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Adolph Sutro in Panama (Part 2)

by Jack Leibman

In Jack Leibman's series of articles culled from Sutro’s letters - here he takes up the tale of Sutro’s journey to San Francisco after the steamer Cherokee from New York deposits him in the port of Chagres on the Caribbean coast of Panama.

As always, Adolph provides vivid descriptions of his experiences. The exotic natives of Chagres in Panama number about 1500 and seem to be a mixture of brown and black.

"They are very lazy and passionately fond of smoking, especially the women. Nearly every girl has a cigar in her mouth or sticks it behind her ear like a pen. Men and women are clad from the hips down or not at all, and have no shame. Some women are dressed in fine light-colored materials, with coal-black hair, decked in pearls and gold."

With three other travelers, Adolph engaged native canoe operators, speaking Spanish only, to take them up the Chagres River to Cruces for $100.

"We packed all our goods in the canoe and started at 1 p.m. The river is rapid, with strong eddies, dangerous in a dugout. Luxurious tropical vegetation with coconut trees, palms, bananas, oranges, citrus, wild fig, mangoes, guavas, and other often colossal trees. Thick green bamboos, sugar cane, tule, house-high grasses, cactuses, and leaves as long as a man and several feet in width. Then the climbers and parasites which grow to the top and grow down, intertwining in a thousand ways, making an impenetrable smothering foliage.

There are thousands of parrots, always in pairs, pelicans, wild ducks, hundreds of hummingbirds, eagles, and vultures. In the grass, you see large lizards, chameleons, iguanas, and in the air fly large colorful butterflies. In the river are the much-dreaded alligators. The river makes many sharp unexpected turns. By 7 p.m. we had covered about 8 miles and stopped at a native village, Catten. So far, we were delighted and excited, and had feasted on provisions from the ship."

Adolph now gets to the dangerous and disagreeable part of the trip. He begins by describing the unhealthy conditions in Chagres, the pale, miserable, emaciated whites who look like reflections of yellow fever. The white men last only a few years; the chief cause of the unhealthiness is the thick fog, laden with moisture and malaria, which rises every night from the ground. A single night's exposure may ruin one's health forever. Four nights were spent in this suffocating fog. We were saved from the fever only by the regular dose of quinine given us by the ship's doctor.

In Catten, slogging through the mud, there was no place to sleep. A few hammocks were used by the ladies, but 200-300 people gradually arrived, sleeping on the ground or in canoes. Adolph chose to stay in the canoe to guard his baggage. To avoid sickness, he feasted on crackers and some yellow river water. The gambling tables were the main occupation of the boatmen, who made good money but invariably lost it all. In a casual reference, Adolph describes meeting some Americans, most notably, Col. Fremont, the U.S. Senator from California, who had come with us on the Cherokee. He and all his family were in an open hut.

Adolph spends the night in the boat, besieged by a horde of mosquitoes and drenched by rain. Dawn breaks and the next day's trials begin.

Click here for accounts of other Chagres travelers

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Stereoviews use two photographs of a slightly different perspective together with a viewer to create a three-dimensional image. This stereoview by Eadweard Muybridge (circa 1875) titled "Chagres, The City Front" is from his stereoview series called Isthmus of Panama. This photograph is in the collection of the Clements Library, University of Michigan.

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