The Panama Railroad
Chapter XIV
History of the Panama Canal
Ira E. Bennett, 1915

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Communication across the Isthmus was, as we have seen, established at a very early date in the settlement of the province.  The paved roadway from Panama to Nombre de Dios, and afterwards from Panama to Porto Bello, which came to be known as the Camino Real or King's Highway, supplemented as it was by river transportation from Cruces to the Atlantic, served its purpose for more than three centuries, and over this route passed the treasure trains and the merchandise which for so long made the isthmian cities, and especially Panama, such important centers of commerce and trade.  But there arrived a time when a cheaper and more rapid mode of transit and one suited to handle a larger traffic became necessary, and then a railroad was built from sea to sea.

However, before this consummation was finally attained, there was much preliminary work to be done and there were many attempts and many disappointments.  A survey under the auspices of President Bolivar of Colombia was made from 1827 to 1829 by J. A. Lloyd, a British engineer, and Captain Falmarc, a Swede, and a report was submitted by them showing that a railroad from Chagres to Panama was practicable; but circumstances at the time prevented the inception of such an undertaking.  In 1836, in pursuance of a resolution introduced in the United States Senate by Henry Clay, asking the executive to negotiate both with the states of Central America and with New Granada for the drawing up of treaties to protect United States citizens who should try to establish connection between the two seas, President Jackson commissioned Charles Biddle to go to the Isthmus, survey the ground, and report on the different routes which had been proposed for interoceanic communication.  Biddle, being greatly impressed with what he saw of the Panama route, did not carry out the whole of his instructions, but instead proceeded to Bogota, where he succeeded in securing a franchise for a trans-Isthmian railroad.   This project might have materialized, but it was propounded at an inopportune moment, for the panic of 1837 prevented it from being properly financed, and just then nothing further was, or could be, done.  In the following year (1838) a French company was given a concession for the construction of highways, railroads, or a canal across the isthmus.  Napoleon Garella, an engineer sent out by the French government to study and report on the whole situation, recommended a canal from Limon Bay to the bay of Boca del Monte, twelve miles west of Panama; but want of capital caused this canal project, as well as the other projects envisaged by the concession, to be abandoned.   W. B. Liot of the British Navy proposed in 1845, the construction either of a macadamized highway or of a railroad from Porto Bello to Panama.  It remained, however, for United States citizens to build the railroad, as it afterwards remained for the United States government to complete the canal, across the Isthmus.

A treaty made between the United States and New Granada on December 12, 1846, guaranteed to the first named of the high contracting parties the right of way across the Isthmus of Panama upon any modes of communication that then existed or that might afterwards be constructed.  The boundary dispute concerning Oregon had been definitely settled in the same year, and in 1848 Mexico ceded by treaty the whole of Upper California to the United States.  All this new territory awaiting settlement and development attracted universal attention, and the nomadic population of the eastern states began to turn their eyes westward.  There were at first but two ways of reaching the Pacific Coast.   One was by ship around Cape Horn, a distance of some 12,000 miles, and the other by a journey of 3,000 miles in prairie schooners or other pioneer contrivances from the Missouri River across the plains.  Either way was fraught with grave danger and required months for the passage.  At sea tremendous storms were encountered both in the Atlantic and especially in the miscalled Pacific, and the transcontinental route lay through a vast stretch of desert, and soon every mile of the way from the Missouri to the Sacramento was marked by the bleaching bones of unfortunate emigrants.  Under such circumstances Oregon and California were well nigh inaccessible to the desired class of settlers, and administration of the laws was surrounded by a thousand difficulties owing to the great distance from the seat of authority and the slowness of communication.

It was therefore under such circumstances natural for the United States government to turn its attention to finding a safer, shorter, and less expensive route, for it was to its interest that its Pacific possessions should be peopled by its own citizens.   Accordingly in 1848 Congress, after long and anxious consideration of the whole subject, authorized the running of two lines of mail steamships, one from New York to Chagres, and the other from Oregon and California to Panama, the connection between them to be made by transit across the Isthmus as already secured by the treaty of 1846.   An essential part of the transaction was the appropriation of money to pay for the carriage of the United States mails by those ships.  Responsible bidders for the contracts were long waited for in vain.  At length two men of great wealth and judgment, George Law and William H. Aspinwall came forward and took, the former the Atlantic, and the latter the Pacific, contract, and soon the steamers began to ply on both sides of the North American continent.  In the Atlantic contract there was a prospect of gain with comparatively small risk, as the line connected with Savannah and New Orleans as well as with Chagres; but, at a time when gold had not yet been discovered in California, men wondered greatly why Aspinwall should take the risk of running a line of steamships from Panama to San Francisco and thence to Oregon.  But it soon developed that for his future profit he was not looking to the mail boats alone, and that they were indeed only secondary to the vast project he had in mind.

