Of the three roads to California that by Panama was the most obvious, the shortest, and therefore the most crowded. It was likewise the most expensive. To the casual eye this route was also the easiest. You got on a ship in New York, you disembarked for a very short land journey, you re-embarked on another ship, and landed at San Francisco. This route therefore attracted the more unstable elements of society. The journey by the plains took a certain grim determination and courage; that by Cape Horn, a slow and persistent patience.
The route by the Isthmus, on the other hand, allured the impatient, the reckless, and those who were unaccustomed to and undesirous of hardships. Most of the gamblers and speculators, for example, as well as the cheaper politicians, went by Panama.
In October, 1848, the first steamship of the Pacific Steamship Company began her voyage from New York to Panama and San Francisco, and reached her destination toward the end of February. On the Atlantic every old tub that could be made to float so far was pressed into service. Naturally there were many more vessels on the Atlantic side than on the Pacific side, and the greatest congestion took place at Panama. Every man was promised by the shipping agent a through passage, but the shipping agent was careful to remain in New York.
The overcrowded ships were picturesque though uncomfortable. They were crowded to the guards with as miscellaneous a lot of passengers as were ever got together. It must be remembered that they were mostly young men in the full vigor of youth and thoroughly imbued with the adventurous spirit. It must be remembered again, if the reader can think back so far in his own experience, that youth of that age loves to deck itself out both physically and mentally in the trappings of romance. Almost every man wore a red shirt, a slouch hat, a repeating pistol, and a bowie-knife; and most of them began at once to grow beards. They came from all parts of the country. The lank Maine Yankee elbowed the tall, sallow, black-haired Southerner. Social distinctions soon fell away and were forgotten. No one could tell by speech, manners, or dress whether a man’s former status was lawyer, physician, or roustabout. The days were spent in excited discussions of matters pertaining to the new country and the theory and practice of gold-mining. Only two things were said to be capable of breaking in on this interminable palaver. One was dolphins and the other the meal-gong. When dolphins appeared, each passenger promptly rushed to the side of the ship and discharged his revolver in a fusillade that was usually harmless. Meal time always caught the majority unawares. They tumbled and jostled down the companionway only to find that the wise and forethoughtful had preempted every chair. There was very little quarreling. A holiday spirit seemed to pervade the crowd. Everybody was more or less elevated in mood and everybody was imbued with the same spirit of comradeship in adventure.
But with the sight of shore, the low beach, and the round high bluffs with the castle atop that meant Chagres, this comradeship rather fell apart. Soon a landing was to be made and transportation across the Isthmus had to be obtained. Men at once became rivals for prompt service. Here, for the first time, the owners of the weird mining-machines already described found themselves at a disadvantage, while those who carried merely the pick, shovel, and small personal equipment were enabled to make a flying start. On the beach there was invariably an immense wrangle over the hiring of boats to go up the river. These were a sort of dug-out with small decks in the bow and in the stern, and with low roofs of palmetto leaves amidships. The fare to Cruces was about fifteen dollars a man. Nobody was in a hurry but the Americans.
Chagres was a collection of cane huts on level ground, with a swamp at the back. Men and women clad in a single cotton garment lay about smoking cigars. Naked and pot-bellied children played in the mud. On the threshold of the doors, in the huts, fish, bullock heads, hides, and carrion were strewn, all in a state of decomposition, while in the rear was the jungle and a lake of stagnant water with a delicate bordering of greasy blue mud. There was but one hotel, called the Crescent City, which boasted of no floor and no food. The newcomers who were unsupplied with provisions had to eat what they could pick up. Unlearned as yet in tropical ways, they wasted a tremendous lot of nervous energy in trying to get the natives started. The natives, calm in the consciousness that there was plenty of demand, refused to be hurried. Many of the travelers, thinking that they had closed a bargain, returned from sightseeing only to find their boat had disappeared. The only safe way was to sit in the canoe until it actually started.
With luck they got off late in the afternoon, and made ten or twelve miles to Gatun. The journey up the lazy tropical river was exciting and interesting. The boatmen sang, the tropic forests came down to the banks with their lilies, shrubs, mangoes, cocos, sycamores, palms; their crimson, purple, and yellow blossoms; their bananas with torn leaves; their butterflies and paroquets; their streamers and vines and scarlet flowers. It was like a vision of fairyland.
