The Stephens-Chauncey Collection

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:

John L. Stephens (1805-1852), with Henry Chauncey and William H. Aspinwall, played a crucial role in the planning, financing and promotion of the Panama Railroad, the first commercial link between the Atlantic and Pacific that traversed the Isthmus of Panama.

An attorney by profession, Stephens tired of his legal career and, using health as an excuse, began a two year voyage in 1834 to Europe and the Mediterranean. Beginning in 1837, Stephens published accounts of his travels: first, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, then, in 1838, Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland. Because of the popularity of these travelogues, Stephens gained the title "the American Traveler."

In 1839 President Van Buren sent Stephens on a confidential diplomatic mission to Central America, during which he explored extensively the Mayan ruins. After this trip he published his two-volume Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. He returned to the Yucatan in 1841 for further explorations, and then published Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

After his travels, Stephens became a director of the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, and was a supporter of the Hudson River Railroad. His greatest contribution to transportation, however, was his connection with the Panama Railroad.

Stephens was elected vice-president of the Panama Railroad Company at its formation in 1849, and he was responsible for negotiating the contracts with the government of New Granada (later Columbia) in Bogata'. Because of his previous explorations in the area, Stephens also spent two years supervising the surveys and personally overseeing preliminary work.

John L. Stephens died in New York City in 1852, apparently after contracting some tropical disease during his stay in Panama.

SCOPE NOTE:

The Stephens-Chauncey Collection consists of fifteen letters from John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, his friend and partner in the Panama venture; one letter from Stephens to William H. Aspinwall, the other primary mover of the Panama Railroad; and one letter from General Pedro Alcantara Herran, Minister from New Granada in Washington, to Stephens.

The letters range from 1848 to 1851, and reveal Stephens' original anxiety about the difficulty of the project and his rising confidence as it progressed. The letters also show the relationships among those in the Company, and discuss, to some extent, the costs involved in the undertaking, as well as the probable profits.

These letters will serve as an interesting source for the history of the Panama Railroad, and will be indispensible to any future biographers of John L. Stephens.

The collection also contains photocopies of some newspaper, magazine, and book articles covering the history of the Panama Railroad.

Date Span: 1848 to 1851
Extent of the Collection: .25 linear feet (18 folders in 1 Box)
Provenance: Gift of Mr. Henry Chauncey 21 June 1985
Processed: by James Helminski
25 October 1985

REGISTER:

Folder 1
Stephens to Herran; Herran to Stephens, 2 ALS
Date: 1848, December 22; [1848], 20 December

"Mr. Chauncey and Myself..."; "Desco tener..."

Contents: One ALS in Spanish from P.A. Herran to John L. Stephens requesting a meeting about the railway, and one ALS in English from Stephens to Herran aggreeing to the meeting and discussing Herran's desire to conclude negotiations.


Folder 2
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 4 pages out of 2 sheets
Date: 1849, April 21

"Judging from the conversation between us..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, mentioning their differing assessments of the difficulty of the undertaking, and discussing specific arrangements and probable receipts from the railroad.


Folder 3
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 4 pages out of 1 sheet
Date: 1849, December 29

"Your favor, which I happened to open..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens acknowledges the news of the death of a mutual friend. He also discusses travelling conditions and costs.


Folder 4
Stephens to Aspinwall, ALS, 4 pages out of 1 sheet
Date: 1851, October 6

"I have profited by a visit to the Governor..."

Contents: An incomplete ALS from John L. Stephens to William H. Aspinwall, on conditions set by the Governor [of New Granada] for construction, on the efficiency of some employees, and on progress being made on the railway.


Folder 5
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 8 pages out of 2 sheets
Date: 1851, November

"I have before me your private letters of 6th..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens expresses his concern for Chauncey's "indisposition," and suggests a vacation to Italy. He also discusses the progress of the railway, observed after a trip upriver.


Folder 6
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 3 pages on 1 sheet
Date: 1851, December 22

"I received your very welcome lines by the Ohio..."

Contents: From John Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens accepts Chauncey's resignation for health reasons, and discusses his own anxiety about the railroad project's completion.

Folder 7
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 4 pages of 1 sheet
Date: 1851

"I have just written you such a terrific epistle..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, again expressing his anxieties about the slow progress of the project.
Folder 8
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 3 pages on 1 sheet
Date: 1852, April 13

"I had a vague hope of finding you at this place..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens comments on the state of Chauncey's health, and relates information on mutual acquaintances. There is also a discussion of an altercation between Chauncey and Law.


Folder 9
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 3 pages on 1 sheet
Date: [no year] April 2

"I have time to write you by the Empire city..."

Contents: A short personal note from John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens complains that Chauncey wins "too much for Aspinwall and me," apparently referring to a chess game.


Folder 10
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 8 pages on 2 sheets
Date: [no year] April 29

"Your two first friendly letters came to hand..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, expressing his satisfaction at the progress made on the railway, and his fear that "...from physical causes the section from Navy Bay to Gatun is the hardest."


Folder 11
AMsS of John L. Stephens
Date: [no year] December 31

"At a numerous and highly respectable meeting..."

Contents: Copy by John L. Stephens of minutes of a meeting in which Henry Chauncey is honored as "a man of talent, and in every respect a gentleman...." Stephens is delegated to inform Chauncey.


Folder 12
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 2 pages on 1 sheet
Date: [no year] January 30

"Your lines dated 'off Havana' did not reach me..."

Contents: A short letter from John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, in which Stephens expresses his pleasure at Chauncey's improving health, and his hopes that they will soon meet. Stephens mentions that he also is using a crutch.


Folder 13
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 3 pages on 1 sheet
Date: [no year] 6,7 February

"There was a good reason for not hearing from me..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, reiterating his desire to see Chauncey return to Panama. He also writes that things are going better than they had been, but he will not stop worrying yet.

Folder 14
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 3 pages on 1 sheet
Date: [no year] February 21

" I have received your favor of 16th ..."

Contents: John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, on laying the cornerstone of a new building and on christening the new town Aspinwall. Stephens also writes again that he looks forward to Chauncey's coming to Panama.


Folder 15
Stephens to Chauncey, ALS, 4 pages on 1 sheet
Date: [no year] May 10

"I received your friendly memorial by the Prometheus..."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, on his problems with an English company. He writes that he would like to exclude them because of the U.K.'s lack of neutrality treaty with New Granada, as supported by the company charter.


Folder 16
Stephens to Chanucey, ALS, 4 pages on 1 sheet
Date: no date [prior to preceeding item]

"I am most happy to hear of your convalescence."

Contents: From John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, on naming the town they have established in Panama. Stephens relates the joke that it be called "Aspinwall," and discusses how the town is to be named.


Folder 17
"The Land Divided, The World United," by Paul Rink
Date: Copyright 1963

Photocopied excerpt of Chapter 4 and Index

Contents: Photocopy in black folder of the section of Mr. Rink's book that deal with the building of the Panama Railroad, the forerunner of the Panama Canal.

Folder 18
"Harper's New Monthly Magazine," Vol XVIII, no CIV
Date: 1859, January

Photocopy of pp.145-169: Article "Panama Railroad"

Contents: A photocopy of an article from the "Tropical Journeyings" series on a trip from Portobello to Aspinwall on the Panama Railroad. Also included are photocopies of a 1904 and an undated newspaper article.



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