I have solved yet another mystery. For a long time, my working theory has been that my great grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, was employed by the Panama Railway for several years in the 1880s. I had based my assumption on three things: a relative’s statement over 70 years ago, a newspaper article published in 1893, and two passenger lists that I found from the 1880s. I solved the mystery upon discovering another newspaper article that I found while searching a general topic and not specifically for my ancestor. As a result, I was shocked yet amused when I unexpectedly saw his name in print. Part of this involved learning of my great-grandfather’s unusual claim to why he never contracted yellow fever while working in Panama. It was quite a find, to say the least.
Many years ago, I was contacted by a distant cousin who provided me with specifics regarding my maternal grandfather’s pedigree going back to the 1700s. Included were many details and as many mysteries regarding my great-grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, Sr. One of the mysterious details was a statement made by one of his nieces. She thought that he had worked on the Panama Canal. Yet, nothing was said about when that might have been. The French started the canal in 1881, but the project was shut down in the late 1880s and was taken over by the United States in 1904. The canal was officially opened in 1914.
A newspaper article published in the Atlanta Constitution in May 1893 provided a brief bio of James M Dobbs. Although it did not mention him having been in Panama, it did mention Columbia. James had just been named consul general to Valparaiso Chile, and he and his wife were soon on their way to the southern hemisphere. The newspaper article made an interesting claim about the year that my great-grandfather began his career as an international man of mystery. The article stated that Jim was just 16 years old when he was “struck by the desire to emigrate.” The article further stated, “it was from New York, on board a sailing vessel bound for South America, that Jim shipped. He went before the mast in regular novel form and was the pet of a very tough crew. Gradually Jim became exceedingly wary of a sailor boy’s life, and he waxed exceeding homesick, but he was full of sand and determined to stick it out. For three years, he played the role of a sailor lad and finally gave it up and became a landsman. He dropped his sailor life in South America and went to work to get rich. He traveled through Brazil, the United States of Colombia, and Chile, picking up the Spanish language until he could talk like a native, still not forgetting his mother tongue. For 10 years, Jim remained in South America, returning home as James M. Dobbs, Esq.,”
I found two passenger lists; however, I did not have access to the original documents. The information provided in the transcript of one of the passenger lists stated that a J. M. Dobbs, age 27, arrived in New York City in June 1886. His origination was Aspinwall, Panama, and his occupation was shown as “railroad .” The second passenger list was from August 1889, and the transcript of that manifest stated that a J. M. Dobbs, age 29, arrived from Aspinwall, Panama. And that his occupation was “conductor.”
The first passenger list is dated June 8, 1886, and is for the district of the city of New York, Port of New York. The ship’s captain is W.G. Shakeford, and he is the master of the SS Newport out of Aspinwall, Panama. I found from another source that the SS Newport was a ship in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company line. This company held a virtual monopoly on travel from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States via the Isthmus of Panama. Before the canal was completed in 1914, the only way to go across the isthmus was via the American-owned Panama Railway, which connected the town of Aspinwall to Panama City on the Pacific coast. The 1886 ship’s passenger manifest was divided into four sections representing the four different passenger origins. 19 passengers were coming from San Francisco, two from the South Pacific, eight from Panama City, and 27 from Aspinwall.
It Is in the Aspinwall section that “JM Dobbs, age 27, Railroad, US,” is listed. There are five other men listed as working for the railroad in that same section.
The second passenger list is from July 23, 1889. It is a manifest for another Pacific Mail Steamship, the SS City of Para, whose captain is J.S. Lockwood. This ship plays an important role in what I found next.
Realizing that I was not going to get much more information than the basic details from the passenger list, I started researching the city of Aspinwall, Panama – a wild-west town deserving of the same notoriety as Dodge, Kansas; Tombstone, Arizona; and Deadwood in the Dakotas. According to David McCullough in his masterpiece on the building of the canal, “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal (1870-1914), “the three most thriving industries [in Aspinwall] were gambling houses, brothels, and coffin manufacturing.”
