Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, from the Panama Canal Zone, and by steamship to and from Panama, 1907 to 1914

By Debby Detering

This book will launch on Dec 17, 2019. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒

Sail into a bygone era on steamship journeys along our Atlantic and Pacific coasts with a junior engineer from the yet-to-be opened Panama Canal, his independent and curious cousin, his uncle who has never been farther west than upper New York State, and his aunt visiting her sister near San Diego.
The letters they mail home turn up a century later and send William’s granddaughter on a vicarious journey in their footsteps. What in a Costa Rica port was manufactured in Vermont? How is a tugboat like Mark Twain’s donkey? Is the Santa Maria volcano still active? A single sentence about the Sosostres wreck exhumes three versions of its story. Frigatebirds sleep while flying, mangroves are essential to planetary health, and possibly a postage stamp blocked Captain Eads’ proposal for a ship railway in Nicaragua.
Debby Detering, the granddaughter, deciphered faded ink and smudged pencil to take you sailing along in the Age of Steamships to Central American ports and serendipitous side trips with passengers whose weeks aboard ship gave them no time for boredom.
The book includes historical background and is illustrated with historic photos, period postcards, family photos, and current views of sites visited.

The Manila Envelope


July 2013:

Our family had gathered to clean out my mother’s home. Her long-time companion and caregiver, who occupied the house after her death, had passed on, and my brother, who had flown across the continent for the legal estate business, reported, “I went through the house and took a few things. Some old diaries and a few knick-knacks, little things. But there’s still an amazing amount of stuff from when Mom was there, stuff I decided not to take.”

We joined the heirs of Mother’s companion in an estate sale, where my spouse, our daughters, and I investigated that “stuff.” An attic compartment, accessed by a “door” with dimensions like those for a St. Bernard’s doghouse, yielded files containing old letters, stacks of artwork dating from my kindergarten days to my mother’s last prestroke watercolors, boxes of canceled checks, decades of Christmas cards, recipes clipped from Family Circle or newspapers, and more. We packed our vehicles to capacity with the remaining family furniture, mementos from childhood, photos, and papers to sort later.

An elderly gentleman with interest in local history had purchased a box of newspaper clippings that we might have dumped in the recycling barrel. As my husband and I stuffed the last few mementos into our van, that gentleman—bless him!—returned with a manila envelope, saying simply, “Here’s some papers you might want.”

That envelope contained several precious family photos, some genealogy, and three separate over-sized letters from my grandfather, William Richard Hobby, to his cousin, Mabel Louise Potter. He had written them aboard the steamship SS San Juan while traveling from Panama to San Francisco in 1914.

[Photo of wrinkled and torn envelope with crossed-out return address "Panaman Canal Commission..." and addressed to Miss Mabel L. Potter, Fairhaven, Mass. U.S.A.

Figure 1: Envelope: Will Hobby to Mabel Potter, March 1914]

At the time, William Hobby—known as Will to family and friends—worked as an engineer on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal. That much we knew. When and how he left Panama, we had never known—or asked. His letters to Mabel are installments of a journal with his observations while on board the steamship and when visiting several Central American ports.

Over the next few months, I deciphered and transcribed the journal, written in pencil a century ago. I discovered my grandfather’s interests in geography, geology, agriculture, and commerce, as well as the everyday diet, laundering, building methods, and means of transportation of the native people in the ports along the Central American coast where the passenger-freighter loaded and unloaded cargo.

He wrote as if for publication in the National Geographic, which explains why he barely mentions his wife and two children. His wife, Linnie, is not named; instead he abbreviates “Mother” with “M.” The children, 18-month-old Ruth (my mother) and five-week-old Billy, are mentioned once each. I imagine my grandmother coping with a toddler and a five-week-old infant for 28 days aboard ship with no disposable diapers. From other sources I discover she was not the only woman on board, and I feel better about it. Other children? No information.

Letters from Will’s Cousin Mabel, Aunt Ellen, and Uncle Charles reveal a family gathering in Cuba in 1907 and more extensive voyages later. Nine letters from Will to the Potter family provide some details of his Panama years.

David McCullough’s comprehensive book, The Path Between the Seas,[1] fills in gaps and sets Will Hobby’s canal years in the perspective of that unique and magnificent American achievement.

[Photo of David McCullough's book cover.

Figure 2: The Path Between the Seas: A Readable and Dependable Reference]

The National Geographic magazine—all issues available online to subscribers—reports on the status of the canal from the acquisition of the territory through its completion.

Will’s journals excited my curiosity. How come he found Fairbanks scales from Vermont in Costa Rica? What is a frigatebird? Is the Santa Maria volcano still active? Did the ship Sosostres disintegrate on the shores of Guatemala? Where did Will read about Mark Twain’s donkey? So many of these details have their own stories to tell.

The Family:

This story begins not with William Richard Hobby leaving Panama on the San Juan in 1914 but with his mother, Mary Louise Parker, and his aunt, Ellen Harriet Parker, in Massachusetts in the 1870s. Ellen, the older sister, married Daniel Charles Potter (“Uncle Charley”). They bought a dairy farm on the Massachusetts coast and had one child, Mabel Louise, in 1873.

Mary married—I’d like to know where and how they met!—Cicero Mead Hobby, a native of New York who was practicing ophthalmology in Iowa City and lecturing at the University of Iowa medical school.

They had five children:

1.  Edwin Elmer (Ned), 1876: Physician, not involved in this narrative.

2.  Ruth Annis, 1878: Married George Sabin Gibbs of the Army Signal Corps in 1899.

3.  William Richard, 1880: Civil engineer and the author of the journal that inspired this book.

4.  Paul Herbert, 1884: Only mentioned as “rather changeable in his jobs.”

5.  Carl Frederick, 1886: Beginning his life-long career as an artist.

Ruth’s husband was transferred to Cuba in 1906. Whether his wife and children would have accompanied him, or whether her brothers and cousins would have dared visit while yellow fever was prevalent, is questionable. If they had, would they have lived to tell about it? Will Hobby also worked in Cuba before moving on to Panama. By this time “yellow jack” was no longer the terror that had been a significant cause of the French failure to build the Canal.

Mary Hobby in Iowa and Ellen Potter in Massachusetts lacked time and money for visiting, but they were consistent in correspondence—and Ellen hoarded letters.

History pertinent to Will Hobby’s canal work includes the Spanish-American War, the transfer of the Panama Canal from France to the United States, the eradication of yellow fever, and the opening of the Panama Canal simultaneously with the start of World War I.

The American policy of liberal, yearly vacations for American workers, and company-built housing for American families, allowed Will’s visits home to Iowa, where he courted Linnea Eleanor Coon. He took his bride to Panama—probably her first travel outside of Iowa. Their first two children were born in Panama.

About the author

Debby Detering earned her B.A. at Brown University and Central Washington State College and has been writing for many years. Previous publications include Three Tales: God with Us; short stories, and articles. Debby and her spouse enjoy road trips and reading about others' travel. view profile

Published on July 17, 2019

Published by

80000 words

Genre: Travel

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