Nostalgia Rides the Rails as An Era Draws to A close...
The PANAMA RAILROAD Is one of a kind. For more than 70 years, it has been the only year round passenger and freight operation of its kind run by the United States Government. The Isthmus' most effective means of mass transit, the railroad has carried a good share of the freight moving between Colon and Panama-about evenly divided among the Canal organization, U.S. military installations in the Canal Zone, and Panama-and has also handled most of the container cargo between the two ports. In fiscal year 1978, it transported 66,136 passengers and 184,162 tons of freight.
Long accustomed to adapting to the vicissitudes of life, the Panama Railroad is now weathering yet another change. Under the terms of the new Panama Canal Treaty, the railroad passes, along with its supporting operations, to the Government of Panama.
The Panama Railroad has seen a lot of history. In fact, it has been one of the chief actors in the drama of the Isthmus of Panama.
It gave birth to a city. In 1847, William Henry Aspinwall, a New York merchant, raised eyebrows by setting out to build a railroad across the Isthmus and combine sea and land routes into one great system that would open up the whole Pacific. The railroaders chose Manzanillo Island -a square mile of virgin mangrove swamp-as the Atlantic terminus, and transformed it into what was to become the city of Colon.
It killed thousands of men. The construction workforce was drawn from the four corners of the earth England, France, Ireland, Germany, Austria, China, India, Jamaica, Colombia. Of the perhaps 12, 000 of these who died of malaria, yellow fever, or other hardships of wilderness life and work, 6,000 found their final resting place at the railroad cemetery at Mount Hope.
It played its part in the California Gold Rush. In 185 1, after 20 months of labor, the rails reached only 8 miles into the jungle, to Gatun. In October of that year, two steamers were beset by a hurricane that drove them from the mouth of the Chagres (the usual place of debarkation) to shelter in Navy Bay. From their anchorage, the gold-rabid passengers spied the work train, and there was no keeping then back. Since that day, the Atlantic port of Panama has been Colon.
It conquered the mighty Chagres River. The river-300 feet wide and sometimes rising 40 feet over night swept away the first bridge at Barbacoas. But by late 1853 it had been spanned by a 625-foot, six-span bridge of boiler iron. And on went the railroad, until in 1855 it went from coast to coast, 47.51 miles over bottomless swamps and through near impenetrable jungle, till it neared Ancon Hill and the sparkling cathedral towers of the city of Panama.
It made the Canal possible. In 1881 the Panama Railroad was bought by the French canal company, and when that enterprise failed the railroad faded away to "two streaks of rust and a right of way." The U.S. Government acquired it in 1904, and under the Canal's chief engineer John F. Stevens the railroad sprang to life again. Rebuilt to handle an endless stream of dirt trains and vastly increased commercial traffic, it offered its passengers an unparalleled view of one of the wonders of the modern world in the making. By 1912, the railroad line had been relocated on higher ground and the original line was abandoned to make way for the waters of the Canal it had helped create. Fittingly, the inaugural transit on August 15, 1914, as made by the Panama Railroad steamship Ancon.
Since that day, as before it, the Panama Railroad has carried on its proud tradition of service to the Canal, to Panama, and to the world.
An era draws to a close, now, but the Panama Railroad goes on.
View a color photograph of "the train".
by the CZBrats
Last update: October 3, 1998