A Town.....A Railroad.....A Canal

Long ago and far away..there was a little town in the Canal Zone, which dates back to the Construction Era days of the building of the Panama Canal, and even further back than that, in the history of Panama. The Gatun River, some believe, was named for the cat, "El Gato", because of its smooth running, feline qualities. Still others, mainly local people, believe and insist that the name came from "gatunero", which means "seller of smuggled meat" because that area around Gatun was once known as a place where stolen cattle were brought to be sold to travelers. Once located on the west bank of the Chagres River where the Dam is now located, it was described in the mid-1800’s as a sleepy village of 40-50 cane huts. On a hill over-looking the river were the ruins of an old Spanish fort. The pirate Henry Morgan and his men bivouacked close to Gatun, quite near what is now known as Navy Island ... after sacking the old city of Panama in1671, over 300 years ago. The Gold Rush of 1849 and the beginning of the building of the Panama RailRoad woke the sleepy little village of Gatun with a jolt.

Beyond The Chagres

by James Stanley Gilbert (circa 1894)

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 alligtor 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!

When the work began on the Panama Railroad in 1850, ships carried machinery, provisions, and part of the railroad force up the Chagres to Gatun. From Gatun they worked their way down through the swamp towards the railroad’s Atlantic terminus on Manzanillo Island ... which became known as Cristobal-Colon. The city of Colon, was a sleepy and quaint tropical town in direct contrast to the capital, Panama City. Colon started its municipal life as a railway terminal and a transit town for the "forty-niners" of the Californian gold rush. In those days it was named Aspinwall and became the Atlantic-side terminal in place of Portobello and Nombre de Dios, which had become impoverished and decayed as Spanish influence waned and the importance of the Isthmus as a land-link between Spain and her South American colonies decreased.

When gold was found in California, the Isthmus became important again and provided a shorter route to the goldfields. In 1850, William T. Aspinwal proposed and initiated the construction of the the railway to link both coasts and a year later a new city, named after him, was born. Manzanillo Island, was a mangrove-covered swamp bordered by a coral reef. In August 1850, a force of about 400 began grading the route from near the present Mount Hope station toward Gatun. Within a few months, the force was more than doubled and a second construction gang was working from Gatun back toward Manzanillo Island.

Railroad gauges were not standard in those days; a five-foot gauge was adopted for the Panama Railroad. Fifty years later the Isthmian Canal Commission contemplated a change. They found that equipment for a five-foot gauge cost little more than for a standard gauge track and, in addition, was more stable. The gauge today remains the five feet selected more than a century ago.

Between Mount Hope and Gatun, George M. Totten ( a prominent American Engineer) and his men ran into trouble. The terrain was then, as it is today, a swampy lowland filled with mangrove trees. Clearing for a right of way was hard; finding a stable foundation was harder. Piles were driven and ton after ton of rock dumped. The work was slow and far more costly than anyone had anticipated. In 18 months only seven miles of track had been laid, the original $1,000,000 was almost gone and the company was meeting little success in raising additional capital.

Then came the ill wind that blew good -- the good in this case being the good fortune for the Panama Railroad. Early in November 1851, a norther forced two steamers, the Georgia and the Philadelphia, from their usual anchorage at the mouth of the Chagres into Limon Bay. The thousand passengers, unwilling to waste even a day on their way to fortune, saw the work trains that had been running as far as Gatun for about six weeks. They demanded transportation regardless of accommodations and price. At 50 cents a mile and with an additional charge for their baggage, they rode to Gatun where they transferred to the river boats. Many paid 25 cents a mile to walk the railroad tracks. From that time on, the Panama Railroad carried passengers as far as its tracks extended. When the railroad was completed in 1855 it had already earned over $1,000,000.

Meanwhile the railroad was having trouble finding labor. There were workmen from the Magdalena River, natives from the coast, West Indians, Irishmen from Cork, Germans, Coolies,and Chinese. Fever, the climate, and homesickness took their toll of each batch of new arrivals. Of one group of 1,000 Chinese, only 200 survived. But despite all of this the railroad moved steadily on. By May 1, 1852, trains were running to Frijoles, Tavernilla was reached and passed. By July trains were running daily to Barbacoas on the Chagres. Men and materials were being shipped around the Horn to start work from Panama City. Twenty-three and a half miles had been built, 25 miles were still to come.

At Barbacoas the railroad was to cross the Chagres River, and here the builders met another series of misfortunes. The bridge was to be built by contract. It was only half completed when a freshet swept away one span. At the end of the year the contractor had neither bridged the river nor completed one-tenth of his assigned length of track; Totten and his engineers took over the job. But it was not until November 18, 1853 that the first train crossed the Chagres.

Three months later trains were running daily to Obispo, 18 miles from Panama City, the trip which cost $12.50 one way took five hours. By July the tracks stretched to within a mile of Summit. With the tracks laid from the Caribbean to a little beyond Summit, Totten concentrated all his efforts on the Panama City end. Finally, at midnight on January 27, 1855, the two gangs met at Summit, ten and a half miles from Panama City, and the last rail was laid. The following day the first train ran from ocean to ocean.

In the meantime, the French were developing plans to build an Isthmian canal. On March 20, 1878, Lucien B. Wyse, a lieutenant in the French Navy and a grandson of Lucien Bonaparte, obtained a concession from Colombia to build a canal across Panama. Immediately he arranged to secure control of the railroad. The French company purchased 68/70ths of the outstanding stock for $17,135,000 and assumed the railroad’s outstanding bonds. During the period of French control, the railroad’s equipment was increased and improved; the French Company’s director general rode in a $40,000 car. A start was made on relocating the track to get it clear of Culebra Cut.

Early in the 1890’s, the French began construction of a branch line from Diablo to La Boca, dredged the Pacific terminal basin and started an extensive maintenance program. Work was started on a port and pier in La Boca, the only port between Callao and Mexico where ships could dock at low tide.

On May 4, 1904, the United States received from the French their Isthmian rights and properties. Among these were 68,887 of the 70,000 shares of the Panama Railroad Company; 47.65 miles of single track between Colon and Panama; 26.07 miles of siding; 35 locomotives, 1,008 freight cars, 24 passenger cars, 5 cabooses, and 2 special cars; the Island of Manzanillo and the 70 railroad-owned buildings there, and about 26 buildings in Panama City. With this transfer, the Panama Railroad returned to United States control. It was not until 1905, however, that the railroad began to be put into shape to enable it to do its part in the building of the Canal.

John F. Stevens, Chief Engineer for the Isthmian Canal Commission, had been Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. He considered transportation the key to the canal construction. He halted all excavation until the transportation system was in order, began the double-tracking of the road for its entire length except over Culebra Hill and in the Gatun-Mount Hope section, and replaced all of the 56-pound rail with 70-pound metal.

In 1905 he reported: "The Panama Railroad is very largely a creature of the canal … and the construction of the latter in the absence of the railroad would be practically impossible."

Contents of this article were compiled from various Panama Canal Reviews, and other Canal related periodicals and books by: CZAngel

 (To be continued)

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Last update: October 3 1998
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