Immigrants to Canada

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Crossing Panama in 1849

The trip to the colonies on the west cost of present day Canada required either a trip around Cape Horn or the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama. The following is from a book called Perils, Pastimes, and Pleasures of an Emigrant in Australia, Vancouver's Island and California published in 1849.


The route across the Isthmus from Panama to Chagres is perfectly easy at almost all seasons of the year, and may be accomplished in about 28 or 30 hours, with due diligence and energy on the part of the traveller. The land-portion of the journey is about 21 miles from Panama to Cruces; the remainder is effected by means of the river Chagres, which is navigable for small boats at all seasons, and admits even heavy-weighted canoes to sail on its bosom for a considerable portion of the year, The best route to take from Panama is to Gorgona, and not Cruces, as the road, except in the rainy season, is more easily traversed by the mules; while the latter is stony and in a roughly broken-up condition. The Cruces' road, as its condition clearly indicates--excellent materials lying scattered about in almost every direction shewing that it must have been expensively constructed--was the old route of the Spaniards, before the colonies were separated from the mother country, and the common high-way between the pacific and Atlantic oceans. ...

The road branches off about three leagues from Panama, to the right towards Cruces, and to the left towards Gorgona. Before you reach this point you lose sight of the Pacific, which lies spread out before you with its indented shores, its islands, and its countless beauties, presenting, at almost every turn of the road, a fresh and enchanting landscape to the view. Gorgona is a small place comprising a few shabby tenements built principally of the reeds, which grow so abundantly and so richly throughout the Isthmus; and the occupation of the inhabitants is generally as muleteers, store-keepers, boatmen or bogos, the remainder are employed in agricultural pursits, simply to gratify their limited wants. From Panama to Gorgona the road is excellent in summer, or the dry season, but impassable during the rainy season, which last from the end of July to the beginning of December. The distance from Gorgona to Chagres may be accomplished in about eighteen hours in favourable weather, that is when the currents of the river, which winds about in so many directions, are not effected by the winds which blow with terricic violence during the rainy mounths. The scenery on the banks of the Chagres, when it flows evenly on its course, is richly picturesque; its wanter is pellucidly clear, and you may trace the bottom with ease as you silently float along in the canoes, undisturbed by a single object, if you except the dip of the paddle or the buzzing nuisance of musquitoes. The cost of a journey from Panama to Chargres, with a moderate allowance of baggage, is about 18 dollars--

From Panama to Cruces or Gorgona, with two mules, one for saddle, the other for luggage 8 dollars
From Cruces to Chagres by a Cayucu 10 dollars
Total 18 dollars

The Cayuca is a small boat or canoe which is the quickest conveyance for a single passenger with little luggage; but a canoe is necessary if you have a large quantity of packages and of considerable weight. The latter are conveniently built for navigating rivers, and are worked by negro watermen who paddle them along with consdierable dexterity; some of these canoes are laden with 60 or 80 bales, averaging 150lbs. weight each, besides a bed or two, luggage for the travellers, and an awning, or toldos, made of cane and leaves, to keep out the sun and rain, which adds considerably to the weight and draft of the canoe. The freight of goods is about as follows:--

  Dol. Rial.
From Chagres to Cruces per Canoe 1 5
Mule-hire from Cruces to Panama    
(7 leagues) 2 4
(On each bale of 150lbs. weight) 4 1

Were a tram-line laid down from Gorgona, or better still, from Cuuces to Panama, the 76 miles, which the windings of the river, and the detours of the road occasion, across the Isthmus, while its line measurement is only 32 miles, might be effected in a comparatively few hours, and to the immense advantage of commerce and civilization. One example will fully illustrate our meaning:--

Time required from England to Lima via Panama:
England to Jamaica by Steam 23 days
Jamaica to Chagres  4 days
Chagres to Panama  1 day
Panama to Lima  9 days
Total 37 days

Time required vis Cape Horn 73 days


UWInfo | Young Immigrants | Genealogy | Local History | 19th Century Immigration | Sessional Papers

© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1999-2007
Last updated: February 15, 2007 and maintained by Marj Kohli