THE railroad which crosses the mountains from Colon to the city of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is perhaps the best-paying railroad in the world. It has made fortunes for its owners in the past, and its receipts are still far in excess of its expenditure. It has an absolute monopoly of all railroad rights on the Isthmus of Panama, and it charges accordingly. What would be thought of paying $200 for a ride from New York to Boston, $450 for a first-class ticket from New York to Chicago, $1,000 to go from the Atlantic to Salt Lake City, or $1,500 to be carried from the East to San Francisco ? Such a rate would be about fifty cents per mile, or a trifle less than what the Panama Railway Company received for every passenger it carried during more than thirty years.
The length of the road is forty-seven miles, and the fare until 1889 was twenty-five dollars in gold. At present all through passengers to Panama on the New York steamers are charged ten dollars in gold for transportation across the Isthmus. The local fare from Colon to Panama is four dollars in gold, but the baggage rate is three cents a pound, and only fifteen pounds are allowed free.
The Panama Railroad is an American institution, although now owned by the French, the majority of the stock having fallen into the hands of the Panama Canal Company. The road was built by Americans, and even now its officials, including the ticket-agents, conductors, and engineers, come from the United States. It is through its concession that the French hold their right to the canal. The concession was granted in 1850, and it includes all rights of way across the Isthmus of Panama, a country four hundred miles long. No one can make even a waggon road over the Isthmus without the company’s permission, and so far no other road of any kind has been attempted.
The original grant gave the company a large amount of public land along the line of the track, and provided that Panama and Colon should be free ports. The original concession was for forty-nine years, but it has since been extended with some modifications to ninety-nine years, during which the company must pay $250,000 annually to the Colombian government.
The Panama Railroad is a monument to American skill and energy. The difficulties in building it cannot be adequately de-scribed. It took five years to construct it, and it had to be cut through one of the most miasmatic of tropical wildernesses. Be-ginning with Colon, the road runs through the swamps, up the valley of the Chagres, crossing the mountains at an elevation of 268 feet, and then going down to the Pacific at Panama through the valley of the Rio Grande river. It is only forty-seven miles long, and yet it cost more than $8,000,000.
It was begun when the California gold excitement was at its height, and was able to earn money as soon as the first few miles of track were laid. The travel was so great that, when the road was formally opened in 1855, it had already received more than $2,000,000 for transportation; and within four years thereafter, its earnings amounted to more than its original cost. It has carried as much as 500,000 tons of freight in a year; and during the twelve years following its completion, $750,000,000 worth of specie was taken over the road on its way from San Francisco to New York. The freight rates were especially heavy, averaging about $160 per ton, and the miners were made to pay an extra-baggage rate on their outfits, in addition to their $25 fare.
I crossed the Isthmus in a special car in company with the superintendent of the road. The roadbed is very smooth, and the track is well kept. It has a, five-foot gauge, fifty-six pound rails, and ties of lignum-vitae, which are about the only ties that will withstand the wood-eating ants. Lignum-vitae is so hard that spikes cannot be driven into it, and holes have to be bored for every bolt. It is so hard that the ants, which eat almost everything wooden, do not attack it. It is on account of the ants that iron telegraph poles are used, and that everything else possible is made of iron.
All the rolling stock of the Panama road comes from the United States. The private observation car of the superintendent was made in Wilmington, while the locomotives are from Philadelphia. The cars are of two classes, first and second. The first-class cars have wicker seats, like those of our smoking cars. The second-class are built like long street cars, with benches running lengthwise under the windows. It is in the second-class cars that the common people ride. Half of their passengers are Jamaica negroes, about one-third of the remainder are Chinese, and the others native Colombians. The Chinese are the neatest and best dressed of the passengers.
During my ride over the road I asked the superintendent as to wages. He told me that they varied considerably, the Americans being paid in gold, and the natives, who are chiefly common labourers, in silver. Engineers get $157 a month, conductors $148, and telegraph operators from $75 to $100. The native brakemen receive $1.75 a day in silver, or about sixty cents a day in gold. Common labourers get from thirty-five to seventy-five cents silver a day. Most of the latter are Jamaican negroes. They put in ten hours a day, bringing their first meal of coffee and bread to the track and eating it there. They begin work at six A. M. At eleven o’clock they stop for breakfast, which consists of rice and a bit of dried meat. At one o’clock they are again at work, and at six they quit and go home to dinner.
The ride across the Isthmus of Panama is a delightful one. After you pass the few miles of swamp which line the Atlantic coast, the land rises into wooded hills. There are palm trees here and there amongst the other forest trees. You pass banana plantations, go by villages of thatched huts, about which half-naked children play; and, where the railroad skirts the line of the canal, see on every prominent hill houses which were erected for the petty officials.
