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Steam Road To El Dorado

July 2024
26min read

Mile for mile, it cost more in dollars—and lives—than any railroad ever built

It was not long after the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 that Bedford Clapperton Pirn declared with perfect composure that of all the world’s wonders none could surpass this one as a demonstration of man’s capacity to do great things against impossible odds.

“I have seen the greatest engineering works of the day,” he wrote, ”…but I must confess that when passing backwards and forwards on the Panama Railway, standing on the engine to obtain a good view, I have never been more struck than with the evidence, apparent on every side, of the wonderful skill, endurance, and perseverance, which must have been exercised in its construction.”

Bedford Clapperton Pim was a British naval officer and of no particular historical significance. He had, however, seen a great deal of the world, he was a recognized authority on Central America, and his opinion was not lightly arrived at.

It should be kept in mind that the first railroads, all very primitive, had been built in Europe and the United States only some twenty years before. France was still virtually without railroads; not a rail had been put down west of the Mississippi as yet. Moreover, such awesome technological strides as the Suez Canal, the Union Pacific, and the Brooklyn Bridge were still well in the future. And so the vision of locomotives highballing through the green half-light of some distant rain forest, of the world’s two greatest oceans joined by good Englishmade rails, could stir the blood in an extraordinary way.

The Panama Railroad—the first steam road to El Dorado—was begun in 1850, at the height of the California gold craze. And, in truth, by anyone’s standards it was a stunning demonstration of man’s “wonderful skill, endurance, and perseverance,” just as Pirn said, even though its full length was only forty-seven and a half miles.

It was, for example, and as almost no one ever acknowledges, the first ocean-to-ocean railroad, its completion predating that of the Union Pacific by fourteen years. Mile for mile it also appears to have cost more in dollars and in human life than any railroad ever built, and for fourteen years it was the world’s best-paying railroad.

The surveys made by its builders produced important geographic revelations that had a direct bearing on the decision to build a Panama canal along the same route. And the diplomatic agreement upon which the whole venture rested, the so-called Bidlack Treaty of 1846, was the basis of all subsequent involvement of the United States in Panama.

Still the simple fact that it was built remains the overriding wonder, given the astonishing difficulties that had to be overcome and the means at hand in the 1850’s. Present-day engineers who have had experience in jungle construction wonder how in the world it was ever managed. I think in particular of David S. Parker, an eminent army engineer whom I interviewed at the time he was governor of the Canal Zone. Through a great sweep of glass behind him, as we talked, were the distant hills of Panama, no different in appearance than they ever were. It is almost inconceivable, he said, that the railroad survey—just the survey—could have been made by a comparative handful of men who had no proper equipment for topographic reconnaissance (no helicopters, no recourse to aerial photography), no modern medicines, nor the least understanding of the causes of malaria or yellow fever. There was no such thing as an insect repellent, no bulldozers, no chain saws, no canned goods, not even one reliable map.

A Panama railroad still crosses from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Colon to Panama City. The trains run several times daily and on time, and much of the ride—especially if you are in one of the older cars (without air conditioning, windows open wide)—looks and feels as it must have originally. The jungle is still the jungle. The full trip takes one hour and thirty minutes. But except for a few miles at either end, the present line is altogether different from the original. It takes a different route on higher ground, and like the canal it is owned and operated by the United States government. The old road has vanished beneath Gatun Lake, the enormous body of fresh water that comprises most of the canal and that can be seen close by on the right much of the way as you head toward the Pacific.


The original line was a five-foot, or broad, gauge, and it was built about as hurriedly and cheaply as circumstances would allow, to take advantage of the bonanza in California traffic. A minimum of grading was bothered with; bridges were all of wood and built none too substantially. The route was always along the line of least resistance. Anything formidable in the way—a hill, a bend in the Chagres River—was by-passed if at all possible. No tunnels were attempted (there is one on the present line), and the winding right of way chopped through the jungle was just wide enough to let a train pass. Still, this one little stretch of track took nearly five years to build and cost $8,000,000, which averages out to a little less than ten miles a year and a then unheard-of $168,000 per mile. Part of the construction problem can be appreciated in a single statistic. In those forty-seven and a half miles it was necessary to build a hundred and seventy bridges of more than twelve feet in length.


