Will Hobby’s Journal
Found our ship lying at a finished portion of the massive concrete docks which will fringe the harbor at the Pacific terminal of the great canal. We were beguiled on board 3 hours before sailing time by an apparently authoritative announcement of an earlier start, so losing the time which would have enabled Mother to see something of the Panaman carnival. Found ship taking in mail and baggage and our own trunk, regardless of its marking and the official assurance, buried in the ship’s hold … About 2 P.M. the gang planks were drawn aboard. A sturdy little tug hove our steamer stern around till her prow pointed southward and, reminding me of Mark Twain’s management of his donkey.
Will Hobby, February 23, 1914
Mark Twain’s Donkey
“If he were drifting to starboard, you might put your helm down hard the other way, if it were any satisfaction to you to do it, but he would continue to drift to starboard all the same. There was only one process which could be depended on, and it was to get down and lift his rear around until his head pointed in the right direction, or take him under your arm and carry him to a part of the road which he could not get out of without climbing…”
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
The Journal Discovered
At my mother’s estate sale, an elderly gentleman with interest in local history purchased a box of newspaper clippings, twenty-some years of local history that we were about to toss into the recycling barrel. A few hours later, as we stuffed the last few mementos in our van, that gentleman—bless him!—returned with a manila envelope of “some papers you might want.” That envelope included a journal mailed from my grandfather, William Richard Hobby, to his cousin Mabel Louise Potter in 1914. He wrote that journal aboard the S. S. San Juan, a steamship from Panama to San Francisco.
And so began my own journey of discovery: boxes of letters revealing a family gathering in Cuba and other steamship journeys, oblique references to “Col. Higginson’s “Life in a Black Regiment” which is worth reading,” tp “Fairbanks scales made in Vermont, ” to a “frozen pirate, to the steamship Sosostress “,standing upright, high and dry on the beach” of Port Ocos, Guatemala .
Colonel Higginson–a gentleman I would have loved to meet–trained the first Black Regiment in the Civil War. He also directed the publication of the first of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Fairbanks scales would indeed have been exported from Vermont to Costa Rica by 1914, and research turned up photos of models from that era. I wonder how many of William Clark Russell’s maritime novels my grandfather read and acquired a copy of The Frozen Pirate,. Did the ship Sosostress disintegrate on the shores of Guatemala? I found three tales of her grounding and a report of her final disposition..
This collection of letters with historical background and notes on these side trips of discovery will be published soon–Join me on steamships from New York to Cuba and Panama, in the epochal construction of the Panama Canal, and on the steamship SAn Juan up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco.