Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

The Landing at the Isthmus

For the remainder of the voyage Charley slept on the deck instead of in the boat. He was not exactly afraid, and if anybody had dared him to he would have slept in the boat just to show that he wasn't afraid.

But the idea that the boat might be cut loose, or might break loose, was not pleasant. Ugh! Then down he would drop, boat and all, into the wash of the steamer; the steamer would go on without him—and where would he go?

Even Mr. Grigsby and his father, who were brave men, approved of his sleeping on deck, now. As Mr. Grigsby said:

"We know you aren't afraid, but it's only a fool who takes chances when they aren't necessary. Out in the Indian country the greenhorns were the fellows who played smart by sitting in the campfire light where the Injuns could get a good shot at them. Nobody ever saw Kit Carson exposing himself that way."

The Georgia was ploughing across the Caribbean Sea. Islands were constantly in view, but now no one paid much attention to these. All the passengers were on the lookout for the Isthmus of Panama; they were tremendously eager to get ashore and start across the Isthmus for the Pacific Ocean.

On the morning of the eighth day out of New Orleans a bank of rain or fog closed down on the horizon ahead. Off yonder was the Isthmus, but who could see it? However, evidently it was near; for when Charley roved about, he discovered that sailors were busy, below, hoisting out baggage from the hold. They were getting ready to land.

The news spread through the ship, and passengers immediately engaged in a wild rush to put their things together and crowd for the steps. They acted as though they expected to make a flying leap ashore as the ship passed by. Charley was glad to help his father and Mr. Grigsby tie up their belongings also, so as to be ready.

Here on the rolling Caribbean the sun was shining brightly, tinting the choppy waves with a beautiful green. The storm ashore was moving on, evidently, for the streaks of rain were drifting around to the left and passing out to sea, leaving the mist thin and white. Suddenly voices forward cried, excitedly: "Land ho! Land ho! There she is! Isthmus in sight! Land ho!" The cries spread, with everybody on tiptoe, peering. At one end of the mist line had been uncurtained a background of rocky, surf-washed shore, with high green hills rising behind it. Next was uncovered a lower shore, indented by a large bay, and fringed with palm-trees. Next, as on sped the mist (like a swiftly rolling curtain, indeed) there came into view a lofty headland, with trees on its crest and the waves dashing against its base.

The Georgia was swinging about in her course, and pointing up the coast. This brought the lofty headland on her left. And now all the deck was rife with questions.

"Where do we land?"

"What's that big point? Porto Bello?"

"The pirates captured it, didn't they, couple of hundred years ago?"

"Can you see the old fort on it?"

"How far's the Pacific Ocean, now?"

"Do we land in that big bay?"

"Don't think so. That's Limon Bay, isn't it? Where is Colon?"

"Colon is where the railroad's going to begin. We land at Chagres."

"Where is Chagres?"

"How far across to the Pacific at Panama?"

"About four days. Three by boat and one by mule, they say."

"Anything to eat at Chagres? Any sleeping place?"

"Don't know."

"Oh, Tom! How'll we engage a canoe? Ought to make up a party and send a man ashore at once, oughtn't we?"

Accompanied by this babel of cries, the Georgia steamed up along the shore. She passed the lofty headland, which seemed to guard a fine harbor; and she passed the big bay which people said was Limon. The shore looked very tropical, with its beaches and palms and green hills and thatched huts and glimpses of bright tinted towns, while behind rose the mountain range. Charley gazed spellbound.

"Say, where is Chagres?" were asking the passengers crowding along the inshore rail.

Yes, indeed; where was Chagres? The Georgia was supposed to land at the town of Chagres, which was at the mouth of the Chagres River, and the way to California then lay up the Chagres River, by canoe, as far as possible; over the mountains by mule, down to the Pacific Ocean at Panama; and aboard the Pacific Mail Company steamship there, for San Francisco.

"According to the map," said Mr. Adams, "Chagres is about eight miles up the coast from Limon Bay. I shouldn't wonder if we were turning in for it now."

Sure enough, the Georgia was beginning to point for the shore, which rose high and steep, seamed with darker lines that proved to be ravines running down to the sea. A narrow inlet opened in the shore; no, this was the mouth of a river—the Chagres River, said several voices.

"I see a castle," cried Charley. "It looks like a castle, anyway. On top of the cliff, above the river. Or maybe it's a fort."

"San Lorenzo castle, they call it, I believe," announced Mr. Grigsby.

Closer to the river's mouth and the castle above swept the Georgia. Her whistle sounded hoarsely. Still no town appeared; and to general disappointment, when about a quarter of a mile from shore, opposite the mouth of the river, she stopped her engines, there was a rattle of chains through the hawse holes, and she had dropped anchor! Almost immediately a boat pulled away from her, for the shore. It contained the captain and two or three other officials. They soon entered the mouth of the river and disappeared. The passengers, pressed against the rails on all the decks, their hand baggage ready, murmured irritably, but no other boats were launched and evidently it was not yet time for them also to go ashore.

