- Historic Sites
Steam Road To El Dorado
Mile for mile, it cost more in dollars—and lives—than any railroad ever built
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The original line was a five-foot, or broad, gauge, and it was built about as hurriedly and cheaply as circumstances would allow, to take advantage of the bonanza in California traffic. A minimum of grading was bothered with; bridges were all of wood and built none too substantially. The route was always along the line of least resistance. Anything formidable in the way—a hill, a bend in the Chagres River—was by-passed if at all possible. No tunnels were attempted (there is one on the present line), and the winding right of way chopped through the jungle was just wide enough to let a train pass. Still, this one little stretch of track took nearly five years to build and cost $8,000,000, which averages out to a little less than ten miles a year and a then unheard-of $168,000 per mile. Part of the construction problem can be appreciated in a single statistic. In those forty-seven and a half miles it was necessary to build a hundred and seventy bridges of more than twelve feet in length.
Prior to the railroad there had been no regular thoroughfare across the Isthmus of Panama, and this despite the fact that Panama had been a crossroad between the Atlantic and Pacific since the time of the Spanish conquest. Except for a few isolated villages scattered along the Chagres River, the interior was an unbroken wilderness, little changed from the time Panama City was founded in the sixteenth century.
To get from one side of the isthmus to the other, starting from the Atlantic or Caribbean, travelers went up the Chagres by canoe to a point roughly twelve miles from Panama City, then crossed overland on the old Cruces Trail, a narrow, treacherous mule path that in the wet season—or nine months of the year—was virtually a river of mud. At best, a crossing from ocean to ocean took four to six days, and for all who survived, it remained one of life’s memorable experiences. Letters and diaries are replete with descriptions of insects swarming in great clouds over the river, of encampments swamped by blinding rains, of pack mules sinking to their haunches in putrid muck.
The idea for a railroad to supplant all of that originated in New York in the late i84o’s, shortly before the news of California gold reached the East. The founders were three unlikely and most dissimilar individuals, none of whom knew the least thing about building a railroad, even under favorable conditions. Henry Chauncey was a Wall Street financier. William Henry Aspinwall was a well-known capitalist and member of one of New York’s leading mercantile families, long engaged in trading with Latin America. The third man, John Lloyd Stephens, might have been the creation of Jules Verne. A diplomat, lawyer, raconteur, amateur archaeologist, he was best known as a traveler and travel writer. Indeed he was “The American Traveler,” one of the bestselling writers of the time, a redbearded, good-natured somebody who had been everywhere and seen everything and who cut a great path in New York and Washington social circles.
Aspinwall, with the help of a generous government franchise to carry the mail to California, had established steamship lines to and from Panama on both oceans. So except for the land barrier at Panama he could provide through steamer passage from New York to San Francisco. The railroad, then, was to be the vital land link in the system—in a grand, continent-embracing system that seemed altogether in step with the Manifest Destiny spirit of the day but to most practical men looked like an extremely speculative affair. On Wall Street the great question was why so “sound” a man as Aspinwall should have become involved in it.
It was Stephens who, in the initial stages, made the difference, and in human terms his life counted for a heavy part of the price of success—for he was to die of malaria. Alone of the three partners Stephens stayed with the work in the jungle. He was the driving spirit the first two years, the most difficult and disheartening stage of the whole ordeal. He gave up every other interest in order to see the work succeed, and he had infinitely more to give up. Earlier, in 1841, Stephens and an English architect named Frederick Catherwood had gone into the wilds of the Mexican provinces of Chiapas and Yucatán and discovered, or rather rediscovered, the ancient cities of the Maya. His books on the Mayan ruins, with stunning illustrations by Catherwood, had caused a sensation. But his overriding interest thereafter had been Panama. He had envisioned the tremendous, far-reaching impact a railroad could have at that singular geographic location, and he threw himself into the task with all the determination and confidence that he had shown in everything else he had ever put his hand to.
Stephens was the president of the railroad, which was a wholly Americanowned stock company with its main office in the old Tontine Building on Wall Street. The capitalization was a million dollars.