Prior to the railroad there had been no regular thoroughfare across the Isthmus of Panama, and this despite the fact that Panama had been a crossroad between the Atlantic and Pacific since the time of the Spanish conquest. Except for a few isolated villages scattered along the Chagres River, the interior was an unbroken wilderness, little changed from the time Panama City was founded in the sixteenth century.


To get from one side of the isthmus to the other, starting from the Atlantic or Caribbean, travelers went up the Chagres by canoe to a point roughly twelve miles from Panama City, then crossed overland on the old Cruces Trail, a narrow, treacherous mule path that in the wet season—or nine months of the year—was virtually a river of mud. At best, a crossing from ocean to ocean took four to six days, and for all who survived, it remained one of life’s memorable experiences. Letters and diaries are replete with descriptions of insects swarming in great clouds over the river, of encampments swamped by blinding rains, of pack mules sinking to their haunches in putrid muck.

The idea for a railroad to supplant all of that originated in New York in the late i84o’s, shortly before the news of California gold reached the East. The founders were three unlikely and most dissimilar individuals, none of whom knew the least thing about building a railroad, even under favorable conditions. Henry Chauncey was a Wall Street financier. William Henry Aspinwall was a well-known capitalist and member of one of New York’s leading mercantile families, long engaged in trading with Latin America. The third man, John Lloyd Stephens, might have been the creation of Jules Verne. A diplomat, lawyer, raconteur, amateur archaeologist, he was best known as a traveler and travel writer. Indeed he was “The American Traveler,” one of the bestselling writers of the time, a redbearded, good-natured somebody who had been everywhere and seen everything and who cut a great path in New York and Washington social circles.

Aspinwall, with the help of a generous government franchise to carry the mail to California, had established steamship lines to and from Panama on both oceans. So except for the land barrier at Panama he could provide through steamer passage from New York to San Francisco. The railroad, then, was to be the vital land link in the system—in a grand, continent-embracing system that seemed altogether in step with the Manifest Destiny spirit of the day but to most practical men looked like an extremely speculative affair. On Wall Street the great question was why so “sound” a man as Aspinwall should have become involved in it.

It was Stephens who, in the initial stages, made the difference, and in human terms his life counted for a heavy part of the price of success—for he was to die of malaria. Alone of the three partners Stephens stayed with the work in the jungle. He was the driving spirit the first two years, the most difficult and disheartening stage of the whole ordeal. He gave up every other interest in order to see the work succeed, and he had infinitely more to give up. Earlier, in 1841, Stephens and an English architect named Frederick Catherwood had gone into the wilds of the Mexican provinces of Chiapas and Yucatán and discovered, or rather rediscovered, the ancient cities of the Maya. His books on the Mayan ruins, with stunning illustrations by Catherwood, had caused a sensation. But his overriding interest thereafter had been Panama. He had envisioned the tremendous, far-reaching impact a railroad could have at that singular geographic location, and he threw himself into the task with all the determination and confidence that he had shown in everything else he had ever put his hand to.

Stephens was the president of the railroad, which was a wholly Americanowned stock company with its main office in the old Tontine Building on Wall Street. The capitalization was a million dollars.


From the legal-diplomatic standpoint the undertaking was made possible by a treaty signed in Bogotá. Panama was still part of Colombia (or New Granada, as it was then known), and for years the government at Bogotá had been urging Great Britain and France to guarantee New Granada’s sovereignty over the isthmus as well as the neutrality of any future isthmian transit, be it railroad or canal. In return the European power was to have the exclusive right to build and operate such a transit. But all at once, in 1846, the United States chargé d’affaires in Bogotá, a new man named Benjamin Bidlack, acting without instructions, signed just such an agreement. Eventually it was sanctioned by the United States Senate; and so by binding treaty the United States was to watch over the isthmus, guarantee open transit from ocean to ocean, guarantee Colombian sovereignty over Panama, and build, if it so chose, a railroad or canal. In practice, once the railroad was in operation, it was to mean the more or less permanent stationing of American gunboats in Panamanian waters and the landing of American marines and sailors during a half dozen revolutions or “disturbances,” including the disturbance of 1903, the so-called Panama Revolution, which marked the final separation of Panama from Colombia. (The Panama Revolution is another story and a complicated one, but suffice it to say here that the maintenance of open, uninterrupted traffic on the railroad was the pretext by which American military force was used to prevent the transportation of Colombian troops, thereby guaranteeing a bloodless triumph by the local junta and the creation of the new Republic of Panama.)


