The Isthmian Crossing

The Argonauts

Early in 1848, congress authorized the organization of 2 steamship lines to transport US Mail, between New York and San Francisco. The first company was The United States Mail Steam Line, running between, New York, Charleston, Savannah, Havana (Cuba), New Orleans, Chagres (Nueva Granada) and return. The second company was The Pacific Mail Steamship Company and it ran between Panamá, San Francisco, Astoria, and return.

In October of 1848, The Pacific Mail Steamship Company's steamship, the California sailed from New York, around the Horn, to San Francisco. This ship was equipped with 250 berths, and most of them were empty. The passengers on board had destinations in South America, with the last passengers getting off in Callao.

The United States Mail Steam Line ordered the construction of several steamships for this venture. Since the shipyards failed to deliver the first of these ships on time, they had to lease a small steamer, the Falcon, with berths for 129 passengers, for this purpose. The Falcon, left on its maiden voyage from New York on December 1, 1848, with 29 passengers. The passenger list these passengers as mostly US Government employees and missionaries, with passage all the way to California. This was 4 days before President Polk, announce the discovery of Gold in California.

By the time that the Falcon docked in New Orleans, the word was out about the gold in California, and there were 178 gold seekers waiting on the docks to board her, for the trip to Chagres. They all stormed on  board, over the protest of Captain, Notestein and refused to get off. The captain, became intimidated by the heavily armed men, and agreed to add additional beds in every nook and cranny he could find. He also was required to take on more supplies to feed this army of passengers.

The Falcon sailed out of New Orleans on December 19, 1848, and within a few days, more ships were chartered and pressed into service. These included the steamships Crescent City, Orus, and Isthmus. Three brigantines (sail ships), that normal sailed between the Caribbean Islands, were also added to the line. Within a week, all of these ships were on the way to Chagres, overloaded with passengers.

When the Falcon arrived in Chagres, it was not able to anchor near the town. At the mouth of the Chagres River, there were reefs and sand bars, that prevented deep hulled ships from entering the river. They had to anchor off the coast, and passengers had to pay for native boatmen to shuttle them between the Falcon and the town of Chagres. some of the crew abandoned the ship, and 212 rowdy Gringos, upset the tranquility of the sleepy town, demanding transportation up the river. The mad rush was on to cross the Isthmus, to board the first ship to San Francisco. At the time, there were not enough native cayucas (canoes) called bungos by the Yankees, available to transport all of the travelers to the town of Las Cruces, 45 miles up river. These cayucas were constructed of a large, single, hollowed out log, averaged about 25 feet long and 3 feet wide. Since these cayucas were normally used to bring bananas down river for trade, they were all equipped with a palm leaf canopy to protect them from the hot tropical sun. These boats were able to carry about four to six passengers, and a crew of three to four boatmen. The going rate was about $1 per passenger plus tips, for fastest boats.

Two days after the arrival of the Falcon, the Crescent City arrived at Chagres. Within a couple of days, all of the other ships were arriving at Chagres, adding to the confusion and impatient Gringos. By then, there were over one thousand angry gold seekers, waiting  for transportation up the river.  Since it was a three to four day journey, up river, they made stops to eat, sleep and rest. They normally stopped in the towns along the bank of the Chagres, which were not prepared for the large mass of travelers. Every bohio in town was converted into a hotel, adding extra hammocks to accommodate the travelers, and all of the food stuff was consumed in the towns. This only served to anger the late arrivers, since the quality of the food to be purchased became worse and less. Eventually the inhabitants of these town, became better prepared for the need of the travelers, but the prices went sky high.

When the cayucas unloaded their passengers at Cruces, three to four days later, they returned to Chagres. The boatmen, were all tired from the trip, and wanted to rest, but were forced, mostly at gun point, to make the trip, again and again to carry everybody to Las Cruces. By the time the last of the passengers was transported up river, the fare had risen to about fifteen dollars per passenger. By November of 1851, the fare had gone up to fifty dollars per person.  Passengers, wanting to arrive at the California gold fields, before everybody else, paid a premium for boats. 

