- 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 major discovery produced by the survey was a gap in the mountains some thirteen miles from Panama City that was only 275 feet above sea level. This was a good 200 feet lower than what heretofore had been the lowest known pass at Panama, and, as further explorations and further surveys would verify, it was the lowest pass anywhere along the entire Continental Divide, except for one at Nicaragua. The gap, the summit of the railroad, was at Culebra, the place where the latter-day canal builders— first the French, then the Americans— would break through the spine of the Cordillera with the great Culebra Cut.
Another important discovery was that sea level on both sides of the isthmus was the same. Until then it had been widely thought that for some mysterious reason the Pacific was as much as twenty feet higher than the Atlantic at Panama. It was a misunderstanding that had appeared frequently in print and still does. But as was found, the difference is in the size of the tides—those on the Atlantic side being barely discernible (little more than a foot), while those on the Pacific, less than fifty miles distant, are from eighteen to twenty feet, or even more. Mean sea level, nonetheless, is the same on both sides—a revelation of extreme value if you are contemplating a ship canal through Panama.
When actual construction of the road began, progress inland from Manzanillo Island went very, very slowly. Miles of swamp had to be bridged or filled. The effect of the climate on men and materials was devastating. Tools turned bright orange with rust. Lumber rotted. Boots and books grew mold overnight. Men began to sicken and die, mainly of Chagres fever, which was the common name for one particular variety of malaria. “Having neither a physician nor any comfortable place of rest, their sufferings were severe,” wrote a doctor named Fessenden N. Otis, author of the first published history of the road.
The Gold Rush provided a powerful impetus to get the road built, but it also greatly compounded the problem of holding on to a labor force, and like every other essential—rails, coal, rolling stock, food, clothing, whiskey, quinine—the labor had to be shipped in from somewhere else and at an exorbitant cost. Hundreds of men deserted the work at the least opportunity—thousands as t,ime went on.
Actual construction began in August of 1850 and with high expectations. But by October of 1851, or a year and two months after the work had commenced, the line had penetrated only as far as the Chagres, a scant seven miles. The engineers had grossly miscalculated the difficulty of the task, and the company’s resources were about gone. The market value of the stock was close to nothing. So things came to a standstill in the jungle, and several key people, Trautwine among them, departed to find work elsewhere. Had it not been for an especially violent tropical storm, that might have been the end of the company and the railroad.
The storm struck in November, 1851, and at the height of it two New York steamers, Georgia and Philadelphia , put into Limón Bay for shelter. Until then, the whole time the railroad was being built, the New York boats had been landing as usual at the mouth of the Chagres—at a native village called Chagres—which is roughly five miles to the west of Limon Bay. There was no proper roadstead at Chagres; landings were by small boat through the surf and at considerable risk. But that was the place where the local boatmen congregated with their canoes, and so it had been Panama’s Caribbean port of entry since the Gold Rush began. For some strange reason no one had considered that the railroad, even if it went a mere seven miles, could be put to use and begin paying its way.
The passengers from the two ships came clamoring ashore, some thousand strong, and demanded transportation up to the Chagres. So after a string of flatcars had been assembled, off everybody went in the driving wind and rain as far as the river, to a village called Gatun, now the site of the great Gatun Locks. From there they continued upstream by canoe.
The pattern was established. Chagres was abandoned as the Atlantic portal. A new town was slapped together on Manzanillo Island with about as much commotion and along much the same lines architecturally as a western mining town. A tremendous iron lighthouse was built—docks, warehouses, a railroad office (“a respectable fire-proof two-story brick building”), hotels, saloons, and a number of other business establishments, one of which, the Maison du Vieux Carré, specialized supposedly in French girls. As time went on the town became justly famous as one of the filthiest, most miserable holes on the Caribbean. Stephens named it Aspinwall, after his partner, but from Bogotá came word that it was to be called Colón—Spanish for Columbus—as a tribute to the fact that Columbus had once anchored in Limón Bay.