Panama Railroad

The Panama Railroad Travelogues: The Panama Canal From a Car Window:

To cross the Isthmus of Panama one should make the trip in the winter-time; that is the dry season, and "yellow jack" is not to be feared. Take steamer from New York when a blustering norther is blowing, and you will then be in condition to enjoy a delightful change.

The hoarse whistle blows; the moorings are cast loose; the steamer swings out into the river, and you are off for the tropics. Volumes of thick black smoke roll out from the funnel, and are hurried rapidly seaward. The wind whistles through the frozen rigging; and as the gathering mist settles down, you take one last look at the vanishing city, and stagger across the slippery deck to go below for warmth, and to make ship-shape that five by seven bandbox, so knowingly called a state-room. 

Off Sandy Hook the engines slow down, and from your port-hole you see the pilot boat luffing in the wind, while the tender puts off.   Its sturdy oarsmen are now raised upon the crest of a wave, now plunged down out of sight; until, coming alongside, they snatch up the pilot and carry him away.  The engines are rung to full speed.  One glance more, and you see the trim little craft fall away. The big number "9" fades in the gloom, and you are under way for the land of bananas and monkeys. 

You run into the usual winter storm off Hatteras. You are tossed about for a couple of days at the mercy of the elements. Then a change takes place: old Boreas is left behind; winter's chill gives place to spring-like weather; the sullen clouds dissolve, and the limpid southern seas surround you. The steamer plows along through liquid crystal. Go to the bows and look down into it; you can almost see the bottom here at twenty fathoms. The color is brilliant cobalt,-- bluer than the bluest blue, while farther south't is bluer even than that.

Six days out and you are off Cuba, with the coast line five miles away to the westward. It is low, barren, and brown. A lighthouse rears its tall shaft from a rocky point, the only object in the bare expanse to arrest the attention. In the distance, lofty mountains raise their heads, and support upon their tops vast banks of cloud.

Through the Windward Passage, and across the Carribean Sea, brings you in sight of land,-- the United States of Colombia,-- with Colon as your port of entry. 

Colon, or, as it is frequently called, Aspinwall, built on the swamp island of Manzanillo, is a product of the Panama railroad, by which it was founded in 1850.   Travel to California increasing rapidly, a company was organized in the United States to build a railroad connecting the two oceans.   In 1849 work was begun. But it was not until six years later that trains began to run. Many difficulties had to be surmounted.  Labor, hard to procure, and costly when found, was of the transient character that yellow fever on the one hand, and gold fever on the other, were at that time likely to induce. 

Colon, a mere collection of huts prior to the advent of the railroad, soon became the center of considerable local trade.  An open market and non-production made it a port of entry for vessels of every flag.

In 1881, when operations were commenced upon the canal works, the population rapidly increased. The town became divided in sections, the Americans and English centering about the railroad buildings; while the canal people, not content with mother earth, created their own town lots by driving piles out  into the bay, filling in a foundation,and on top of this terra nova laying out well graded streets, erecting tasteful dwellings and substantial storehouses, planting trees, building their private wharves, and altogether permanently establishing themselves for the better advancement of canal interests. A fine hospital was erected, and completely equipped, more efficiently to cope with the fever. Costly machinery, steam shovels, pumps, and engines were unloaded and sent to points along the line; channel dredgers arrived and anchored in the bay; others were sent around the Horn to Panama; coolies were imported by the thousand; engineers were there, theodolites and all. Means were at hand to cut the continents in two; the opportunity was theirs; and yet twelve years have passed since operations began, and the severing stroke has not been given.

A channel partly dredged; some cuttings here and there; a great deal of bluster; a great deal of fuss.-- officials and engineers faultlessly arrayed in white flannels sauntered about, or puffed high-priced Havanas on shady verandas; read the latest reports from Paris about splendid achievements on the Isthmus, while coolies died of fever, unworked cuts caved in, engines, pumps, and other valuable machinery, half buried in the sand, rusted and rotted themselves into a state of uselessness.

We have seen the fine buildings, the paved streets, the substantial wharves, and other extravagances, -- now let us discover, if we can, the raison d'etre.

As the railroad touches the line of the canal at many points, we cannot do better than to take train for Panama, and have a look at this gigantic failure. We start from the steamer wharf amidst a great deal of noise from youthful fruit-vendors, and a great deal of smoke from the panting engine.  The car windows are unglazed, and sulphurous fumes have free access to roam about at will.  Nearly choked and suffocated, we pull out from under cover and roll into the sunshine, and are soon passing through the outskirts of the town.

