Crossing Panama

Aspinwall 1857

Many of the gold seekers who came by way of Panama differed from those who came around Cape Horn as well as from those who crossed America by wagon. A good number simply hoped to avoid the hardship of the other routes but, while there were great numbers of first class passengers, a whole grab bag of the riffraff of eastern cities, including gamblers, cheats, and swindlers, also came by way of the isthmus. It was noted that some of these men “chewed tobacco at a ruinous rate and spent their time dozing on the deck or going to the fore-cabin for drinks. Each one carried arms for a small company and breathed defiance to all foreigners.”

Even before the steamer lines, chartered to carry mail to California, were in full operation, men took any ship they could find to the ports of Chagres or Colon, later called Aspinwall, with the hope of finding passage to San Francisco once they were across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. But first they had to make their way in canoes up the Chagres River to Los Cruces or Gorgona and then by mule or foot over the mountains to Panama City.

USM steamship Pacific 1849

The swamps along the Atlantic side of the isthmus were particularly unhealthy and no one wished to remain there long. Malaria, cholera, and small pox were common in Panama and no one knew the cause of these deadly plagues. Nearly everybody came with powders, potions and pills reputed to cure every disease, known or unknown, that mankind might be subject to. From the moment someone imagined there was something wrong, they dosed themselves with every patent remedy at hand. There were those who suspected that this weakened these men to such a degree that when a real sickness hit them they were so poisoned by what they had ingested that they were in no condition to ward off the true illness.

Panama harbor

The Pacific coast offered a somewhat healthier climate but it was here that thousands of men would congregate, waiting for any available vessel to carry them to San Francisco. And it was here that some of the travelers were given to rough and riotous living. One man said he had never witnessed so many of the lowest passions of humanity as he did in Panama City, while another described the heartless selfishness he saw in Panama as disgusting. All types of ships were brought into operation to take the men from Panama to California, many unseaworthy and under supplied. It is fortunate that most made the trip successfully. When the first Pacific Mail Steamship, California, showed up early in 1849 the demand for passage was so great that over a thousand dollars was paid for a single steerage ticket. Some desperate men even dared to take canoes up the Pacific coast but fortunately turned back before they had gone too far.



  1. What they went through overwhelms the mind. Yet the human spirit does win out. (Sometimes)

    • This was the same route the Spanish used to haul the riches they took from the Inca across to the Caribbean and then back to Spain. It’s the same place the Panama Canal is today. But when the Panama Railroad opened in 1855 it made passage to California easy enough that women began to come in great numbers.

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