The Origin of Panama and Beyond

February 1907: Mabel Potter sailed to Cuba for a visit with cousins. Mabel’s mother, who stayed home, kept their letters. Her father, “Uncle Charley,” followed in March.

April 1907: Mabel’s cousin William Hobby began seven years of work as a junior engineer on the Panama Canal. Mabel kept the letters he sent from Panama to her family.

February 1914: William, who by this time had his wife, a toddler, and a 5-week-old infant, finished his work on the Canal and sailed for San Francisco.  He kept a journal with details of the Central American ports they visited and mailed it to Cousin Mabel.

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The S.S. San Juan, drawing from 1895, the ship on which William Hobby and family sailed to San Francisco in 1914.

William Hobby’s Journal Discovered

July 2004: Our family gathered for the estate sale after my mother’s death, and packed up the remainder of her belongings. As we loaded the last boxes, a gentleman who had purchased a box of old local news clippings came back with a manila envelope, saying “I found some papers you may want.” The envelope contained William Hobby’s journal. My mother had been the toddler on that steamship to San Francisco. She was the one who cleaned out Cousin Mabel’s home and kept her boxes of letters. She must have looked at her father’s journal and left it with the miscellaneous pile of papers that we would have recycled if that gentleman hadn’t been interested in local history and then aware that he had uncovered a family treasure.

Daniel Charles Potter: March 10, 1907

“… The fog thinned above and sun came out making it very pleasant, passengers all on deck visiting and enjoying themselves. The low haze on the water did not clear though the wind raised and some swell set in. At 11:00 the engines were slowly started. We were headed towards where the land ought to be, and with an officer at the bow heaving the lead, we crawled slowly in. The water shelved to fall from 50 to 35 feet, the engines were reversed, and we backed hastily away and again headed south, still nothing in view around us but the encircling fog.”

Mabel Potter, February 25, 1907

“My dear Mother,

… Will told some of his experiences—which are quite equal to a novel—wild enough some of them—but he likes it all and is not ready to settle down—and I can quite appreciate his pleasure. Such a life! Tho’ is all foreign to our eastern conventions—It’s being “broke” in Texas—demanding work—anything—on a ranch—and getting it…—hard working and hard riding to make time on contracts—men stories, rough stories, of all classes of men—but I think has the power of handling and controlling his men well and with all his rough life has the best of taste in dress …”

William Hobby, “Pedro Miguel, Canal Zone, Panama, May 25, ‘07

“… I’m really quite comfortable and happy here now—thought at first that I’d have to go to town at least once a week and get a decent meal, but things are different now. Four of us, my roommate Mr. Coleman, Mr. Toby from Boston, and Snakes from Washington State and late of U.S.S. Gloucester—called Snakes on account of tattoo marks—and myself, have a table to ourselves at the “Hotel,” give the head waiter five dollars once in a while and not only get better service but the pick of the grub, although there would be lots of kicking if it were known…”

William Hobby, March 5, 1914, from El Salvador:

“…An old church with monastery interested us. I climbed to the old bell tower by a flight of outside stone steps combined with rampart against the wall and was in the middle ages. Looked down on a sea of broken tiled roofs of another century, examined the old bells, one bearing date 1672, another cracked and strengthened with an iron patch which showed the rust of unnumbered ages. On the main street a fine bridge spanned a deep gorge cut into the underlying rock. Evidently filled at other seasons by a raging torrent, now drought shrunken and turgid, but half knee deep in its current—several brown washer women plying their vocation illustrated primitive laundry methods. They soaked, beat, and thrashed the garments, rubbed and pounded them on the rocks, then rinsed and spread on the hot rocks to dry. The result was apparently satisfactory to the washer but we wondered how many such experiences any civilized garment could endure.”