hotel, compensated for the miserable night at Cruces. It is on the foreign plan, affording rooms only, while the lodgers go out to a restaurant for their meals. The native population, as the people in the south of Europe, seem to live in the streets; and the general air of the houses, together with the costumes of the richly dressed women we met, with the black veils thrown over their heads, would have rendered it easy for us to imagine ourselves in a city of old Spain.
It was New Year's Eve when we entered Panama, but the weather was exceedingly hot, and the peculiarly oppressive atmosphere was very exhausting. Fortunately for us, a ship had arrived a few days before, bringing ice from Sitka in Russian America, and we enjoyed what was a rare luxury in Panama. Glasses of ice-water at one dime each were in great demand at that time.
The next day it is Sunday, although no one would have suspected it from anything to be seen in the city. The influx of the steamer's passengers was one of the harvests of the shop-keepers of Panama, and every place of business was open to enable them to avail themselves of it. There is a service performed here for the benefit of the few American residents, by a Congregational minister. He called on me immediately after breakfast, and offered the use of his room, with a request that I would officiate; but Between the ride of the day before and the exhaustion of the climate, I was in no condition to avail myself of his offer.
Our steamer, the Golden Gate, was to sail in the evening1, and we were directed to be on board by five o'clock. At four, therefore, we were on the wharf, where we found some thirty passengers, baggage, etc., crowded into a launch, under the guidance of a couple of natives, who were to carry us out to the steamer, nearly three miles off. The beginning of our voyage was by no means promising. Our boatmen either did not understand managing the vessel, or else she was too crowded to allow them to do so. When about half way over the bay she jibed, the boom swept across, and all managed to dodge out of the way, except one lady, sitting next to me on the gunwale, who was swept into the water. Then, for a few moments, all was confusion, and the vessel left to herself, while the natives yelled, the ladies shrieked, and the gentlemen shouted. In the midst of all, the poor woman would have found her way to the bottom, or been devoured by the sharks which abound in the bay, had she not providentially become entangled in some ropes dragging behind our launch. They were thus able to reach her from the stern, and finally succeeded in dragging her on deck. Then there was an attempt to get alongside of the steamer which our boatmen missed, succeeded by sundry other jibings, to the great terror of the ladies, and then a tack or two more out into the bay, before they were able to board her.
The Golden Gate is probably the most magnificent sea steamer afloat. Since she came into the Pacific, she has been arranged in a style which would not have answered on the more stormy Atlantic. An elegant saloon (one hundred and four feet by twenty-four) has been erected on her upper deck, lined with staterooms which open into a gallery without. These staterooms are built over the guards of the vessel, and project beyond its deck; an arrangement which, it is obvious, although very pleasant, would not answer in a sea liable to severe storms.
We went to sea at nine o'clock Sunday night, and for the first week there was but little variety. We soon settled ourselves down to our daily employments of reading and writing, until a home feeling was created. The principal business of most, however, was to keep themselves cool, for the weather was hot and summer clothes in demand. We were some distance from the coast, though we occasionally saw some point; the moonlight nights were beautiful, and the Southern Cross just seen on the horizon.
Friday evening, January 6th. We reach the Bay of Acapulco, Mexico. Here the steamer is obliged to stop, to lay in her supply of coal. We went in at about nine o'clock. It was almost as light as day, so that we were able to see the features of this singular harbor. The channel winds among some islands, turns one or two sharp angles, until we find ourselves opposite the little town, when, looking back, we cannot see the passage by which we have entered. We are completely hemmed in by high hills and seem to be floating in a little lake. The town itself is an insignificant place on a narrow plateau at the foot of the mountains, and is said to be the hottest place on the coast. We found the air perfectly stifling, being entirely cut off from the fresh breezes of the ocean.
We have had some cases of Isthmus fever on board, but none so far has ended fatally. Persons crossing the Isthmus are liable to fever if care is not taken, although my wonder is that more are not prostrated by it. Many, just arriving from a cold climate, indulge at once in tropical fruits, eat oranges, pine-apples, bananas, and even cocoanuts which the natives hardly eat, and expose themselves to the sun and the night air. Almost as pernicious as these fruits is the water on the Isthmus, which should not be drunk alone, for it is filled with decayed vegetable matter. The fever is particularly fatal among the steerage passengers (we bad at one time twenty ill from this cause), who, in addition to other acts of imprudence, heat their system with brandy.
The weather has been very pleasant, except some little roughness when crossing the Bay of Tehuantepec, and again in passing the three hundred miles at the entrance of the Gulf of California. We were in this situation on Sunday the 8th, yet I was sufficiently free from sea-sickness to have service in the saloon in the morning. Every arrangement was made by Captain Isham to facilitate this object, and we had quite a numerous congregation assembled to unite in the first public worship they had been permitted to enjoy in this year. Thursday morning we made Cape St. Lucas, and had our first view of California. Everything so far has gone on admirably. We have, one day, made as much as three hundred and five miles in twenty-four hours, and our Captain is in high spirits, expecting to make the shortest run ever known. He looks forward to our breakfasting in San Francisco, next Saturday morning.
Wednesday, January 11th (I copy from my journal). Last night came the reverse. At eight o'clock the engine stopped, and on examination it was found that the massive shaft, about twenty inches in diameter, had broken in two. Providentially we were thirty miles from the coast, with the wind setting off shore. Had it been otherwise, with the strong current there is drawing towards the land, we might have shared the fate of the Independence, the America, and the Winfield Scott, which, during the last two years, have been lost upon these shores. As it was, we drifted off during the night to the southwest, at the mercy of the winds and waves; and so we have continued to do through the whole of this day, till we are now very far off our course.
