Bits & Pieces

March 2, 2011

Traveling To Culebra, Panama

By The Reverend S. Moss Loveridge, 1919
 
 I left Great Britain at the age of 23 years in August 1900 for the Isthmus of Panama to follow my chosen profession as a missionary.  Panama was then a province of Colombia. In those early days, Panama had an unenviable reputation of being anything but a health resort, the old fable of there being one death for every sleeper on the railway line during its construction being generally believed. The truth is that though the mortality during the construction of the Panama Railroad was very high, the estimated number of sleepers required for the whole railroad would be in the region of 140,000 and at no time were there more than six to seven thousand laborers employed on the work. But if the construction of the railroad was costly in human lives, so also was the Canal during the French days.
 
The, French during their attempt at construction of the Canal, had lost about one third of all their white employees; twenty thousand lives in eight years. So when my mother told our family doctor of my expected departure for Panama, he replied, "Well, Mrs. Loveridge, all I can say is that if your son is intending to go to Panama, I should send out his coffin on the same steamer."
 
To set the scene I will briefly describe the climate in Panama. The temperature changes but little, it being between 85 and 95 degrees F during the day in the shade. The wet season is from April to December during when it rains most days, although much of the rain falls between midday and 2.00 p.m. As can be imagined the rain is heavy and can, in the south, average 40 inches per month in the wet season. In Colon, the annual rainfall averages 130 inches while, sometimes, over six inches falls in one hour. As for the dry season, it is wonderful; one experiences cloudless blue skies with a gentle north wind.
 
Just one month after being ordained I sailed to the Isthmus of Panama in the SS "Ashanti", then carrying a cargo of coal for Colon.  At dawn, on the twenty first day of the voyage from England, we sighted the high mountains of Colombia and we docked at Colon, which actually stands on Manzanilla Island, that same evening. As our ship approached the Isthmus, the coast line with its dense tropical foliage and its waving palm and coconut trees was a very impressive sight. But Colon in those early days was anything but an attractive place.  Its old wooden wharves, its dilapidated shops and shanties, all made of wood and roofed with corrugated iron and provided with narrow verandas on which all the family cooking was usually undertaken, gave the town a very tumbledown appearance.  The railway ran down the middle of the main street and, after a tropical downpour, the native buggies drawn by half-famished ponies, often sank up to their axles in the mud and water.
 
And what a cosmopolitan place Colon was. In it one found local natives as well as negroes from the West Indies, Chinese, Jews, Americans, English, French, Cubans, Italians, Spaniards and people from fifty other countries.  One can hear half a dozen different languages in the narrow streets. One can also see little children running about the streets quite nude.
 
As our steamer arrived alongside the wharf on Saturday, an hour before sunset and after the last train across the Isthmus had departed, there was nothing I could do but reconcile myself to remaining on board ship until Monday morning. Then I could take the 8 a.m. train to Culebra, my new hometown and the highest point on the Isthmus. There, the New French Company was still carrying on the work of excavation for the Canal but on a very small scale. So on Sunday I attended the services at the Wesleyan church, where the Rev AW Geddes introduced himself and invited me to take part. Returning to the ship at night I found the mosquitoes very bad and there was little sleep for me or for anyone else on board.
 
Early next morning I started on my first journey across the Isthmus on what was once one of the most costly, as well as one of the most profitable, railways in the world. On taking the train at Colon on the Caribbean coast for the city of Panama on the Pacific coast, one would naturally expect to travel nearly due west, but one would be surprised to find oneself travelling south; a glance at the map will explain this.
 
That first trip across the Isthmus on the old single track Panama Railroad, before the construction of the present line (after the Americans took over), was unforgettable. No sooner had the train started than a native policeman came to each passenger with a big book in which all were required to sign their names, nationality, place of embarkation and intended destination. On asking why, I was informed that it was because the Isthmus, then still flying the Colombian flag, was in the throes of one of its periodical revolutions and the information was required as a security check. The train left the outskirts of Colon, passing the old French town of Cristobal on the right with its two old palaces, built for Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son and then passed over an artificial causeway that connects Manzanilla Island with the mainland. On the left there are extensive mangrove swamps, while on the right is an old French dry-dock; after the mangrove swamps with their dense undergrowth, the train passed to higher ground as we reached Monkey Hill (later to be renamed Mount Hope) Cemetery on the left.
 
