Panama Man

Aspinwall, Panama was 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.”

Years ago, I found my great-grandfather, James M. Dobbs, Sr. on two passenger lists arriving in New York City from Aspinwall, Panama on board ships in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company line.

The first passenger list is dated June 8, 1886, and is for the Port of New York and the SS Newport out of Aspinwall, Panama. 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 (Colón) on the Atlantic-side to Panama City on the Pacific coast.

The 1886 ship’s passenger manifest was divided into four sections representing the four different passenger origins. Nineteen passengers were coming from San Francisco, two from the South Pacific, eight from Panama City, and 27 arrived 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. This ship plays an important role in what I found later.

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 and 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 under no circumstances were the weapons and ammunition to be offloaded . 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.

This account of the burning of Aspinwall, or as is known by the Panamanians, Colón, is from the Savannah Morning News (1885) article. For more information, see Panama crisis of 1885 and the Burning of Colón.

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 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.

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.

Savannah Morning News, Thursday, April 2, 1885

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.

So, about ten days after James arrived back in the USA, he went home to Georgia and gave an interview to one of Atlanta’s leading newspapers.

Atlanta Weekly Constitution, Tuesday, June 29, 1886

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 ran away to the sea at the age of 16 and spent the first three years as a cabin boy for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. He had visited over two dozen countries. He worked for the railroad in Mexico City, where he supposedly contracted smallpox. By 1885, he had been in Panama for two years working for the railroad. According to a man named Mr. Green, 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 were interviewed for the article, my great-grandfather and another man known only as Mr. Green. Here is the text of that article. Note, I have only transcribed 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. I have provided a link to the PDF of the page with the interview.

“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.”

When asked about liquor consumption on the isthmus, Mr. Green describes 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. The Americans and French were paid in gold and the Jamaicans and others from the Caribbean islands were paid in silver.

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?”

James, who spoke fluent Spanish, eventually became a diplomat, and during the second Grover Cleveland administration he was the US Consul General in Valparaiso, Chile, in the 1890s.

Here is what Mr. Green said in closing: he was asked if the level of the Pacific Ocean was higher than that of the Atlantic. “Yes,” he said, “It is. It is 9 feet higher. But that will make but little difference. On the Pacific side, too, locks will be constructed which will obviate all difficulties. There is no doubt about it; the Panama Canal scheme is feasible, and the canal will surely be completed sooner or later.”

Construction of the Panama Canal by a US government commission was begun in 1904 and was completed on August 15, 1914.

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