Night of Horror in April '56.

When the Panama Railroad was opened in 1855, it threw the men engaged in the pack-train business out of a job.  At that time the criminal element formed a considerable constituent of the population, their number being augmented by the idle pack-train men who finding nothing profitable to do turned to ways dark and devious.  In addition, many were openly antagonistic to the railroad which had taken from them their means of livelihood.  All of this led up to the occurrences herein related.  It should be understood that the better class of private citizens had no part in the affair, although the authorities were charged with woeful laxity.  Afterwards, the best people of the town took the initiative and helped rid it of the lawless element.
A fearful night in Panama was that of the 15th of April, 1856.  The vesper bells had just sounded from the towers of the Cathedral, but instead of the usual Ave Maria, the calm of that moonlight evening was broken by distant cries and the noise of many feet rushing through the streets.  The church bells outside the walls tolled the signal of fire, but unconsciously they rang an alarm of a more terrible nature than that, an alarm that spelled robbery and murder and sent more than a dozen to an unknown grave.

Shouts of "To the Cienaga," were heard on every hand, and the rush concentrated itself in that direction.  The Cienaga was a district of the town, then outside the city proper, where were located the passenger station, offices, and wharf of the Panama Railroad Company.  The same buildings are standing today, practically intact, and are now known as the old passenger station, and the American Wharf.  In 1856 there was a cluster of cheap hotels and eating houses in the vicinity of this station.  Those have since disappeared.

On the afternoon of April 15th, 970 passengers arrived at Panama from New York, bound for the California gold fields.  They had expected to embark immediately on the steamer John L. Stephens, but the tide being out, they were detained on shore.  Some of the passengers were gathered about the station waiting to get their tickets registered, while others went to the hotels and eating houses.   Shortly after six o'clock one of the passengers said to have been under the influence of liquor, became involved in an altercation with a Negro fruit vendor over the settlement for a piece of watermelon.  The Negro made a hostile demonstration with a knife, whereupon the passenger drew his revolver and fired.  A commotion immediately ensued.  The passenger sought refuge in the ocean Hotel, along with some of his companions.

Here the crowd assembled, and inside of fifteen minutes an attack was made on the Ocean Hotel, McAllister's store, and the Pacific House, the latter situated to the left of the railroad depot.  Capt. McLane, agent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and Mr. William Nelson of the railroad company were not far away when the outbreak occurred, and quickly sent for Col. Garrido, and the police.  Meanwhile some of the passengers had started down to the wharf to embark, while others clamored for guns and ammunition to go to the rescue of the women and children in the hotels.  All the arms in the railroad office at the time consisted of a double-barreled gun, brace of pistols, a saber and fourteen old flintlock muskets.  After some delay these guns were given out and loaded for defense, but a sentry was stationed at the door to prevent any from going out and joining in the fight.  While this was going on, Mr. Center, another official of the railroad, succeeded in getting the women and children removed from the ocean Hotel.

Col. Ward, the American consul, and Mr. Sabla, his secretary, arrived on the scene at this juncture, and endeavored with other cooler heads to restrain the male passengers from mixing in the fray.  An old cannon belonging to the railroad company was dug out of the sand and loaded with rivets, but Col. Ward and Mr. Center gave positive orders that it was not to be fired unless an advance was made by the mob.  The consul then sent his secretary to see if the police were coming, but as he did not return, (having been shot in the leg), the consul and Mr. Nelson went forward to see how matters stood.  They had not advanced beyond the Pacific House when a crowd of natives came from among the cane huts.  Mr. Nelson called to them not to fire, but they disregarded the order and let off a number of shots, some of which hit Col. Ward's horse.  Mr. Nelson expostulated with the people, but they told him to keep out of the way and not to go back to the station, unless he wanted to be killed.  Mr. Nelson persisted in his course toward the station and finally reached there in safety.

In the meantime most of the passengers and persons at the station had got inside the company's fence and sheltered themselves as well as possible from the bullets that now flew thick and fast.  The mob had maintained a regular fire on the building, killing several and wounding others.  A report was then spread that the natives were changing their positions and everyone felt a little easier, believing that when Col. Garrido arrived with the police, the affair would be speedily terminated.   Soon after the bugle of the police was heard, but instead of charging on the rioters, they joined issue with them, and commenced firing on the depot.  By this time the natives had reached the freight house and were busy pillaging it.

Col. Ward, with some of the others then returned to town for the purpose of inducing the governor to come and stop the massacre.  On their way up they were halted by a party of armed natives, but were finally permitted to proceed.   Arriving at the Governor's house, they found him away, but there was a crowd of men about the place carrying guns and demanding powder and ball.  After some further search, the Governor was located in another street.  He agreed to accompany the American party back to the station, but stated he had already been there, and got a bullet through his hat.

Reaching the scene of the trouble once more, they found the natives still plundering the Ocean Hotel, and McAllister's store, while a man on the beach had a cannon loaded and pointed at the steamer Taboga lying near by.   It was with some difficulty that he was induced not to fire.  Here too they learned that Col. Garrido of the police had gone on board the Taboga, disarmed the passengers and removed the ship's gun.

While the other officials were absent on the above errand, Mr. Center who had remained behind started to take a look about the depot.  He found the freight room filled with men, women and children, all trying to screen themselves from the firing, then very brisk, and in a state of the wildest excitement.  From here he entered the office where he found a group of men trying to keep the outer door closed.   He proceeded to assist them, and while doing so saw a man killed before his eyes.   On the floor of the office lay four or five of the dead and wounded.