Those passengers, not wanting to wait for an available place or pay the price, walked up the river along the banks. They had no idea what was involved walking through the jungle. The mosquitoes, bugs, snakes, alligators, and other wild life in the tropical jungle, terrified them. When warned by the natives, they refused to believe them, and continued anyway. As they started to realize the hazards of the journey, a couple of days later, they migrated to the river banks, hoping to catch a ride on one of the boats going up steam. These, whenever they found a boat willing to pick them up, paid two and three times the normal fare. Those that discovered their inability for the trip early in the first day, turned back. 

At Las Cruces, the traveler made use of the old Spanish Gold Road (El Camino Real), and although it had been neglected for over a hundred years, it still existed. There the Argonauts hired mules for the trip to Panamá. Again, the early arrivers at Las Cruces, were the first to hire mules, and made the trip first. It normally took about 1 day to travel the 18 miles to Panamá. Initially, the mules cost one dollar, per rider for the trip. Within a couple of weeks, the price had risen to $10 per person and 10 cents per pound of luggage.

In Panamá, there were approximately one dozen hotels when the first travelers arrived, and these quickly overfilled. Within a short time, all of the aristocratic, old homes were being converted to inns, renting every spare room in the house. Within weeks, there were so many people in Panamá, that all available space was taken up, and the travelers had to sleep in the parks. It was possible to rent a place to sleep on the floor, in the cities slums for $2 a night. A large tent city grew overnight out side the city walls to accommodate the thousands of travelers. This was possible, since a tent was one of the standard items included in the pack of all gold seekers.

When the California arrived in Callao, instead of her last passengers disembarking, the news of the California gold strike had already reached Peru, and one hundred Peruvians had purchased tickets for the trip to California. Most of the passengers destined for Callao, decided not to get off there, but continue on to California, also.

The California reached Panamá on January 17, 1849, and anchored off of the cost, next to the island of Taboga, since Panamá lacked a deep water port. Part of the defenses of the city, was the fact that at low tide, the water would recede into the bay, laying bare all of the reefs. During high tide, the water would reach the city walls, but it was shallow enough that you needed a shallow draft ship, to get near it. By then, the passengers from the Falcon, had been in Panamá close to three weeks, waiting for transportation to California.

All hell broke loose, when the close to one thousand passengers waiting for a trip to California realized that there were only berths for 250 passengers. The company agent, proceeded to allow the passengers with through passage to board. He then proposed to put everybody else's name in a hat, and draw names for the remaining berths. When they learned that there was only space for 150 passengers on the California because of the Peruvians  on board, riots broke out. They insisted that the Peruvians be kicked off the ship. They insisted that as US citizens, they had priority on all travel on US ships, and they did not want the Peruvians competing against them for the gold in the California gold fields. Some of the few passengers that had the foresight to book passage straight through from New York to San Francisco or who had their names drawn in the lottery, were selling their Panamá - San Francisco portion of their tickets for up $1,000, making a handsome profit. They then booked passage on the next steamer scheduled to depart Panamá, the Philadelphia for $75.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company's office in Panamá was besieged by angry Gringos, threatening William Nelson, the Agent and US Consul in Panamá. Nelson refused to remove the Peruvians from the ship, since they had paid for their fare, legally. In Panamá at the time, also waiting for passage to California, was Major General Persifor Smith, of the US Army, that was being garrisoned there. He demanded and ordered Nelson to remove the Peruvians; but, Nelson knew the law, since he was a diplomat and told the General, that he, had no authority in Panamá, and the Peruvians stayed on the ship. The Peruvians, scared that if they got off the ship, they would be refused re-boarding, or murdered on land, refuse to leave the ship during the 2 weeks it was anchored off the coast. 

Nelson was able to pacify most of the travelers and General Smith,  when the Peruvians decided to be doubled and tripled up in the state rooms, and more bunks were added. The compromise of allowing one extra American for each foreigner on board. Thus the California finally steamed out of Panamá on January 31, 1849, with 365 passengers, 165 more that what she was designed for.

While at sea, a stow away was discovered, and it turned out that he had bribed a stoker to hid him. The stoker was fined by the Captain, and the crew revolted. The Captain docked at Mazatlán, and the ringleader was kicked off the ship. Within a couple of days of the incident, they ran out of coal, and had to resort to burning every spare item made of wood they could find. Beds, tables, chairs, and decks were ripped out and burned to produce steam. By the time it arrived in San Francisco, there were no more wood items to burn.

