Panama Railroad

History of the Panama Railroad:

IT would be difficult to over-emphasize the historic and economic importance of the Panama Railroad to the Americas and to the world, for its history is the history of a realized dream of thinking men who for centuries had recognized the importance of a free interoceanic communication at the narrow strip of land known as the Isthmus of Panama. It is necessary, before considering the Panama Railroad as it exists today, to glance at the background of the historical forces which produced it. Its early beginnings antedated those of North America many years and our successful efforts were but a renewal of many previous attempts to construct a rail-and-water communication between the Atlantic seaboard and the Pacific Ocean.

England, inspired by the appeal of the benefits which would result from the shorter trade route to her possessions in the East, investigated the possibility of building a railroad or a canal, but the stupendous magnitude of such an undertaking discouraged her and the project was abandoned. France, ambitious also, entered into a contract to establish a railroad and a grant for this purpose was made by the Government of New Granada (the Colombian district was disrupted in 1831 and the region of Panama became known as New Granada) to Mateo Kline in 1848, but the many obstacles and huge sums of money required for its completion discouraged the contractors to such an extent that the contracts were defaulted within the year.

It was then, with the changing of the North American boundaries when the US came into possession of Oregon, and the war with Mexico giving California to the US, that the attention of North America was properly aroused to the necessity of a shorter route to the almost (at that time) inaccessible possessions.

There were three routes to California from the East Coast. A man could go across the continent, presumably on his own two feet if he had to. He could take a ship for the long, uncomfortable and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn, or he could make the "pleasant voyage to Panama, stroll across the fifty miles of Isthmus to the Pacific and, after another easy sea voyage, find himself in San Fransisco."

So read the advertisements of the day. The trip wasn't quite like this, but no matter. The pot of gold was just over the horizon.

The discovery of gold in California attracted a multitude of "Forty-niners" who, urged on by the true spirit of the pioneer and a cupidity that was dauntless, flocked to the Isthmus in such numbers that the need was infinitely increased for a regular line of steamships between the Atlantic and Pacific ports.

The changes that took place were sparked initially by, of all things, the United States Post Office! Some new way had to be found to carry the growing volume of mail from the East Coast to California, and the Panama route was logical.

Accordingly, the North American Congress hastened to authorize contracts for the establishment of two lines of mail steamships--one from New York and New Orleans to Panama, and the other to connect with this by the Isthmus of Panama to California and Oregon. Mr. William H. Aspinwall secured the line on the Pacific side and Mr. George Law the line on the Atlantic side. The ships in the Pacific helped to relieve the congestion on that side, but it was more than offset by the number of new arrivals at San Lorenzo, for of course in addition to mail, the ships carried passengers.

The tremendous bottleneck, both for mail and for people was that ghastly fifty-mile hike through the jungle. A railroad was the obvious answer.

William H. Aspinwall was a man of vision and in securing the contracts for the steamship line it was his plan in the beginning to build a railroad across the Isthmus. Together with his associates, John L. Stephens and Henry Chauncey, they entered into a contract for the construction of an "Iron Road across the Isthmus of Panama". However, before the contract was ratified, the services of Mr. G. W. Hughes of the United States Topographical Corps were engaged and he, accompanied by a large party of engineers, came down from New York for the purpose of mapping and surveying and locating the road. Their report that a railroad across the Isthmus was a practical and feasible proposition corroborated Mr. Stephens' own opinion. Mr. Aspinwall immediately returned to New York and conjointly with his partners, John L. Stephens and Mr. Henry M. Chauncey, incorporated under the name of Panama Railroad Company and a formal contract was entered into on April 15, 1850, with the Government of New Granada for the exclusive privilege of establishing "an iron Railroad between the two oceans across the Isthmus of Panama"

This contract was liberal in its terms and granted to this company the right of operating the road for a period of forty-nine years from the date of completion. It was stipulated that the construction should not occupy a longer period than six years. The engineers secured on the construction of the road were Col. G. W. Totten and John C. Trautwine, and under their capable guidance the work on this gigantic undertaking was begun in May, 1850.

They decided the road could be built in six months at a cost of one million dollars. True, there were swamps, but these could be filled. Crews of men could chop through the jungle and the numerous rivers and streams could be easily bridged. The cordillera, or hump, rose to a modes 300 feet-- no height to deter railroad men who were already eyeing the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. To lay several miles of rail a day was commonplace in the States, and so the estimated time and money seemed reasonable for this bit of track which seemed scarcely more than an oversized spur.

The jumping-off place was to be near the old fort of San Lorenzo. Good solid ground extended about twenty-five miles inland, and presumably it would not be too difficult to run the line up this valley. However, an early real estate shark had leased all the land and was holding out for what seemed an unreasonable price. Very well! In their appalling innocence, the outraged railroad men simply moved a few miles further down the bay and selected another spot -- a low bit of land called Manzanillo Island. Here they made their headquarters.

This island, cut off from the main land by a narrow frith, contained an area of a little more than one square mile. It was a virgin swamp, covered with a dense growth of the tortuous, water-loving mangrove, and inter- laced with huge vines and thorny shrubs, defying entrance even to the wild beasts common to the country. In the black, slimy mud of its surface alligators and other reptiles abounded ; while the air was laden with pestilential vapors, and swarming with sand-flies and musquitoes. These last proved so annoying to the laborers that, unless their faces were protected by gauze veils, no work could be done, even at midday. Residence on the island was impossible. The party had their quarters in an old brig which brought down materials for building, tools, provisions, etc., and was anchored in the bay.

The inauguration of the beginning of the work was marked with no "imposing ceremonial or breaking of ground," but with a primitive simplicity. Mr. Trautwine and Mr. Baldwin, leaping, axe in hand, from a native canoe upon a wild and desolate island, their retinue consisting of half a dozen Indians, who clear the path with rude knives, strike their glittering axes into the nearest tree. The first thirteen miles of the road traversed dense jungles, which were a morass of pestilential dangers infested with snakes and poisonous insects. In Seeman's "Voyage of H. M. S. Herald" we find a graphic description of this region:

"In all muddy places down to the verge of the ocean are impenetrable thickets of mangroves, chiefly rhizophoras and avicennias, which exhale putrid miasmata. Myriads of mosquitoes and sand flies fill the air, while huge alligators sun themselves in the slimy soil."

Despite the discouragements, dangers, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, these brave men pushed on and worked painstakingly and methodically for the achievement of their ideal--a completed railroad.

Panama had been known as a pesthole since the earliest Spanish settlement. But the horror stories to come out of Panama as the railroad was being pushed ahead mile by mile quite surpassed anything. The cost paid in human life for the minuscule bit of track was of the kind people associated with dark, barbaric times, before the age of steam and iron and the upward march of Progress. The common story, the one repeated up and down the California gold fields, the one carried home on the New York steamer, the claim that turns up time and again in the dim pages of old letters, is that there was a dead man for every railroad tie between Colon and Panama City. In some versions it was a dead Irishman, in others, a dead Chinese. The story was nonsense--there were some seventy-four thousand ties along the Panama line--but that had not kept it from spreading, and from what many thousands of people had seen with their own eyes, it seemed believable enough.

From the very beginning, the Isthmus fought the new invaders. Men and equipment started inland and were promptly swallowed up in mud. For many months the company was unable even to set up quarters on the little gridiron of streets which had been surveyed on Manzanillo island. Soapy, slippery, gummy, bottomless, obscured in miasmic vapors and swirling clouds of insects, the swamps waited. The laborers vanished at dawn in the rowboats from the ships into the drenching rains, the steaming muck and gumbo. They labored all day like lost and forgotten slaves. Up to their necks in mud, they stumbled, slipped, struggled and cursed. Over their heads black couds of mosquitoes and other insects whined and buzzed. They emerged at night soaked to the skin and caked with mud, to fall more dead than alive into the boats, and were taken out to where a grimy brig and the paddle steamer Telegraph rolled in the long gray swells.

Sickness took such a terrible toll that the men could work only one week out of three. How many did actually die is not known. The company kept no systematic records, no body count, except for its white workers, who represented only a fraction of the total force employed over the five years of construction. (In 1853, for example, of some 1,590 men on the payroll, 1,200 were black.) However, the company's repeated assertion that in fact fewer than a thousand had died was patently absurd. A more reasonable estimate is six thousand, but it could very well have been twice that. No one will ever know, and the statistic is not so important as the ways in which they died--if cholera, dysentery, fever, smallpox, all the scourges against which there was no known protection or any known cure.

The country was almost entirely without resources: the food and materials had to be shipped thousands of miles. The natives, apathetic and unaccustomed to labor, could not be relied upon and all labor had to be imported. They were brought in by the boatload from every part of the world: natives from the coast, West Indians, English, Irish, Germans, coolies and Chinamen, and all with the same result. Death thinned their ranks until it looked for a time as if the work would have to be abandoned. It became increasingly difficult as the work progressed to get more men, for the gruesome and weird stories of the "Hell Strip" which had proven a graveyard for such a vast number had spread abroad. The plan to import a boatload of Chinese laborers was finally decided upon; and eight hundred eventually arrived. The story of their ill-fated expedition to a land where they expected high wages and an eventual triumphant return to China is one of the many tragedies connected with Panamaís history.

Soon after their arrival in the unfamiliar land of strange customs, they became morose with homesickness and fear. Added to their misery was the fact that because of a Maine opium law which on some pretext had been enforced on the Isthmus, the use of opium was prohibited because of the "immorality of administering to so pernicious a habit", and they were deprived of their accustomed daily portion of the drug. A heavy melancholia settled upon them. In their ears they heard but one sound, the mournful dirge of death, and with that strange complexity of their natures, they brooded wistfully for their native land; the promised land of their fanciful vision had proven too terrible to even endure, and with that passive resignation so characteristic of the Chinese they committed suicide, choosing weird and unexpected ways. Some hung themselves with their queues, others cut their throats, and some paid their last money to their companions to shoot them; and again in groups they joined hands and walked out beyond the margin of the sea and met their fate stoically as the turbulent incoming tide bore them out to the ocean. A watery grave was preferable to the land they found so unbearable. The small remaining group, numbering scarcely two hundred, sick in body and spirit, were sent by the engineers to Jamaica.
Read a detailed account of the Chinese Tragedy

Yellow Eyes
"You are going to have the fever, Yellow eyes!
In about ten days from now
Iron bands will clamp your brow;
Your tongue resemble curdled cream,
A rusty streak the centre seam;
Your mouth will taste of untold things,
With claws and horns and fins and wings;
Your head will weigh a ton or more,
And forty gales within it roar!
In about ten days from now,
Make to health a parting bow;
For your're going to have the fever, Yellow eyes!"
--James Stanley Gilbert

The next importation of labor proved almost as unsuccessful as the Chinese. High wages lured a shipload of husky Irish immigrants, ("navvies" who had built canals and railroads across England,) from Cork, Ireland, but they "withered as cut plants in the sun." Immediately upon arrival they succumbed to the fatal fevers and scarcely a day's labor were they able to perform. The few survivors were shipped to New York where most of them died from diseases contracted in Panama. The work was completed with laborers from Cartagena, Jamaica and East Indians.

Simply disposing of dead bodies had been a problem the first year, before the line reached beyond the swamps and a regular cemetery could be established on high ground. And so many of those who died were without identity, other than a first name, without known address or next of kin, that a rather ghoulish but thriving trade developed in the shipping of cadavers, pickled in large barrels, to medical schools and hospitals all over the world. For years the Panama Railroad Company was a steady supplier of such merchandise, and the proceeds were enough to pay for the company's own small hospital at Colon.

