On The Trail With Levi Strauss in Panama

On March 14, 1853, Levi Strauss walked off the Pacific Mail steamship Isthmus and onto a wharf in the city of San Francisco, which would be home for the rest of his life. He then started up his wholesale dry goods company, called simply Levi Strauss, which was the West coast branch of the family business, J. Strauss Brother & Co. (Twenty years later he and Reno, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis, would invent the blue jean. That’s a story for another day.)

The twenty-four year old Bavarian immigrant had spent the last five years in New York learning the dry goods trade with his half brothers. When word got out about the California Gold Rush and the opportunities in San Francisco for bright, young businessmen, the Strauss family sent Levi out West to represent the family firm. (Actually, we don’t know whose idea it was to go to California, since the company lost all of its records in the 1906 earthquake and fire, which is very irritating to a historian, let me tell you.)

Levi took the shortest, but no less dangerous Panama route to get to California. And when I was the company Historian (1989-2014) I decided I wanted to experience what this trip would have been like. So, I went there in the spring of 2009.

For my vacation.

First things first: I needed a guide, and I found the best one in Panama. Hernán Araúz comes from a family of explorers, cartographers, and anthropologists, and when I met him on arrival in Panama City, he had already read everything he could find about Levi Strauss. He had also mapped out our historic itinerary.

Here’s how Levi made the crossing. He took a steamship from New York to the Caribbean side of the isthmus, then got on the Panama Railroad, which was only about halfway finished. After a two-hour ride, he got off the train in Barbacoas and crawled into a small boat called a bungo for a ride down the Chagres River to the town of Gorgona, where he spent the night. The next morning, the final leg of the trip, he had a choice: walk the final eighteen miles to Panama City or rent a mule. I expect he was able to rent a mule. After a day in the saddle, surviving the dangers of alligators, drowning, bandits, and yellow fever, he arrived in Panama City, and on February 21, 1853 he got onto the Isthmus, headed up the Pacific coast for San Francisco.

My first day in Panama with Hernán began with a drive across the country to the town of Colôn, where Levi landed on his first day, as well. We caught the Panama Railroad (now a delightful tourist train) and sat in an enclosed, air-conditioned car. But at one point we walked out to a covered, open-air platform so I could feel what the trip must have been like for Levi: hot, windy, and surrounded by dense foliage, like being in a tunnel of leaves. Today’s train parallels the old route, but many of the towns that it used to pass are now at the bottom of Gatún Lake. Hernán is a certified diver, and he told me that you can dive near these places and touch the steeples of ancient churches.

On my second day, I experienced the beauty of the Chagres River. We drove into Chagres National Park outside of Panama City and got into fifteen-foot-long dugouts made by the Embera Drua people, who take tourists into the park. The boats are long and narrow, with wooden slats for seats. There’s a man at each end: the one in front has a long pole, and the one at the back is in charge of something that would have made Levi’s trip a lot easier: an outboard motor. We visited the Embera village, and then returned to our starting point the same way.

The Chagres has changed since Levi’s day, and we were on a different part of the river, but Hernán said the scenery and wildlife were just about the same. There was every color of green, from emerald to pale jade, and egrets, herons, and Amazon kingfishers flew over our heads.

Hernán then did something very special. He took me to the National Library of Panama where the librarian let me view original, 1853 issues of the English-language paper Panama Herald. It was published for the hordes of Americans who crossed the isthmus to get to the gold fields of California and included sailing schedules. There, I was able to find the Isthmus and the date that Levi boarded the ship, which was a history nerd moment I will never forget. (Take THAT, 1906 earthquake and fire.)

My final day was an even bigger treat. Hernán and I got into a boat and zoomed across Gatún Lake to a trailhead at Venta de Cruces, one of the two trails that men like Levi Strauss took to get to Panama City. Levi took the Gorgona route because he arrived in the dry season, and it was an easier trip. Gorgona is now under the lake, but I still got a taste of the experience. We walked to the ruins of the church of Venta de Cruces, and a bit further the trail narrowed to about twelve inches across, just like it was in the 1850s.

We got back into the boat and putted over to a thicket of green, where huge trees dipped over the water. Hernán said to watch the bushes, as he pulled peanuts and cut up pieces of banana from his pack and began to whistle. A moment later Capuchin monkeys came out of the bushes to grab the food from our hands.

As we floated back onto the lake, I asked Hernán where the village of Gorgona used to be. We motored to a tree-covered peninsula which jutted into a small bay. “Most of it is underneath us,” he said. Then he and the boatman, Jacobo, started talking rapidly in Spanish, and Hernán pointed to a nearby finger of land, saying, “He has friends who have seen some old foundations in there. Do you want to go check it out?”

Well, heck yes.

Jacobo drove the boat deep into a narrow tributary where the trees grew tall and forbidding, right down to the water line. We found a small spit of land and beached the boat, jumping off the bow and splashing into ankle-high water. Both men had machetes, which they needed as they hacked through thick foliage, walking uphill. I grabbed at branches and exposed roots for balance, occasionally getting whacked by vines. I lost sight of the men for a while, and then I heard an excited yell. I climbed faster and found Hernán pointing to a thirty-inch square rock and stone pilar, covered with dead leaves. There were at least six more in the same area.

We couldn’t get close to some of the brick pillars because the growth was too thick, but we also found a tiny brick arch set over what looked like a dry creek bed.

Then, we found an old graveyard, and Hernán said the structures and the graves were probably left over from when the French tried to build the first Panama canal in the 1880s (a failure, thanks to yellow fever, costs, and high worker mortality).

We made our way back to the boat, I put Band-Aids on the cuts on my finger and ankle, and we left the little island, quieter than when we arrived, all of us thinking about what we’d found.

I went home the next day, but fourteen years on the experience has remained with me. Hernán is also still a good friend. He is now the Deputy Director of Museums for Panama’s Ministerio de Cultura, and a guide, taking people all over Panama in the high season (January-March), and he also gives talks on small, high end cruise lines.

Today, March 14, is the 170th anniversary of the founding of Levi Strauss & Co., which was no small thing given how hard it was for Levi to leave his family in New York and take the dangerous journey to California. I went to Panama and spent my evenings in a comfortable, clean hotel, ate delicious meals, and rode from place to place in air-conditioned vans or breezy speedboats, with insect repellant and sunscreen at my disposal. Levi was at the mercy of heat, bugs, bad water and food, and the daily possibility of death. I could never recreate that but putting my feet on the ground that he walked, even just to smell the same scented air, was a thrill I will never forget.

Thinking about a trip to Panama? Here’s how to get in touch with Hernán: his email is hernanarauztorres@gmail.com, and his cell is +(507) 6672-3204.

11 thoughts on “On The Trail With Levi Strauss in Panama

  1. Wow! It’s always exciting to revisit the sites of the people you’re writing about. And the more off the track the better, though your trip really takes the cake. I’m jealous! And you obviously researched others who made the earlier trip, since I recall Jessie Benton Fremont’s book on her crossing in 1849 (before there even was a railroad), finds its place in your novel on dudes.


    • Another interesting, but much shorter account of travel across the isthmus was written by Hubert H. Bancroft) who made the crossing in March of 1852, just one year before Levi Strauss.


  2. Oh my gosh, Lynn. I had no idea of your connection to this. My ancestors/relatives crossed at the isthmus each year from 1851 to 1856 or 1857. Three trips out to California. Three trips back to Indiana. I have been to Panama (in the 1970s) and took the train to Colon. But I would have loved to have seen the places you did with the guide, since this is a big part of my book about the gold rush (nonfiction). How awesome you got to do that!


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