For many Americans, starting in the 1850s, Aspinwall was the gateway to either fortune or ruin in the goldfields of California. Until the transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, the only way for most travelers to get from the US eastern seaboard to San Francisco, California was through the Isthmus of Panama. Until the canal was opened in 1914, the Panama Railway that ran for 47 miles between Aspinwall and Panama City was a preferred means of travel for many passengers. Also, it was the most expensive railroad in the world. In the 1850s, a one-way ticket from Aspinwall to Panama City was $25 in gold. Looking for information on Aspinwall led me to discover a little-known incident in Panama in the spring of 1885. The destruction of the city of Aspinwall happened during the Colombian Civil War. The company town, which housed about 7000 mainly American workers, was torched by the insurgents loyal to Pedro Prestan before retreating after a battle with Colombian troops. Only two buildings were left standing after the blaze. One was the stone depot of the Panama Railway, and the other was the wharf owned by the Pacific Mail steamship company.
The treaty between the United States of America and the United States of Colombia stated that the USA was committed to using force to guarantee the safe transit of the Isthmus of Panama. Within a few days after Aspinwall was destroyed by fire, approximately 1200 United States sailors and marines from two warships landed at the city bringing arms ammunition, including five Gatling guns. Fifty hospital tents were provided by the Navy for the Americans made homeless by the inferno.
The incident began when a Pacific Mail steamship arrived at Aspinwall bearing a cargo of weapons and ammunition destined for Guatemala. Almost as soon as the ship docked, a message arrived for the captain from the Colombian government demanding that the weapons and ammunition were to be offloaded under no circumstances. Shortly after the captain received the message and before he could respond, he was met at the dock by a group of Panamanian revolutionaries demanding that the weapons and ammunition be delivered to them.
When the ship’s captain refused to hand over the weapons, he and several other American citizens were taken hostage by the revolutionists. When Colombian troops arrived, the insurgents were forced to abandon the hostages outside of the city and returning, they attacked the prison and freed all of the prisoners. They then set fire to the prison. Most of the buildings in the Aspinwall were made of wood, and soon the entire city was engulfed in flames. Thousands of workers were left homeless and destitute. Some of the citizens of Aspinwall were able to take refuge in Panama City on the other side of the isthmus.
I was curious to see how the news of this event played out in the American press; I was particularly curious to see how it was received in James’ home state of Georgia. So I went to newspaperarchive.com and searched for “Aspinwall Panama,” At first, I was only going to search the year 1885, but without thinking about it, I added plus or minus one year to the query.
The February 20, 1884 edition of the Savannah Morning News states that at the time, it was expected that the Panama Canal would be opened within six years. It described the progress of the work, adding that the Panama Railway had a contract to transport material and that nearly 150 new locomotives had been ordered.
The year 1884 was a bad one for Panama. Thousands of workers from all over the world were dying of yellow fever. Known in Spanish as vómito negro (“black vomit”), the viral disease that was highly debilitating and many times fatal was killing workers in Panama at a rate of over 200 per month. Up until the start of the 20th century, doctors could not agree on the cause of the virus. It is known now that the sickness is passed from the bite of a particular type of mosquito.
An article from November 19, 1884, of the Savannah Morning News, quoted from a New York Times article, published a few days earlier. The article’s title was “Dying by Thousands – Frightful Mortality among the Men at Work on the Panama Canal.”
“The steamship SS Colón from Aspinwall, landed 28 cabin passengers at the barge office yesterday morning, says the New York Times of November 15. George Mowbray of Brooklyn was among the number. Four months ago he left his home a healthy young machinist, under contract to work for Slaven and Company, the California dredging contractors, on the Panama Canal. He returns the very shadow of his former self emaciated and broken down by the deadly Chagres fever.”
The young man stated he had several letters he received from men who are now dead at the charity hospital. He told of how there is an old saying that every tie of the Panama Railroad represents a tombstone for some poor unfortunate. “Now, it is true that every foot of excavated ground symbolizes a grave,” he added.
News from the isthmus was quiet for the rest of 1884. Then in January of 1885, there appeared two articles in the Savanah Morning News describing the start of the Colombian Civil War. Beginning at the end of March, there was a flurry of articles containing news of the destruction of Aspinwall and the deployment of hundreds of Marines onto the isthmus. Several articles mentioned the SS City of Para as the ship that brought most of the Marines to Panama.
