Panama Railroad

Ferdinand de Lesseps crosses the Isthmus

Count and Countess De Lesseps with their nine children

December 1879

About ten o'clock the Pacific Mail steamer Colon docked beside the Lafayette, bringing Trenor W. Park and a party of gentlemen from New York who were to join the tour. By 11:30, the introductions completed, baggage ashore, everyone climbed aboard a train standing on Front Street, its bright-yellow coaches bedecked with French and Colombian flags.

The new arrivals included several stockholders in the railroad, who by their own admission had come more for pleasure than business; a reporter from the New York World; a rotund and overbearing former Union Army engineer named W. W. Wright; and Colonel George M. Totten, one of the original builders of the Panama Railroad. Wright and Totten had agreed to serve on de Lesseps' Technical Commission. Wright, however, was a man of no particular reputation. It was Totten who got de Lesseps' attention. Totten had been in charge of the rail road all through the years of construction. He had weathered the heat, the bugs, the mud, political uprisings, stockholders' inspection tours, floods, fever, even a siege of yellow fever that brought him so near to death that his companions had his coffin ready and waiting. Now he was a leathery, white-bearded old figure with steel-rimmed spectacles. It is said also that he had a nice sense of humor, but a search of available sources reveals no evidence of it.

The brass band was pumping away again as the train rolled down Front Street, bell clanging, a cheering crowd chasing alongside in the brilliant sunshine. Then, after affording a brief open view of the glittering bay, the tracks turned into the jungle.

Of several surviving accounts of the tour, the most detailed is that by the World reporter, J. C. Rodrigues, who was as fascinated by the "lively Frenchmen" and their leader as the group was by the passing scenery.

"M. de Lesseps himself rode most of the way on the platform of the car on the rear of the small train. For half an hour that I was at his side 1 could witness the deep interest which he rook in the luxuriant nature, which was to him so extremely novel....Inside the car, however, there reigned more than tropical-simply torrid-enthusiasm. A yellow butterfly would cause a commotion in these excitable people. But you do nor imagine what an event the first approach to the Chagres River was. The car was pandemonium. The train had to be stopped and the Chagres - the enemy -had to be inspected."

The point where they first saw the river was Gatun, a native village seven miles from Colon, at the confluence of the Rio Gatun, the place Godin de Lepinay had picked for his great Chagres dam. Before that, just out of Colon, the had passed Mount Hope, or Monkey Hill, as it was better known, a low rise on the left where during construction days the railroad had buried its dead. Then for the next several miles they had crossed a broad mangrove swamp on tracks only inches above the water. Between the swamp and Gatun, the growth of vegetation was as exuberant as any on earth. Giant cedro trees towered a hundred feet or more in the air, their smooth gray trunks like pillars of concrete. Trailing vines, blossoming creepers, scarier hibiscus, orchids, crimson passionflowers, parasitic plants of every imaginable variety, hung wherever one looked. Bamboo crowded the tracks in clumps the size of a house. It was as if the train were running along the bottom of a narrow green canyon that went winding on and on with only a thin trace of bright sky to be seen straight up, in the gap between the crowns of the trees. Every so often there would be a sudden break-a patch of banana trees, a canebrake-but as quickly it would be gone again. So relentlessly did the jungle try to recover what it had lost to the railroad, the passengers were informed, that parts of the line had to be cleared several times a year.

At Gatun the entire population had gathered for the occasion, several hundred brown, square-faced, friendly-looking people, men in white linen and straw hats, women in loosefitting muslin in a variety of sun-faded colors, children mostly naked, everyone smiling and waving. On the left side of the train was Gatun station, a two-story white-frame building with green Shutters and picket fence that might have been transplanted directly from Massachusetrs. On the other side of the train was the river, "now very low, running sluggishly," as Rodrigues noted. The actual village was across the river. About fifty grass huts were scattered within a great bend in the river and in the forefront of a sun-flooded green savanna that reached to a range of darker-green hills, two, three miles in the distance.