Up to this time, as we have seen, nothing had been done to alter the old mode of transit across the Isthmus, which was effected partly by the dugouts poled and paddled up the Chagres River to Cruces and thence by the old paved road, now much the worse for wear, to the city of Panama.  The road was so rough that even sure-footed mules could travel it only with great difficulty, and four or five days were usually required for the journey.  To remedy such conditions, and at the same time to make a huge profit, Aspinwall had conceived the bold idea of building a railroad, which would not only cut the travel-time from the Atlantic to the Pacific from four days to four hours, but would thereby also shorten the distance from the Atlantic ports of North America to those on the Pacific, as well as to Australia, China, and the western ports of South America, by several thousand miles.  Accordingly, Aspinwall with Henry Chauncey, a New York capitalist, and John L. Stephens, who had traveled and explored extensively in Central America, entered into a contract with the government of New Granada and secured from it the exclusive right for the construction of such a road.  The contract stipulated that the railroad would be built within eight years, that it should transport passengers, live-stock, and merchandise on a fixed scale of rates, that all public lands lying along the line of the road were to be used gratuitously by the grantees, that the termini of the road on the Atlantic and the Pacific sides were to be free ports, that New Granada should receive three per cent, of the net profits, and that the concession should be in force for forty-nine years from the completion of the work, with this reservation, however, that, after twenty years, the government of New Granada was to have a right to purchase the railroad for $5,000,000.

The Panama Railroad Company was thereupon incorporated with a charter obtained from the legislature of the State of New York.  The capital was fixed at $1,000,000, and the stock was quickly taken up, for, between the obtaining of the concession from New Granada and the charter from New York, a circumstance had occurred which changed the whole aspect of affairs, and led capitalists to believe that there would be a speedy and highly lucrative return on their investments.  This auspicious occurrence was the discovery of gold in California in the latter part of 1848, which at once created a mad rush of emigrants through the Isthmus to the supposed El Dorado of the West.

The construction of the road was at first let to two contractors, Colonel George M. Totten and John C. Trautwine, but that very circumstance which argued so well for the future success of the railroad when built was the cause of delay in starting to build it.   The contractors on arriving at the isthmus found that the "gold-rush" had made labor so scarce and dear, and the procuring of materials so uncertain and costly, that it would ruin them to go n with the work.  They asked, therefore, to be released from their contract and, their request being complied with, the company itself undertook the building of the road, retaining its former contractors as engineers  A survey, carried out under the direction of J.L. Baldwin and Colonel George W. Hughes of the United States Topographical Corps, discovered a new summit gap, and found it practicable in consequence greatly to lessen the grades and shorten the line.  The Atlantic terminus was located at Limon Bay and the Pacific terminus at Panama City, the distance between the two points being some fifty miles.

In May, 1850, the first sod was turned on Manzanillo Island in Limon Bay.  It was only a short line, but the difficulties surrounding its construction were enormous.   The situation was near enough to the equator to make a sultry tropical heat prevail at all seasons.  For nearly half the year the country was deluged with rain, so that the working gangs, in addition to being drenched from the clouds, were obliged to wade in mud and water from two to four feet deep. For the first few miles out from the Atlantic terminal the route lay through a deep morass covered with a dense jungle, reeking with malaria, and abounding in noxious reptiles and insects.  Thence the grater part of the line was through a rugged country where chasms, turbulent rivers, and mountain torrents had to be crossed.  Materials of all sorts as well as laboring men had to be brought from long distances.  The workers were constantly attacked with fever and malaria, and, though the whole working party was changed every week, it was necessary to keep constantly importing others to take the places of those who fell sick or died.   For this purpose agents were kept in Jamaica and elsewhere to engage men, particularly negroes, who of all races seemed best suited to requirements; but, despite every effort and the almost daily arrival of vessels bring fresh laborers, there were times when owing to universal sickness the work was almost at a standstill.  Dogged perseverance, however, succeeded in laying the rails and running work-trains as far as Gatun, seven miles out, by October 1, 1851.  Meanwhile docks were being constructed in Limon Bay for the convenience of vessels tying up there.

