Rush Days On The Isthmus
by Willie K. Friar
The Panama Canal Review . . . Fall 1971
Girls in red velvet swings
in the gas-lighted taverns of old San Francisco, covered wagons lurching across the vast
deserts and snow covered mountains of the United States with fierce Indian braves in hot
pursuit. These are the scenes that come to mind at the mention of the California Gold
Rush; not malaria stricken men on recalcitrant burros jolting their way over the jungle
trails of Panama or others poling their dugout canoes through the shallow reaches of the
Yet Panama, Las Cruces Trail, and the Chagres were very much a part of the scene during
Gold Rush days, with thousands of gold seekers electing to take the "shortcut"
across the Isthmus. The great throngs that joined the Rush in 1849 were to become known as
the Forty-niners, a term that eventually came to mean anyone who goes in search of gold or
Before the discovery of gold in California, Panama was seldom visited except by an
occasional whaler and travelers across the Isthmus were "few and far between."
But when the cry of "gold" reverberated around the world, with the discovery of
the lode at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento in 1848, it signaled for Panama, the beginning
of another colorful chapter in its history as a route of passage.
During the next two decades the Isthmian route was to become one of the world's most
traveled thoroughfares. It was obvious that the shortest way to California was by way of
Panama, avoiding the 10,000-mile sea voyage around the Horn or the dangerous 3,000-mile
trek across the United States. And, in the frenzy of "gold fever" few gave any
thought to the hazards they would face transiting the small neck of land that stood in
Ships from the north first touched land at the forlorn village of Chagres near the mouth
of the Chagres River and at the height of the Gold Rush hordes of California-bound
emigrants daily swarmed ashore, determined to make their way to the other side of the
Isthmus without delay and there re-embark for the final dash to California.
The Isthmian crossing was made in stages, partly by river, and partly by land. First, the
Forty-niners had to seek out and hire native boatmen with dugout canoes, called
"bungoes," to transport them to some point in the vicinity of Cruces or Gorgona.
From there, they took mules to Panama or, if they could afford it, the expensive
"silleros," so called because of the silla, a kind of chair which the natives
lashed to their backs for carrying passengers.
The trail from Cruces was longer and rougher than that from Gorgona but had the advantage
of being open in all weather. It followed the ancient Las Cruces Trail of the Spanish
Conquistadores. It had once been paved with stone over its entire length and, despite
centuries of neglect, enough of the stonework remained to give the mules a footing,
precarious though it was during the drenching tropical rains. The Gorgona route, while
shorter, became an impassable quagmire during tropical downpours. The bungo boatmen were
in an excellent bargaining position with hundreds of men rushing ashore and bidding
against one another for passage up the river. It became a matter of survival of the
fittest. The ablest at bargaining, at paying, or at forcing the natives to stick to a
bargain in the face of higher bids, loaded their supplies into the boats and set off. At
the beginning of the Gold Rush the fee for the first lap of the trip was about $10 per
passenger, but prices soared and bargaining became heated as the demand increased.
All travelers were anxious, with good reason, to get out of the village of Chagres. It was
notorious as a breeding spot for yellow fever, cholera, and malaria, where the death rate
was so high that most insurance companies included a clause in their policies stating that
all benefits would be canceled automatically if the policy holder remained overnight in
It was a treacherous 60 miles from Chagres to Panama City by river and trail with the sole
avenue of travel for the first 40 miles on the meandering Chagres River, which was, by
turns, broad and sluggish, narrow, and turbulent.
After about an hour at the oars the boatmen routinely tied up their crafts and plunged
into the water to cool off or they disappeared into the jungle and returned carrying
bottles of native brandy from well hidden caches along the route. Many of the passengers,
convinced that a supply of wine or stronger beverage was a necessary safeguard against the
tropical diseases, joined the boatmen in passing around the bottle and it was not uncommon
to encounter whole boatloads of Forty-Niners following an erratic course upstream with
passengers and oarsmen laughing uproariously as they sang "Oh Susanna" or
"Yankee Doodle." The Spanish speaking natives often had little idea of the
meaning of the words they were mispronouncing.
The clothing of the travelers and their arsenal of guns and knives were subjects of wonder
and merriment to the friendly, scantily clad natives. Ill-formed concerning what to expect
in Panama as well as in California, the men frequently brought heavy woolen clothing best
suited for Arctic conditions. As the trip progressed, these clothes were discarded and it
was not long before the streets of Panama City were littered with a collection of fur
hats, red flannel shirts, and woolen trousers.