Once I had read through all of the articles to the end of April 1885, it was almost midnight, so I decided to call it quits. Then I saw that there was one article from June 1886. It was dated a couple of weeks after the date on the first passenger list – it was the Tuesday, June 29 edition of the Weekly Constitution from Atlanta. I downloaded the newspaper page as a PDF, and when I opened it and looked at the article titled “The Panama Canal,” I thought that maybe I had fallen asleep and was dreaming.
In fact, my great-grandfather was on the passenger list coming from Aspinwall, Panama. I know this for certain now because ten days after arriving back in the USA, he went home to Georgia and gave an interview to one of Atlanta’s newspapers.
The article was quite an eye-opener. In that year, James was 26 years old, and for the past 10 years, he had traveled an itinerary worthy of Phileas Fogg. He had been around the world in 80 months. He had visited over two dozen countries and worked for the railroad in Mexico City, where he supposedly contracted smallpox. For the past two years, he had been in Panama working for the railroad, and according to another man interviewed for the same article, my great-grandfather had never been sick while he was there. The claim was made that because he once had smallpox, somehow that made him immune to yellow fever.
Two men interviewed for the article, my great-grandfather and another man known only as Mr. Green. Here is the text of that article. Note, I’ve only included the portion of my great-grandfather’s interview and a brief portion of Mr. Green’s interview where he name-checked my ancestor a number of times:
“Mr. James Dobbs, at present, a resident of the isthmus of Panama, is spending a few days with friends in Atlanta. He is a native of Georgia, having been born and reared in Marietta. Since 10 years ago. His business has carried him into many countries. He has visited England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Arabia, India, Australia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, and every Republic in South America. On the isthmus of Panama. He is a member of a firm that has a contract to do a part of the work on M. De Lesseps’s great canal.
“Mr. Dobbs is, of course, thoroughly informed as to the condition of affairs on the canal. He says that the world at large is singularly ignorant of the progress of M. De Lesseps’s great undertaking and that people of the United States are especially so.
“‘Why,’ he said, in talking to the writer, ‘so many falsehoods have been told about the canal, that scarcely anywhere out of Panama is the real state of affairs understood. I have been on the isthmus for two years. I have been actively engaged in the work on the canal, and, know just what has been done and just what remains to be done. I have been both amused and annoyed, since my return to the states, by the almost numberless incorrect impressions I find people laboring under. For instance, all sorts of ideas are entertained as to the dimensions of the canal. From Aspinwall to Panama, the length of the canal is 37 ½ miles. The width will vary from 92 feet to 184. The depth will be 29 ½ feet. The Panama Railroad runs near the canal. In fact, it crosses it twice.’
“Asked about the progress of the work, Mr. Dobbs said: ‘about 10,000 laborers are employed upon the excavations. They are from every country on the globe. Even Icelanders are there. The work is divided into sections which vary in length from 3 to 7 miles. Up to the present, the contracts for the excavations have been let to whatever parties made the lowest bids. At the end of this year, the contracts will be let to five large construction companies, which will complete the work. Among these companies will be the American dredging company, which will have seven powerful dredges at work, capable of removing 3000 metres of earth a day. This will be rapid work. As the work stands now, about 1/8 of it has been completed, and laborers are employed upon every mile of the distance between Aspinwall and Panama [City]. I cannot say how long it will take to complete the canal. M. De Lesseps says three years. That it will eventually be completed, I do not doubt.’
[What James is describing here is the French plan for digging a sea-level canal and not the eventual design of the canal with a series of locks.]
“The attention of Mr. Dobbs was called to telegrams sent from Aspinwall to newspapers in the United States during M. De Lesseps’s recent visit to the isthmus, to the effect that he had not inspected the canal, but had remained upon a steamer, at his ease.
