Mrs. Mattie J. Morrison Tells Of Pioneer Days on the Zone
From the Canal Record, 1989

Arrived in 1906

I arrived on the Isthmus Saturday morning at eight o'clock July 12, 1906. The rain was coming down in bucketsful. Our husbands met us and we found a hotel close to the Railroad Station where we spent the remainder of our day until train time. I had eaten very little during my eight days aboard ship, so we set about ordering lunch. The room was located in back of a saloon. The orders emitted therefrom were not conducive to hearty appetites, but I saw fresh pineapple listed on the menu and it tempted me. When my order arrived, I found it floating in wine - so I skipped luncheon.

We left Colon at two o'clock in the afternoon and we arrived about four o'clock at Gorgona. The small station was right down on the railroad tracks and we had to climb an embankment (about 8 or 10 steps) in order to reach the level where our quarters were built. We passed the post office and then a row of 7 or 8 emergency tents. The big emergency hospital came next. There were more tents in back of the hospital and we were told that 65 smallpox patients were hospitalized there.
There was a coffin factory in our town and it was doing a rushing business. Many coffins were packed under the basement of the hospital and many more were sent down the line to other base hospitals. Some friends of ours told us that in the early construction period, veterans having a humorous turn of mind found it convenient to ship these coffins on the day the boat arrived bringing new employees. These coffins, therefore, were neatly stacked in the railroad depot. As each new man disembarked from the train, a delegation of men met him and proceeded to take his measurements. When questioned about their actions, they replied that they were taking the man's measurements for his coffin. It is a fact that at this time many men were dying daily from accidents, malaria and blackwater fever. The measuring process was a jest on the part of the old timers, but it scared many a less humorous man back to the United States.

Enters New Home

I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes when I walked into my new home. Excelsior, packing cases and mud were everywhere in evidence. This house had been assigned to my husband in April. It had not been finished when the Quartermaster notified him in June that he would lose his assignment if he did not get his family on the Isthmus. The screening had not been finished, there was no plumbing or electric lights, and only one pipe of running water. (During our early days, our drinking water was brought to us in big demi-johns carried by West Indian laborers. This water was distilled and sent to us this way, because the running water we had was not healthful to drink.)

I later found out that my house had been used at lunch time for a mess by carpenters and workmen who sawed lumber in the shed directly in back of our house. This practice continued during the construction of the new jail and bachelor quarters until we arrived. This explained why the red clay and mud was so packed down on the floor; it seemed ingrained in the wood. One hardly knew where the mud left off and the floor began. It was Saturday evening, and there were no groceries or foodstuff the house. The men went about a half a block down the hill to the commissary. I shall never forget them returning up the hill, carrying a tub filled with groceries between them. One had a five gallon tin of oil in his free arm and the other carried a bucket of groceries likewise. In the meantime, my older daughter and I knocked a crate apart with a rock and fashioned a rake out of the pieces. This we used to rake the excelsior and mud out of the house and was nearly finished by the time the men returned. My husband returned to the commissary to get a broom and a mop so I could clear the deck for action and set up housekeeping. He also purchased a two-burner oil stove for me as the range (coal burning) was minus a pipe. My household furniture consisted of the following pieces: two old rickety beds, the legs of which seemed to be going in all directions at once, four dining chairs, a dining table and small buffet. I had no kitchen table or kitchen shelves of any description. We finally managed to get a bit of supper together about seven o'clock. Mr. Morrison's foreman came in to tell us that the men would have to be at work the next morning (Sunday) at seven.

Squatters Right For Bugs

We had endured a trying day and so retired. It was necessary for us to make a quick retreat due to the fact that bedbugs had established "squatters rights." The old hair mattress had several large holes in it about the size of a saucer and every hole was lined with bedbugs. Nothing was left for us to do save to saturate the mattress with kerosene oil. This accomplished, we went back to bed minus the bedbugs but plus the kerosene odors. This had to continue for several nights until a change in mattresses could be made.

Friends who came to inquire about their families in Houston, TX came over from Colon every Sunday morning so Mrs. Lowe, my daughter, went down to the native market to purchase fresh meat and vegetables for dinner. Monday I began house cleaning with a vengeance. I scrubbed two small rooms, my hands were all blistered and I was nearly exhausted. I asked one of the West Indian carpenters working nearby if he knew of anyone who I could hire to scrub the two large rooms remaining to be cleaned. He informed me that he and his friend would do so at lunch time, which they did in the following manner. They first first soaked the floor with water to loosen the mud and then shavings were thrown all over the floor. This, they explained was done to soak up the water. They continued by scrubbing the floor with these shavings and sweeping all the dirty water out on the front porch which I had scrubbed early that morning. What an unhappy moment for me - the whistle blew! And back to their work went the carpenters leaving me the front porch to be scrubbed once more. I asked then what I owed them for their labor. His reply was "four dollars." If I had not been prepared, I might have swooned in my tracks. The day before I paid two dollars apiece to have my two trunks brought from the station so I was nonplused as far as the cleaners' bill was concerned.

Lacks Household Goods

Previous to my sailing to the Isthmus, my husband sent me word that I should bring no household things with me because the Government furnished everything. I found it necessary Wednesday morning to go into Panama to purchase dishes and oil lamps. My daughter, Mrs. Lowe, accompanied me. At that time there were no paved streets in Panama. After disembarking from the train at the Panama Station, we hired a carameta to take us to the central part of town - it seemed to take forever and a day to get there. We  were on the lookout for anyone who might speak English. Reaching Maduro's store down by the old sea wall (near the President's Palace), we found to our great delight that Mrs. Johnson, an employee there, spoke English. She directed us to the French Bazaar and Chong Kee's stores where we were able to purchase what we wanted by pointing and gesticulating.

Our thoughts turned to things to eat at this time, so we stopped at the Central Hotel. One just walked in from the street into a small room in which there were only 3 small tables. One of the tables was occupied by two Panama gentlemen. We seated ourselves and I attempted, with my scant knowledge of the Spanish language, to order bread, tea and meat. Having lived for many years on the Texas border, I knew sufficient Spanish to do this. What a great surprise was in store for me.

Our luncheon came. It consisted of 3 meat courses, one fish course, besides the regular vegetables and side dishes. Although ravenously hungry, we did not have the capacity to do justice to that meal. Our attention was called to the actions of the two gentlemen at the other table. They were having a heated argument and seemed almost to the point of blows. Having lived in Texas, where the custom is "A word and a blow, but the blow generally comes first," we did not know whether to run or stand our ground. At this psychological moment, two American Marines made their entrance and immediately our morale was restored by their presence. We were able to finish our meal without further anxiety. Although the Panama gentlemen had not yet settled their dispute, we left them to return home to Gorgona.

January 7, 2002