Most of the passengers got out for a look, and the overwhelming green of the landscape, the intensity and infinite variety of green under a cobalt-blue sky, caught them unaware. Like so many before, they had come to Panama with little thought of being stirred by landscapes. That the place could be so breathtakingly beautiful struck them as a singular revelation. "Le plus belle region du monde," de Lesseps exclaimed in a letter to Charles.

At Gatun the flags that hung over some of the train windows were taken away to give a better onlook. They were running along the valley of the Chagres now, where the river came down in big, wide loops, brown and unhurried-now that the dry season had returned through intermittent patches of deep shadow and sharp, white sun light. The river was on their right; their general direction was south and slightly east. They were still barely above sea level, climbing only very gradually. going "up" the valley (that is, against the current of the river) but "down" the map, as several of them needed to have explained.

They crossed miles of swamp, including the infamous Black Swamp, which supposedly was bottomless. It was not-Totten and his engineers had found bottom at 185 feet--yet the roadbed kept sinking there and had to be built up year after year. "Everything kept going down and down," an old-time employee would tell a Senate committee in Washington years later, "and they kept filling in and filling in."

There were more white station houses, all quite similar, neat, almost prissy, but often with names very much in keeping with the surroundings - Tiger Hill, Lion Hill, Ahorca Lagarto (which means "hanging lizard"). There was a glimpse of the Chagres again at Bohio Soldado ("place where a soldier lives") and at Frijoles ("beans"). Then, twenty-three miles from Colon, or just about halfway to Panama City, the train stopped and everyone was asked to get out. They had arrived at Barbacoas, an Indian word meaning "bridge," the point where the railroad crossed the Chagres. Only, at the moment, the bridge at Barbacoas was out of service.

The river here was swift and rocky, about three hundred feet wide and contained between high embankments. The bridge, a heavy wrought-iron structure set on stone piers, was more than six hundred feet in length and built forty feet above the river, or what had been presumed to be safely above the flood line. But in November, just weeks earlier, a violent "norther" had struck, bringing three days of torrential rain and the worst flood on record. In three days the Chagres had risen forty-six feet. Thirty miles of track had been under water and the bridge had been wrenched apart or out of line in several places. As future hydrographic studies would show, the discharge of the Chagres in the vicinity was normally less than 1,000 cubic feet per second in the dry season. In the rainy season, under normal conditions, the discharge would be ten times that-or more-with fluviograph readings of 10,000 to 13,000 cubic feet per second. But in the November flood, according to later studies based on the railroad's records, the flow of the river must have been nearly 80,000 cubic feet per second.

The river's drainage basin, from its headwaters to the Caribbean, was comparatively small-about 1,300 square miles, an area about the size of Rhode Island. Yet except for the dry season, virtually this entire basin was running water. The river originated in the steep jungle uplands miles off to the east, a "quick and bold" wilderness with mountains of two thousand to four thousand feet, where at the time of the Spanish conquest a legendary Indian chief, Chagre, had ruled. Even under average conditions, the runoff from such country was phenomenal. With abnormally heavy rains in the mountains, it was as if a dam had burst. And while the recent flood had been the worst since the railroad began bothering with records, the floods of 1857, 1862, 1865, 1868, 1872, 1873, and 1876 had been nearly as awesome.

The situation at Barbacoas should have been the dearest possible warning to de Lesseps and the others. The condition of the massive iron bridge was such that no through trains had crossed the Isthmus, no freight had moved between Colon and Panama City, in five weeks. Only by a crude arrangement of planks put across the breaks was it possible for passengers to walk over and transfer to another train. The river's violence, quite obviously, had been greater even than what A. G. Menocal had described in his speech before the Paris congress.

Readers of the Bulletin du Canal Interoceanique were to be told nothing of the broken bridge, however. The official account of the tour would contain only passing mention of an unexplained delay at Barbarcoas.

Most of them crossed single file, slowly, cautiously, amid much good-natured banter, the river sliding by forty feet below. A fuss was made over the safety of the de Lesseps children, who greatly enjoyed every moment of the experience, and then two or three of the Americans, after appraising the problem, decided to risk the crossing another day. Quantities of champagne had been available on the train since leaving Colon and this seems to have had a bearing on their decision.

