The Adventures of Lynn Downey: Panama Day 1
After a full day of trekking and exploring Lynn Downey sits at her desk at the Panama House to recount her travels thus far.
But not before I bombarded her with eager questions. I intentionally did not pose the question I most wanted to ask until she had experienced her first day in Panama: What do you truly wish to discover on this trip?
Lynn Downey responds: “I’ve done all I can intellectually to understand Levi’s life by doing research in historical records. But what I want to do is come as close as possible to experience what his journey across the isthmus was like.
For me, history is a sense: a scent, something tangible to hold in my hand or to touch. I want to smell the air and the plant life, touch the water, rumble and rattle in the train and walk a jungle trail so that I can write more powerfully about what it must have been like for him.
He turned 24 years old on the trip to San Francisco. He had lived for 18 years in a tiny town in Bavaria and almost 6 years on the Lower East Side of New York. What must it have been like to see the tropics?”
She shares the below report with this blog, Levi Strauss & Co. employees, and other media.
"Trains, Boats and Trails: Day 1"
On this first day in Panama I did something Levi could never have dreamed of: I crossed the isthmus twice in one day.
My tour guide, Hernán Arauz, picked me up at my hotel in the historic quarter of Panama City and we spent most of the day driving through jungles and tiny towns to get to the Caribbean side of the isthmus. We saw an amazing variety of wildlife along the way: a tree sloth, howler monkeys, and a black and white anteater, which walked across the road right in front of our car and looked like a skunk with a really long nose.
[Photo: A howler monkey in the trees]
We then visited fort San Lorenzo and the town of Portobelo, built by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they were trying not to lose their treasure ships to pirates – a must for any Johnny Depp fan. Then we ended the day the way Levi started his: on a train.
From 1849 until the end of 1851, the only way to cross the 50-mile isthmus from the Caribbean to the Pacific side was in boats on the Chagres River, then by mule or on foot to Panama City over the old Spanish treasure trail. This trip could take days or even weeks, and along the way, travelers encountered bugs, heat and torrential rain, yellow fever, malaria, larcenous boatmen, and violent bandits, who robbed and murdered many a gold rush hopeful. It could also take weeks for a steam ship to show up in Panama City to take the miners and other entrepreneurs up to San Francisco.
But by the time Levi set foot on the isthmus around the second week of February, 1853, he was able to take the Panama Railroad to the town of Barbacoas, about 23 miles from Aspinwall, the landing site on the Caribbean. From there he took a boat on the Chagres to the trailhead for Panama City. Luckily for him, the bandits had mostly been dealt with by this time, thanks to the work of a former Texas Ranger named Randolph Runnels, brought to Panama specifically to handle the highwaymen (which he did by rounding up and hanging most of them without a trial).
The railroad had been conceived as a way to speed the U.S. Mail across the isthmus, but it turned out to be a boon to gold rush travelers, who were happy that they could ride even part way through the steaming jungle. Hubert H. Bancroft, an early historian of California and whose book collection formed the beginnings of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, crossed the isthmus in 1852, and also took the train. He wrote a memoir of his experience and included this comment: “Railway passengers wish the ride was longer, wish they could so ride all the way to San Francisco.”
The Panama Railroad was completed in 1855, and spanned the entire isthmus. This made the trip to California faster and more comfortable, though the Panama route was abandoned after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States in 1869. The train was used by the French and the Americans during the canal building years and is now run for tourists.
We caught the train in Colón, not far from where Levi boarded. But before heading to the station we drove to an nearby area facing the Caribbean waterfront so I could see, out in the distance, where Levi’s ship from New York would have landed. Today’s Colón was yesterday’s Aspinwall, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the sight of a steamship heading toward the distant breakwater.
[Photo: The breakwater in Colon, on the Caribbean, where Levi's boat would have docked in 1853.]
We spent most of the train trip in the enclosed, air-conditioned car, but at one point headed out to a covered, open air platform, so I could come close to what Levi’s experience must have been like: hot, windy, and surrounded by dense mangroves, like being in a tunnel of leaves. Robert Tomes, who rode the railroad in 1855, described the varied scenery: “So we hurry from scene to scene, pushing on through the flood of tropical vegetation, with endless vistas of beauty that come and go like the dreams of a summer’s day.”
Today’s train parallels the old 1855 route, but many of the towns that it used to pass are now at the bottom of Gatun Lake, created by the construction of the Panama Canal. Barbacoas, where Levi got off the train to take the next step on his journey, found “a last resting place in the mud and slime” of the lake (New York Times, December 24, 1911). Hernán, a certified diver, told me that you can dive in Gatun near these places and touch the steeples of ancient churches.
Our trip across the isthmus took about an hour. In 1853 Levi took about two hours to go half as far. When my journey was over, I rode in a comfortable van to my equally comfortable hotel. But Levi still had places to go and things to do, which I’ll share with you next time.
By Lynn Downey
Text by Lynn Downey
Photos by Lynn Downey