Leaving Monkey Hill the train passed through tropical jungle which was so dense that the branches of some of the trees often brushed the windows of the passenger carriages, while stretches of swamp, nearly hidden by the overhanging verdure, were frequent on both sides of the line. From Monkey Hill, passing Mindi on the way, to Gatun station which stood on a bend of the eastern bank of the Chagres River was a run of five miles. On the opposite shore of the river stood the old native village of Gatun composed of some fifty or more huts, some built of wood and corrugated iron, others of bamboo and thatched with palm; from here bananas were shipped to the USA. Every trace of this ancient village was later to disappear to make room for the site of the Canal locks and spillway.
 
The next portion of the journey lay through some of the grandest and densest primeval forest, a veritable paradise for the naturalist, and if I pause here to describe some of it, it is only because so much of it with so many of the native villages were all to disappear some years later in the rising waters of the Gatun Lake. As the train sped on its journey we passed great giant cedro and espabe trees towering up to, and often over, 100 feet and covered with numerous creepers and orchids of every variety and hue. There were also numerous species of palm trees and clusters of bamboo, while other trees and undergrowth were so densely interwoven that the jungle was impenetrable except with the aid of a machete to clear a path. This swamp and jungle just teemed with hidden life. There were snakes of every variety from the non-poisonous boa-constrictor, averaging about 12 feet in length, to the deadly fer-de-lance, tozzy-gough and bushmaster.
 
Some of the rivers and swamps abounded with cayman and crocodiles, locally known as alligators; many of the latter reaching 16 to 18 feet in length. (For many years I had the skull and hide of one that measured 17 feet from its snout to the tip of its tail.) Monkeys were common, but they usually kept out of sight; jaguars, pumas, ocelots, deer and numerous other denizens of the forest all inhabited the jungle. The most gorgeous birds and butterflies of every hue and color abounded.
 
Between the next two stopping places, Lion Hill and Ahorca Lagarto, lay the Black Swamp; the nightmare of the engineers who first built the line. The Black Swamp extended for two-thirds of a mile and had an unenviable reputation for occasionally and without warning engulfing hundreds of yards of railway line, and completely dislocating traffic, as well as an insatiable appetite for swallowing the thousands of tons of earth and rock that from time to time were dumped into it. On subsequent journeys, more than once during the reconstruction of the sunken track, in company with other passengers, I had to disembark from the train and wade round the edge of the swamp by a mud path, to re-embark on another train at the other end of the swamp. Leaving the Black Swamp, the train made stops at Ahorca Lagarto, Bohio, Frijoles, Tabernilla, and passed over Barbacoas Bridge which crossed the Chagres River. At the time that this bridge was erected, in 1854, it was reputed to be the longest in the world; it consisted of six wrought iron spans each over one hundred feet in length.
 
Having crossed the bridge the train stopped at San Pablo before reaching Mamei. Mamei had no railroad station but was the passing place for the two trains travelling in opposite directions from the railroad termini of Colon and Panama respectively. On leaving Mamei my train stopped at Gorgona, Matachin, Bas Obispo, Las Cascadas and Empire (or Emperador). I mention the names of these stations because together with others lying between Gatun and Bas Obispo, stretching a distance of nearly 25 miles, they too, with much of the forest, were also destined to be submerged in later years by the creation of the Gatun Lake. Soon after passing Gold Hill, the highest point of the Isthmus, we stopped at the old town of Culebra, the highest point on the old railroad. Here, 260 feet above sea level, the last rail was laid at midnight, in darkness and pouring rain, on 27th January 1855. The following day the first locomotive ever to cross the American continent passed from ocean to ocean.
 
At this place I alighted; Culebra was to be the centre of my work amongst the English speaking West Indians and was to be my home for the next seventeen years.
 
Culebra in 1900, Main Street
 
French digging at Culebra Cut, 1900
 
Culebra during U.S. Construction Days, around 1913
 
Panama Railroad in 1900.  Note all the names of villages that disappeared
under Gatun Lake.  Rails had to be relocated to go around the new lake.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas