Panama Railroad

George Muirson Totten (1808-1884):


George M. Totten
George Muirson Totten


George Muirson Totten, generally referred to as "Colonel" Totten even though he had no military rank, was a Connecticut Yankee, slight in stature, quiet and reserved in manner, with a luxuriant beard. At the age of 20 he started in canal building, working successively as an engineer in the construction of the Farmington, the Juniata and the Delaware and Raritan Canals. Entering railroad construction in 1835, ten years after the first experimental operation of a steam locomotive in the United States, he helped build railroads in Pennsylvania from Reading to Port Clinton and from Sunbury to Danville. From 1840 to 1843 he was chief construction engineer on the road connecting Gastonia and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Along with his partner, John Cresson Trautwine, he had had wide experience in Latin Amrica, having worked a five-year contract, from 1843 to 1848, for the government of New Granada, dredging and widening the channel of the Canal del Dique, the waterway connecting the Magdalena River with the harbor of Cartagena. Their success in this project had earned them the confidence of the government at Bogota as well as a large sum of money.

George M. Totten remained on the Isthmus as chief engineer of the railroad until 1875. In 1857 he had made a survey of the Isthmus for a lock canal from Limon Bay to Panama City. This survey envisioned a canal with a bottom width of 150 feet, a depth of 31 feet, and locks 400 feet long by 30 feet wide. A 24-mile feeder channel from the upper Chagres would furnish the water to raise the ships through the locks over the maximum summit of 150 feet. He estimated the cost of this lock canal as $80,000,000 as opposed to an estimated cost of $429,000,000 for a sea-level canal of the same length and breadth. Nothing was ever done to make this canal a reality, but in 1879 De Lesseps appointed Totten chief of the French company's engineers, the only American in the group.

Totten later went to Venezuela and built the first railroad from Caracas to La Guayra, another single-track nightmare, winding around mountains and spanning bottomless gullies.

For his contributions to the French canal company Napoleon III gave him a gold ring with a design of the imperial crown in diamonds. General Guzman Blanco, dictator of Venezuela, awarded him a gold medal decorated with the bust of Simon Bolivar as recognition for his work on the railroad from Caracas. The Panama Railroad never honored him in any outstanding way. There is a small plaque with his profile etched on it in the Panama Railroad station in Panama City, but that is all.

Totten died May 17, 1884, in New York City. The brief obituary in the New York Times stated that he was a retired engineer. It failed to say that he was the man directly responsible for building the first transcontinental railroad the world had ever seen.



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