On February 28th, the California passed through the Golden Gates, and became the first ship to disembark the first ship load of Gold Seekers in California. When she docked in San Francisco, and discharged her passengers, every crew member on board, also left the ship to go and seek their fortune in the gold fields. This left Captain Marshall with out a single crew member, and it took him three months before he had enough of a crew to steam back to Panamá.

On February 23rd, the second Pacific Mail Steamer, the Oregon, a sister ship to the California, arrived in Panamá. The transients, besieged the offices of The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, demanding that they be allowed to board the ship. Nelson reached another compromise with the most vocal of the passengers, by allowing 50 more passengers, than the 250 the ship was rated for. The Oregon left Panamá on March 12th, arriving in San Francisco three weeks later.

The Oregon dropped anchor, right besides the California, and saw the plight of that steamer with out a crew to return to Panamá. Captain Pearson, of the Oregon, quickly announced to his crew that all wages for the mariners were being raised by a factor of 10. He simply added a zero to the end of all posted wages. This way, only a small number of his crew left for the gold fields, but there were enough remaining to return to Panamá.

When the Oregon arrived in Panamá, he found the third sister ship, the Panama,  taking on more frantic passengers. It took the three side-wheelers of The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, another four months, before it developed a steady routine between the steamers.

On the Atlantic coast, The United States Mail Steam Line, was granted permission to exclude some of its stop, on the run to Chagres. Eliminated were the stops at Charleston, Savannah, and Havana, shortening the trip. The ships were able to make the trip in two weeks, instead of the four weeks it was taking with the other stops. The smallest of the steamers, the Orus, was not returned to the New York - Chagres run after its second round trip; but, diverted to shuttled the passengers between the larger ships and the town of Chagres and steam up the Chagres River. 



During the Rainy Season, May to December, the Chagres River was full, and the boats could make the trip all the way up to Cruces, some 45 miles a way. From there, the mule ride to Panamá was 18 miles, and was accomplished on a highway, paved by the Spaniards during colonial times. During the Dry Season, the river would be shallow, and there was a set of rapids between the town of Gorgona and Cruces, that did not permit passage of the cayucas. The town of Gorgona was only 40 miles from the town of Chagres and 20 miles from Panamá. Initially, the preferred trip was to disembark at Gorgona and walk the last 5 miles to Cruces. The bad part of the Gorgona - Panamá route was the first 10 miles of the unpaved trail through the jungle. After those initial 10 miles, the road merged with the old paved Las Cruces Trail, and the going became easier. The Gorgona Trail, was virtually impassable during the Rainy Season. Eventually, it became the most common route taken by the gold seekers, that were in a rush to cross the isthmus. The boat fare, going up river, did not change whether you traveled to Gorgona or Cruces, it all cost the same.

In November of 1851, the Panama Railroad had extended its line all of the way to the town of Gatun, the first overnight stop on the Chagres. This made eliminated 10 miles from the river run, and then, prices started dropping. As the skirted the river, and reached a different town, the prices continued to drop. By the time the rail line reached the town of Cruces, the fares had dropped to $3 per boat load.

The United States Mail Steam Line, attempted to capture most of the money spent by the travelers, by building hotels and importing some mules from the United States. To capture the river ride, they pressed the Orus into service of steaming up the Chagres River. She was the smallest of the four ships they owned, a side wheeler that only weighed in at 250 ton, and had the shallowest draft of all. By the time they assigned her the job of steaming up river, the rainy season was coming to an end, and the river had already dropped a couple of feet. To lighten the Orus, the captain hired a bunch of cayucas, loaded them with all of the cargo, and towed them up river. Twenty miles up the river, she began to hit bottom, near the town of Bohío Soldado. Here, the captain put the all ashore and required that they hire their own cayucas with boatmen for the rest of the trip. The Orus was then returned to the New York - Chagres service until the next rainy season. By May, when the rains started, the Orus was making the run up to Gorgona and back to Chagres in two days, one up and one down.