A reporter who visited this hospital in 1855, the year the railroad was finished, wrote of seeing "the melancholy rows" of sick and dying men, then of being escorted by the head physician to an adjoining piazza, "where, in conscious pride, he displayed to me his collection of well-picked skeletons and bones, bleaching and drying in the hot sun." It was the physician's intention, for the purposes of science, to assemble a complete "museum" representing all the racial types to be found among the railroad dead.

The worst year had been 1852, the year of Stephens' death, when cholera swept across the Isthmus, starting at Colon with the arrival of a steamer from New Orleans. Of the American technicians then employed, some fifty engineers, surveyors, draftsmen-- all but two died. When a large military detachment, several hundred men of the American Fourth Infantry and their dependents, made the crossing in July en route to garrison duty in California, the tragic consequence was 150 dead-- men, women, and children. "The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description," wrote the young officer in charge, Captain Ulysses S. Grant, whose memory of the experience was to be no less vivid years later when he sat in the White House.

In the end, the company discovered that for heavy work in the tropics, no race of men could match West Indian Negroes. Slow-moving, accustomed to heat, resistant to the fevers, these cheerful and humble people played a most honorable part in the realization of man's dreams on the Isthmus.

From the beginning it was difficult to run the lines through the swamps and as the work progressed it became increasingly so. In the reports of the engineers under Col. Totten we find the statement that they failed to find the bottom of portions of the swamp at 180 feet but, undismayed, later repeated their efforts with renewed force and effected a causeway by throwing in tons of wood, rocks, brush, etc., and at last literally floated the tracks over the jungle swamps.

An interesting story found in the private papers of Colonel Totten tells of an incident in connection with filling the seemingly bottomless pit known as the Black Swamp, near Gatun, and is retold as follows:

The holes would not fill. William Thompson, who later became a passenger conductor on the railroad, was sent to Gatun Lake by Chief Engineer Totten with orders to fill in a designated part of the lake. Thompson kept running his cars to the lake, unloading and returning for more dirt and stone. Days and months passed. Still the measurements evidenced no material difference of depth of water where the dumping had been carried on. Thompson becoming discouraged, sought his chief, and after explaining his trouble, handed in his resignation. Totten leaned over his desk and put these questions to Thompson, the disconsolate:

"Have you any other job in view, Thompson?"

"No, sir."

"Are you tired of the job?"

"Looks that way, Col. Totten."

"Are you afraid that the Company has not enough money to pay you. Thompson?"

"It is not that, Col. Totten, but you see, sir, Iíve worked faithfully to fill up that .....hole and I don't seem to make any impression on it, and I thought it was my fault, and that you could find a man to do it better."

"Now Thompson," said Engineer Totten, smiling, "you go back to your hole, take your cars and keep on filling until you get the bottom covered and I will tell you when to stop, and you will find the bottom."

And he did.

Beyond The Chagres
"Beyond the Chagres River
Are paths that lead to death
To the fever's deadly breezes
To malaria's poisonous breath!

Beyond the tropic foliage,
Where the alligator waits,
Are the mansions of the Devil
His original estates.

Beyond the Chagres River
Are paths fore'er unknown,
With a spider 'neath each pebble,
A scorpion 'neath each stone.

'Tis here the boa-constrictor
His fatal banquet holds,
And to his slimy bosom
His hapless guest enfolds!

Beyond the Chagres River
Lurks the cougar in his lair,
And ten hundred thousand dangers
Hide in the noxious air.

Behind the trembling leaflets,
Beneath the fallen reeds,
Are ever-present perils
Of a million different breeds!

Beyond the Chagres River
'Tis said - the story's old -
Are paths that lead to mountains
Of purest virgin gold!

But 'tis my firm conviction,
Whatever tales they tell,
That beyond the Chagres River,
All paths lead straight to hell!"
--James Stanley Gilbert

History of the Panama Rairoad - Part II

Relocation of the Panama Railroad 1906-1912

The Panama Railroad and the US Mail

The Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal Towing Locomotives


[ History | Maps | Picture Galleries | Amazing Facts | Panama Railroad Travelogues ]

[ Quotes | Present | Future | Links | Credits | Site-map | News ]