"If you two will look after the baggage, I'll try to get ashore among the first and hire a boat," offered Mr. Adams.

"That's the best idea," approved Mr. Grigsby. "There won't be boats enough to go 'round, and somebody'll get left."

Charley saw his father shouldering his way through the crowd, to the head of the stairs, into which he made further way. He descended from sight. Down below he would have a harder time, for the crowd at the rails of the lower decks was thicker, where people had clustered hanging close so as to be in the first of the boats. But Mr. Adams could take care of himself, all right, whether lame or not. He had been in many a battle.

For a time there was nothing to do but gaze at the shore—at the old, crumbling Castle of San Lorenzo, where through glasses a few cannon could be descried; at the clumps of palms, standing like plumes; at the rolling green hills, bordering the shore, and at the distant mountain range which was to be crossed after the river had been ascended as far as possible. Beyond the mountains lay the Pacific Ocean, where, at the city of Panama, the steamer for California would be boarded by those who got there in time. Except for the dots of soldiers, surveying the Georgia from the walls of the fort, the only signs of life ashore were the thatched roofs of some huts, back among the trees.

In the course of an hour another murmur arose from the impatient passengers, for the ship's boat reappeared, issuing from the narrow mouth of the river—and with it was a much larger boat that soon turned out to be a big canoe, manned by half a dozen natives. Both boats headed for the ship. The canoe reached it first. It was a dug-out, fashioned from the single trunk of a tree; and its crew, wielding their paddles, were black as coals, their naked bodies streaming with perspiration. On their legs they wore white cotton trousers, loose and comfortable.

They halted amidships, under the steamer's rail, where while the thousand faces stared down at them they gestured and called up. All that Charley could understand were the words: "Go ahead!" They held up their fingers, opening them and closing them to indicate twenty, evidently. But the passengers could do nothing, although some of them almost jumped overboard in their excitement.

Now the ship's boat with the second mate in it hove alongside. The mate clambered up, by the rope ladder which was lowered for him and closely guarded. He made himself heard the best he could and the word speedily traveled fore and aft, on all the decks, that the canoe would take ashore twenty people, at once.

"And he says we've just time, if we start to-day, to catch the California at Panama," was reported.

What a hubbub resulted! Of course, every party aboard ship tried to place in the canoe their man who would engage a canoe, ashore, for the river trip. The tussle looked and sounded like a free-for-all fist-fight. Down the rope-ladder swarmed the picked men, each trying to out-elbow the others, and dropped recklessly into the dug-out. Two men jumped for the dug-out from the lower deck, and fell sprawling. Another sprang overboard, and climbed in, dripping. But Charley was relieved to see, among the lucky ones worming down the rope-ladder, his father. Hurrah for dad!

Mr. Adams was none too early. The boatmen were jabbering and dodging and shouting. Already the dugout was loaded with its twenty, but the rope-ladder was as full as ever. Out from the ship's side shoved the big canoe, its captain shaking his head vigorously at the passengers above and yelling: "No! No!" while his men began to ply their paddles.

Now there was a splash in the water, and a chorus of cries and laughter. A passenger who was bound not to be left had dived overboard, after the canoe. Up he rose, to the surface, and struck out. He was the long-nosed man, Mr. Jacobs!

"Wait! Wait! Man overboard!" rang the excited shouts to the dug-out; and Mr. Jacobs himself, swimming as high as he could, waved an arm and shouted.

But the crew of the dug-out only looked back and laughed; their captain, steering, shook his head and motioned no; and faster and faster traveled the canoe. The long-nosed man swam hard for a little way, when, giving up, he turned and came back to the ship.

The passengers gave him a round of applause mixed with laughter, as he clambered aboard; but leaning over to watch, Charley saw him pause at the rail and shake his fist after the retreating dug-out. He was not a good loser.

"Well, he's left, anyhow," greeted Mr. Grigsby, when Charley hastened back to find him and tell him. Mr. Grigsby was so tall, that he had seen as well as Charley, who was little and could squeeze about under people's arms. "It's a wonder. That kind of person usually swipes the best seat."

"I'm glad, aren't you?" answered Charley. "Maybe we won't have any more trouble with him."

"Humph! Can't count on that yet," asserted Mr. Grigsby.

"My father didn't get left. He's in the boat, all right," said Charley, proudly.

"Yes. I knew he'd make it. Now as soon as we can get ashore we'll start up-river."

But nothing was done aboard the Georgia, toward landing the passengers, until another hour. Then suddenly the word spread: "Get your baggage. Everybody ashore," and the sailors began to lower the boats.

