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San Francisco Alta California, March 16, 1867

New Year's Day.


Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds. They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil - so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests, their sunny slopes, their breezy dells, after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world. These mountains seem to have no level ground at the* bases but rise abruptly from the water. There is nothing rugged about them - they are shapely and symmetrical, and all their outlines are soft, rounded and regular. One is 4,200 and the other 5,400 feet high, though the highest being the furthest removed makes them look like twins. A stranger would take them to be of equal altitude. Some say they are 6,000 feet high, and certainly they look it. When not a cloud is visible elsewhere in the heavens, their tall summits are magnificently draped with them. They are extinct volcanoes, and consequently their soil (decomposed lava) is wonderfully fertile. They are well stocked with cattle ranches, and with corn, coffee and tobacco farms. The climate is delightful, and is the healthiest on the Isthmus.


Our boat started across the lake at 2 P.M., and at 4 A.M. the following morning we reached Fort San Carlos, where the San Juan River flows out - a hundred miles in twelve hours - not particularly speedy, but very comfortable.

Here they changed us to a long, double-decked shell of a stern-wheel boat, without a berth or a bulkhead in her - wide open, nothing to obstruct your view except the slender stanchions that supported the roof. And so we started down the broad and beautiful river in the gray dawn of the balmy summer morning.

At eight we breakfasted. On the lake boat they fed us on coffee and tea, and on sandwiches composed of two pieces of bread enclosing one piece of ham. On this boat they gave us tea, coffee, and sandwiches composed of one piece of ham between two pieces of bread. There is nothing like variety.

In a little while all parties were absorbed in noting the scenery on shore - trees like cypress; other trees with large red blossoms; great feathery tree ferns and giant cactuses; clumps of tall bamboo; all manner of trees and bushes, in fact, webbed together with vines; occasionally a vista that opened, stretched its carpet of fresh green grass far within the jungle, then slowly closed again.


In this land of rank vegetation, no spot of soil can be cleared off and kept barren a week. Nature seizes upon every vagrant atom of dust and forces it to relieve her over-burdened store-houses. Weeds spring up in the cracks of floors, and clothe the roofs of huts in green; if a handful of dust settles in the crotch of a tree, ferns spring there and wave their graceful plumes in the tropic breeze. Filibustering Walker sunk a steamboat in the river; the sands washed down, filled in around her, built up a little oval island. The wind brought seeds thither, and they clothed every inch of it in luxuriant grass. Then trees grew and vines climbed up and hung them with bright garlands, and the steamer's grave was finished. The wreck was invisible to us, save that the two great fore-and-aft braces still stood up out of the grass and fenced in the trees. It was a pretty picture.


About noon, we swept gaily around a bend in the beautiful river, and a stately old adobe castle came into view - a relic of the olden time of the old buccaneering days of Morgan and his merry men. It stands upon a grassy dome-like hill, and the forests loom up beyond. They say that Lord Nelson once captured it and that this was his first notable feat. It cost him several hours, with 250 men, and good, hard, bloody fighting, to get it. In our time, Walker took it with 25 men, without firing a shot - through the treachery of the Commandante, they say.

There is a little straggling village under the hill, a village composed of a single rank of houses, extending some three hundred yards down the shore. There is a dangerous rapid here. It is said to be artificial - formed by man in former times to keep the pirate boats from penetrating the interior. We had to get ashore here, walk around the rapids, and get on another stern wheeler. Every house we passed was a booth for the sale of fruits and provisions. The bananas, pine-apples, cocoa-nuts and coffee were good, and the cigars very passable, but the oranges, although fresh, of course, were of a very inferior quality. Cheapness is the order of the day. You can buy as much of any one article as you can possibly want for a dime, and a sumptuous dinner for two or three for half a dollar. Bring along your short bits when you come this way. It is the grand base and foundation of all values, and is better received, and with less suspicion, than any other coin.


As we got under way and sped down the narrowing river, all the enchanting beauty of its surroundings came out. All gazed in rapt and silent admiration for a long time as the exquisite panorama unfolded itself, but finally burst into a conversational ecstasy that was alive with excited ejaculations.

The character of the vegetation on the banks had changed from a rank jungle to dense, lofty, majestic forests. There were hills, but the thick drapery of the vines spread upward, terrace upon terrace, and concealed them like a veil. We could not have believed in the hills, except that the upper trees towered too high to be on the bank level.

And everywhere in these vine-robed terraces were charming fairy harbors fringed with swinging garlands; and weird grottoes, whose twilight depth the eye might not pierce; and tunnels that wound their mysterious course none knew whither; and there were graceful temples - columns - towers - pyramids - mounds - domes - walls - all the shapes and forms and figures known to architecture, wrought in the pliant, leafy vines, and thrown together in reckless, enchanting confusion.

Now and then a rollicking monkey scampered into view, or a bird of splendid plumage floated through the sultry air, or the music of some invisible songster welled up out of the forest depths. The changing vistas of the river ever renewed the intoxicating picture; corners and points folding backward revealed new wonders beyond, of towering walls of verdure- gleaming cataracts of vines pouring sheer down a hundred and fifty feet, and mingling with the grass upon the earth - wonderful waterfalls of green leaves as deftly overlapping each other as the scales of a fish - a vast green rampart, solid a moment, and then, as we advanced, changing and opening into Gothic windows, colonnades - all manner of quaint and beautiful figures!

