- 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
Some weeks later, with the return of the dry season and the arrival of a delegation of stockholders and newspaper people from New York, something like a formal opening was staged. Quantities of champagne were consumed, quantities of roast beef and pickled oysters devoured. The visitors —not an especially distinguished lot, as one of them later conceded—went breezing gaily along through the jungle, exclaiming over the orchids and passion flowers to be seen, the multicolored birds that burst into the air, or a chance alligator picked out of the shadows along a riverbank. The ride was so smooth, we are told, that it did not disturb the ash from a cigar.
There were numerous stops en route for water and wood or at little white-frame station houses with green shutters and picket fences that might have been transplanted directly from New England. For the passengers the journey was a surpassing spectacle—as it would be for the hundreds of thousands who were to follow in the coming years, as it would be for anyone who did not have to build a railroad through such a landscape.
“On we go, dry shod,” reads the account of one of the newspapermen, through the forest, which shuts out with its great walls of verdure on either side, the hot sun, and darkens the road with a perpetual shade. The luxuriance of the vegetation is beyond the powers of description. Now we pass impenetrable thickets of mangroves, rising out of deep marshes, and sending from each branch down into the earth, and from each root into the air, offshoots which gather together into a matted growth, where the observer seeks in vain to unravel the mysterious involution of trunk, root, branch, and foliage. Now we come upon gigantic espaves and coratos , with girths of thirty feet, and statures of a hundred and thirty feet, out of a single trunk. …
Again we cross a stream. … Then, again, the train coiling its winding way about the base of a hill, and emerging from the forest, the view opens suddenly upon an expanded savanna, where the tropical sun shines down in a flood of light upon a river bending through an undulating park of green verdure, with clumps of trees here and there, with cattle feeding in their shade, and a settlement of native, palm-thatched, bamboo huts, half hid in groves of banana and orange. So we hurry from scene to scene, pushing on through the flood of tropical vegetation, with endless vistas of beauty that come and go like the dreams of a summer’s day.
At Summit Station everyone climbed out into the blazing heat to hear the United States plenipotentiary read a speech that few, including those who were sober, would remember a word of. The lasting impressions were of the local oranges on sale (they are green in color, extremely juicy, and delicious) and the gaunt, sallow look of fever in the faces of the railroad employees- like death heads under Panama hats, wrote one man. Such “unwholesomeness,” however, was thought to be as much a part of the landscape as the oranges. The revelation that malaria and yellow fever are carried by mosquitoes was not to come for another generation and would not be accepted by the medical profession until after the turn of the century. Swamp gas, emanations from the putrid soil of the jungle floor, “noxious effluvia” hanging in the wet, heavy air—these were thought to be the sources of all fevers and miasmas, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The average time for crossing was reduced first to four, then to three hours. Steamship passengers arriving at the isthmus could disembark on one side in the morning and count on being aboard ship on the other side before dark. Business was booming. “My own private opinion is that no speculative investment I have ever known … offers such returns … ,” William Aspinwall advised a kinsman. In the next ten years the railroad carried nearly 400,000 passengers. Annual receipts during that time, including the panic year of 1857, were never less than $600,000. For five of those years they were in excess of $ 1,000,000.