Since the word 'Mail' was part of the  name of the company, they were obligated to deliver the US mail between New York and Panamá. On one of the trips up river by the Orus, the captain handed the US Mail bags to a muleteer, instructing him to transport the mail to Panamá and hand it over the captain of the Pacific Mail Steamer, and the captain would pay him. When the muleteer arrived in Panamá, there was no Pacific Mail Steamer in port, and the man could not be paid. To compensate, he sold the mail bags to the highest bidder, and the mail was never seen again. This caused such an up-roar in Washington DC, that the US Mail Steam Line, was forced to import mules and transport the mail overland by its own agents.

During the month of September in 1849, a new ship was added to the Chagres River run. This was a new stern-wheeler, specifically designed of shallow draft, the General Herrán. This allowed for daily service out of Chagres and Gorgona, adding a great convenience to the travelers. Even the daily service was not sufficient for all of the Argonauts that arrived in Chagres. The overflow, still had to hire cayucas, as before, but the competition, drove the prices down to about $6 per person. This two boat service continued for several months, until the ships were stricken by the terror of wooden hull ships in the Caribbean, the teredo worm. The ancient Spanish mariners were plagued with this problem, and lost many a ship, and cut trips short, due to these worms. They would attack the wood and bore holes through it. they were worse than termites, and eventually, the ships hull was like a sieve, leaking water faster than it could be pumped out.

The two steamers had to be withdrawn from service, and the company orders an iron hulled steamer built. The new steamer, the Raphael Rivas originally had a draft of 12 inches, until it was clad in iron. All of the extra weight added another 18 inches. She was the largest steamer to navigate the Chagres River, with a length of 110 feet, and 23 feet beam, and space for 450 passengers. On the first trip, during the late part of June, the total 30 inches only allowed it to get as far as Palenquilla, still eleven mile below Gorgona.  The Raphael Rivas was much faster than the other steamers, chugging along at 3 miles per hour against the current. This allowed the passengers to take bungos the rest of the way to Gorgona, and arriving that same night. This made the trip, a one day affair, and another day to Panamá, crossing the Isthmus in two days.

During the month of August, another steamer was added to the river run. This was an old Mississippi River side wheeler, the Harry Gleason, 46 feet long. The next month, another steamer, the Swan was added to the river run. On February 6, 1851, the last of the steamers were added to the run. This was the William H. Aspinwall, built right there on Manzanillo Island, at the town of Aspinwall, by the builders of the Panama Railroad. The William H. Aspinwall, was a bit smaller than the Raphael Rivas, carrying only 400 passengers, but she was twice as fast. The trip to Gorgona took about 7˝ hours, and the return, 3 hours. She started offering daily trips up and down the river. The combined effort of all the steamers running the Chagres River, about 1,000 passengers a day were transported. This was still not enough to handle the large number of passengers, arriving in Cruces. 

By the end of 1849, another town has sprouted up on the opposite bank of the mouth of the Chagres River, and it was called Yankee Chagres. This town consisted of cheap hotels, restaurants, bars, gambling halls, and brothels. All of the business were owned by foreigner, and very few Panamanians frequented the area. There was even a French Bordello, offering women from all over the world. Most of the Argonauts that could not secure passage up river, spent the night in Yankee Chagres. The native town of Chagres did not offer these convenience for the Yankees, and they did not want to mix with the natives, if they could help it. 

The potential for making money was there for an enterprising individual. Captain Abraham Banker, the shipping news reporter for the New York Herald, started the Isthmus Transportation Company. He purchase fifty new lifeboats in the US, and set them to ply the Chagres River run, supplementing the steamers that were making the run. Each of the boats could carry a dozen passengers, and were easier to navigate up the river. He hired many of the railroad employees with his higher pay. Many of the native boatmen were quick to join his company, since they were guaranteed a fixed pay, and better working conditions. 

In 1853 the transportation company of Hurtado y Hermanos, offered passengers, a ship to ship service for $30. They would make all of the arrangements, for the traveler, wishing to cross the Isthmus. They would pick you up, from the ship at Chagres or Panamá, and transport you to the other side and put you on the ship going North.

The transportation of passengers across the Isthmus became very efficient. By 1854, the trip from Panamá to Chagres was accomplished in 7 hours. The trip from Chagres to Panamá, was done in 12 hours.

