Letter from Peru

This letter was written to my Great-Grandfather around the turn of the 20th Century, by his sister, Anna Isenberg Shoenfelt, while she was traveling in Peru with her family. As she says in the beginning of the letter, “it reads like a dime store novel”.

This photo was taken at Anna Isenberg Shoenfelt’s (the author of the letter) home in California with her brother Augusts Rupley (the recipient of the letter) and sister-in-law Maggie Isenberg (my great-grandparents). Dorrie is behind Anna holding her dog. This occasion was the Isenberg’s visit to California after A.R.’s retirement as a foreman in the Altoona shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

around the turn of the 20th century…….

fter many long and weary months filled with disappointments and dangers we are at last on our way
home, our home sweet home. We have had one of the most wonderful trips, you could ever imagine. It reads like a dime novel and half of it people will never believe to be true and although I have been through it, I can hardly believe it myself. So how could you blame the skeptical world. I would like to see you and tell you in words instead of writing, it would seem more real to you.

Although we had a dangerous trip, and suffered all the agonies of the lower world, I would not have wanted to have missed it for anything in the world. There was something alluring about it that can not be explained, while danger beset us on every side, there was a fascination in scenery and the very dangers that beset us impelled us on and carried us safely through.

From the time we left New Orleans until the present time, there has been one continuous stream of delays, that held us back. So instead of returning in August as we had planned we are returning in January. We are scheduled to reach New York on January 9, but at no time have we lived up to a date, but will let you know as soon as we arrive, and I will have this letter ready to mail when we arrive.

Last night we arrived at the Island of Barbados in the Atlantic. Dorris and some of the others went ashore, but as the ship anchored about a mile out in the Bay, I did not go. They had to go in little boats and it was dark. I am going to begin this letter from the time we left Lima, which was July 6 at 6:30 A.M. Before breakfast, we traveled on a special train furnished by the president. The train consisted of one coach and a baggage car which took us over the first and highest range of mountains to the end of the line, terminating at Arroyo. This trip over the mountain was beautiful.

The railroad is similar to the transAndine over the Andes, between Argentina and Chile, that I wrote you about when we were on our last trip down here, only that mountain was covered with snow and this one was not, but the road is constructed the same, starting from Lima it keeps going up creeping along the side of the mountain, zig-zagging back and forth, so at times we could see 3 lines of road far below us. This road is a wonderful piece of construction, with many bridges and 60 tunnels. The scenery along this line is wonderful, picturesque, and beautiful. Years ago the sides of these mountains were farmed by the Inca Indians and there still exists evidence of these terraced farms, some places at the sides are almost straight and you would wonder how they ever climbed them. We stood on the rear platform of the car, mile after mile enjoying the scenery and taking pictures.

We all felt fine until we reached Arroyo which was 6 in the evening. Several of us were all in, I among them, the worst of the bunch, after bragging that I would not get sick. I should have stated that nearly every one that crosses these mountains are subject to the sickness called Sorroch, many people dying from it. They tell us that they die in great agony with blood coming from the nose and mouth and eyes and ears. But, people with good sense of traveling, do not try to make this trip in one day, but take it in degrees going part of the way and then resting 3 or 4 days and do this until they get over the highest point and in this way they get accustomed to the altitude and do not suffer much. But, we had to rush like all Americans and I paid dearly for my part of it.

When we reached Arroyo I tried to get up and leave the car but collapsed, and have only the faintest recollection of being lifted and carried across the tracks into a tumble down old hotel. They put me to bed without taking off my clothes and not even my hat. That was the last I knew until the next day a little before noon, when we were put on another car and taken out on a little branch road about 3 hours ride, from now on out troubles multiplied.

This place called Tambo-del-sol it consists of 3 buildings, one was the section house and the other two combined served as a garage and office of the superintendent of the line, when he happened to be in this section. This man was detailed by the president to get mules for us and start us on the right trail through the mountains, but when we arrived he was in some other point and we had to make the best of things. So, the boys put up cots and the sick were put in the garage and the rest made their beds outside under the stars. It was very cold up there, being 12,000 feet above the sea level. We suffered very much from the cold that night.

The next day they put up our tents and prepared to camp several days, but we soon found that we would have to get to a lower altitude, as we were growing worse all the time, and some of the others were getting sick, in fact all were miserable. An old man by the name of Goebel, J.B. and I were the worst sufferers, so they decided to take us 40 miles on farther to a place called Huschon.

