Gold 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 Chagres River.

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 treasure.

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 their way.

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 the village.


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.


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 the trip.

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 explained.


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.


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.


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 usual.


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 each shipment. 

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."


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.

Presented by CZBrats
January 23, 1999

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