[Ferdinand Marie, Count de Lesseps (1805-1894) was a French diplomat and developer of the Suez Canal. He later attempted and failed to develop the Panama Canal on behalf of France]
“‘There is not a word of truth in the telegrams,’ Mr. Dobbs said. ‘M. De Lesseps’ visited and personally inspected every section of the canal. I was present at the reception tendered him when he arrived at the isthmus, saw him frequently afterward, and know that he carefully and thoroughly examined into the condition of affairs.’
“Alluding to the fact that the canal is being constructed by the French, Mr. Dobbs said that citizens of the United States now residing in the isthmus were anxious for the government to assume a protective control of the canal. They believe in the Monroe doctrine and think that a great injury to the prestige and commerce of the United States will ensue if the government does not assume such control.
“It is well known that the isthmus of Panama is extremely unhealthy. Mr. Dobbs, himself, has never been ill there but has maintained his usual good health. He said that of all the people employed on the canal those from the southern section of the United States endured the climate best.”
The second half of the article is an interview with someone named Mr. Green. Unlike the case of my great-grandfather, for Mr. Green, there is no first name or background provided. This part of the article begins: “At the Kimball house, yesterday morning, Mr. Green said to the writer: ‘Mr. Dobbs is prejudiced in favor of M. De Lesseps’ and his scheme. It is certainly a feasible scheme, but to say that the canal will be completed in three years is nonsense.'”
[I have read the article a number of times, and it seems pretty obvious to me that Mr. Green is an invention of the newspaper for the purpose of providing cover for my great grandfather, allowing him to speak his mind and to express a negative opinion of the situation on the isthmus.]
Mr. Green then goes on to express his opinion of the work progress of the canal, taking a more negative tone and yet agreeing on two points my great-grandfather made in the first half of the article. Mr. Green agrees with Mr. Dobbs on the cosmopolitan make-up of the canal digging labor force, but then he describes Jamaican laborers on the canal project as being murderous thieves who spend all of their money on liquor. (To read what Mr. Green said about Jamaican laborers working on the canal, download the newspaper page as a PDF)
After a racist tirade against the Jamaican workers, Mr. Green then goes into horrible detail describing the ravages of yellow fever. He then makes a very unusual observation regarding my ancestor: “Mr. Dobbs, whom I know very well on the isthmus, never had a days sickness there. His case illustrates a curious fact. Previous to his residence upon the isthmus, he had smallpox while engaged in railroad work in the City of Mexico. I have never known a person who had suffered from that disease to be seriously sick while on the isthmus.”
The article ends with Mr. Green describing how the Americans prefer whiskey, the Jamaicans love rum, and the French laborers generally drink champagne. He ends by saying, “[the French] can afford to drink champagne because they make from one dollar and a half to three dollars a day.”
Another article stated that some engineers and mechanics made as much as $250 a month. That is equivalent to $90,000 a year in today’s money.
During the six years that James was in Panama, yellow fever and malaria were killing thousands, the city he lived in was torched by rebels, and a massive earthquake tore up the railroads and damaged many structures. Torrential rains caused even more damage. The French company that was initially in charge of building the canal had purchased most of the shares in the Panama Railway. However, the railroad company continued to be a New York-based American company that primarily employed Americans. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending nearly 300 million dollars; an estimated 22,000 men died from disease and accidents, and the savings of 800,000 investors in France were wiped out. Work was suspended on May 15, and in the ensuing scandal, known as the Panama Affair, some of those, including De Lesseps and Gustave Eiffel, were deemed responsible and were prosecuted.
When my great-grandfather returned home in 1889, he had just turned 30 years old. He had apparently made a fortune while he was away. At least it was enough for him to purchase a lumber company in Atlanta.
Shortly after his return in the summer of 1889, he got a mention in the society column under the heading of Marietta in the Atlanta Constitution. It read “Major James M. Dobbs is here visiting his mother’s family. He has just returned from an extended trip through Mexico and Central America.”
Finding yet another fascinating article written about my great-grandfather is somewhat exciting, and now there are other mysteries to be solved. I have questions such as “What was James doing in Mexico City?”, “Did he actually travel to all those other countries mentioned in the article?”, “Who was he working for then and what was his function?”, and “Where did the title Major come from?”