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Adolph Sutro Slogs Through Panama (Part 3)

by Jack Leibman

This is the third in a series of articles tracing German immigrant Adolph Sutro’s 1850 journey by ship from New York to California via the isthmus of Panama. City Guide Jack Leibman has drawn this description from Sutro’s letters found in the collection of the Sutro Library. His tale resumes after he has spent a miserable night in a canoe, besieged by mosquitoes and drenched by rain.

Today's scenery again features thick forests, trees lying across the river, and isolated huts. At noon, a “disgusting” lunch table is encountered, covered with flies, little worms, and ants. Then a terrible drenching thunderstorm occurs before the next station, which is furnished with two huts. About 60 persons arrive, and Adolph again sleeps in the boat. There is nothing to eat but guava preserves. Hordes of fireflies appear, and mosquitoes fill the air.

Next day we went quite far, often barely avoiding logs and capsizing. Four Frenchmen were upset today, but all were saved. Last week fourteen Americans were drowned. Today we met a wild-looking lot of Californians going down the river. Next day, the 24th, at 3 o'clock, we reached Gorgona, where we finally had some warm food.

The road from here to Panama is virtually impassable because of the mud. We finally persuaded our boatman to go on to Cruces, seven miles further, the worst part of the river. This was really dangerous in the dark, and we were thankful for the boatman's skill. We had imagined this was a real town, with good places to sleep, but we were again disappointed. At the United States Hotel, 300 people were crowded in. Supper of coffee, bread, and already tainted meat cost one dollar. I was glad to be in the closed house after 4½ days on the river. The large sleeping room had about 150 cots, crowded and stacked, with no bedding at all. But I had a good night's rest anyhow.


In the morning, October 25th, a way had to be found to get to the city of Panama on the Pacific coast. After hard bargaining, Adolph rented a mule to ride and three pack mules for his baggage.

It is impossible to describe the journey from Cruces to Panama. At every step you are in danger of being thrown. Many seasoned travelers, who have crossed the Cordilleras and the Alps, told me that this was the worst trail in the world. Ten minutes after we started, the mules sank down to their bellies in the mud. I thought I would never get out again. The path cut through roots and was often so narrow that the mules barely scraped through and were unable to find their feet. We crossed creeks and swamps, and got covered totally with mud. Then there was the dread of robbers. The night before we left, a young man was murdered and robbed of $9,000.

Finally by evening we reached a native hut to spend the night. I shall never forget this night. At dark my traveling companions left me, and I stayed to guard my baggage, alone with the muleteers who spoke only Spanish. I was armed, but quite frightened. At the nearby open hut were about 150 men returning from California, who looked like highwaymen. I had had no food all day, then found a man who sold me a piece of bread for a shilling. It had rained all day and I was again totally soaked with no possible clothing change. At last I lay on the ground among these ruffians, but sleep was impossible.


Next morning there was nothing to eat. The baggage was loaded but the riding mule had been stolen during the night. Adolph was forced to go on foot, potentially for seven miles. "In a half hour I was so exhausted I could hardly move a step. The heat was insufferable. Finally a man let me ride his mule for a few dollars. By 9 AM I was overjoyed to see my first sight of Panama and the Pacific."

At the American Hotel, the rate was $2 a day. In the mirror, Adolph was shocked by his appearance. His pants were tucked into his boots and mud covered everything. He wore an immense straw hat and a leather belt in which a pistol was stuck. His face was covered in mud, his hair unkempt and disheveled. Clean clothes and a bath seemed like a rebirth after the five-day ordeal.

The old Spanish town of Panama is mostly in ruins. "I eat scarcely anything but bread and a cup of tea; the meat all smells. In my room are six beds; some have fifty, stacked three or four high. You won't believe the terrible inconvenience; in all Panama, there is no watercloset. Everyone must go on the walls of the city, even if you are unwell in the night. The natives live on yams, bananas, and coconuts. There is no agriculture and no vegetables. The natives are all Catholics, so there are lots of priests and church bells. The soldiers are truly ridiculous, black, white and yellow all mixed up, none with shoes. I shall be delighted to get on the steamer tomorrow."



Historic photo courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Undated photograph of Adolph Sutro

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