The largest object transported across the Isthmus was a 1,200 pound, printing press, by Judson Ames from Baton Rouge. He arrived in Chagres in January of 1849, where he proceeded to hire a barge and some natives to help him transport the press up river. On the trip, about half way between Chagres and Cruces, the press slipped off the barge and sank in the river. After great effort, they were able to bring the press up, and re-position it on the barge to continue the journey to Cruces. At Cruces, he hired the two largest mules he could find for $200, and laid a mattress over them and loaded the press on their backs. Since the Spaniards had built the Las Cruces Trail, wide enough for two carts to be able to pass on another on the road, this trick worked. If he had tried this on the Gorgona Trail, it would have failed. The Gorgona Trail, had places where a rider on a mule would have to squeeze between the walls of canyons. Sometimes, the passenger had to dismount and walk the mule through the passage.

When he arrived in Panamá, he was informed that he would have to wait three months before the ship on which he had booked passage would arrive in Panamá. With a three month wait, and wanting to keep busy during his stay in Panamá, he set up his printing press. He started to publish an English language news paper he called 'The Panama Herald'. When his steamer arrived, he sold the paper, without the press, to a printer, already publishing 'The Panama Star', an other English news paper. The combined company  was renamed 'The Panama Star & Herald', a paper still published today.

The Panama Railroad, shortened the time across the Isthmus. On October 1, 1851, the rail line reached the town of Gatun, on the banks of the Chagres River. Gatun was located on 7 miles from Manzanillo Island, the Atlantic terminal for the railroad. Gatun was also the town where most of the cayucas stopped for the first night, on the trip up river. In November, two steamships, the Georgia and Philadelphia full of Argonauts, arrived at Chagres. The weather was bad, and the seas very rough. making it difficult to disembark the passengers at sea, board the native cayucas, and paddle across the breakers, to reach land. The first group of passengers that wanted to beat everybody else to Panamá and braved the rough waters, boarded the small boats with great difficulty.  Most of the boats capsized and everybody drowned in their attempts to reach land. Normally, most steamers waited outside the small bay for days, until the weather subsided. The steamers were force to take refuge in Limon Bay, where new docks had just been built for the railroad. Somebody suggested that they put some Flat Cars on the train and transport the passengers to Gatun, and from there, start the trip up the Chagres. This event marked the end to the town of Chagres, and the new port to disembark all passengers arriving from, or heading to, the East Coast of the US.

By July of 1852, the Panama Railroad had reached the town of Barbacoas, where they set out to build a massive bridge across the Chagres River. Barbacoas was located 23 miles from the new city of Aspinwall, and about 10 miles down river of Gorgona. By then, there was daily train service between the two points.  On January 27, 1855, the Panama Railroad was completed, connecting Aspinwall with Panamá. The trip across the Isthmus could now be done in about 7 hours. It was now possible to arrive at Aspinwall in the morning, cross the Isthmus during the day, and board the ship to San Francisco that evening. This made the crossing of the Isthmus, the quickest part of the complete trip. One week between New York and Aspinwall, one day crossing the Isthmus, and two week from Panamá to San Francisco.

This route of transportation, connecting the East coast of the United States, with the West coast, made use of the country of Nueva Granada (Columbia). Although Nueva Granada held titular sovereignty on the land, it did nothing to police the area. Other than a small military presence, and tax collectors, they totally ignored the area. With the large amount of gold that was being shipped from California to the East coast, crime became a problem. As more and more mule trains became victim of highway men, Nueva Granada continued to ignore the problem. The way they looked at the problem, it was not theirs. Since the area was populated by foreigners, and very few of its citizens lived there, it was the foreigners problem of law enforcement. 

On August, 1850, the first major robbery occurred when a mule train, operated by Howland & Aspinwall Freight Company was held up on the Cruces Trail and $30,000 was stolen. The manager of the company, was an agent of Wells-Fargo, he wrote home requesting a shipment of fire arms for their protection. He requisitioned "One dozen Colt revolving rifles, One dozen pairs of revolvers, dragoon size, dozen pair of revolvers, police size, two dozen Bowie knives, two buck shot guns, and Ample powder and ball for the above", "Robberies have just commenced, and there are about a hundred as precious villains on the Isthmus as ever went unhung . . . . There will have to be bloodshed . . . . I am determined that there shall be none stole from your trains except there be several funerals."

