News & Tall Tales. 1800s.

To California Gold.

The Journey to California

Tuesday, January 2, 1849, Huron Reflector, Norwalk, Ohio, U.S.A.
C.T. Stewart, Editor

The Journey to California

We fear that hundreds are starting for California, without carefully counting the cost and danger, and that a consequent failure will be the result. The great danger of the route by the Isthmus of Darien, which is the one mostly followed, consists in the difficulties connected with crossing the Isthmus, and the detention at Panama, for the want of shipping facilities.

The voyage from New York to Chagres, or from Panama to San Francisco, after once on ship board, presents nothing very alarming.

The difficulties at the Isthmus are, however, not small. The New York Herald has published a description of the route, written by a gentleman who has resided in Panama for some time, and has made frequent journeys across the Isthmus.

We learn from this statement, that Chagres, the Atlantic port, is a small collection of huts, containing about 500 inhabitants, almost all colored people. The exceptions are a few officials at the custom house and the castle. It is situated in the midst of a swamp, and from the constant rains, the streets are impassable except on logs of wood. Its climate is said to be the most pestiferous for whites in the whole world. The coast of Africa, which enjoys a dreaded reputation in this way, is not so deadly in its climate, as is Chagres.

The thermometer ranges from 78 to 85 deg. all the year and its rains every day. Many a traveller, who has incautiously remained there for a few days and nights, has had cause to remember Chagres; and many a gallant crew who have entered the harbor in full health, have, ere many days, found their final resting place on the dark and malarious banks of the river. Bilious, remittent and congestive fever, in their most malignant form, seem to hover over Chagres, ever ready to pounce down upon the stranger. Even the acclimated resident of the tropics runs a great risk in staying any time in Chagres; but the stranger, fresh from the North and its invigorating breezes, runs a most fearful one. Its accommodations for travellers are very limited, or about none at all, and no one thinks of staying there twenty-four hours, if he can possibly help it.

Chagres River, Panama.
Chagres River, Panama

The first stage of the journey to Panama is made on the Chagres river, in canoes propelled by poles in the hands of the native boatmen. The distance to Cruces, the end of river travel, is 50 to 55 miles. The journey takes from twelve to thirty-six hours, according to the number of hands employed to propel the canoe. The passenger sits in the stern of the light craft, and his is placed in the center, and he is obliged to remain perfectly quiet, to avoid upsetting. He must take his provisions with him,--to land is impossible without running great risks, as the river swarms with alligators, and the shores with panthers and deadly snakes. The shores are marshy and clothed with exorbitant vegetation down to the water's edge. No village, or even a hut lines its banks the whole distance. It is the region of disease and venomous animals and reptiles. The lowest cost for a single passenger is a doubloon ($16) and from that up to two, three, or four doubloons.

Arrived at Cruces; which is a small village, the traveller is within twenty one miles of the Pacific ocean, which have to be performed on land. The usual method is on horse or on mule back, with another mule to carry the baggage, and a muleteer who acts as a guide. The road is a mere bridle path, and as the rains on the Isthmus are very heavy, and there is more or less of them all the year round, the mud holes and swampy places to be crossed are very numerous. He must carry his provisions with him.

After about twelve hours' toilsome ride, the beautiful Pacific appears in view and the city of Panama is reached. This city contains from 5000 to 7000 inhabitants, and is a quiet, dull place. The climate is warm, say from 80 to 85 degrees the whole year round, and the rains long and severe. It is a healthier place than Chagres. With due care, avoiding all excesses and the night air, a person can preserve his health; still the heavy rains and continued damp atmosphere, render it necessary to take every precaution; for though healthy when compared with Chagres, it is by no means a safe place for unacclimatized strangers from the north.

Having arrived at Panama, the chief difficulties of the journey are over, and the traveler on ship board, on the bosom of the glorious Pacific, may revel in his day dreams of gold and riches to his heart's content. But let us look somewhat more narrowly at the difficulties of the route at the present moment. Death has his seat at Chagres, and no time must be spent there -- but, from the great numbers now taking that route, there is imminent danger of being delayed at that place for the want of conveyance. The canoes and boatmen are limited in number, and from the great demand they will be tempted to charge exorbitant rates. Many will no doubt lay down their lives and their hopes together in a grave at Chagres, for want of conveyance or means to get away.

Washing Gold.

Forty-niners washing gold.
Calaveras River
California, 1858

But say he has arrived at Panama. Has he then any assurance of speedy departure for California? All the steamers are full for months to come -- Panama is a costly place to live, and the danger of sickness is imminent. Many will have to wait for weeks, possibly months for a passage to San Francisco, and when the long-wished for opportunity occurs, they will find themselves unable to take it, as their expenses in Panama will have exhausted their means. Thus situated in a strange, unhealthy country, moneyless and friendless, their spirits depressed by their situation, it requires no prophet to predict a heart rending termination to their golden schemes.

We present these difficulties to put those who have determined to make this voyage on their guard, and prepare them for its dangers. Such an undertaking should not be entered upon rapidly; if it is, misfortune will be sure to follow. -- Pitts Gazette

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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