Sometimes a limbless veteran of the forest stood aloof in his flowing vine-robes, like an ivy-clad tower of some old feudal ruin.

We came upon another wrecked steamer turned into an emerald island - trees reaching above the great walking-beam framework, and the tireless vines climbing over the rusty and blistered old locomotive boiler. And by-and-by a retreating point of land disclosed some lofty hills in the distance, steep and densely grown with forests - each tree-top a delicate green dome, touched with a gleam of sunshine, and then shaded off with Indian-summery films into darkness; dome upon dome, they rose high into the sunny atmosphere, and contrasted their brilliant tints with the stormy purple of the sky beyond.

Along shore, huge alligators lay and sunned themselves and slept; birds with gaudy feathers and villainous hooked bills stood stupidly on overhanging boughs, and startled one suddenly out of his long cherished, dimly-defined notion that that sort of bird only lived in menageries; parrots flew by us - the idea of a parrot flying seemed funny enough - flying abroad, instead of swinging in a tin ring, and stooping and nipping that ring with its beak between its feet, and thus displaying itself in most unseemly attitude - flying, silently cleaving the air - and saying never a word! When the first one went by without saying "Polly wants a cracker, " it seemed as if there was something unnatural about the bird, but it did not immediately occur to me what it was. And there was a prodigiously tall bird that had a beak like a powder horn, and curved its neck into an S, and stuck its long legs straight out behind like a steering oar when it flew, that I thought would have looked more proper and becoming in the iron cage where it naturally belonged. And I will not deny that from the moment I landed on that Isthmus, the idea of a monkey up a tree seemed so consumedly absurd and out of all character, that I never saw one in such a position but I wanted to take him and chain him to a wagon wheel under the Bengal tiger's cage, where he would necessarily feel more at home and not look so ridiculous.


"What sort of a crooked, spready, cur'us looking tree is that out yonder?"

I looked at the speaker. He was by nature, constitution and habit a Bore - I could see that. I said:

"I don't know. "I wanted to say, savagely, "How the devil should I know? Do I look like I ever was in this kind of a country before?"

"Looks like it might be an oak, or a slippry ellum, or something, but I reckon it ain't, maybe?"

"I don't know. Maybe it is, maybe it ain't."

"It's got big blossoms on it like a hollyhock "

"I don't know - it may be a hollyhock."

"Oh, no - I didn't mean that - I meant - Geeminy! see that monkey jump! What kind of a noise do they make - do they squawk?"

"Now, I don't know anything whatever about monkeys. They may squawk, or they may not - I hope to God they do!"


I struck my colors. This serene simplicity where I expected to make a telling shot, completely nonplussed me. I left without saying a word.

This fellow used to corner me and bore the life out of me with trivial reminiscences out of his insignificant history; with trifling scraps of information I had possessed from infancy; with decayed, worm-eaten jokes that made me frantic, and with eternal questions concerning things I knew nothing about and took no earthly interest in. One always meets such people on voyages, but I never met a specimen before that so completely tallied with my idea of a tiresome, exasperating, infernal bore.

On this second stern-wheel boat they gave us tea, coffee, and sandwiches formed by ingeniously secreting a slice of ham between two slices of bread. Truly, there is nothing like variety. It gives a zest to the simplest diet.


The boys smoked, sang, shot at alligators, discussed the lignum-vitae, mahogany, bastard-cocoa and other curious trees, and gazed at the bewitching panorama of the river the livelong happy day, and at night we tied up at the bank within 30 miles of Greytown. Those who had hammocks swung them, and those who hadn't made beds of their overcoats, and soon the two dingy lanterns, hung forward and aft, shed a ghostly glimmer over the thick-strewn and vaguely defined multitude of slumberers. As I said before, the whole boiler-deck was wide open; just before day light a chilly shower came driving in and roused everybody out. There was some complaining of sore bones by women and certain gentlemen who were unused to sleeping on hard, bare floors, but these little troubles were soon forgotten when the galley boys came up and the usual frenzied and famishing rushing and crowding and shouting of "Sandwiches! Sandwiches!" took place and disclosed the happy truth that we had not only the usual tea and coffee and sandwiches for breakfast, but also cheese! Verily, variety is the spice of life. Nobody said anything about sore bones any more.


We got to Greytown early on the last day of the year, and saw the steamer at anchor that was to take us to New York. The town does not amount to much. There is a good deal of land around there, and it is curious that they didn't build it larger - but somehow they didn't. It is composed of two hundred old frame houses and some nice vacant lots, and its comeliness is greatly enhanced, I may say is rendered gorgeous, by the cluster of stern-wheel steamboats at the water front.