The Golden Gate has two engines; and for the last twenty-four hours every effort has been made to remove a portion of the broken shaft, so as to allow her to use the other side, and get under way with one wheel. She has been listed over on one side, as far as possible--to the terror of most of the passengers, who supposed she was going to capsize--to cut away the buckets of the starboard wheel, which otherwise would drag in the water and impede her.
At daylight, the Uncle Sam, which left Panama with us, came in sight, and seeing our situation, ran down to within a quarter of a mile of us. She could do nothing, however, to help us, for as the sea was running, it would have been difficult to have taken off our passengers, and she therefore stood off again to the north and left us. It was a beautiful sight to see her pitching about on the waves, plunging her bowsprit under, and then rising so as to show a long line of her keel.
During the morning the sea went down, and we have done nothing all day, but drift--drift to the west. The Captain estimates that we have drifted about thirty-five miles farther off coast. In the direction we are going, we should bring up one of these days at the Marquesas Islands. We are not by any means in a pleasant situation. If we get under way, with one wheel, we can work our way in slowly, over the nine hundred miles of ocean yet to be traversed. If any accident should happen, and the remaining wheel be disabled, what is to be done? Our sails are too light to produce much effect, and we should have to wait for a favorable breeze and try to get in to shore, to anchor in some place of safety until relieved. Besides, there are between nine hundred and one thousand persons on board, and the steamer has not provisions for a protracted voyage. The Captain has to-clay taken measures to guard against this contingency. We have been put upon two meals a day, breakfast and dinner; tea is abolished. Some of the ladies, as usual at twelve o'clock, sent one of the waiters to the pantry for lunch, when he came back with the announcement,--"Lunches is stopped."
Thursday, 12th. A quiet, idle day. The engineers am working at the machinery, in the hope of getting under way in a few days. The passengers are yawning, sleeping, playing cards from morning till night, trying to read, or discussing our prospects for the future. The water is as smooth as a mill-pond, and we are slowly going westward with the drift of the ocean, for there is no wind. It seems strange to see this magnificent steamer, that lately dashed so rapidly through the sea, floating along so helpless and disabled. We are now served with salt water for washing. Fresh water is to be used for drinking only, as it may be necessary to husband our resources. We are provisioned, the Captain says, for twelve days, and by putting us on allowance our stores could last much longer.
Dolphins and sharks have been playing about the ship all day. One of the latter was so close to the surface that we could see the pilot fish which always accompanies it, swimming at its side. The sea is alive with shoals of porpoises, while at a distance we saw a number of small grampus whales. During the evening there was a large whale not far from us, as we could hear him blow when he rose to the surface. It was bright moonlight, and we sat in the gallery by our staterooms till a late hour, watching the stars set, one by one, as if their light were quenched in the waste of waters about us.
Friday, 13th. It is rather amusing to hear the opinions of the passengers as to the cause of our accident, and their prophecies of the future. One Spanish gentleman thus agreeably sketched out our programme:--
"Fust, dere will be hungry; den, dere will be no sugar water."
"But"--said some one,--"there's plenty of sugar on board."
"Ah! I mean de water dat is not salt, for de drink and de shave. Den, dere will be no wine. Den, de machinery is fix, an--he no go."
Monday, 16th. We kept on drifting until Saturday evening, when it was announced, to the great joy of all, that the machinery was partially repaired, so that one wheel could be used. Since then we have been heading for San Diego, the most southern point of Northern California, about five hundred miles distant. It is, however, slow work. In the last twenty-four hours we have made about one-hundred and eight miles. Everything now depends upon this one wheel, and another accident would leave us without resource. We hope (D. V.), to get to San Diego by Wednesday morning, and then the Captain can determine by the state of the steamer, whether to go on with her or to wait until another steamer is sent from San Francisco (four-hundred and fifty miles distant), to bring us up.
In the meanwhile, provisions are growing scarce, and we have been put on an allowance of water. Part of a tumbler-full is given to each one at dinner, none of which is to be taken from the table. Sunday morning a committee from the four-hundred passengers in the steerage came to the Captain to demand an increase of food. Upon his refusing to comply, they warned him, that "there were some dangerous men in the steerage." He thanked them for their information, "as in case of any trouble he should know how to deal with them." Some of the cabin passengers, however, find it rather long to go without anything to eat from two P.M. till eight A. M. the next day, with the keen appetite people have at sea.
Early this morning we passed within a mile of a whaler, which sent a boat off to us to procure papers. She was from New Bedford, and had been out somewhat over two years, having on board three thousand barrels of oil. The boat passed under our quarter, and the papers which could be collected were thrown to it. They will be read and reread, advertisements and all. We have again got back to the coast, having made land in the afternoon, and are now in the track of the steamers, so that we may meet the John L. Stephens, which leaves San Francisco this morning.
Tuesday, 17th. We have been, for the last few days, getting slowly forward. Providentially the weather has been calm, and we are approaching San Diego, where we can procure provisions to add to our stock. It is evening, and the headlands show that we are not many miles distant. The Captain says we shall reach the harbor about midnight, and we seem therefore to have come to the end of another stage in oar protracted voyage.