Steam Road To El Dorado


Any doubts or misgivings there had been on Wall Street concerning the enterprise or the mental stability of its founders now vanished as the money steadily rolled in. By summer of 1852 the tracks were halfway across the isthmus to Barbacoas—23¼ miles inland from Colón—to where the line would cross the Chagres. “Push was the order …” recalled one old-time employee, Tracy Robinson, in his little memoir, Fifty Years at Panama . “Yet do what they might, strain every nerve, exhaust every resource, the difficulties to be overcome proved almost insurmountable. The climate stood like a dragon in the way. To this day it seems astonishing that any soul survived to tell the tale.… The white men withered as cut plants in the sun.”

The labor came from all parts of the world—the West Indies, Colombia, Ireland, Wales, France, Italy, China, India, the United States. The best workers were those from Colombia, men who were accustomed both to hard labor and to the climate. The Irish, tough, experienced “navvies” who had built railroads and canals in England, were brought out by Totten specifically to speed things up, at about the time the line reached Barbacoas, but they suffered intensely from the heat and humidity and were highly susceptible to disease. A newly appointed bishop of California, William Ingraham Kip, wrote of the Irish laborers he saw on his way through: “They looked pale and miserable. It is almost certain death to them to be employed here.…” The mortality rate was indeed appalling. Malaria, the only endemic disease of the isthmus, was the worst killer among all groups of workers, just as it would be later when the canal builders arrived. But men died too of dysentery, sunstroke, cholera, and the dreaded yellow jack.

How many died all told is impossible to say. Though the Panama Railroad Company provided figures later, records of accidents and deaths among white workers were kept haphazardly at best, and virtually never among blacks or other nonwhites. And in the year 1853, as an example, of some 1,590 men on the payroll, 1,200 were black. The consistent management position was that there had been nothing like the death toll commonly spoken of, and that anyone who lived a clean, temperate life on the isthmus was as safe there as he would be anywhere in the tropics or even southern sections of the United States, which was far from true.


The worst year was 1852, the year Stephens died. Cholera swept along the line shortly after the arrival of a boat from New Orleans. That summer alone fifty-one engineers, surveyors, and draftsmen—nearly all of Totten’s staff—died of the disease. Among those making the crossing in July was Captain Ulysses S. Grant, who, with several hundred soldiers, their wives, and their children, was on his way to California for garrison duty. Grant saw more than a hundred and fifty of his party die at Panama—men, women, and children—and all miserably. In later years he would talk more of the horrors he had seen in Panama than of any battles he had known.

According to the company’s records there were at least 6,000 whites employed all told during the years of construction, and the company put the death toll among these men at 835. But Tracy Robinson, who was no enemy of the railroad, said perhaps 40 percent died, or about 2,500. And no one then even reckoned the number of deaths among the blacks. Perhaps 6,000 men died in all.

Whatever the true figure was, it was an exceedingly high price to pay for forty-seven and a half miles of track, and it was a grim forewarning of the still greater tragedy to follow. When the French attempted their Panama canal thirty years later, under the great hero of Suez, Ferdinand de Lesseps, an estimated 20,000 people died of disease.

More immediately, the sheer number of bodies that had to be disposed of became something of a problem in itself and led to a macabre solution. Since a large percentage of the dead men had no known next of kin, no permanent address, often not even a known last name, it was decided to pickle their bodies in large barrels, then sell them in wholesale lots. The result was a thriving trade with medical schools all over the world, the proceeds going to finance a small railroad hospital at Colón.

A huge timber bridge was completed over the Chagres at Barbacoas after enormous effort, then swept away by a flash flood. Heavy rains in the mountains, as the engineers learned to their utter dismay, could cause the river to rise forty feet in as little as twenty-four hours. Elsewhere the landscape seemed mainly water, one creek or stream after another, swamps, foul slime-covered pools. In places the roadbed kept sinking steadily and had to be built up again and again, year after year. At the famous Black Swamp, Totten had to probe 185 feet down to find solid bottom.