DINED ON IGUANA
The passage up the river usually took at least 3 days with overnight stops at native
villages along the way. Food was difficult to find and eating at the huts often proved an
unnerving experience. Wild stories circulated and the travelers, unacquainted with the
ways of the tropics, became suspicious of any food they could not immediately identify.
But hunger often overcame their reservations and some later reported they were sure they
had dined on iguana, snake, monkey, and other exotic animals.
The traveler wrote that he had drunk his first cup of coffee at a hut and found it so good
that he ordered another. When he indicated that he would like more sugar in it, he was
dismayed to see the girl serving it chew a piece of sugarcane and calmly spit the juice
into the cup before she handed it to him. He decided to stick to brandy for the rest of
When the boats reached Cruces or Gorgona on finishing the first part of the journey across
the Isthmus, the haggling began anew as the men paid off the boat owners before starting a
new series of negotiations for mule transportation to Panama City.
Like the Chagres boatmen, the overland packers shrewdly fixed prices depending on the
current demand for services. The distance was only 20 miles but the route was through
rugged country with trails so narrow that riders were forced, in some places, to put their
feet up on the mule's back to be able to pass through. The mud on the slippery trail was
often knee deep.
Scores of Panama mules moved constantly over the route bearing burdens out of all
proportion to their size as many of the Forty-Niners had supplied themselves with all
manner of outrageous Rube Goldberg-type gold-finding devices and enough provisions to last
a whole year.
One guidebook of the day recommended the following as the minimum amount of supplies
needed for a year in the goldfields: 1 barrel of salt pork; 10 barrels of salt beef; 100
pounds of ham; 10 pounds of hard bread; 40 crocks of butter and cheese; and a goodly
supply of tea, salt, sugar, and spices. How a man was to transport himself and such a
store of supplies across the Isthmus and onto the ship bound for California was not
FOOD WAS SCARCE
The travelers who survived the rigors of crossing the Isthmus thought first of food and
lodging when they finally arrived in Panama City. More often than not, they found no room
available in the overcrowded town and set up camp in the tree-covered fields outside the
ancient walls of Panama City, improvising shelter from whatever material was on hand and
preparing their meals over campfires.
And there the men stayed, often for months. Ship after ship continued to come in on the
Atlantic side but far fewer were leaving on the Pacific side for California. And when the
ships did arrive and began taking on passengers, those with through-tickets often found
the ships already filled with men who had no reservations but refused to get off. During
the first 6 years of the Gold Rush, demand for space on California-bound ships was so
great that tickets sometimes changed hands for as much as $1,000. Brothels, saloons, and
gambling dens soon sprang up and many men lost their tickets or ticket money before they
could secure passage.
AGHAST AT MORALS
The Bishop of California, the Right Rev. William Ingraham Kip, passed through during this
period and was aghast at the morals and living conditions. He wrote of his accommodations
in Panama City, where he was put up in a room with 200 others, "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. 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. To make matters worse, next
to us was a pen (I can call it nothing else) of boards about 10 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. It was enough to convince
one of the doctrine of total depravity."
Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions began to take their toll with diseases often
reaching epidemic proportions. Thousands fell victim to dysentery, malaria, and yellow
fever. An almost complete lack of medical care made mortality high. Once a disease was
contracted it had to run its course. Those who died were placed in the ever-growing
"American" cemeteries at one or another of the ports and the survivors either
returned home or continued on to the gold fields. New crosses were erected daily which the
tropical rains washed away while new shiploads of gold seekers continued to straggle past
on the way to the great adventure.
Guides for Forty-Niners planning to cross the Isthmus often advised against drinking
alcoholic beverages and then eating tropical fruits which they said would cause "a
fermentation in the bowels which no medical care seems to help."
Many survived the stay on the Isthmus only to find themselves faced with the hazards of
epidemics aboard the ships. Most were overloaded, increasing chances of contracting
contagious diseases. Many passengers were exposed to cholera and yellow fever before
boarding the ships and there were often numerous deaths before they reached San Francisco.
In August 1852, the Pacific Mail's steamship, Golden Gate, having taken on a full
load of passengers, including several companies of the Fourth Infantry bound for the
Presidio at San Francisco, was found to have several passengers with cholera. The disease
spread rapidly. Before the ship cleared Panama Bay 84 soldiers had died, and there were
almost daily fatalities all the way to California.
