Colon Fire 1940
H. H. Bancroft described the town as it was in 1851:
"Travel the world over and in every place you may find something better than is found in any other place. Searching for the specialty in which Aspinwall excelled, we found it in her carrion birds, which cannot be surpassed in size or smell. Manzanillo Island may boast of the finest vultures on the planet. Originally a swamp, the foundations of the buildings were below the level of the ocean, and dry land was made by filling in as occasion required. The result in this soft soil made of filth and vegetable putridity may be imagined. The very ground on which one trod was pregnant with disease, and death was distilled in every breath of air.... Glued furniture falls to pieces; leather molds, and iron oxidizes in twenty-four hours."
In the days when there was no pavement there were no sewers. For years the town lacked a convenient source of fresh water, other than rain. Ultimately the railroad company laid a pipe from the Chagres at Gatun to bring water, but prior to its completion, the residents had to depend on open-topped wooden tanks - called "catch" basins - placed on the roofs of buildings. These had to catch enough water during the rainy season to tide the town over the four-month dry period. Many building owners kept live fish in the tanks as an easily accessible food supply. Some tried to keep the water clean, but most allowed the "catch" basins to become murky aquariums full of tadpoles, frogs and serpentine water plants. This water was peddled in the street from carts, or great jars by water carriers. No wonder everyone suffered from intestinal complaints and that a cholera epidemic was an annual occurrence. It affords a striking commentary upon the lethargy and laziness of the natives that for nearly half a century they should have tolerated conditions which for filth and squalor were practically unparalleled. The Indian in his palm-thatched hut was better housed and more healthfully surrounded than they.
Truly, "Death was distilled in every breath of air," as Bancroft said. The residents saw death daily and grew calloused to it. Death came not only from disease, but from violence. The corpses of murdered men were found each morning lying in the gutters or floating face down in the bay. Since the railroad company owned the place, the company had to dispose of the bodies. Many of them - stripped of all clothing - were hopelessly unidentifiable. These corpses, like those of the anonymous dead railroad workers, were pickled and sold to the medical schools. The traffic in cadavers, although an extremely profitable sideline for the railroad company, was not a species of success to which the officials ever admitted publicly.
Robert Tomes writes in 1855:
It must he confessed that the real Aspinwall hardly corresponds with the ideal existing in the mind of the enthusiastic artist, as our friend the Doctor - for we may as well give him his official title - discovered when he set out on a tour of exploration. "A hundred or so," he says, are about the whole number of houses in Aspinwall. Upon the beach at the northern end of the island are few scattered buildings, gay with white paint and green blinds, chiefly occupied by the officials of the Panama Railroad while to the right of these are the works and depot of the company with machine shops and reservoirs.
The shore at the north curve round leading easterly to an uncleared portion of the island, where a narrow rim of white beach separates the sea from the impenetrable jungle. As we turn westerly and follow the shore, taking the Mess House as the point of departure, we come upon a building of corrugated iron in progress of erection, intended for the residence of the British Consul, if he will ever have the courage to live in what is only a great target for all the artillery of heaven. The lightning during the rainy season keeps it in a continual blaze of illumination, and I mourned, in common with Colonel Totten, whose house is next door, over several prostrate cocoa-nut palms, which had been struck down in consequence of their fatal propinquity to the iron-house.
As we proceed we pass three wooden, peaked-roofed cottages, with green blinds and verandas, inhabited by employes of the Company; hurry past some ugly whitewashed buildings, which the palefaced sailor and the melancholy convalescent negro, sitting smoking their pipes on the steps, remind us are hospitals, and soon passing by some outlying huts with half naked negresses and pot-bellied children sunning themselves in front, we make our way into the thicker part of the settlement over marshy pools corrupt with decaying matter, black rotten roots of trees, and all kinds of putrefying offal, which resist even the street-cleaning capacities of those famous black scavengers, the turkey-buzzards, which gather in flocks about it. We now get upon the railroad track, which leads us into the main street. A meagre row of houses facing the water, made up of the railroad office, a store or two, some half dozen lodging and drinking establishiments, and the 'Lone Star,' bounds the so-called street on one side, and the railroad track, upon its embankment of a few feet above the level of the shore, bounds the other.
"There is another and only one other street, which you reach by crossing a wooden bridge, that a sober man can only safely traverse by dint of deliberate care in the daytime, and a drunken man never, and which stretches over a large sheet of water that ebbs and flows in the very centre of the so-called city. This second street begins at the coral beach at the northern end of the island, and runs southward until it terminates in a swamp. At the two extremities houses bound it on both sides; in the middle there is a narrow pathway over an insecure foot-bridge, with some tumble-down pine buildings on one side only, with their foundations soaking in the swamp, their back windows inhaling the malaria from the manzanilla jungle in the rear, and their front ones opening upon the dirty water, which we have already described, that fills up the central part of the city.
The hotels - great, straggling, wooden houses - gape here with their wide open doors, and catch California travelers, who are sent away with a fever as a memento of the place, and shops, groggeries, billiard-rooms, and drinking saloons thrust out their flaring signs to entice the passer-by. All the houses in Aspinwall are wooden, with the exception of the stuccoed Railroad office, the British Consul's precarious corrugated iron dwelling, and a brick building in the course of erection under the slow hands of some Jamaica negro masons. The more pretentious of the wooden buildings were sent out from Maine or Georgia bodily.
"The inhabitants of Aspinwall - some eight hundred in number - are of every variety of race and shade in color. The railroad officials, steamboat agents, foreign consuls, and a score of Yankee traders, hotel-keepers, billiard markers, and bar-tenders, comprise all the whites, who are the exclusive few. The better class of shop-keepers are mulattoes from Jamaica, St. Domingo, and the other West Indian Islands, while the dispensers of cheap grog, and hucksters of fruit and small wares are chiefly negroes. The main body of the population is made up of laborers, grinning coal-black negroes from Jamaica, yellow natives of mixed African and Indian blood, and sad, sedate, turbaned Hindoos, the poor exiled Coolies from the Ganges.