Leaving the scene of the slaughter he next managed to get a plank over the beams of the freight door, and looking out upon the Cienaga, he distinctly saw the police outside the depot firing deliberately into it, Col. Garrido with his sword drawn cheering and urging them on.  Proceeding from here to one of the rooms in the upper story of the station, Mr. Center discovered two of the passengers trying to hold a door shut.  Even as he approached them, they were both shot, one dying instantly and the other in a few hours.  The natives finally forced a passage into the freight room, and commenced to rifle and plunder carpet bags, and trunks, while the frightened passengers congregated here, cried for mercy.

When Mr. Nelson and Capt. McLane reached the station after leaving the Governor, they found the police outside in a very excited state.  They clamed they had been fired upon from the upper story of the depot, and were desirous of retaliating in the same manner.  Upon Capt. McLane promising investigation, Col. Garrido ordered further demonstrations upon the part of the police to cease, and together they went to the room upstairs in the depot from which the shots were alleged to have come.  This room they found filled with women and children, the few men there declaring they had never fired a shot.

About this time the authorities had obtained the ascendancy over the mob, and as soon as possible the remaining women and children were conveyed on board the steamer.  Some of the passengers had taken to the bushes in the outskirts of town, and a search party was sent out to round them up.  One was met who said he had been robbed by men calling themselves policemen.

An examination of the railroad office after the riot revealed a terrible sight.  The dead and wounded lay about the floor, some of the former horribly mutilated.  All the books, papers, and furniture of the company were destroyed.  An attempt had been made to break open the large iron safe, a hold having actually been made through the exterior plate.  Outside, some of the cars had been damaged, rails taken up, and the telegraph wires cut.  The attempt to fire the depot providentially failed.  The streets approaching the station were strewn with cut open trunks, and discarded material from the sacked buildings.

The lives of sixteen Americans are known to have been lost in the riot, all but two, passengers of the steamer Illinois from New York.   Of these, only four or five were identified.  The wounded numbered about fifty.  Among the victims of the tragedy was Nathan Preble, a descendant of Commodore Preble, the noted American naval officer [The occurrences herein related are based upon depositions made by Mr. Center and Mr. Wm. Nelson of the Panama Railroad Company, and statement made by Capt. McLane of P.M.S.S. Co., published in the Star & Herald of April 19th, 1856. - Editor].

The U.S. Ship, St. Mary, arrived in Panama Bay on the 23d, following the occurrence, and the Panama Star & Herald of April 29th, 1856, contains the following correspondence between the commander, Capt. T. Bailey, and the Governor of Panama, with reference to the affair:—

U.S. Ship, St. Mary,
Harbor of Panama,
April 23d, 1856

His Excellency, Don F. de Fabrega,
Governor of Panama.

On the 15th inst., several citizens of the United States, France, and Great Britain were massacred; others were seriously wounded and outraged, and a large amount of American property was plundered by the police and inhabitants of Panama and vicinity.

These outrages, robberies and murders were for the most part committed upon innocent and unarmed men, women, and children, who were peacefully endeavoring to pass this great highway of nations.  It is my chief duty to employ force under my command for the prompt protection of the lives and property of American citizens.  An early explanation therefore, of the cause of this catastrophe, as well as some evidence of your Excellency's inclination and ability to prevent such occurrences, is desired by me in determining the necessity of my immediate interference for the protection of the persons and property of the citizens of the United States, until specific orders from my Government shall be received.

I am Sir,
Your Obedient Servant,
T. Bailey
Commander, U.S.N.

The Governor replied in a lengthy statement reciting the origin of the affair, setting forth that he had sufficient force at his disposal to prevent a repetition of such occurrences, and enclosing depositions from José Manuel Luna who was concerned in the row with the American, and two from natives of the United States, one T.B. Williams, 33 years old, a native of Georgia and an employee of the railroad company, who gave testimony against the passengers.

The statement evidently did not afford satisfaction to the American officer for two days later, on the 25th of April, a second representation was made to the Governor, as follows:—

"Sir:—I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your replies to my communications of the 23d, and 24th inst.  apart from the announcement of the restoration to the owners, of the cannon and arms illegally taken from the steamer Taboga, I must confess they afford me little satisfaction.  I had expected when asking for information as to the causes of the frightful occurrences of the 15th inst., that apart from the immediate origin of the tumult, you would have deemed it due to yourself as the Chief Magistrate of this community to state why and wherefore you undertook the fearful responsibility of ordering your police to fire upon my countrymen, women and children, and to state what steps you have taken to punish the guilty and restore the plunder."

"Ten days have elapsed since the catastrophe, and I have yet to learn that a single criminal has been arrested, or that any portion of the immense amount of valuables taken from the passengers and railroad company has been restored.  I have yet to learn that your "Conciencia de mis deberes y la inteligencia de los grandes intereses que se ligan á la conservación de esta línea tránsito universal," extends any farther than to order an indiscriminate massacre of the passengers over this transit.  I have yet to learn that when a riot or a collision shall take place here between foreigners on one side, and natives on the other, that you recognize any higher obligation on your part than to protect and assist the latter, and disarm, maltreat and plunder the former."

"The deduction, I regret to state, affords me little assurance of the safety of the transit for the future, unless your Excellency shall devise some more speedy and efficacious method for rendering these unfortunate elements less 'homogenous' hereafter."

The letter concludes with the information that the whole matter had been referred to Washington.

The affair brought the governments of the United States and Colombia, at one time, to the verge of open rupture, but wiser heads prevailed, and settlement brought about through the payment by Colombia of the sum of $400,000 gold indemnity for property destroyed, and the assurance on her part that no further occurrences of the kind would take place.

From: The Canal Zone Pilot
The Star & Herald Company, 1908

August 30, 2000