Bits & Pieces

 April 5, 2009

De Lesseps Visits Panama

Photo sent by Teresita Azcarraga

On December 30, 1879, Ferdinand de Lesseps visited Panama for the first time arriving at Colon (then known as Aspinwall) aboard the Lafayette. The town had been built by the railroad on Manzanillo Island, a coral flat, no more than a mile by three-quarters of a mile in area, and so there was salt water on all but its southern side. Streets, barely above tide level, were unpaved and strewn from end to end with garbage, bits of broken furniture and dead animals. Enormous buzzards circled overhead and the populace lived in appalling squalor. The entire town reeked of putrefaction.

The welcoming ceremonies were held aboard the ship on the Pacific Mail wharf with a little band playing mightily on the dock. The next morning, the Pacific Mail steamer Colon docked besides the Lafayette,bringing a party of New Yorkers, including stockholders of the railroad, who were to join the tour. That same day, with the little band playing furiously again, the party boarded the train and took off for Panama city.

The trip took them through the towns of Gatun, Tiger Hill, Lion Hill, Ahorca Lagarto (which means garroting, hanging, an alligator), Bohio Soldado (place where a soldier lives), and Barbacoa. Here, the tracks crossed the mighty Chagres over a heavy iron bridge 600 feet long and 40 feet above the river. A recent flood had damaged the bridge and the party had to cross on foot. On the other side, a second train awaited and the party proceeded on its trip. Lunch was served and they continued to pass through localities as Rio Caimilo Mulato, Rio Baila Monos (meaning dance monkeys), Rio Culo Seco (dry asshole!), and Rio Caribali, all tributaries of the Chagres. They passed Gorgona Station, Matachin, Rio Obispo, Emperador and Culebra, also known as Summit Station. Next came Rio Grande, Pedro Miguel, and Miraflores, the last town before arriving at the city.

In Panama, La Estrella de Panama/ The Star & Herald was already being published in Spanish and English. The whole citizenship had worked for days cleaning and painting the city for the Reception of the famous Frenchman and his family. "The reception of M. de Lesseps at this town was something never to be forgotten," wrote J.C. Rodrigues in his first dispatch from Panama City. "It seems that every one of the 14,000 inhabitants was at the railroad station to get a glimpse of the distinguished guest."

After the predictable speeches at the station, the procession of carriages rolled off to Cathedral Plaza, along Avenida Central, which was lined by an honor guard of little Colombian soldiers in white trousers and tunics and blue caps trimmed in red. At the inaugural ceremonies, de Lesseps was welcomed by Demaso Cervera, president of the Colombian state of Panama.

By the contemporary sketch, above, of the ceremony, it is easy to see the importance given to this first trip to Panama by Ferdinand de Lesseps.

(Information from The Path Between The Seas by David McCullough)

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas