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The small steamer the Falcon left New York on the first of December 1848 with sacks of mail and twenty-nine passengers bound for California via Panama. The majority were government officials and missionaries. On the way the boat docked at New Orleans. But in the meantime the news of the discovery of gold in California had swept the nation, and by the time it left New Orleans on December 18, the Falcon carried 193 passengers. The new arrivals were Southern backwoodsmen bearing pans, picks, and axes and all the paraphernalia of the gold hunter. The small ship was swamped; efforts by the captain to reduce the number boarding had been met with brandished revolvers.

The impatient party arrived off the mouth of Chagres River on December 27, 1848. From that moment on, the Isthmus was transformed forever. After a decade of hard times on the East Coast of the United States, there was a flood of young men eager to try their luck in the California goldfields. The Panama route was the most expensive, but the quickest, and speed was vital if the best claims in Sacramento were to be staked out. Following the Falcon, one ship after another arrived, and within a few weeks more than five hundred prospectors had crossed the Isthmus to Panama City, which had not known such commotion and wealth since the early days of the Spaniards.

Because of a sandbar, arriving vessels had to anchor about a mile from the landing place, the small village of Chagres, on the south side of the river, a “low, miserable town, of thirty thatched huts,” as an early traveler reported. Native canoes carried them ashore across the swirling muddy water. Chagres did not make a good impression, and reaffirmed the Americans’ sense of superiority. One wrote to his mother back in Alabama, “The houses are only hovels that in the States, would not even do for Negro quarters or even for a respectable cow house.” The people, too, were seen by the Americans as little better than savages: “Half are full-blooded negroes… The dress for the men is little short of indecent.”

The locals were not slow, however, to realize that they, too, had struck gold. The prices charged to the new arrivals were exorbitant— to get ashore cost $2; a place in a boat upriver to Gorgona up to $10. For many, however, it was worth the money just to get away from Chagres near the river mouth, “one of the filthiest places we ever saw.” The town also quickly acquired a reputation as “the birthplace of a malignant fever,” as an English traveler, Frank Marryat, noted. Within the town and in a new shanty across the river, known as “American Chagres,” bars and brothels soon sprang up. At the Silver Dollar Saloon drinks were seven times as expensive as in New York, but there were plenty of takers. The working girls, who soon flocked to the area from as far away as New Orleans or Paris, in the total absence of law enforcement took to carrying guns, a practice one British traveler called “as disconcerting as hell. All the time she kept one hand on her blasted six-shooter.” Soon there were more than two hundred prostitutes working in Chagres alone.

The journey to Gorgona was along fifty miles of winding river, which took about three days. Most went in “bungos,” hollowed-out logs used for transporting bananas. Many of the travelers marveled at their first sight of the lush, tropical jungle. “The bright green at all times charms the beholder,” wrote Frank Marryat. “The eye does not become wearied with the thick masses of luxuriant foliage, for they are ever blended in grace and harmony.” Alligators lazed in the shallows, and birds of every type and hue flitted through the treetops.

At Gorgona, originally a small town of a few hundred people, there was pandemonium. It quickly became a bottleneck in the flood across the Isthmus, as the eager gold hunters waited impatiently for scarce transport on the next leg of the journey Such was the shortage and demand that to hire a riding mule could cost up to $20. Numerous tents and shanties sprang up on the hills above the town.

For the journey onward to Panama City, the “road” was diabolical. Over much of the twenty-one miles it was a trough rather than a track and if it was the wet season it would be swampy gunge, with mud up to five feet deep. Mules and horses, jolting over the rough, uneven cobbles, carried the travelers and their loads, but often it was local porters. Some of the men carried as much as three hundred pounds over the journey of a day and a half. Many of the smarter travelers were even carried in chairs strapped to the bearers’ shoulders.

The whole experience of crossing the Isthmus was for one American “so like a nightmare that one took it as a bad dream—in helpless silence.” But at last the weary travelers could descend to the Pacific and Panama City, which they found had quickly realized the money to be made from the prospectors. “The old ruined houses have been patched up with whitewash,” wrote Frank Marryat, adding that “the main street is composed almost entirely of hotels, eating houses and ‘hells’ [bars].” Most were American-owned and run. In the city much of the rushing stampede hit a brick wall, as there were at first insufficient ships to take the men on the next leg of their journey. Arriving steamers would be mobbed as a mass of people fought to get on board. The situation was made worse by the fact that most of the ships entering San Francisco lost their crews, who chose instead to join the gold rush. Soon abandoned ships lay seven deep in San Francisco harbor. The result was a huge throng stranded in Panama City, at one point more than four thousand. Those who could not find or afford a bunk set up filthy camps on the outskirts, where what they inevitably called “Panama Fever”—malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery—began to strike them down. Some were so desperate to leave that they even set off for California in canoes. The frustration was increased when men started appearing on their way back to the East Coast, a lucky few carrying a fortune in gold dust and nuggets.

There are many accounts of returning prospectors having their precious gold dust stolen from them. With the prospectors had arrived on the Isthmus not only cholera, gambling, and prostitution but also an epidemic of armed robbery. One homeward-bound gold hunter reported of his disastrous trip in the spring of 1851: “I knew nothing of the great risk in travelling alone, as the natives two years before appeared to me an exceptionally honest people. But… contact with American roughs had changed them to thieves and murderers, and the whole route … was infested with American, English and Spanish highwaymen.”