The population is 800, and is mixed - made up of natives, Americans, Spaniards, Germans, English and Jamaica negroes. Of course the spoken language is Spanish. Some of the negro babies do not wear any clothes at all, and the cows march through the public thoroughfares with a freedom which pen cannot de scribe. The inhabitants are not vain, and do not care for luxury and furniture. Most of them keep for sale small cigars called "poco tiempos" - ten cents a grab - and native brandy, tropical fruits and sea-grass hammocks. They sell everything cheap - even excellent foreign wines and such things, for import duties are light. The transit business has made every other house a lodging camp, and you can get a good bed anywhere for a dollar. It does not cost much to keep a Greytown bed in order; there is nothing to it but a mattress, two sheets and a mosquito bar. The town is ornamented with cocoa-nut trees, the outskirts are bordered with chaparral, and everywhere the pink bachelor button blossoms of the sensitive plant smile among the grass. [Smile among the grass is good.- M. T.]

The Santiago de Cuba brought the cholera to the Isthmus last trip, and thirty-five people died of it. A young man, a resident of Greytown, also died of it, which exasperated his mother very much. So the citizens got up a Board of Health, and prohibited the cholera from coming ashore there any more. While we were up town the stern-wheeler containing our steerage and second cabin passengers arrived, and was at once warned to anchor in the stream and let no one come ashore! Not until we had been there twenty-four hours, and were ready to take final leave, did those crowded and cursing passengers discover what bred the tabu. It then came out that while Brown was drinking some native brandy in one of the saloons, he remarked that he had tasted milder stuff; but then, he said, he had escaped cholera on the Isthmus and smallpox among the steerage folks, and he guessed he could survive that drink. A citizen at once reported the remark to the Board of Health, and hence the order - and never a steerage passenger got a chance to go ashore at Greytown. There was some talk in the steerage of hanging Brown, but it never came to anything.


The Republic of Nicaragua has some populous cities in it. Leon, 48,000; Massaye, 38,000; Rivas, 30,000; Managua, 24,000; Granada, 18,000; Chinandaga, 18,000; and several other towns of 3,000 and 4,000. The total population is 320,000 - all in towns and cities, nearly. Only property-holders who are declared citisens can vote. Greytown is not represented in the councils of the nation at all. The property there is held by temporary residents - foreigners - who care nothing about politics.

There are a good many gold and silver mines in the country. The Choutales - gold quartz - (English Company - cost £250,000) - is worked by rude native machinery, but has new, modern machinery on the way. It's first clean-up (my notes say) was £200,000. For the sake of our reputation we will consider that that was meant for £20,000 and it is unquestionably large enough, even at that.

A Company of Californians have bought two mines - the Albertin and Petaluma - and have just begun work. They paid $70,000 for one of them.

An English Company are just beginning work on a mine which they paid £30,000 for.

There are also coal, silver, copper and opal mines. One of the latter, near the road between San Juan and Virgin Bay, has produced opals which, in the rough, were as large as almonds.

The Republic also has, among its numerous attractions and sources of commercial prosperity, some lakes and rivers of sulphur, and some extinct volcanoes - (an American Company has bought one of these and are sinking on it - they think they can make it go again.)

Nicaragua exports parrots and monkeys, India-rubber, logwood, sugar, hides, cochineal, coffee, deerskins, mahogany, chocolate, gold, opals, sarsaparilla, tortoise shells (quite a heavy business), and tropical fruits.

The rubber trade is large; last year Greytown alone exported $112,000 worth. Rubber is worth 28 cents a pound when it starts - in Europe, 54.

One man does all the mahogany business that is done on the northern coast of Nicaragua. He had one log, worth $12,000, which was so large it had to lay several years before there was water enough to float it over the bar. He will clear $500,000 this year, they say.

There is a very heavy export trade in logwood. Also in cacao (chocolate). Some of the plantations are very extensive. One owned by the Menier Manufacturing Company, of France, cost $500,000.

They could export cocoa-nut oil profitably, but no one takes hold of it.

There is an ad valorem duty of ten per cent on imports for Greytown, and a sort of incomprehensible tariff of forty per cent for the interior.

Laborers' wages in the interior are 20 to 40 cents a day and found. But it don't cost anything to board them; they never eat anything but plantains, and they eat them green, ripe or rotten - they are not particular - they would as soon have them one way as the other.

There is an English steamer monthly from Greytown to Jamaica and one or two other points, and thence to Southampton.

The Transit Company's charter has been extended to fifty years, and now it is expected that they will improve the accommodations on the stern-wheel boats. I don't see any room for it, however, unless they can hatch out some more of those happy variations on the sandwiches. The waters of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers are to be joined together, however, dykes built, and other projects instituted tending to the improvement of the Greytown harbor, that will eventually make it possible for ships to come inside the reef, no doubt, instead of pitching and charging at anchor in the open roadstead as at present.


We slept ashore in Greytown, and for the want of something better to do, I suppose, Brown cornered the Bore and fell to instructing him that an alligator could not climb a tree. The Bore said he knew that before, but the philosopher went into elaborate details and demonstrated anyhow, unmindful of protests and interruptions, and finally wore out the victim and drove him off a frantic and vanquished man. Brown may have done it for a joke, but surely there was no semblance of it in his voice or manner. If he had not really set his heart in good faith on proving that an alligator could not climb a tree, I was not able to discover it. But I never enjoyed anything better.

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