By the fight for place, that again occurred, anybody would have thought that the ship was sinking and that only those people who got into the boats at once would be saved! The parties who had no men ashore were the most determined to be first.

"Pshaw! Let 'em go," spoke Mr. Grigsby, as the shoving crowd jostled him and Charley hither and thither. "We can wait. I'm not specially anxious to be capsized and lose all our stuff."

Boat after boat, loaded to the water's edge, pulled away from the ship for the shore, canoes hastened to help, and still the passengers clamored and fought. In the confusion Charley lost all track of the long-nosed man and his partners. The main thought now was, when could he and Mr. Grigsby get ashore and find his father?

When the boats returned for their second loads there was another hurly-burly, but the decks were thinning out, and pushing to the nearest ladder Charley and the Fremonter managed to climb down, lowering their baggage, into the boat there. The boat was loaded full almost instantly, and away it pulled, for the shore again.

Standing up, because there wasn't space to sit down, Charley eagerly gazed ahead. Slowly the shore enlarged; and turning the high point on which was the Castle of San Lorenzo the boat entered the mouth of the river. A little bay unfolded, its shore high on the left, low and marshy on the right. On the left, at the foot of the thickly wooded bluffs, among bananas and plantains, appeared a little group of peak-roofed huts, all the muddy bank in front of them alive with the Georgia's passengers. Was that the town of Chagres? Well, who would want to live here!

The passengers already landed were running about like ants, every one acting as if his life again depended upon his getting away immediately. The landing place was covered with baggage which had been dumped ashore. A number of canoes were lying in the shoal water, and a number of others had been hauled out while their owners repaired them. Amidst the baggage, and over the canoes, swarmed the Georgia's passengers, in their flannel shirts or broadcloth or muddy white, shouting and pleading and threatening, trying to hire the boatmen.

"There's your father," spoke Mr. Grigsby, suddenly, to Charley, as their boat neared the busy landing.

Charley had been anxiously searching the shore, looking for his father; and now he saw him, standing in a canoe drawn up out of the water, and beckoning.

This looked promising; maybe that was their canoe! The moment that the ship's boat grounded, its passengers tumbled out, helter-skelter, into the mud, and raced for land, lugging their bed-rolls, to swell the bevy already landed. Mr. Grigsby shouldered his own bedroll, gave Charley a hand with the other, and together they joined in the scramble.

[Illustration] from Gold Seekers of '49 by Edwin Sabin


"Hello!" greeted Mr. Adams. He was as breathless as they, for every minute he was shoving away persons who tried to seize the canoe, and was explaining that it was taken. A black boatman was busy thatching the canopy top with dried palm leaves—and he, too, was obliged to keep shaking his head and saying: "No. No. Go 'way."

"Well, here's our boat," continued Mr. Adams, briskly. "Here's one boatman; his name's Maria. Francisco, the other, is up town buying provisions. No," called Mr. Adams, to a Georgia passenger who was thrusting money fairly into the face of Maria, "you can't hire this boat. It's taken."

"I've paid fifteen dollars apiece, for the three of us and our baggage up to Cruces, forty miles. That's as high as boats go; there we'll have to take mules across to Panama," continued Mr. Adams—the outsider having gone off disappointed. "I think we've got a good boat; but I've had a fight to keep it. If Maria hadn't have stayed, I'd have been thrown out, long ago."

"When do we start?" asked Charley.

"Whenever Francisco comes back."

"Do you reckon we'll have time to eat?" queried Mr. Grigsby.

"Yes. And that might be a good plan, too."

"You and Charley go up and see what you can find, and I'll hold the boat," directed Mr. Grigsby, climbing in.

"All right. Come along, Charley," and Mr. Adams alertly limped on up the gentle slope, to the village.

The huts were square, made of cane and roofed with palm-leaf thatch, to a peak. There were no window-panes or doors. The Chagres men and women stood in the doorways, and gazed curiously out while they puffed big black cigars and talked about the crazy Americanos.

This, then, was Chagres at the mouth of the Chagres River, the beginning of the Isthmus trip to the Pacific. (But when the great Panama Canal was built, it left the Chagres River, above the town, and cutting across a neck of land struck the ocean at Limon Bay, eight miles down the coast. The first Panama railroad also chose Limon Bay as one terminus; so that the town of Chagres soon lost its business.)

Mr. Adams spoke Spanish, because he had been a soldier in Mexico; and right speedily he bought bread and bananas and eggs and some dried meat. There was a hut bearing a sign in English: "Crescent Hotel"; but one look into it and at its mob of panting customers decided Charley and his father to eat in their canoe.

"Good! There's Francisco!" exclaimed Mr. Adams, as they returned.

"Yes; and there's that Jacobs again!" cried Charley. "He's after our canoe!"

"He won't get it," said his father. "We've paid for it, and we keep it."