These two factors soon gave rise to a new development.  In November, 1851, two steamships, crowded with men bound for California, arrived in the open roadstead of Chagres.  These passengers expected to cross the Isthmus via the Chagres River and the old paved road, but the weather was so tempestuous that several lives were lost in an effort to effect a landing by crossing the bar of the river, and the ships were forced to take refuge in Limon Bay.  It was then suggested that the passengers, eager to be on their journey, should not wait for more settled weather to return to Chagres, but should be conveyed over the new railroad to Gatun, from which point they would be transported up the river in native boats as usual.  At the time there was not a single passenger car on the line, nor could one be had nearer than Philadelphia; but the managers of the road decided to attempt the transfer on flat-cars or work-cars, and more than a thousand emigrants, glad of any method, however primitive, of avoiding delay, were disembarked and safely transported to Gatun, where they began their river journey.  This fortuitous circumstance probably saved the whole railroad project from disastrous failure.  The company's stock had fallen very low, for the original million dollars of capital had been spent and the road was far indeed from completion.  The directors had in fact been carrying the burden for some time, and were keeping the work moving at enormous expense on their own individual credit; but now, keen business men as they were, they saw open to them a source of immediate revenue, which would give new life to the company, and they determined to work it for all it was worth.  In conformity with this resolution they at once ordered passenger cars, and began the regular carriage of emigrants and others to Gatun, and to more distant points as the rails were laid.  When one of the steamers, whose passengers had been transported by rail to Gatun, returned to New York carrying the news that gold-seekers and intending settlers enroute for California had been landed at Limon Bay instead of at Chagres, the friends of the enterprise took heart afresh, the value of the stock quickly advanced, and it was no longer difficult to attract the sorely needed new capital.  Thenceforward the mail steamers abandoned Chagres and plied regularly to Limon Bay, and the wisdom of the early building of docks for their accommodation was made manifest.

As the island was cleared a settlement had gradually grown up around the Atlantic terminal.  On February 2, 1852, this settlement was formally inaugurated as a city, and named Aspinwall in honor of the originator of the road.  This designation was never recognized by the authorities of New Granada, who took up the position that the place should be called Colon, the Spanish form for Columbus, the discoverer of Limon Bay.   The two names persisted side by side for years, but the question was finally decided in favor of Colon, because the New Granada government refused to deliver mail addressed to Aspinwall.  Thus Colon it became, and Colon it still remains.

The number of laborers was now largely increased, and every incoming steamer brought more hands, so that the work was pushed forward with renewed energy and zeal.  By March, 1852, regular passenger trains were running to a station sixteen miles out from the terminus, and by July to Barbacoas, twenty-three miles out.  Men and material were also shipped around Cape Horn, and work was begun at the Panama end.

At Barbacoas a great bridge had to be constructed over the Chagres, a river at that pint about 300 feet wide, running through a deep and rocky channel, and subject to a rise of forty feet of water in a single night.  About this time the first president of the railroad company, John L. Stephens, died, and his successor let the building of the bridge and of the remainder of the line by contract.  The bridge was nearly completed when a sudden flood swept it away.  After a whole year had been wasted and the contractors were on the verge of bankruptcy, the company released them, and under a third president, set out itself to complete, as it had begun, the work.  Laborers had again become scarce, and again operations had to be temporarily suspended for want of them.   Agents were the sent in haste to Hindostan, to Chine, to Ireland, and to all countries of continental Europe, and a force of several thousand men was gathered together and taken to the Isthmus.  Of these a thousand were Chinese coolies, of whom great things were expected, but some few of their number having died of fever, the rest were seized with nostalgic melancholia and developed a suicidal mania, and scores of them took their own lives.  In the end scarcely 200 Chinese left the Isthmus alive.  The other workers also fell victims to sickness, and many of them had to be reshipped to the points whence they came.  Despite all difficulties, however, a massive timber bridge was eventually thrown successfully across the river at Barbacoas.

By January, 1855, the crest of the divide at Culebra, a distance of thirty-seven miles from Colon, was reached.  Here the workers rested, and awaited the coming of their collaborators from Panama, who were pushing their eleven-mile section up the valley of the Rio Grande.  On that side the engineering difficulties had not been so great, the route did not lie through swamps, and the workmen were less liable to fatal sicknesses.   At midnight on January 27, 1855, in the midst of a torrent of rain, the last rail was laid, and the two ends of the road were connected.  The next day a locomotive passed from sea to sea.  It was a great engineering triumph and a great testimony to the push, energy, and faith of its originators.  The summit grade was 258 feet above the sea-level.  The entire length of the road was forty-seven and three-quarter miles, and it had required the construction of 170 bridges and culverts, one of the bridges being more than 600 feet in length.

Although the railroad was open, the company's work was by no means completed.  For the great traffic expected, preparations had to be made, including additional tracks at each terminus, needed side-tracks at different points, and passenger and freight depots.   Owing to the haste to get the road constructed through to Panama, much of the work had been temporary in character, especially bridges, culverts, and trestles.  The trestles were converted into solid embankments; the wooden bridges were replaced with iron; the ties of native wood, which were already rapidly decaying, were removed and replaced with ties of lignum-vitae brought from Cartagena.  This wood was so hard that it had be bored before the spikes could be driven in, and so durable that, when taken up in 1910, because of the relocation of the line, the ties were found to be still unrotted.  In addition to all this work, both of the new and the replacement order, additional engines and cars had to be provided.


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