A closer look at the vegetation brings new wonders at every turn of the road. You see bread-fruit trees, cotton trees, and at times go through jungles of bamboo. There are more than twenty varieties of bamboo on the Isthmus, and many kinds of palms. There are woods which equal the Siamese teak in beauty and hardness, and back from the railroad are forests of mahogany and dye-woods.
Many trees and plants unknown to our physicians are used by the Indians for medicinal purposes. One of these is the cacique tree, a stick of which, if held in the hand, will almost instantly stop the flowing of blood. A bit of cacique dust put upon a cut will cause the blood to stop running; so the Indians believe it to be an infallible cure for internal hemorrhages. Cacique wood looks much like mahogany. It is costly, a piece as big as a walking-stick being worth in Panama $10 or more.
Another Isthmian tree is an antidote for snake poisoning; and there are plants which are said to cure cancers and tumors. One plant is a powerful emetic, as the experience of an Englishman living in Panama shows. He had heard of this plant and wished to test it. So he asked an Indian girl to make some tea of its leaves for himself and his partner, they agreeing that each would drink a cupful. They did so. The liquor was sweet and was easily swallowed, but it had hardly gone down before both men made a rush for the door. Their stomachs, in the words of the Englishmen, were turned inside out, and they seemed to feel their very heels coming up through their throats.
Panama, the Pacific terminus of the road, is a picturesque little city running about a magnificent bay. The town near the bay makes one think of Venice. The houses hang out so over the water that you involuntarily look for gondolas to go from one to another. Away from the bay the city is more like one in old Spain. Its streets wind in and out, up hill and down. It has a plaza in the centre, about which the principal buildings stand. The houses are built close to the narrow sidewalks. Many of them have patios, or courts, within them, and from each second story a balcony hangs out, so that you are protected from the sun as you walk through the city.
Very few of the Panama people own a whole house. Almost all live in tenements, the richer people in comfortable rooms on the upper floors, and the poor on the ground floors and basements. All the stores have dwellings above them, and many well-to-do people live above stores. The doors of the ground-floor rooms are usually open, so that you see all sorts of household arrangements going on as you pass through the streets. Here a woman is combing her hair, there one is sewing, and a little farther on a third is cutting up beef for the breakfast stew.
The stores are not large. They have no display windows, and the goods are piled up in them without regard to order or show. Most of the trading is by bargaining. There are no fixed prices. You offer about one-half the sum the merchant asks for an article, and usually get it for about two-thirds of his first price.
I arrived in Panama on a Saturday night, and had a chance to see something of a Colombian Sunday. The day opened with the ringing of church bells. There was so much noise that I imagined myself in one of the most pious of cities until I went into the streets. Then I found that the stores were open, and that most of the day was to be given up to amusement and business. It is true that many of the people attended church in the morning; but in the afternoon they devoted themselves to things which would be anything but Sunday-like in the United States.
At two o’clock, for instance, there was a cockfight, and at four a bull-fight began inside the ruined walls of one of the churches of Panama’s past. A large audience of both sexes was present, who cheered and grew wildly excited while five bulls were tortured to death by a band of bullfighters.
At one o’clock occurred one of the chief events of the day. This was the weekly drawing of the Panama lottery, presided over by the mayor. The lottery is so well patronized that all Panamanians are more or less interested in it, 10,000 tickets being sold each week. The tickets are a dollar each, and the prizes range from $3,000 downward. There are so many blanks that the lottery makes a big profit. It has a capital of $200,000, and pays annual dividends of 45 per cent.
I happened to be passing the lottery office at the time of the drawing, and stepped in. A boy of about eight years, who had been picked out of the crowd, stood upon a table, with a revolving wire basket before him. The basket was filled with hollow ivory balls, each of which contained a number ranging from one to ten. The basket was given a whirl, and was then opened for the boy to pick out a ball. The number in the ball chosen gave the figure for the thousands of the prize. The basket was again whirled, and another ball was taken out. The number in this represented the figure for the hundreds; a third whirl gave the tens, and the fourth the units. The drawing seemed to be fairly done, but there is not more than one chance in five hundred of a ticket-holder drawing anything.
I spent the evening in the plaza, listening to the city band and watching the people who had come out for their usual Sunday promenade. There were many pretty girls among them, but each had an elderly sister, cousin, or aunt with her.
Society in Panama is governed by Spanish etiquette, an inflexible rule of which is that no unmarried woman should ever be left alone with a man. The Panama girl has no moonlight walks or drives with her lover. She dare not receive him at her house, except when the family is present, and when he invites her to go to the theatre or the bull-fight the other ladies of the family are supposed to be included in the invitation. This custom is somewhat surprising to foreigners. One young American, for instance, shortly after his arrival in Panama asked a young lady to go with him to the theatre. When he called for her he found thirteen old and middle-aged women dressed and ready to go with him and his inamorata. His tickets that night cost him more than his weekly salary, and it was only by chance that he happened to have enough money to pay his bill at the box-office.