Gatun was a collection of bamboo huts, inhabited mainly by fleas. One traveler tells of attempting to write in his journal, and finding the page covered with fleas before he had inscribed a dozen words. The gold seekers slept in hammocks, suspended at such a height that the native dogs found them most convenient back-scratchers. The fleas were not inactive. On all sides the natives drank, sang, and played monte. It generally rained at night, and the flimsy huts did little to keep out the wet. Such things went far to take away the first enthusiasm and to leave the travelers in rather a sad and weary-eyed state.
By the third day the river narrowed and became swifter. With luck the voyagers reached Gorgona on a high bluff. This was usually the end of the river journey. Most people bargained for Cruces six miles beyond, but on arrival decided that the Gorgona trail would be less crowded, and with unanimity went ashore there. Here the bargaining had to be started all over again, this time for mules. Here also the demand far exceeded the supply, with the usual result of arrogance, indifference, and high prices. The difficult ride led at first through a dark deep wood in clay soil that held water in every depression, seamed with steep eroded ravines and diversified by low passes over projecting spurs of a chain of mountains. There the monkeys and parrots furnished the tropical atmosphere, assisted somewhat by innumerable dead mules along the trail. Vultures sat in every tree waiting for more things to happen. The trail was of the consistency of very thick mud. In this mud the first mule had naturally left his tracks; the next mules trod carefully in the first mule’s footprints, and all subsequent mules did likewise. The consequence was a succession of narrow deep holes in the clay into which an animal sank half-way to the shoulder. No power was sufficient to make these mules step anywhere else. Each hole was full of muddy water. When the mule inserted his hoof, water spurted out violently as though from a squirt-gun. Walking was simply impossible.
All this was merely adventure for the young, strong, and healthy; but the terrible part of the Panama Trail was the number of victims claimed by cholera and fever. The climate and the unwonted labor brought to the point of exhaustion men unaccustomed to such exertions. They lay flat by the trail as though dead. Many actually did die either from the jungle fever or the yellow-jack. The universal testimony of the times is that this horseback journey seemed interminable; and many speak of being immensely cheered when their Indian stopped, washed his feet in a wayside mudhole, and put on his pantaloons. That indicated the proximity, at last, of the city of Panama.
It was a quaint old place. The two-story wooden houses with corridor and verandah across the face of the second story, painted in bright colors, leaned crazily out across the streets. Narrow and mysterious alleys led between them. Ancient cathedrals and churches stood gray with age before the grass-grown plazas. In the outskirts were massive masonry ruins of great buildings, convents, and colleges, some of which had never been finished. The immense blocks lay about the ground in confusion, covered by thousands of little plants, or soared against the sky in broken arches and corridors. But in the body of the town, the old picturesque houses had taken on a new and temporary smartness which consisted mostly of canvas signs. The main street was composed of hotels, eating-houses, and assorted hells. At times over a thousand men were there awaiting transportation. Some of them had been waiting a long time, and had used up all their money. They were broke and desperate. A number of American gambling-houses were doing business, and of course the saloons were much in evidence. Foreigners kept two of the three hotels; Americans ran the gambling joints; French and Germans kept the restaurants. The natives were content to be interested but not entirely idle spectators. There was a terrible amount of sickness aggravated by American quack remedies. Men rejoiced or despaired according to their dispositions. Every once in a while a train of gold bullion would start back across the Isthmus with mule-loads of huge gold bars, so heavy that they were safe, for no one could carry them off to the jungle. On the other hand there were some returning Californians, drunken and wretched. They delighted in telling with grim joy of the disappointments of the diggings. But probably the only people thoroughly unhappy were the steamship officials. These men had to bear the brunt of disappointment, broken promises, and savage recrimination, if means for going north were not very soon forthcoming. Every once in a while some ship, probably an old tub, would come wallowing to anchor at the nearest point, some eleven miles from the city. Then the raid for transportation took place all over again. There was a limited number of small boats for carrying purposes, and these were pounced on at once by ten times the number they could accommodate. Ships went north scandalously overcrowded and underprovisioned. Mutinies were not infrequent. It took a good captain to satisfy everybody, and there were many bad ones. Some men got so desperate that, with a touching ignorance of geography, they actually started out in small boats to row to the north. Others attempted the overland route. It may well be believed that the reaction from all this disappointment and delay lifted the hearts of these argonauts when they eventually sailed between the Golden Gates.
This confusion, of course, was worse at the beginning. Later the journey was to some extent systematized. The Panama route subsequently became the usual and fashionable way to travel. The ship companies learned how to handle and treat their patrons. In fact, it was said that every jewelry shop in San Francisco carried a large stock of fancy silver speaking-trumpets because of the almost invariable habit of presenting one of these to the captain of the ship by his grateful passengers. One captain swore that he possessed eighteen of them!