The superintendent arrived the next day, and sent us in his auto, as there was only one auto, only 4 of us could go on the first trip. So they loaded us, old Mr. Goebel, Dad and I, with Bob to take care of us as he was the only one that was not sick. It was very cold and we had to be well bundled up so we took out blankets along. It was a long ride. We started at 4 o’clock and we arrived at the top of the hill where we had to take mules to ride down to the town. The man was there with the mules, but we were all too sick to ride, and none of us could walk, so we were obliged to break into a cabin or tool house on the side of the hill and make out beds on the floor for the night.

The town is a fort and soldiers were there. We could see the lights from the fort deep down in the valley and hear the bugle call. They were expecting us there for supper, but we had to send the boys down for our supper. They brought us two big kettles of soup, meat and vegetables and a canteen of water. But no coffee, so I had nothing when I did not have my coffee. No one could eat but Bob. We spent rather a miserable night in that dirty cabin, and as soon as the sun came up we put up our beds outside. We tried again to ride, but it was impossible, none of us could sit on the mules and ride down the steep hill. So, they put our baggage on the mules and we tried to walk; one man helped Mr. Goebel, another helped dad and Bob carried me.

The town was 1000 feet below and a hill so steep that the road had to be made zig zag. This made the distance that much greater, part of the time I slid and dragged and was carried. Bob , God bless his heart, if it were not for him, I am sure I would not be writing this letter, but sleeping somewhere in these mountains. But he took care of me day and night as though I was a child.

We at last reached the fort, it was about noon and we had dinner there, so we made out camp in a building partly completed to be used for a station, for the new railroad coming through. There was no floor or any glass in the windows, but it gave us shelter and we put our cots in there and our cook tent outside. We stayed here two weeks before we succeeded in getting mules to take us over the next section of our trip. We were in the heart of the mountains and it was hard to get them, and especially at this time, as there was a centennial going on at Lima and every one that had a mule had it there, we finally had to send back to Lima and the President sent us a man to help us out.

But, I am getting ahead of my story. I should have told you about this president. He was in charge of the new railroad that was being built to connect Lima and the Ucayali River, where we expected to locate our colony and the President of Lima put us in his charge. He was to get us mules and put us on the right trail, but he began by putting us wrong. The reason I will explain later. Instead of getting us mules he let the soldiers go to Lima and take the mules along. These soldiers were called there, but it was not necessary to take all the mules. So he kept us waiting day after day without any assurance that we would get away, so we were obliged to send back to Lima for help.

When the man came from Lima, they got busy and got us mules but not enough to take all our cargo. We finally got started and I was so weak I had to be held on the mule. Poor Bob walked beside me all the time, and held me on all over that awful trail, sometimes it took 2 men to hold me on the mule. We were 3 days on this stretch traveling from sunrise to sunset, camping out nights anywhere we could find water and a place to rest our heads.

The first night we slept at the foot of a peak covered with frost and snow. Every morning we were covered with frost. They managed to keep me warm and dry, but it seemed I was getting worse all the time instead of better, and my only hope was to get to a lower altitude. At the end of the 3 days we arrived at a place called Tingo, there is no town, simply a house where an old German lives, but it is one of the land marks along the trail. At this point the mules were driven back and we were to continue the trail by Indian carriers. We had to stay here over 2 weeks before we could secure them.

While waiting here, we had our first insight as to why we were being delayed and put on the wrong trail. A letter was sent to us by the superintendent of the road asking us to stop at his ranch were there was a tie camp and stay as long as we wanted. This ranch was close along the trail, he mentioned that if our men wanted to they could stop there and cut ties for the new railroad, and that they would be well paid and in addition they could have all the land in that section that they wanted. He pointed out that this road would be a benefit to us and it would go through the Pampel Sacramento country. This opened our eyes to the fact that he intentionally sent us on the wrong trail so that our men would become discouraged and would be glad to stop and cut ties. But this made them angry and they said that they did not come to South America to cut ties.

We were in such a position that we had to keep going, it was impossible to get mules to take us back. Some of our party did go back, those that could walk and carry their packs on their backs. After waiting 2 weeks and over we got 2 mules and a few Indians to carry our cargo. I road one of the mules and Dorris and her daddy road the other by turns, Bob walked beside me as usual and held me on. Four days of this kind of travel brought us to Churchuras where we took a canoe.

