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Water-front, Angostura (Ciudad Bolívar), on the Orinoco

223

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The Colombian and Venezuelan

Republics

CHAPTER I

THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA

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T was in the midsummer of 1873 when I saw the

Isthmus of Panama for the first time. In all

probability it could not have been seen at a more unpropitious season nor under more unfavorable circumstances. The “sickly season " had already set in, somewhat earlier than usual; there had just been a local “revolution" with all its attendant disorders; and the whole Province seemed to be on the verge of anarchy, financial ruin, and moral bankruptcy. I have visited that locality many times since; have been an eye-witness of its many subsequent changes for the better; have kept in pretty close touch with it during the past quarter of a century; and some of the happiest years of my life have been spent among the Colombian people. But I shall probably never be able to get entirely rid of my first unfavorable impressions of the Colombian isthmus; and, despite all its many recent improvements and its prospective importance, I doubt whether its Atlantic side will ever look quite so charming on close inspection as it does some leagues distant

from the upper deck of an ocean steamer.

That was the way it impressed me twenty-seven years ago, and it is the way it impresses the stranger to-day.

Our vessel was the old Henry Chauncy, a clumsy, wooden “side-wheeler" of a past era and generation. She was on her final voyage before giving place to the modern iron keel with screw propeller. With the fairest of weather, and without accident of any kind, we had been nine whole days and nights out from New York, touching only at Kingston, Jamaica, for about an hour. The same trip is now made by one of the modern "greyhounds" of the ocean in about half that time, at a reduced cost, and with much more comfort to the passengers.

About eight o'clock in the morning of the tenth day out, the watchman at the forecastle called out, “ Land ! There was the usual rush forward by the passengers, glass in hand, to see what was to be seen.

What we saw was something resembling a twisted green ribbon, barely perceptible, at the junction of sea and sky; something which some poetic genius on board called a "microscopic shadow on the outer hem of space.”

As we drew nearer, this dim outline gradually broadened and deepened; and very soon it assumed the form and proportions of an indented shore of crescent shape, clothed in that bright emerald green peculiar to the American tropics during the “rainy season.” By ten o'clock we were safely anchored in the harbor, only a few rods from the northern or Atlantic terminus of the trans-isthmian railway. Our poetic conceptions of the place, excited by the distant view some hours ago, now began to vanish rapidly and forever; for we were face to face with what was then perhaps the filthiest, the unwholesomest, and most disorderly and replsive hole of a place in all Christendom.

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One of the passengers - a gentleman of culture and position hired a negro porter to carry his trunk from the steamer to the railway station less than two hundred yards distant. The price agreed upon was fifty cents, which was all the fellow had asked. When he got within less than a dozen paces of the station, he threw down the trunk and demanded five dollars! The owner remonstrated, mildly but firmly. In less than five minutes he was surrounded by a threatening mob of negroes and half-breeds, all yelling and cursing at the top of their voices. To prevent a riot, one of the resident consuls advised the gentleman to pay the five dollars, which he did, “with curses not loud but deep.”

I relate this incident as merely illustrative of the disorders then prevailing at the little seaport town which all Anglo-Americans called Aspinwall, but which all Colombians as persistently called Colón. This confusion as to the name of the place had a capricious origin, by the way; and, trivial as it now seems, it once led to a somewhat vexatious diplomatic controversy. Away back in the early fifties, when the Panama Railway Company (an American corporation) made their final survey of the route, the Atlantic terminus was located in a swamp a little southward of Old Navy Bay. No white man had ever attempted to live there, and the reptiles and red monkeys had never been disturbed in their possessions, even by the Indians. But now that this malarious and inhospitable spot was to be the site of a seaport town, it had to have a name. Several names were proposed, but none seemed to “stick.” Finally, when the road was nearing completion, a banquet was given by the managers, at which were present as honored guests all the native local officials, and also several members of the Colombian cabinet who had come all the way from Bogotá to participate in the general jubilee. Champagne

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