Henry Willis Baxley writes in 1865:
Aspinwall cannot be surpassed for filth, nuisance, and noxious effluvia, The houses -- mostly shanties of deal boards -- are built on piles in the midst of a marsh, with the railroad similarly supported, and filled between the cross-ties with earth brought from a distance, forming the main street, a few alleys crossing these at right angles, being nothing but bog pathways, with logs or planks to keep the pedestrian from premature interment, or submersion. The water-lots (there are no yards) are covered with green, offensive, and poisonous scum, oozing up between the mooring of the lower stories; and everywhere, in and around, the premises are surcharged with animal and vegetable matter, in all stages of putrefaction and decomposition.
With the exception of the employee of the Panama Railroad Company, the inhabitants are of the inferior races, from the Jamaica negro through all grades of cross and hue, up to the Chiriqui Indian; and having the filthiest and vilest habits, knowing no restraints of appetite or passion, is it surprising that this seething cauldron of physical abomination and moral degradation is a pest-house of the Isthmus? Many of a population of seven hundred to eight hundred are now down with malarious fever, of the fatal types Chagres and yellow. It is dangerous for a native of the North to tarry at Aspinwall in summer; and the natives are by no means exempt from these climate diseases, owing to their uncleanliness, debauchery, general vices, and consequent impairment of vital energies. A physician of the town informed me that "more than half of the population changed hands every year." I did not inquire into whose hands they had gone; the specimens left removed any doubt.
In an attempt to avoid fever and dysentery, railroad officials and businessmen of Manzanillo sometimes
went on regimens of champagne doused heavily with quinine. This was supposed to be an effective cure for
tropical affliction, but when pursued too long the practice brought delirium tremens and other symptoms
as deadly as the fever itself.
Everyone, residents and travelers alike, cursed the tropical rain - averaging more than 11 feet annually. At Colón, six inches in twenty-four hours or less was not uncommon. Some of the most torrential downpours lasted only a few minutes. But no statistic conveyed a true picture of Panama rain. It had to be seen, to be felt, smelled; it had to be heard to be appreciated. The effect was much as though the heavens had opened and the air had turned instantly liquid. But the rain was a blessing to the tinderbox town, reducing as it did the number of fires. During the dry season flames gutted the town on several occasions. These widespread fires contributed greatly to the death rate, but unlike simple murder generally rendered the corpses unsuitable for commercial export.
The best hotels on Manzanillo were the Howard, the City and the Aspinwall. Beds cost three dollars a day. A dozen other hotels and rooming houses offered lower rates. Travelers were wise to elicit definite commitments as to price in advance, because some unscrupulous innkeepers would present exorbitant bills just prior to the travelers' departure and attempt to extort payment by impounding their luggage. The railroad, the port and the hotels - with their allied interests - were Manzanillo's principal businesses, but these were closely followed by another interlocking threesome: the hospital, the barbershops and the houses of prostitution.
The barbers doubled as undertakers, charging the hospital embalming and pickling fees. While live patrons were being clipped and shaved in front of the shop, they could hear the hammering of carpenters building coffins and barrels in the rear. Many barbers were also active as clap doctors, prescribing their nostrums for both the girls and the patrons they infected.
Most of the prostitutes worked in filthy stalls along a narrow muddy thoroughfare called Bottle Alley. The pimps stood outside in ankle-deep mud to hawk the claims of their lovelies and to propel drunks bodily through the swinging doors of the stalls. The consumption of alcohol along this street was considered unusually large even for the Yankee Strip. Over the years liquor bottles tossed into the street created a solid layer of glass beneath the mud. In the 1890's pavement-laying contractors found it unnecessary to put down a gravel foundation because the thousands of bottles buried there served the purpose.
The girls came in all colors: Negroes, Caucasians, Orientals, and exotic mixtures of many races. Health laws were unknown and prophylactics had not been invented. As a result, a large percentage of the prostitutes presented their customers with gonorrhea, syphilis, and Phthirius pubis, the crab louse. Refined people never discussed these matters. Prostitution was a taboo subject in the press and the only medical group deeply concerned with venereal disease was the United States Army Medical Service. Army cures then prescribed for gonorrhea were "sulphate of zinc, alkaline mixes, cubebs, injection of a weak solution of nitrate of silver every two hours and Epsom Salts." The best known treatment for syphilis was to daub the chancre with mercury ointment.
Many a dallying wayfarer across the Yankee Strip arrived in California with a deadly late-blooming blossom. A San Francisco doctor wrote his drug supplier in New York: "The macaronis and whoremongers of the Isthmus are sending us more patients than we can minister to. In addendum to the drugs ordered under this same cover, please send me any book or treatise you can find relating to cures for clap and the soft chancre."
The whores came from the world over. Earnings of ordinary prostitutes were especially low in England. It is no wonder that the lure of gold brought many London pimps and their whores to the Isthmus in the steerages of the British steamers. The fair-skinned girls were very popular but unfortunately short-lived, being especially susceptible to fever.
The girls and their pimps - "Buttock and Twang" as they were called in the cockney jargon - slept most of the day and commenced their business as soon as darkness fell. The Buttock made the approach and fulfilled her part of the contract leaning back spread-eagled against a building wall. While her client performed, she picked his pocket. The Twang stood by with drawn dirk, ready to give assistance. If the client seemed well-heeled, the Butt signaled and the Twang leaped forward and struck with his dirk. Then he and the girl dragged the dead man away to rifle his pockets and money belt at their leisure.