But, I must describe this trail a little more fully, Don’t ever think it was a long smooth trail, it was nothing of the kind, but was up and down along the side of the mountain over rocks and through mud up to the mules knees, and through deep rivers. The trail at some places only wide enough for one mule or man and a hundred feet deep and more. If a mule slipped, it meant death in a horrible manner. Some places it was over jagged rocks and lakes and water. It was perfectly torturous and what I suffered I can never tell.

We had to rest many places to rest our mules and ourselves. In our party that had to walk, was a little boy not yet 4 years old, who walked about 80 miles. About every half hour they had to take me off the mules and lay me down on the ground until I got strength enough to go on. My greatest trouble was my heart and lungs. My breath would leave me a few minutes and it seemed hours to me and when it did come back the pain I suffered was agony.

One day when we crossed the snow peaks, no one thought I would get into camp that night alive. We had to keep on a moving as out only hope was a lower altitude, some of the places the road was so narrow they took me off and Bob carried me, we had many narrow escapes, one place the ground was so soft and loose from the rain, and just as my mule left the trail a large piece gave away and rolled hundreds of feet into the awful abyss below and the others coming behind had great difficulty in getting by.

Another day I passed over a treacherous ground, and Dorris was right behind me, she noticed the danger and insisted in getting off, some one said that it was safe, but she got off and walked. A man led her mule and before they got over a stretch of ground it gave way and the mules hind legs went down, but the man that was leading the mule, pulled hard and the little animal scrambles up, so it was saved. But if Dorris would have been on it they both would have gone down to an awful death. And so on we had many narrow escapes. One place we had to go on our hands and knees, and the mules had only room for their feet single file. I cannot see how they did it, but these animals are sure footed, they never take an misstep.

One day a narrow place, I thought I could hold on myself as there was no room for any body to walk beside me, it was steep grade down hill, and the saddle slid forward and I fell over the mules head, my foot stuck in the stirrup, but the mule stood stark still. I don’t know how they did get me off, but I had to be carried to a place where they had a place to put me on again. I was pretty badly hurt and sprained a leader in my leg, so it was several weeks before I could use it. I could go on telling you things like this that would fill a book, and weary you, and these were only the beginning of our troubles. What would I not of gave for a nice soft pillow and a bed to rest my weary body on, and a nice hot bath?

On August the 16th we reached the banks of the river Churchuras, after being a month on the trail. Here we rested 3 days and then started in a canoe down the river traveling all day in the boiling sun and sleeping on sand bars at night along the river.

If we only needed scenery for to make us happy we could have imagined we were in paradise, for it was certainly beautiful along the river. In fact the trail on mules over the mountains were beautiful, as well as dangerous. The most beautiful orchids and other flowers of unknown species, fragrant. Along the river, was all forest and some places very dense. The river made many twists and turns in and out among little islands that were green and beautiful, but the heat was terrific. We rigged up canvas for shelter that helped some, but we had to keep covered up with netting to keep the little sand flies from devouring us, as it was, we were covered with bites from head to toe and so spent most of our time scratching and cussing. I have learned to cuss beautiful. We had no trouble with mosquitoes until we reached the border between Peru and Brazil. But I will tell you about the later.

I want to go back and tell you about the night we spent at the house of the German at Churchuras. He gave us an empty room and Dad and I put our cots in it, but the others made their pallets on the porch, and on the grass under the stars, Before I retired I noticed a big black spider on the wall and registered a lusty yell, for a spider has the same effect on me as a snake. Bob came rushing in and when I showed them they laughed and said that was nothing, the house was full of them and they were good to keep other insects away. He stated that there was a whole nest in the corner and to demonstrate the fact he reached up with a stick and stirred them up and about a dozen made their appearance. It is needless to say that I did not sleep until the last one was killed, walls swept down and floors swept. Then I crept in bed with a creeping feeling but could not sleep. Soon there were other things to keep us awake.

These houses are all built very open, few doors and windows and just open spaces for doors and open around the top around the roof. The idea is to get plenty of fresh air and shelter over head to protect them from not so much from the rain as the dew. They say that if the dew falls on them, they will have fever.

Well, to continue the story, the bats came along the roof and kept flapping all night and to cap the climax they had a monkey that got up on the rafters over our heads and looked down at us. He evidently did not approve of strangers, so he kept up a chatter all night. You can imagine how much sleep we got. I was weak and nervous from my long illness, so our stay there was a horrible nightmare. I was glad when we went to our canoes.