Some contemporary accounts blame the lawlessness, violence, and chaos of the gold trail on the “weak sway of the New Granada Republic… powerless to control the refuse of every nation which meet together upon its soil.” Occasionally, when squabbles at the gaming tables or in the bars got out of hand, the local “soldier-police” were called in. But they were few in number, bore rusty old muskets, and very often marched unshod. The force of law was not helped by the chronic political instability on the Isthmus at the time. Between 1850 and 1855, there were no fewer than fourteen different governors of the province, and political violence added to the problems for the authorities.

It was not only gold prospectors but also the great and the good who used the Panama route. Nevertheless, on the whole the Americans traveling through the Isthmus were not good ambassadors for their country. “Terribly bullied by the Americans were the boatmen and muleteers,” reads one account by a hotel proprietess from Jamaica. “[They] were reviled, shot, and stabbed by these free and independent filibusters, who would fain whop all creation abroad as they do their slaves at home.”

t was the acquisition by the United States of vast Pacific territories at the end of the Mexican War that had inspired William Aspinwall and his partners to establish steamer services from Panama City to San Francisco and from New York to Chagres. In this, they were supported by the U.S. Navy, and by promised payments from the federal government for carrying mail and officials to and from the West Coast. Crucially, they were also protected by the Bidlack Treaty.

With the interior of the United States largely unsettled and un-pacified, the Isthmus was seen in Washington as a key strategic artery linking the two coasts of the country. Aspinwall also had a plan for a railway across the Isthmus, and with the gold rush in full swing there was new impetus to start the construction straightaway. Gold seekers were paying up to $100 to cross to Panama City, so the potential profits were there for all to see.

In spite of this, the initial stock offer was a disappointment with only about half of the $1 million worth being taken up by the public. Undeterred, the directors purchased the remainder themselves, and work started on surveying a route for what would be the first railway ever built in the tropics.

The first and best choice for the Atlantic terminus of the railway was the old harbor of Portobelo, but a New York speculator had bought all the surrounding lands and held out for a huge sum. So the railway engineers were forced to choose Limón Bay, otherwise known as Navy Bay, where Columbus had anchored during his search for the mythical strait. It was an unfortunate beginning, which would have long-lasting repercussions, for the harbor provided little shelter from the occasionally fierce north winds—”northers”—and the land bordering the bay was little more than a swamp. In fact, it was just about the wettest and unhealthiest place on the Isthmus. In the bay was an island, known as Manzanillo, and here it was elected to start work in May 1850. As a contemporary account has it, “No imposing ceremony inaugurated the ‘breaking ground.’ Two American citizens, leaping, axe in hand, from a native canoe upon a wild and desolate island, their retinue consisting of half a dozen Indians, who clear the path with rude knives, strike their glittering axes into the nearest tree; the rapid blows reverberate from shore to shore, and the stately cocoa crashes upon the beach.”

Contracted as engineers were two men with experience of the tropics—they had recently completed a short canal in New Grenada—but even for them this was a forbidding prospect. “It was a virgin swamp,” a contemporary wrote, “covered with a dense growth of the tortuous, water-loving mangrove, and interlaced with huge vines and thorny shrubs. In the black, slimy mud of its surface, alligators and other reptiles abounded, while the air was laden with pestilential vapors, and swarming with sand-flies and mosquitoes.” As the island was cleared, a storehouse was erected, but it was found impossible to occupy on account of the insects, so the workers and American engineers were forced to live on an old wooden hulk anchored in the harbor. There, the myriad cockroaches and the constant movement of the ship in the unsheltered bay further weakened their spirits and constitutions. The huge demand for porters, muleteers, and boatmen made it impossible to recruit sufficient local laborers (who were thought “indolent and lazy” by the Americans anyway), so in June some fifty workers were brought from Cartagena in New Grenada, almost all descendants of the black slaves imported by the Spanish. The next month the same number of Irishmen arrived from New Orleans. There was surplus American labor in the United States at this time, due to the large number of men demobbed after the end of the Mexican War, but it was felt that they would demand too high a wage, and might be too prone to organizing themselves.

Meanwhile the surveyors pushed on, locating the track, often wading up to their armpits in the deep marshes that lay beyond the island. One, it was reported, “carried his noonday luncheon in his hat… and ate it standing, amid the envious alligators and water snakes.”

The surveyors did have one spectacular success, finding at a place called Culebra (Spanish for “snake”) a pass across the mountainous spine of the Isthmus at only 275 feet above sea level, when they had been expecting to have to site the line at 600 feet. But by now fever was carrying off the workers at an alarming rate, and in time the white members of the party “wore the pale hue of ghosts.”

Nevertheless, in August the construction work was commenced. A decrepit steamer replaced the hulk, and Manzanillo Island was filled in enough to build a few more huts. As the jungle was cleared, the clouds of insects lessened. But by the end of the first year, even though the workforce had increased to a thousand, only four or five miles of temporary track had been laid across the swamp on wooden trestles. Wooden docks were built on Manzanillo Island in April 1851, but by then the rainy season had restarted, the original capital was all expended, and the directors were compelled to keep the work going on their personal credit.

By October 1851, eight miles had been constructed and the railway reached to Gatún. But in New York the promoters began to doubt that the line would ever be completed. The value of the stock went into free fall, and the work came to a standstill.

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