I AM in the city of Colon, on the eastern shore of the Isthmus of Panama. The emerald waves of the Caribbean Sea, coming in with the tide, are dashing up a silvery spray at my feet. A row of tall palms runs between me and the beach, each tree loaded with bunches of green cocoanuts, every one of which is as big as the head of that naked negro baby who is playing there on the edge of the water.
The air a little back from the shore is that of a hot July at home, but here there comes in from the sea a breeze which is soft, cool, and delicious. When I left New York a week ago, I had to wade through the snow to the steamer; here my surroundings are those of midsummer. I am in a land of the tropics.
The distance from New York to Colon is 2,000 miles, and the trip took just seven days. Our steamer was the Advance, one of the three boats of the Panama Railroad and Steamship Company, the only line which plies regularly between New York and the Isthmus of Panama. It was a steady little vessel of 2,700 tons, only about one-fourth the size of the great ocean grey-hounds of the Atlantic; but it had all the modern improvements, and my corner cabin on the promenade deck had two large windows, which gave me a cool breeze day and night.
We had the satisfaction of sailing under the American flag. Although the Panama Railroad and Steamship Company practically belongs to the French, it is managed and officered by Americans, and on the Advance even the sailors were full-blooded Yankees. Most of the passengers were citizens of the United States; some on a pleasure trip to San Francisco via the Isthmus, others en route for the gold mines of Peru and Bolivia, others again were commercial travellers starting out to buy goods and take orders in South America. We had also on board a bishop and a party of missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The missionaries were to be teachers in the schools of Chile and Peru, while the bishop was on a tour of mission inspection. In addition to these, there were some Frenchmen, Germans, and Spaniards. The Frenchmen were Parisians about to inspect the work of the Panama Canal. The Germans were coffee-planters from Guatemala returning home from their vacations in Europe ; and the Spaniards were business men engaged in the Pacific coast trade.
The party was a pleasant one, and the life of it was the bishop. He was a mine of humour, stories, and valuable information. It was he who, as we passed Cape Hatteras, told us that we were in the Gulf Stream, that wonderful river of the ocean which carries the hot water of the tropics across the Atlantic to Great Britain and Ireland, and makes them habitable. As we crossed the stream, the bishop recalled the story of the Yankee sea captain who, when denouncing England for its sympathy with the South during our Civil War, said: “You English had better look out, for Uncle Sam has you at his mercy. If you are not careful, President Lincoln, when he has settled this trouble with the South, will send down our army and cut a channel through the Isthmus of Panama, which will turn the Gulf Stream into the Pacific Ocean and thus freeze your two little islands into icebergs.”
It was also the bishop who sprang this riddle upon the ship’s party: ” Who was the lonesomest scholar in the geography class ? The answer was: ” The little girl who could not find Pa-nor-Ma ” (Panama).
As we crossed the Gulf Stream the air grew perceptibly warmer, and as we sailed on its outer edge down toward the Caribbean Sea we soon came into summer heat. We passed the island of San Salvador, where Columbus first landed after his thirty-five days’ voyage from Spain, in a vessel which was not more than one-thirtieth as large as ours. The morning following we saw the lighthouse of Bird Rock Island, one of the Bahamas, rising out of a grove of palm trees; and a day later the bleak hills of eastern Cuba came into view. We steamed over the waters where our gunboats lay off Santiago when they sunk the Spanish fleet; we sailed for hours in sight of the blue mountains of Haiti, and then passed into the blue Caribbean, seeing nothing but flying fish, nautili, and gulls, until we neared the Isthmus of Panama.
I shall never forget our first sight of the Isthmus, that wonderful strip of earth and rock which blocks the commerce of the world in tying the continents of North and South America together. At first there was only a thin hazy line of blue on the western horizon. Then the blue deepened; low hills rose out of the mist and piled themselves one on top of another; little islands floated up out of the water along the shore; and a little later we were in sight of the low houses and wharves of Colon, the great palm trees above them shaking their fan-like leaves and apparently waving a welcome to the Isthmus of Panama.
As we came to anchor, a crowd not unlike that on the wharves of New Orleans gathered about the ship. It was composed of negroes and mulattoes, in all stages of raggedness. There were a few native Colombians, who jabbered at us in Spanish; and there were several Americans in the employ of the steamship company; but the rest were negroes and mulattoes from Jamaica. They addressed us in English with a cockney accent, and offered their services as guides through Colon.
Colon is the chief city on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama. It is at the terminus of the railway across the Isthmus, on the site of old Aspinwall. The town was rebuilt at the time of the commencement of the Panama Canal, with the idea that it would become a mighty city as soon as the canal was completed. Many of its houses were constructed in the United States and brought here in pieces. Palaces were erected for Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son, and about them a city was laid out on a grand scale. An iron market-house, large enough for a town of half a million inhabitants, was put up, and along the wide streets lines of cocoanut trees were planted. Then began the work of dredging out the land at what was to be the eastern end of the huge ditch which was to join the two oceans. Tens of thousands of workmen were employed, and money flowed like water.
Such was the condition in the early eighties. Today Colon is as ragged as any town on the hemisphere. Its beautiful cottages, weather-beaten and rotten, are falling to pieces. Its iron market-house is peppered with holes eaten by rust, and the palaces of the De Lesseps are dilapidated. Everything about it is the picture of ruin, especially at the mouth of the canal, where tons of cars, dredges, and other valuable machinery are rotting away.
Colon has now about 5,000 people, made up largely of the remains of the vast number who came to work on the canal. They are Jamaicans and Colombians, with a smattering of Chinese. The town has some business as the terminus of the rail-road, but the French have apparently given up their idea that it will ever be a great city. Its future depends entirely upon the completion of the canal.
Colon is notoriously unhealthful. I venture to think there is not a man living in it today who has not been afflicted with fever, and it is significant that its chief sights are a fine hospital and a well-filled cemetery on Monkey Hill.
This part of the Isthmus is in fact a veritable graveyard of foreigners. The excavations for the canal and the railroad were made through the miasmatic swamps of the Chagres river, where the very air breathes death. It is said that there was a death for every cartload of earth which was moved in making the excavations. Away back in the fifties, when the railroad was built, a regular funeral train was needed to carry the dead. They were buried in pits, being laid crosswise, one on top of the other, and stacked up as it were like cord-wood. It is said that during the construction of the railroad, there were more deaths than there are ties in its track.
Among the labourers on the road were about i,000 Chinese, who were imported because it was thought they could stand the climate. Many of them died within a month, and so many of the remainder committed suicide that one of the stations at which they were working was called “Matachin,” or Dead China-man.