- 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
Pine or spruce ties on earlier sections of the road rotted and had to be replaced with ties of lignum vitae from Cartagena—ties so hard that holes had to be bored before a spike could be driven into them. Then beyond Barbacoas, at Culebra, a substantial cut a mile long had to be dug through blue clays that in the rains turned to a thick, stubborn gum. To get the clay from their shovels the workers had to use scrapers. And here, too, at Culebra, the engineers encountered the terrible slides that were to plague the canal builders.
With all the gold being brought across from California, with so much comparatively well-heeled humanity converging from all directions, gangs of outlaws appeared and began harassing the line. Several brutal murders occurred; workers were beaten and robbed. So when the local government declared itself incapable of policing the line, the company organized its own armed guard, a ragged, barefoot band under the leadership of one Ran Runnels, a Texas Ranger who did not look the part but who did the job with cold-blooded dispatch, inspired, it seems, by profound religious visions. He was subtle; at first he did very little to check the crime wave, but suddenly, early in 1852, he and his socalled Isthmus Guard rounded up thirty-seven suspects, including several well-known Panamanian businessmen, and hanged them all on the inner side of the old Spanish seawall at Panama City. All at once there they were one bright morning. “Silently the citizens survey the appalling spectacle and then go on about their business,” wrote one aghast traveler in a letter to his wife in Boston.
To Runnels, who believed himself divinely appointed to cleanse Eden of evil and corruption, it became a holy war, and some six months later, in the fall of 1852, he struck again. This time there were forty-one victims dangling from the seawall. The crime wave abruptly ended.
The terrifying epidemics, the loss of the bridge at Barbacoas, the mud slides at Culebra, and the Ran Runnels scourge were the memorable events, and they figure prominently in most surviving accounts. The smaller, dayto-day difficulties and torments were the less colorful, less picturesque side of the story, and they can be readily imagined: the punishing heat, the torrential Panama rains, the terrible fatigue of physical labor in such a climate, clothes that never got dry, scorpions in boots in the morning, the incessant mosquitoes, sand flies, ticks, the bad food, and nothing—not a blessed thing—to do but work and survive the jungle while throngs of others, thousands upon thousands of people, passed by heading for the new El Dorado.
Severe mental depression became one of the most debilitating of all problems. And in this respect the Chinese laborers suffered especially. To ease their plight the company resorted to supplying them with daily rations of opium. Of a thousand Chinese laborers brought in probably six to seven hundred died of disease, but among the survivors melancholia became so acute that scores of them committed suicide, some hanging themselves by their own pigtails, others impaling themselves on carefully sharpened sticks or bamboo poles.
In a letter to one of the stockholders Colonel Totten would write: “I am ashamed that so much has been expended in overcoming so little, and take no credit for any engineering science displayed on the work. The difficulties have been of another nature, and do not show themselves on the line.”
On November 24, 1853, a locomotive rolled across a new bridge at Barbacoas, this one a bridge of iron, twice the length of the other (625 feet) and built some forty feet above the caramel-colored Chagres. “The Rubicon is passed,” announced the Panama Star . In another year the line was at Summit Station (Culebra). Five thousand men were at work, with the construction gangs laboring from both ends.
There was no special ceremony when the last rail was put in place. No gold spike was driven, though by all rights, for this railroad especially, there should have been. The last rail went down on the wet night of January 27, 1855. Totten drove the final spike with a nine-pound maul, and at 8:30 the next morning, a Sunday, he climbed into the cab of a small woodburning locomotive at Colón and took it and a string of nine cars on the world’s first “transcontinental” run.
Totten called it “as perfect a road as can be found in the United States.” And a writer for the Aspinwall Daily Courier told how the train, “a chariot of fire,” came “thundering over the summit, and down the Pacific slope.” In truth there were only twenty-eight miles of straight track. The road was so full of curves, the roadbed so tender in places, that the train had to feel its way with extreme caution. The entire first run, ocean to ocean, included twenty-six station stops and took seven hours.