Alligator Hunt
General Jas. G. Steese

Based on a trip in 1909

San Pablo, Canal Zone, 
January 11th 1909

Went on an Alligator Hunt a week ago with Captain Shanton (Ex-Rough Riders), Chief of the Canal Zone Police. Took the early train to Panama on Saturday and got back Sunday night. Just saw proofs of the pictures and they are fine.

At Panama, we loaded the 'brake' with guns, cartridges, 3 mattresses, and grub. We had police guns, .44 cal. Winchester Repeaters (Carbines). Among the grub were 200 oranges for which we paid $1.75 gold and 100 limes costing $0.40 There were six of us, Captain Shanton, C.L. Chester, of Few York, Smith, Supt. of C.Z. Schools, Goethals, Edgerton, and myself.

We drove to La Boca where we had chartered a steam launch. The launch had a Captain, and Engineer, and three sailors (niggers). We also took on board an old Greek pilot who had been down here for 27 years and knows every foot of the coast and rivers. He has been on every prospecting expedition of the three Canal Companies.

We went down the Coast to the Chepo (Bayano) River, about 40 miles east, passing the site of Old Panama whose 400-year old tower was plainly visible. The mouth of the Chepo River is protected by two bars so we had to wait for high tide to get in, and we also did not want to beat up the river against the outgoing tide.

We landed on Chepillo Island at the mouth of the River and loafed around until 9:00 o'clock at night. The head man of the village invited us to a grand Sancocho dinner at his house. The Tivoli Hotel had put up the lunch we took with us, but after one meal on the way down we saw we were going to run short and so we bought some more stuff at a China Shop on the Island. For four meals for six husky men, the Tivoli gave us, among other things, ten pounds of coffee (ground) and one loaf of bread.

Chepillo Island is about as primitive a place as one can imagine. It is governed by a headman chosen by the people. But they have a free school with free textbooks. In one of the grass huts we found on the bare ground floor a standard billiard table, and the fellows could play, too. How on earth they ever got it over there in a cayuco gets me. 70 children attend the school, the girls in the morning, the boys in the afternoon. After dinner, though it was dark, they turned out a bunch of the kids and Smith inspected a class in Reading. The little tots could sure rattle off their Spanish - out of a book, too.

No one had died on the Island in 16 months. Seemed to be a very healthful place in spite of the wretched way in which the people live. They probably do not see a white man once in six months.

Our launch lay out at anchor and we came ashore in one of the small boats. We went aboard again at 9:00 o'clock, and took our Z-shaped course into the River. The mattresses were spread on deck, and we had a most glorious full Tropical Moon.

The Chepo River is a magnificent stream, much larger than the Hudson. Of course, the scenery is not so fine. One for we were not up far enough to get into the mountains. We went up about 20 miles and then anchored about 1:00 a.m. to wait for the tide.

About 6:00 a.m., before it was clear out, we got into the small boats and went down the river about a mile, the launch following behind. We then went up a narrow bayou where we expected to get the alligators on the bank at low tide. The tide here was about 15 feet.

We were a little late and as we approached the entrance to the bayou, the alligators by the hundreds took to the water and started down the river in a long line. We went on up and then began to shoot. We then got ashore in the mud and shot them as they slid down the opposite bank or swam by with only the tips of their noses and their bulging eyes visible.

They are hard to kill, and quite a number that were killed we could not get out. We pulled out seven, however, in one place and photographed them. They certainly are heavy to drag around.

Captain Shanton had a .50 cal. Winchester Express Rifle which would stop them but it took several shots from the rest of us to kill them. A pair of eyes sliding by is not much of a target either.

We brought back the jaws of nine for the teeth. We left them at La Boca for the ants to clean up, then the prisoners take out the teeth, polish them, and string them for us. The pictures are fine. Chester took them and will send them from New York when they are finished. The mud was just waist deep, and the blackest, stickiest, and slimiest I have ever seen. Sometimes one would stick in it and gradually and helplessly sink slowly until someone pulled him out.

We started back against the incoming tide again about 11:00 a.m., to hit the bar at high tide. Going down, we ran tight aground on a gravel ledge and had to wait till the tide floated us off, while the captain and the pilot had a fight.

We had all taken a complete change of clothing along from hat to shoes. We got to Panama in time for the evening train and were glad enough to get to bed. It was a great trip such as one gets only once in a life time.

End Notes and Bibliography