Incident On The Isthmus

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In the telegraph room of the Panama Railroad station the operator was tapping out an anguished message to the company’s chief engineer in Aspinwall, miles away across the Isthmus: bullets were coming through the room, it said, and the telegrapher added, “I shall be shot. I must go.” But there was no place to go. It was no longer possible even to send a telegram; outside, a mob had just torn down the telegraph wires.

Downstairs, in the darkness, the battering of the doors continued. Men were piled in a human barricade against them, while scores of others crouched on the floor, trying to escape the bullets coming up from outside. At the back of the building a group of natives was bringing burning coals to set the building on fire.

White men, women, and children at the mercy of a mob of natives—either a scene from poor-grade fiction or, if true in fact, surely the by-product of long years of oppression. The scene was true enough in this case, but it came in 1856, early in the relationship between the United States and Panama (then a state of New Granada, which later became Colombia). The relationship had begun in the late 1840’s, when thousands of Americans first began hurrying across the Isthmus en route to the gold fields of California.

Earlier on this Tuesday, April 15, 1856, nine hundred and forty people, more than half of them women and children, had arrived at the port of Aspinwall (present-day Colon), the United States Mail Steamship Company’s Atlantic terminus. They had gone directly to the waiting coaches of the American-owned Panama Railroad, and four hours later—at about four-thirty—they were at the railroad’s depot on the Pacific.

They could go no farther for the time being. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s John L. Stephens , which would take them to San Francisco, was anchored in the bay, but the steamer Taboga , which would ferry them out to the Stephens , was stranded in the mud at the foot of the railroad wharf and would remain mired until the tide came in late that night.

The railroad terminal was situated along the beach three eighths of a mile north of the walled city of Panama. The station building was a split-level structure built of plain pine boards. The lower floor, seven feet off the ground, was primarily a freight room, with a baggage room and a railroad and ticket office at the eastern, or beach, end of the building. On that same end, stairs led up to three more offices and a telegraph room on the second floor.

It had not been built with passenger comfort in mind. Nowhere in the building, or anywhere else on the grounds, was there anything resembling a waiting room, unless one cared to sit on a trunk in the baggage room. The ticket office opened onto a four-footwide platform on the north side of the building; on steamer days the Pacific Mail line took over the office to process the tickets of its passengers as they filed past outside. Passengers could then board the ferry or wait on shore. Few of them went into the city of Panama; that derelict town of eight thousand or so people, ninety per cent of them Negro or Indian, was avoided by all but the most curious.

It had not always been that way. In the early days of the Gold Rush, before the railroad was finished and before the Pacific Mail had enough ships to accommodate the traffic, Panama had been transformed into an American city, with two and three thousand Americans at a time waiting—sometimes for weeks on end—for transportation to San Francisco. Panama City’s Galle de la Merced was lined with American hotels, saloons, and gambling “hells,” and filled with swaggering, insolent gringos. By the mid-fifties, however, the American-run establishments had disappeared from the city; nowdays, passengers usually went no farther than those hotels and saloons, owned by Americans and other white foreigners, which had sprung up along the beach between the fenced compound of the railroad station and the walled city. These establishments faced “Main Street,” which led to a gate on the south side of the compound.

On this particular Tuesday afternoon in 1856, one of the steerage passengers with time on his hands was an ill-tempered, hard-drinking man named Jack Oliver. He and a group of rowdy companions went first to the Golden Eagle saloon, about two hundred yards down Main Street from the railroad station. They left the Golden Eagle, fairly drunk, at about five-thirty. Some native vendors were gathered outside. As he wandered past, Oliver picked up a slice of watermelon from the tray of one José Luna; he ate part of it and walked on.

Luna followed him, demanding payment—a dime. (American dimes were the most common currency on the Isthmus.) Oliver ignored him. When the native persisted, Oliver pushed him away and told him, “Don’t bother me. Kiss my arse.”

José Luna, a strapping, twenty-nine-year-old mulatto, stood his ground. “Take care; we are not here in the United States,” he warned Oliver. “Pay me my money and let us be square.”

Oliver drew his pistol and snarled, “I’ll pay you with a shot.”