On the other side stood a second train and beside it another official delegation, a dozen or so citizens from Panama City, all as formal as pallbearers. Among them were the president-elect of the province, Demaso Cervera, and a former president, Rafael Aizpuru, "a disreputable revolutionist," de Lesseps was told. Because of the heat, there was just one very short speech; then with several blasts of the whistle the journey resumed.

The river was on the left now as the train rolled smoothly along through open meadows. "In Suez we had to build everything," de Lesseps remarked; "here you already have a railroad like this...." The first mountains came into view, small and bright-green and heaped up like the mountains in a child's drawing. Lunch was served-"with wines, etc., etc., and everything gave entire satisfaction."

Within the space of a few miles the railroad crossed the Rio Caimilo Mulato, the Rio Baila Monos, the Rio Culo Seco, the Rio Caribali, all tributaries of the Chagres. (Forty-seven and a half miles of railroad had required 170 bridges and culverts of 15 feet or more, 134 bridges and culverts of less than 15 feet, a statistic that gives some idea of the difficulties there had been in making headway in such half-drowned country.) Past Gorgona Station the train left the river again, taking a shortcut through steep red-clay embankments. Then it swung around a hill to meet the river at Matachin, another cluster of grass huts and the point where Menocal had proposed to build his giant stone viaduct. Again the train stopped, to be instantly surrounded by beaming brown faces.

Matachin was best known as the place where Chinese workers, hopelessly lost to "melancholia," had committed suicide en masse. Matar is Spanish for "to kill," it was explained; chino, the word for "Chinese." The fact that matachin is also a perfectly good Spanish word meaning "butcher" Or "hired assassin," and that the place had been called that long before the railroad came through, did not seem to matter. Every one who passed through Matachin heard the story.

To what extent de Lesseps and Totten discussed such topics, whether Totten was closely questioned on the death toll during construction of the road, or how much, if anything, may have been said about disease or bodies pickled in barrels, how much Totten may have been willing to admit, even to himself at this late date, is not known. The point he does seem to have stressed-the great lesson to be learned from his experience-was that everything, everything, had to be brought to Panama, including the men to do the work. The Panamanians themselves would be of no use. The poor were unused to heavy manual labor and were without ambition; the upper classes regarded physical work as beneath their dignity. There would be no home-grown labor force to count on, no armies of Egyptian fellahin this time. Labor had to be figured like freight, very expensive freight. Then every pick and shovel, every tent, blanket, mattress, every cookstove and locomotive, had to be carried by ship across thousands of miles of ocean. De Lesseps could count on Panama to provide nothing but the place to dig the canal.

Beyond Matachin the train left the Chagres bottom lands and entered the narrow valley of the Rio Obispo, largest tributary of the Chagres. After Emperador, or Empire, as the Americans called it, came the summit at Culebra ("snake"), or Summit Station. On January 27, 1855, at midnight, in the pitch dark and in pelting rain, the last rail had been laid. Totten himself had driven the last spike with a nine-pound maul.

Summit was ten and a half miles from Panama City, and on the rest of the ride, descending to the Pacific, the party looked out on scenery reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting, with feathery green conical mountains rising on every side. At one dramatic turn, a cliff of basalt seemed to hang precariously close overhead, the great crystals of the dark rock lying every which way. The route now followed the Rio Grande, "a narrow noisy torrent winding along through dense forests below the track." Its drainage was south, to the Pacific.

Paraiso, another native village, was tucked between high hills shaped like inverted teacups. Pedro Miguel and Miraflores followed, then a stretch of spongy lowlands, a brackish swamp with soil the color of coal, then, ahead, the bald top of Ancon Hill, overlooking Panama City. The train covered the last few miles with its whistle screaming, bell clanging. Cathedral towers and red tile roofs were in view ahead on the right, and dead ahead was the Pacific. At once everyone was cheering.

With all stops en route, the delay at Barbacoas, the trip had lasted six hours. In his letter to the Bulletin, de Lesseps said they did it in three.

From the Excellent Book: "The Path Between the Seas" by David McCullough

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