We bought one canoe for 100 solesin Peruvian money which amounts to 40 dollars in our money. We hired a German and 6 of his Indians to take us down the river. On our way over the trail , we met a man by the name of Stahl, an American on his way to Lima, He told us that he owned a ranch on the Pachitea where we were going and invited us to stop there and camp there as long as we wanted to. He gave us a letter to the Indians that he left in charge there and told them to give us anything we wanted in the way of vegetables and fruits. So, we hired the German to take us to the place.

It took 6 days by canoe, traveling from sunrise to sun set, only stopping an hour at noon for dinner, which we cooked over a sand bar. No matter how hot the day the nights were cool, in fact we always needed our blankets. As soon as the sun went down the flies and gnats left us in peace, but what worried us or terrified us most was the howling of the wild animals at night. There was a monkey called the black howler that makes the most terrifying noise, one could ever imagine, it is a roar worse than a lion could make and filled the forest from end to end.

There were other noises less terrifying and all together it was enough to drive the courage out of the stoutest man and make all his bravery ooze out at the ends of his fingers or roots of his hair which usually stood on end. It was awful and I will never forget that experience as long as I live. I was constantly in fear of snakes, although we had only seen two little harmless critters in all our trips across the continent.

We saw hundreds of little monkeys hopping in the trees at night. They came close to us looking at us as though we were some great curiosity. I grew to like the appearance of the little fellows rather than fear them. They were company in lonely places. One of the boys killed a deer the other day, so we had venison for a change instead of beans and rice 3 times a day.

We finally reached Mr. Stahl’s ranch. We expected to stay here long enough for our men to select their land and get located. Then my hubby and I intended taking the mail launch to Iquitos, and a ship from there home. We were not yet to the land of the Sacramento country that we were headed for and was waiting for the launch that made the monthly trip between Iquitos and Bermuda. From there the mail was taken over the mountains on mules.

Our men expected to go up the river on the launch to the land. We were to wait until the launch came back but we waited day after day but no launch came. In the mean time, our boys explored the country up and down, and some of them found places they liked and decided to settle until the rest of the colony came. Some of the places the Indians had partly cultivated. They had plantains, a species of bananas, only not good if not cooked baked or fried. They also had other vegetables. Our men paid them and bought them out with a few dollars. Some settled down and began to plant.

One day we heard a whistle of a launch far up the river and thought it was the mail launch, so we hurried to get packed up to go, but when it arrived a lot of natives got off and a officer with them and asked for fruit and vegetables for their launch. They told us that there was a revolution up the river between us and Iquitos, that we would not be allowed to go. They said that the mail launch had been taken over by the revolution to be used for the soldiers and that this boat was going up the river to get soldiers that were being sent over the mountains from Lima. They said that the boat had been fired on the night before up the river and it was not safe for anybody. In fact the commandant had given orders that no one should go up or down the river.

So there was nothing for us to do but to settle down and wait. But after waiting a long time we got tired and our food was getting scarce. Every day or two a launch would stop and raid the ranch, taking the fruit, chickens, eggs and even took the salt. So we were on the verge of starvation as well as other dangers, and the Indians on the ranch were frightened out the there senses and always hid when they heard a whistle. They were afraid of being forced into the army, so they vanished into the woods and the women were left in charge.

There was plenty of game and fish but our men did not seem to have any luck and the Indians were afraid to venture out, so we decided to make an attempt to get to Iquitos. We started one day at daylight in our canoe, and was half way up the river when we were stopped by a launch and they made us get in their launch and took us back to the ranch. Then they made another raid on the place.

A week later our boys decided that if there was going to be a revolution, they might as well go home and wait until it was over. They got another canoe and came down where we were and told us that they heard that all the launches that had gone to Bermuda had stuck on sand bars on account of the water getting low. They were going to make an attempt to get to Iquitos. We decided to try again and go with them. We left the next morning before day light………

We arrived at New York January 16, Monday and have rented an apartment and will stay here several weeks. We can’t tell when we will go back to South America. Will let you know. I hope that your patience will not give out before you will get through this. I could talk a week and the half would not be told. Write to me here, I am anxious to hear from you all. The first part of this trip would be the most interesting to travelers.

The railroad from Lima to Oroya the regular passenger train passes over 61 bridges and through 65 tunnels and 21 zigzags. It takes 9 hours 31 and rises at an average of 27 ft per minute, something over 200 miles. This road was built by an American named Neiggs and cost 27,600,00 soles Peruvian money. We have at the present time a man interested in the rail road and is starting to raise money.

With love to all,
your sister Anna,
Mrs. J.B. Shoenfelt
225 West 69th Street
Wilsonia Apartment No. 37
New York New York

© 1995-2012 Ginette Isenberg