- Historic Sites
Incident On The Isthmus
Back when Panama was a jumping-off place for Eldorado, a piece of melon became a symbol that led to a massacre. Its seeds of anti-Yankee resentment are still bearing fruit
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Luna had a dagger out just as quickly. Friends from both sides tried to intervene. One of the Americans offered to pay the dime but was ignored. Then one of Luna’s friends, a “light-colored” man named Miguel Habrahan, stepped in and grabbed Oliver’s pistol. It went off in the scuffle that followed, but no one was hit. Frightened, Habrahan broke away and, still clutching the pistol, ran up the beach toward the boatshed in front of the railroad station. The Americans ran after him, Oliver in the lead, his companions shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!” But as always when there was trouble between Americans and natives, Luna and the other blacks faded away.
For such altercations were not unprecedented; over the years there had been a number of incidents involving gunplay. Nor was there now, at six o’clock, anything else to mark the day as unusual. In the ticket office, clerks were busy stamping passengers’ tickets; about six hundred had filed past the windows, and most of them had boarded the Taboga to wait. But there were still more than three hundred—about seventy of them women and children—to be taken care of. Outside, the station grounds were crowded with people who had arrived from San Francisco on the Cortes and were waiting for the train to leave for Aspinwall, and with others who had come out from Panama City for the sailing.
On the railroad pier near the station, Captain Allan McLane, the Pacific Mail agent, was chatting with Alexander Center, the railroad superintendent, and William Nelson, another railroad employee. McLane was supervising forty Negroes who were unloading freight and baggage from the train to go aboard the Stephens . The scene was busy, crowded, and cheerful.
Meanwhile Oliver went to Ocean House, another saloon, where he had another whiskey and boasted loudly about the watermelon incident. Then, at his companions’ urging, he went back with them to the ticket office to have his steamer ticket validated. Miguel Habrahan, having gotten away from him, had doubled back along the beach toward town; what Habrahan did next is still unknown, but suddenly the bells of the Church of Santa Anna, a quarter-mile away in the parish outside the walls of the city, began to peal. Then the alarm bell in the cupola over Gorgona Gate in the city wall began to ring. Within minutes—almost as if by prearranged signal—crowds gathered at the edge of the city, and soon they were rushing toward the railroad station, shouting and waving their arms. They passed through the Cienega, a crowded slum of cane shanties that lay between Santa Anna parish and the station, stretching beachward as far as the saloons and hotels. In the Cienega they found arms and ammunition, and a great many more natives eager to join them.
The mob had learned somehow that Oliver had gone to Ocean House, so they headed there first. There were still a few Americans in the bar. (But not Oliver; his ticket validated, he had boarded the Taboga and had fallen asleep.) There were also some American families resting in the hotel rooms upstairs. The mob was headed for the barroom; some of the blacks were already firing into it. Inside, James Quinn, the Dublinborn bartender, and one or two armed Americans began to fire back.
All the more excited by the return fire, the natives—machetes and knives flashing, guns firing—forced their way into Ocean House, grappling with the men inside and smashing the rude furniture of the bar-room. Most of the combatants, black and white, were ignorant of the fighting’s immediate cause, but even if Oliver had still been there, his capture by the mob would not have slaked their anger. All the hatred and resentment against arrogant Americans who lit their cigars at candles in the cathedral, rudely disrupted religious processions, challenged local authorities and scorned local taxes, shoved natives out of the way in the streets, cursed and browbeat them, short-changed and refused to pay them—all this had coalesced into an easily fired determination to destroy. The Americans in the Ocean House bar, no longer masters, turned and ran out the back door, then up the beach to the railroad pier and the safety of the Taboga .
Having drunk most of the whiskey and made a shambles of everything else at Ocean House, the mob grew and spread. They looted nearby McAllister’s store, filling empty bottles from whiskey casks, and surged across the street to pillage another small store called the Triangle. Next were Pacific House and the Golden Eagle saloon, which they attacked with guns, stones, and bottles. Upstairs at Pacific House, two men jumped out a back window and ran to safety; the rest of the occupants, mostly women and children, cowered helplessly—but were still safer than a woman they could see running, screaming, in the street below, pursued by a Negro with a bar stool in his hand.
The closest the mob had come to the railroad station was Ocean House, about two hundred feet away; it appeared that the destruction would be confined to the commercial buildings facing the Cienega. There had been no indication that the station would be attacked, and there was good reason to suppose that it would not be, for the natives held the Panama Railroad in considerable awe: it possessed more power and authority than the local government, and, until fairly recently, it had done its own ruthless policing of the transit zone. The station, within the fenced compound, sheltered hundreds of people, who, the natives might reasonably suppose, would resist any attack.