As the number of robberies increased, the official of the Panama Railroad Company, became worried of what would happen once the line was completed. They decided to create their own police force and secured from the governor, Urrutia Ańino, a charter, to hire, enforce, and judicate the crime in their jurisdiction. This was fully supported with the merchants that catered to the area, and the American, French and British consuls. The railroad hired a former Texas Ranger, Randolph Runnels, to do the job, which he did very well. 

His first task was to organize a group of men for the job. He then assigned them to watch and listen to every thing at the local bars and gambling halls across the Isthmus. When he had his list complete, he ordered his men to fan out all over the Isthmus, and arrest the criminals and bring them to Panamá. That night and hung thirty seven criminals from the trees in the city, without any fan-fair. When the city awoke the next morning, they were greeted by the gruesome sight. Several month later, he finished the job by hanging an additional forty one in the dead of night. These were hung around Las Bobedas, the old Spanish fortress in down town. 

Steamer Illinois of the United Mail Steamship Company   1851

The Illinois was a wooden side-wheel steamer, with 2 decks and 3 masts. She was 2,123 tons, 266 feet long, by 40 feet wide. She was fitted with 2 oscillating steam engines, and fitted with berths for 500 passengers. She entered into the New York - Chagres service on August 26, 1851 and was taken out of this service in 1859.

This is one of the Steam Ships that carried passengers from New York to Panama. This ship was originally designed, and certified for 500 passengers, and refitted to carry a maximum of 763 passengers. During the Gold Rush, the ship was filled to the maximum the company could get away with. In one of its trips, in 1856, there were 1,150 passengers (387 more than there were berths for). People were stacked everywhere. The lower cabins, second-class, staterooms were filled with beds, three high, and sometimes, there were not enough berths for the number of passengers. 

Since there was no refrigeration, to preserve the meat, there was an assortment of livestock that was carried on the ships. These included, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, lamb, pigs, and cattle, which were all slaughtered, butchered, cooked and served to the passengers on the same day. Since the staterooms were not designed for the large number of passengers, meals were severed continuously. 

In 1848, the cost of a typical passage from New York to Chagres, was $150 first class, and $120 for second class. Once the gold rush was in full swing, first class passage did not change, while second class dropped to $100. The passengers in first class, were doubled in number, by adding an extra berth in the cabins. In second class, the added a berth, where ever they could find room, making it almost impossible to move around. The trips would take between one and two weeks, depending on how many stops it made in route. 

Steamer Golden Gate of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company  1851

The Golden Gate was a wooden side-wheel steamer with 3 decks and 3 mast. It was a 2,067 ton, 269 feet long with 40 feet width. She had two oscillating engines and was launched on January 21, 1851 and it took her about 2˝ months for go from New York to San Francisco. The Golden Gate set the record for the trip between Panama and San Francisco of 11 days, and 4 hours and it held until 1855.  She sailed the San Francisco to Panama route until she burned at sea and beached in Mexico on July 27, 1862 with a loss of 233 lives and 1.4 million dollars in gold.

In 1854, the rates for passage on the Golden Gate were $200 in upper deck staterooms,, main cabin rooms were $150, $125 for second-cabin rooms, and $45 for steerage.

Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River

The trail from Gorgona to Panama City


Mouth of the Chagres River in 1850

Between the years of 1848 and 1869, there were approximately 373,000 passengers going to San Francisco from New York, via the Panama Route. Through the Nicaragua Route, there were 68,000 passengers. This averaged to 17,800 passengers a year for Panama and 3,200 passengers per year for Nicaragua.

The approximate number of passengers going from San Francisco to New York, was 224,000 via Panama and 57,000 via Nicaragua. The average number of passengers returning per year from California was 10,700 via Panama and 2,700 via Nicaragua.

During the same year span, most of the gold that was dug up in California, went back to the east, via the Panama Route (711 million dollars), with a lesser amount via Nicaragua Route (46 million dollars). With the large amount of gold, being shipped through Panama, a large number of desperados, aggregated on the Isthmus. This brought about the establishment of a vigilante organization, called the Isthmian Guard.

Port of Chagres Sleeping quarters on a crowded steamer
Stopping for dinner on the Gorgona Trail Dinning Room on a Panama bound steamer

Trip up the Chagres River in a native dugout, called Bungos

Panama History Home

Bruce C. Ruiz
August 14, 2002