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Chagres Travelers

by Susan Saperstein

People bound for California from New York or New Orleans generally sailed to the port of Chagres in Panama, then traveled overland 60 miles through jungle and over mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean and await a ship to transport them north.

The harbor was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1502. For three centuries under Spanish rule, the village was considered unhealthy and unruly. When tens of thousands of gold-seekers landed there on their way to California, the village did not have the resources—including sanitation or police—to handle all the people. The biggest dangers included robbery and insect- and water-born diseases such as Chagres or Panama fever (yellow fever), malaria, cholera, and typhoid. Many slept in the streets and by the harbor waiting for transportation to the other side of Panama. When the Panama railway was completed in 1855, travel was diverted to the city of Colon, and Chagres once more became a backwater.

Besides Adolph Sutro, here are a few other notable people who traveled this route.(Click here for the Adolph Sutro article)

In 1852 Army Quartermaster Ulysses S. Grant (later General and President), on his way to California with his regiment, was stranded in Panama when “cholera had broken out, and men were dying every hour.” As he described in his memoirs:

July is at the height of the wet season, on the Isthmus. At intervals the rain would pour down in streams, followed in not many minutes by a blazing, tropical summer’s sun.

In the summer of 1852 the Panama railroad was completed only to the point where it now crosses the Chagres River. From there passengers were carried by boats to Gorgona, at which place they took mules for Panama, some twenty-five miles further. Those who traveled over the Isthmus in those days will remember that boats on the Chagres River were propelled by natives not inconveniently burdened with clothing.


Theodore Judah, the Connecticut civil engineer who surveyed the land which would become the transcontinental train route, traveled back and forth to Washington D.C. via Chagres to lobby Congress to finance the railroad.

Judah was later pushed out by the Big Four (Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hop-kins, and Collis P. Huntington) who actually built the Central Pacific Rail line. He died of yellow fever con-tracted while cross-ing back to New York with his wife in an effort to find alternative financing to buy out the Big Four investors.

Samuel Holladay, a lawyer from Ohio who later became a State Assemblyman and a member of the Society of California Pioneers, was also known as the squatter of Lafayette Square. After he built a large house in the center of the park, for 20 years he was involved in lawsuits with the City of San Francisco, which said the land had been reserved as a public park. He won each time.

When he arrived in Chagres in 1849 and crossed the isthmus, he had to wait from the middle of March to the middle of May before the steamer Panama arrived to take him to California. At the height of the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a black hole where ships went but never came back out because the crew deserted for the gold fields. Among the other passengers waiting in Panama on that trip was Jesse Benton Fremont, the wife of John Fremont. This was the first of her many trips on this route.

Jesse Benton Fremont’s first trip to Panama was with her young child and brother-in-law Richard Jacob. John Fremont was traveling overland on a longer scouting trip and their plan was to meet in San Francisco. The brother-in-law was a reluctant traveler who was drafted for this trip by the rest of the family to protect Jesse. The captain of the ship tried to persuade her to return to New York when they reached Chagres. She insisted on continuing.

As the daughter of a powerful United States Senator, she was offered a ride on one of the ship’s river boats up the Chagres River. This was more luxurious than the dugouts the other travelers took. Jacobs later fell ill, but Jesse was determined to make the journey without him. When she reached the Pacific coast, she became stranded for a few weeks waiting for a ship to San Francisco. She is also mentioned by Sutro as being in Panama when he was there in late 1850.

Photographer Eadweard Muybridge, born Edward James Muggeridge, changed his name and came to America from Britain in 1851 at the age of 22. He is best known for his 1872 “motion picture” project for racehorse owner and Big Four member Leland Stanford. Stanford wanted to prove that all four hooves of a galloping horse leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge rigged a series of cameras to create a photographic series called The Horse in Motion that proved Stanford’s bet. Two years later, Muybridge shot and murdered his wife’s lover. Stanford paid for his criminal defens, and he was acquitted of the murder on the grounds of “justifiable homicide.”

Even with an acquittal, there was still a scandal around this event. To escape San Francisco, Muybridge traveled to Central America. While in Panama to create photographs for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to use for promoting investments, he took this photograph of a boy in the Chagres River.

Sources: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco at http:// www.sfmuseum.org/hist9/usgrant.html

The Age of Gold, H. W. Brands Online Archive of California, http://content.cdlib.org/ view;jsessionid=IAIjL7WM3U4fg8zK?docId=tf329008p8&chunk.id=bioghist-1.3.4&brand=oac

Chagres photo: Clements Library, University of Michigan

Photos of Chagres, Panama, by Eadweard Muybridge courtesy of William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

All other historic photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.



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Theodore Judah did not live to see the realization of his dream of the transcontinental railroad.

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Lafayette Square at Washington, Gough, Sacramento, and Laguna, where Holladay's house once stood.

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Jesse Fremont at her home in Black Point, the area now called Fort Mason.

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