- 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
Like de Lesseps, Totten thought a through-cut canal along the route of the railroad—that is, a sea-level passage without locks, such as the Suez Canal—was a thoroughly practicable proposition, and, like de Lesseps, Totten was gravely mistaken. (The American canal builders, when their turn came, would not only know how to rid the isthmus of malaria and yellow fever, but they would wisely decide not to try a sea-level trench.)
Control over the little railroad would be essential to his project, de Lesseps realized, but this was no less apparent to the Wall Street operator who had been busily buying up virtually all of the stock—Trenor W. Park, a mere sparrow of a man who was practiced in driving extremely hard bargains. Park too readily declared de Lesseps’ plan sound and set his price at twice the market value. For about five months after construction got under way de Lesseps continued to hold out, refusing to pay Park’s price. His engineers on the isthmus tried to get by as best they could. Meanwhile the railroad was being run as usual as a separate and very independent American enterprise. The arrangement was impossible. So on June 11, 1881, the road was purchased outright by the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique for $20,000,000. Park himself cleared about $7,000,000 on the transaction.
Years later, in 1904, when the United States purchased all the holdings of the long-since bankrupt French canal company—its equipment, properties, the unfinished excavations—the railroad was part of the $40,000,000 package. By then the line was in sad shape. Equipment was long out of date and in bad repair; the road itself had to be completely overhauled from end to end and double-tracked. Tonnage carried on the line during excavation of the canal was phenomenal (300,000,000 tons in 1909-10, for instance) as the endless dirt trains rolled across the isthmus, but it was not really the same Panama Railroad any longer. Track, rolling stock, everything was different. Then, because the roadbed lay in what was to be the canal channel, this line too was taken up— in 1912 after completion of the new Panama Railroad (strictly an adjunct to the canal), or two years before the canal was opened.
Today, in the middle of the Panama Canal—on Lake Gatun—there is an abrupt, lush little island called Barro Colorado, once the summit of a small mountain. For the past fifty years the island has been used by the Smithsonian Institution as a tropical research station. There is a small compound of laboratories and living quarters, and from the screened porch of the main building you can look out over a fairsized sweep of lake and miles of jungle farther beyond. It is easy to forget that what you are seeing is one of the world’s great shipping lanes, for only when a huge tanker appears, its prow emerging suddenly around the distant break in the trees, is there any sign of civilization.
The Panama Railroad passed directly by here. Possibly traces of it could still be found some sixty or seventy feet beneath the calm, blue lake. Whether Totten or Trautwine or the others ever climbed to this point to study the lay of the land, I cannot say. Most likely they did. It could all be the very same wilderness they faced, and especially when a rain squall sweeps over the distant jungle, blotting out the view, you try to imagine what manner of men they were, what quality of purpose spurred them on. “Here the bravest might well have faltered and even turned back from so dark a prospect as presented itself to the leaders … but they were men whom personal perils and privations could not daunt, whose energy and determination, toil and suffering could not vanquish.” Such is the explanation offered in the old history by Dr. Otis; and as out of fashion as that may sound, it could just be the answer.