Steam Road To El Dorado

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It was not long after the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 that Bedford Clapperton Pirn declared with perfect composure that of all the world’s wonders none could surpass this one as a demonstration of man’s capacity to do great things against impossible odds.

“I have seen the greatest engineering works of the day,” he wrote, ”…but I must confess that when passing backwards and forwards on the Panama Railway, standing on the engine to obtain a good view, I have never been more struck than with the evidence, apparent on every side, of the wonderful skill, endurance, and perseverance, which must have been exercised in its construction.”

Bedford Clapperton Pim was a British naval officer and of no particular historical significance. He had, however, seen a great deal of the world, he was a recognized authority on Central America, and his opinion was not lightly arrived at.

It should be kept in mind that the first railroads, all very primitive, had been built in Europe and the United States only some twenty years before. France was still virtually without railroads; not a rail had been put down west of the Mississippi as yet. Moreover, such awesome technological strides as the Suez Canal, the Union Pacific, and the Brooklyn Bridge were still well in the future. And so the vision of locomotives highballing through the green half-light of some distant rain forest, of the world’s two greatest oceans joined by good Englishmade rails, could stir the blood in an extraordinary way.

The Panama Railroad—the first steam road to El Dorado—was begun in 1850, at the height of the California gold craze. And, in truth, by anyone’s standards it was a stunning demonstration of man’s “wonderful skill, endurance, and perseverance,” just as Pirn said, even though its full length was only forty-seven and a half miles.

It was, for example, and as almost no one ever acknowledges, the first ocean-to-ocean railroad, its completion predating that of the Union Pacific by fourteen years. Mile for mile it also appears to have cost more in dollars and in human life than any railroad ever built, and for fourteen years it was the world’s best-paying railroad.

The surveys made by its builders produced important geographic revelations that had a direct bearing on the decision to build a Panama canal along the same route. And the diplomatic agreement upon which the whole venture rested, the so-called Bidlack Treaty of 1846, was the basis of all subsequent involvement of the United States in Panama.

Still the simple fact that it was built remains the overriding wonder, given the astonishing difficulties that had to be overcome and the means at hand in the 1850’s. Present-day engineers who have had experience in jungle construction wonder how in the world it was ever managed. I think in particular of David S. Parker, an eminent army engineer whom I interviewed at the time he was governor of the Canal Zone. Through a great sweep of glass behind him, as we talked, were the distant hills of Panama, no different in appearance than they ever were. It is almost inconceivable, he said, that the railroad survey—just the survey—could have been made by a comparative handful of men who had no proper equipment for topographic reconnaissance (no helicopters, no recourse to aerial photography), no modern medicines, nor the least understanding of the causes of malaria or yellow fever. There was no such thing as an insect repellent, no bulldozers, no chain saws, no canned goods, not even one reliable map.

A Panama railroad still crosses from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Colon to Panama City. The trains run several times daily and on time, and much of the ride—especially if you are in one of the older cars (without air conditioning, windows open wide)—looks and feels as it must have originally. The jungle is still the jungle. The full trip takes one hour and thirty minutes. But except for a few miles at either end, the present line is altogether different from the original. It takes a different route on higher ground, and like the canal it is owned and operated by the United States government. The old road has vanished beneath Gatun Lake, the enormous body of fresh water that comprises most of the canal and that can be seen close by on the right much of the way as you head toward the Pacific.