ULYSSES S. GRANT
One detachment of soldiers
had become infected while stranded for 5 days in Cruces. Among the group was a future
Commander in Chief and President of the United States, Capt. Ulysses S. Grant. A mule
owner had contracted to provide baggage transportation for the Army at 11 cents a pound,
but when civilian travelers offered him 16 to 20 cents, he conveniently forgot the
contract. Captain Grant succeeded in securing more mules but not before 12 soldiers had
died. In the meantime, work on the trans-Isthmian railroad was going forward. The project
was not, as might be assumed, inspired by the discovery of gold. It had been under
consideration for more than a decade before the Rush began.
The route was surveyed as early as 1841 and in 1847 the Panama Railroad Company was
organized by a small group of New York financiers. While the company's organizers were men
of vision, they never dreamed in 1847, that the discovery of gold in California
would assure the successful completion of the railway and a fortune for the company. The
affairs of the railroad looked very dark and its stock had taken a tumble when a climactic
event changed the outlook for the enterprise.
On the first day of October
1851, a train of working cars had passed over the road as far as Gatun. The next month two
ships, the Georgia and Philadelphia, arrived off Chagres in rough
weather with passengers en route to California. After several lives were lost in an
attempt to bring the ships into the customary anchorage at the mouth of the Chagres, they
anchored in what is now Limon Bay, where the railroad had its Atlantic terminal.
Discovering that the work train had made a run as far as Gatun, the anxious emigrants
converged on the railroad and offered to pay any price to be transported on the train for
the 7 miles. There was not a single passenger car but the railroad finally gave into their
pleas and transported them to Gatun on the work train where they could take the bungoes as
From then on, the railroad carried passengers as far as the tracks extended. The resulting
revenue was estimated at over $1 million before the railroad was completed. For the next
15 years the railroad was a bonanza. Annual dividends were never below 12 percent and in
1868 reached 44 percent. During the first 12 years of its operations, it carried over $750
million in gold dust, nuggets, and gold and silver coin, collecting 1/4 of 1 percent on
Hordes of Forty-niners crossed and recrossed the Isthmus on the railroad paying $25 for a
one-way fare. The company charged $6 just to walk across the Isthmus on the roadbed.
On April 21, 1855, the New York Times, telling of the merits of the Panama route,
published this story: "The fine steamer Illinois sailed for Aspinwall
yesterday with 715 passengers for California, another vindication of the opinion expressed
a fortnight ago; that the steam of emigration is flowing California-ward this spring with
a stronger tide than ever before. Seven hundred and fifteen passengers! What a young
village is here! But the vessel is large and commodious and will accommodate them all with
ease; so friends who are mourning the departing ones, don't dream of them as sharers in
the horrors of a 'middle passage.'
"The ease and convert with which a trip can be made to California now by way of
Aspinwall and the Panama Railroad is greatly promoting the emigration thitherward of the
families of those adventurers who desire to settle on the Pacific slope. The Illinois
carried out no less than 120 ladies and 78 children - the larger portion of them
unaccompanied by gentlemen. Instead, ladies may now make the trip to San Francisco with no
more difficulty and much less fatigue than the journey to Washington would involve. The
steamer upon reaching Aspinwall meets a train of railroad cars upon the wharf with steam
all up ready for a start. A 3 or 4 hour's ride brings them to the Pacific coast and an
hour more places them on the vessel which is to land them at San Francisco. The changes of
conveyance are two only; and there are no exposures to fevers or rain or any other serious
inconvenience on the way."
The New York Times added, "The ladies are beginning to understand this and
California is reaping the advantage of the addition to its population of numerous families
whose influence cannot fail to be most beneficial to the State."
THE OPPOSITE SEX
This was welcome news to the Forty-Niners already in California where there were so few of
the opposite sex that a man would often walk many miles just to look at a woman.
The Isthmian crossing continued to be a popular route to the West until 1869 when the
first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed.
Although the Gold Rush, in which the Chagres, Las Cruces Trail, and the Panama Railroad
played such a significant role, passed into history, the Isthmus continued to play an
important role in the development of the "Golden West" with the Panama Canal
taking on the job of providing the historically vital route of passage.
January 23, 1999