- 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
From the legal-diplomatic standpoint the undertaking was made possible by a treaty signed in Bogotá. Panama was still part of Colombia (or New Granada, as it was then known), and for years the government at Bogotá had been urging Great Britain and France to guarantee New Granada’s sovereignty over the isthmus as well as the neutrality of any future isthmian transit, be it railroad or canal. In return the European power was to have the exclusive right to build and operate such a transit. But all at once, in 1846, the United States chargé d’affaires in Bogotá, a new man named Benjamin Bidlack, acting without instructions, signed just such an agreement. Eventually it was sanctioned by the United States Senate; and so by binding treaty the United States was to watch over the isthmus, guarantee open transit from ocean to ocean, guarantee Colombian sovereignty over Panama, and build, if it so chose, a railroad or canal. In practice, once the railroad was in operation, it was to mean the more or less permanent stationing of American gunboats in Panamanian waters and the landing of American marines and sailors during a half dozen revolutions or “disturbances,” including the disturbance of 1903, the so-called Panama Revolution, which marked the final separation of Panama from Colombia. (The Panama Revolution is another story and a complicated one, but suffice it to say here that the maintenance of open, uninterrupted traffic on the railroad was the pretext by which American military force was used to prevent the transportation of Colombian troops, thereby guaranteeing a bloodless triumph by the local junta and the creation of the new Republic of Panama.)
The first stake marking the Atlantic terminus of the line was driven into some soggy, extremely unpleasant ground in May, 1850, at the onset of the rainy season. The site was little Manzanillo Island, less than a square mile in area, which stood at the opening of Limón Bay (the Atlantic entrance to the present canal) and which was separated from the mainland by only a narrow channel. Like all the low-lying shore of the bay, the island was without human habitation and just barely above tide level.
The terrain was such that the work party, some fifty men, had to live on board an old brig anchored near shore. (“In the black, slimy mud of its surface,” reads an old account, “alligators and other reptiles abounded; while the air was laden with pestilential vapors, and swarming with sandflies and musquitoes.”) All clearing of trees and vines had to be done by hand with machete or axe. Everything that had to be transported clear of the projected line had to be dragged by hand, too; no draft animals were available. Much of the time the men worked in water up to their waists, their faces covered with gauze to fend off insects, their noon meals stowed inside their hats.
The engineers in charge were Colonel George M. Totten and John Cresson Trautwine, two hard-bitten Americans in their early forties who had recently built the Canal del Dique joining the Magdalena River to the harbor at Cartagena. Totten was to stay with the railroad through thick and thin, weathering every imaginable kind of hell, including an attack of yellow fever so nearly fatal that his companions built a coffin for him. Totten in fact would remain chief engineer of the line long after it was built, and his word would be close to law on the isthmus for twenty-five years. A small, dark-skinned, dark-haired man with spectacles who wore his whiskers like Abraham Lincoln, he was quiet, selfeffacing, and exceedingly tough. Allegedly he also had a sense of humor, though a search through all available sources has failed to produce a trace of it.
Trautwine was the one mainly responsible for the surveys and as such probably deserves a good share of the credit. A better survey would be difficult to produce, according to presentday authorities. What Trautwine lacked in the way of equipment he made up for with ability. His Engineer’s Pocket Book (1871) would make his name famous among a whole generation of bridge builders, railroad men, and canal builders.
Others among this advance guard were Colonel George Hughes, a West Point graduate who had charge of the overall reconnaissance; James L. Baldwin, his assistant; Edward J. Serrell, another assistant who was later to become a builder of important suspension bridges; and a young man known as J. J. Williams, who as an old man would declare that as God was his witness it was he, not Trautwine, who drove the first stake.
From Manzanillo Island the line proceeded south, along the eastern shore of Limón Bay; then farther inland it picked up the valley of the Chagres River and kept to the valley, crossing the river just once at about midpoint across the isthmus. Still farther, where the landscape turned more mountainous, the route took the path of another river, the Rio Grande, which flows toward the Pacific.
Because of the curious configuration of the isthmus at Panama—with the land barrier running east-west between the oceans—the general direction of the line was north-south, a fact that countless travelers on the road, once it was finished, never would be quite able to comprehend.