With the Marines in Panama

In commemoration of the Allentown Messenger/Press entering its 100th year of continuous operation this October, over the next several weeks this column will feature past articles relative to that business. A display in the foyer of the Allentown Public Library is also recognizing this event. The following was originally published in the December 24, 1908 issue of the Allentown Messenger:


Camp Elliott, I. C. Z.,

Panama, December 16, 1908.


Was to glad to receive Messenger when the ship came in last and am afraid will have to acknowled reading even the ads, although knew I could not buy anything. I don’t think anyone can appreciate his home paper and the people until he is in a foreign country, where nearly everything is different.


The papers here in Panama City are printed partly in English, but the most of each one is in Spanish. The do not interest me, as I do not know the people. Still, I get one occasionally to try to read the Spanish. We get papers from the States about every time a ship comes in, but they do not come up to the “home paper.”


The dry season started, or was supposed to, the first of December, but during November and until very lately it rained every day, mostly starting at 1 o’clock. Have you had any ice and snow yet?

It is all very pretty to read in a magazine about the tropics, but it gets to be so familiar that one grows tired of it, and since I came from a temperate zone would much rather have the different seasons. Of course, when you take a run down to Palm Beach for New York it’s fine, but down here it is a new country with jungles on all sides. One can not walk much over one hundred yards, except on the railroad track, without getting into these.


One can learn to enjoy walking here, as there are no trolleys and few wagons. I go out for a walk nearly every day and average about 10 miles each time. Sometimes go to Gorgona, one of the principal along the canal, a little over four miles from camp. Then, again, I go out into the jungles, but it is hard traveling here, for the trails are only about a foot wide and muddy. There are a few big snakes here, and I never did like them. Guess I remember Adam. Still, that is where one can see the beauty of the country, for here it is found in the wild, uncultivated state.


Out in the “bush” you find a mixture of West Indian and Spanish, sometimes mixed with Indian. They live for the most part in huts made of bamboo and grass, although a few near the railroad live in shacks made of boxes and old boards. They live mostly on fruits and truck. Was told they eat monkeys, parrots and “guana” – an animal that looks like a large lizard – and guess it is so from things I’ve seen.


A few days ago a fellow by the name of Richards and myself left camp shortly after dinner for a tramp in the jungles. From camp we walked for a short distance down the Panama Railroad tracks until we came to an old pumping station which has been abandoned; here we crossed over a small river and struck off into the jungle in a southwesterly direction.


The trail in most places is only wide enough to walk in a single file, the vines and bushes being far enough apart to admit of mules and small horses carrying packs on their backs up to the different native shacks. On many places the trees and vines meet overhead, forming a very pretty archway.


The flowers one sees are of a very brilliant color, but have hardly any odor. A small flower that resembles the forget-me-not is found in great abundance. It is of a very delicate shade of blue.


After walking for a little over a mile we came up a man burning charcoal. He understood a little English, so asked him the process, it being as follows: First he cuts the wood into even lengths about 8 feet long, using a hard wood called the bullet tree. After making a pile about 7 feet wide and 4 feet high he put brush on the wood and then throws a covering of dirt over all about 6 inches deep. This is to keep the rain from putting out the fire and also to stop the fire burning when it reaches the top of the lumber, it taking about a week to complete the operation. The charcoal is packed into sacks and taken down the trail to the different towns where he receives $2 silver a sack. They make an average of $20 silver ($10 gold) a week.


We had to cross the river again to follow the trail, and after going about four miles we came to a native’s bungalow and were welcomed by a couple of dogs. Here a surprise awaited me, for the native shacks that I had been used to seeing were dirty and the surroundings denoted extreme poverty, while here it was exactly the opposite.


The house was about 20 by 25 and open on two sides. On one of the closed sides was built a wing which was used for a sleeping compartment, and on the other side another wing was used for the kitchen. Everything in the shack was neat and clean. One of the things interesting to me was the roof, which was made from the leaves of the “travelers’” palm. The rafters were formed by the long stem of the same and were interwoven so that the hardest rain could not penetrate. In place of nails, thongs made from bark were used to fasten the rafters on to the framework.


Around the shack were growing orange, banana, breadfruit and lime trees, rose bushes and pineapples. The man who owns this place is more industrious than the majority. He raises sugar cane and makes his own sugar, selling a large quantity; makes his own corn meal, and has a fine fruit farm.


Of course, most of us are interested in hunting, so got to talking to him in this subject. He showed us two deer skins, he having shot them a few nights before. One deer weighed about two hundred pounds, but the hide was spoiled, as he shot it with a gun using buckshot. The other was a little fellow, only weighing about twenty-five pounds. He also showed us a fine skin taken from a wild boar, which his brother had killed a short time ago, weighing perhaps one hundred and twenty pounds. After showing us these he took us up into his cornfield to show how the deer were hunted. The field was a clearing of about five acres with travelers’ palms scattered all over it. If one remains on the ground, the deer on coming after the young shoots of corn smell you and remain in the bush, so they build blinds in the palm trees about twenty feet from the ground. Here you can see them at a greater distance and get a better shot.


I wanted to see how the coffee tree looks with the berries on it, so we started for another native’s plantation about a mile distant, but here we were met by a difficult proposition. Not many of the natives in the interior understand English unless they have had some dealings with the whites, as they do not work on the canal, but farm their places. On reaching the bungalow we found the men were out in the bush somewhere and no one around but three women, and they only understood Spanish. Well, I don’t speak Spanish very good, but can ask which way it is to camp, so did this and started back without getting a look at the coffee.


We came back on a different trail, but the scenery was much the same – a tangled mass of vines, bushes and trees. One thing I’ve noticed in particular is the scarcity of birds. Those you see are very pretty, their plumage always being of a brilliant hue. Another thing that attracts great notice is the “travelers’” palm. This tree grows to a height of 30 or 40 feet and the many branches spreading out from the trunk makes it a fine sight.


Will have to close as want to catch this mail. Hope to make another trip some day and let you know how I make out.


Yours truly,

A. R. Bates