Fever-breeding dirt to the right of us; fever-breeding dirt to the left of us, squalid and festering. Board-built huts with palm-leaf thatch disgorge their dusky inmates, who tumble out to stare at us as the train goes by.  Fly-covered, hairless dogs lie reeking in the sun.  Children, dressed in nature's garb, play about in pools of mud; while in marked contrast we see gaudy colored calicoes drying in the wind -- the wardrobes of certain maids and matrons preparing for some gala day. 

We glide smoothly along over an excellent roadbed,-- steel rails and lignum vitć ties. We leave Colon behind us, and are soon rushing along through dense forests of palm and cypress, made almost impenetrable by rank undergrowth.  Here by the roadside beautiful magnolias, oleanders, passion flowers, and flowers of every hue, whose heavy perfume pervaded the car and almost intoxicates with its overpowering sweetness.  On every hand tall palms and graceful ferns bend in the wind.  Monkeys chatter, and bright plumaged birds dart from tree to tree. 

Our first stop is Monkey Hill,-- a collection of huts and rickety buildings.  We see the same calicoes, the same hairless dogs, the same listless, lazy people.  Here is located Colon's burial ground.  As we pull out we pass a funeral train, which has just arrived. The cars are gayly decked out with fluttering streamers. The bier rests on an open flat car, covered over by an improvised canopy. The mourners,-- natives all,-- arrayed in the gayest of costumes, are slowly walking "all hands 'round," and droning a dismal dirge.  We know now the use of the bright calicoes, for gala days are frequent. 

The train winds down into the picturesque valley of the Chagres.  It is here that we catch our first glimpse of the canal workings.  The river is pressed into service at many points, and this is one of them. We see where tons of earth, taken out to widen the channel, have been washed back by the heavy summer rains.  Farther on we see a ponderous dredger foundered in the mud, its iron arm raised high aloft, upbraiding fate and Frenchmen.  Here a locomotive, with its train of dump-cars, tipped off, and abandoned to time and the elements.

Our view is abruptly cut off as we dash into a copse of ferns.  We rattle along through this for a half mile or so, then burst out into the open, and follow the river far a considerable distance.  The train stops for a moment at Barbacoas, then is off again, rushing around a curve, and now upon a fine bridge. We cross the river here, and begin the ascent of a steep grade. The doughty little engine puffs and pants as we approach the Culebra Col. 

This chain of low hills forms the watershed of the Isthmus.  Being much nearer the south than the north, the streams flowing into the Pacific are of comparatively little importance, while the Chagres, on the Atlantic slope, with one or two small tributaries, forms a navigable river, whose volume attains formidable dimensions during the rainy season.

The heavy floods of the river and the rocky barrier of the Col have proved to be insurmountable obstacles thus far.  The idea of tunneling the hill was abandoned; and of the two alternatives,-- constructing a series of locks, or making a huge cutting through the solid strata, -- neither was adopted. The river continues to overflow its banks, and the Col remains uncut. 

We reach the summit, make a short stop at Culebra, get out to stretch our legs, and enjoy a fine view of the valley below us.  A little stream at the bottom winds along like a silvery thread, and loses itself among the trees.  A duster of thatched roofs peeps out from the  midst of a small copse of magnolias.  A pretty villa, saucily perched high up on the hillside, glistens in the sun.

We are off again, and are soon traveling along at a rapid rate on the down  grade.  We leave the  line of the canal far behind as we swing off to the east.  Now we see, for the first time, the western ocean; a beautiful blue expanse of water, framed as it were by the hills and sky. We are rapidly approaching Panama; one or two stops more and we shall be there. We left Colon at half  past eleven, and it is now after two. The sun is high in the heavens, and it is toward the west, and behind us; while before us, to the east, the broad Pacific lies in apparent contradiction to all geographical order.

A bend in the road, and we see the towers of the old Spanish city outlined against the clear sky. The train clatters along through the outlying districts. The houses improve as their  number increases. No more thatch roofs, but tile-covered adobes, quaint and picturesque in groups here and there. The whistle blows for the station.  Bags are gathered up.  All is commotion. We have crossed the Isthmus, and are at our journey's end.

We set out in hopes of seeing much,  and saw little. We anticipated a great deal, and have been disappointed. The  "raison ' d' ętre" did not materialize.  There was no canal.

Display and great pretensions do not make canals.   Over $350,000,000 have been sunk in the gigantic failure.  Hundreds have been ruined by it; hundreds have lost their lives. The sequel has  been a sad one. Total failure of the  project, disgrace of its projectors, and the humiliation of a nation. 

Philip Stanford.
July 1893

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