Carleton Watkins                           Canoa!--Canoa!


Previous Page                                                                                 Next Page


Stoddard, skipper of the ship, enlightened his passengers about what they could expect on arrival.[7]  The steamer would be anchored in deep water three or four miles beyond the river's mouth and the passengers would be rowed to shore in large skiffs to a low, sandy beach—there was no wharf—on the south side of the harbor, where an American settlement sprang up.[8]  The old town of Chagres located on the north side of the harbor consisted of two or three hundred bamboo huts with peaked roofs and earth floors that were inhabited by people of Spanish and African descent who spoke a mixture of Spanish and African dialects.  

          Once on land they would be barraged with shouts--"Canoa!--Canoa!"-- from the natives offering transportation inland via the Rio Chagres to the dry-season head of river navigation at the town of Gorgona [Fig. 3a—in red].[9]  The boats were made from hollowed out trunks of single large mahogany trees—like canoes ("cayucos")—that would be propelled upstream against the current by strong native boatmen employing poles for thrust. Gorgona was situated on the east side of a range of mountains that were called the "Andes of the isthmus"[Fig. 4] even though none exceeded fifteen hundred feet in elevation.  Surface water on the Gorgona side flows to the Caribbean Sea, while drainage on the west side of the Continental Divide is to the Pacific Ocean.  The journey west from the town of Gorgona to the Pacific [Fig. 3a—in green] would be on foot, mule or horseback across the challenging terrain. What the emigrants may not have known before debarking was there were insufficient vessels available on the Pacific side to transport all of them north to San Francisco at an affordable price. 

            In the spirit of Yankee entrepreneurship Collis had spent most of Thursday and Friday, March 22-23 on board the Crescent City organizing committees to facilitate the dreaded isthmus crossing.  He pitched a scheme to form a consortium that would collectively bargain with the boatmen for the most favorable price for river transportation as far upstream as the native boats could navigate.  His argument was that if negotiated individually the trip could cost up to thirty dollars each[10], but through collective bargaining

Next Page


[7] John Haskell Kemble, "The Gold Rush by Panama," in Rushing for Gold, John Walton Caughey, ed, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1949, is the best general account of the isthmian passage in 1849-50.

[8] Johnson, p. 12 and Kemble, p. 49.

[9] The course of Rio Chagres was changed in 1908 when the Gatun Dam was built to create present-day Lake Gatun, thus submerging the 1849 route.  See John E. Minter, The Chagres: River of Westward Passage, New York and Toronto: Rinehart & Company, 1948, p. 296. 

[10] Hubert Howe Bancroft, Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth, San Francisco: The History Company Publishers, 1891, vol. V, p. 32 edited from the sources referenced in note 27 below.