The first stake marking the Atlantic terminus of the line was driven into some soggy, extremely unpleasant ground in May, 1850, at the onset of the rainy season. The site was little Manzanillo Island, less than a square mile in area, which stood at the opening of Limón Bay (the Atlantic entrance to the present canal) and which was separated from the mainland by only a narrow channel. Like all the low-lying shore of the bay, the island was without human habitation and just barely above tide level.

The terrain was such that the work party, some fifty men, had to live on board an old brig anchored near shore. (“In the black, slimy mud of its surface,” reads an old account, “alligators and other reptiles abounded; while the air was laden with pestilential vapors, and swarming with sandflies and musquitoes.”) All clearing of trees and vines had to be done by hand with machete or axe. Everything that had to be transported clear of the projected line had to be dragged by hand, too; no draft animals were available. Much of the time the men worked in water up to their waists, their faces covered with gauze to fend off insects, their noon meals stowed inside their hats.

The engineers in charge were Colonel George M. Totten and John Cresson Trautwine, two hard-bitten Americans in their early forties who had recently built the Canal del Dique joining the Magdalena River to the harbor at Cartagena. Totten was to stay with the railroad through thick and thin, weathering every imaginable kind of hell, including an attack of yellow fever so nearly fatal that his companions built a coffin for him. Totten in fact would remain chief engineer of the line long after it was built, and his word would be close to law on the isthmus for twenty-five years. A small, dark-skinned, dark-haired man with spectacles who wore his whiskers like Abraham Lincoln, he was quiet, selfeffacing, and exceedingly tough. Allegedly he also had a sense of humor, though a search through all available sources has failed to produce a trace of it.

Trautwine was the one mainly responsible for the surveys and as such probably deserves a good share of the credit. A better survey would be difficult to produce, according to presentday authorities. What Trautwine lacked in the way of equipment he made up for with ability. His Engineer’s Pocket Book (1871) would make his name famous among a whole generation of bridge builders, railroad men, and canal builders.

Others among this advance guard were Colonel George Hughes, a West Point graduate who had charge of the overall reconnaissance; James L. Baldwin, his assistant; Edward J. Serrell, another assistant who was later to become a builder of important suspension bridges; and a young man known as J. J. Williams, who as an old man would declare that as God was his witness it was he, not Trautwine, who drove the first stake.

From Manzanillo Island the line proceeded south, along the eastern shore of Limón Bay; then farther inland it picked up the valley of the Chagres River and kept to the valley, crossing the river just once at about midpoint across the isthmus. Still farther, where the landscape turned more mountainous, the route took the path of another river, the Rio Grande, which flows toward the Pacific.

Because of the curious configuration of the isthmus at Panama—with the land barrier running east-west between the oceans—the general direction of the line was north-south, a fact that countless travelers on the road, once it was finished, never would be quite able to comprehend.


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.

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.


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.

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.


More than $500,000,000 in gold went across the Panama Railroad in this same ten-year period; more than $140,000,000 in silver, $5,000,000 in jewelry, $19,000,000 in paper money. And the company collected a quarter of one per cent of the value of all precious cargo. The variety of freight handled—besides the usual coal, baggage, and mail—was quite exceptional. One traveler who took time to examine the inside of the freight depot at Colón left this description: Bales of quina bark from the interior were piled many tiers deep, and reached to the iron triangular-braced roof of the edifice. Ceroons of indigo and cochineal from San Salvador and Guatemala; coffee from Costa Rica, and cacao from Ecuador; sarsparilla from Nicaragua, and ivory-nuts from Porto Bello; copper ore from Bolivia; silver bars from Chili; boxes of hard dollars from Mexico, and gold ore from California; hides from the whole range of the North and South Pacific coast; hundreds of bushels of glistening pearl-oyster shells from the fisheries of Panama lay heaped along the floor, flanked by no end of North American beef, pork, flour, bread, and cheese, for the provisioning of the Pacific coast, and English and French goods for the same markets; while in a train of cattle-cars that stood on one of the tracks were huddled about a hundred meek-looking lamas from Peru, on their way to the island of Cuba, among whose mountains they are used for beasts of burden as well as for their wool.

In less than six years after it was finished, having covered all costs (including five years of major improvements from one end of the line to the other— new bridges, improved embankments, etc.), the railroad cleared more than $7,000,000.

Stock dividends for nearly twenty years averaged 15 per cent and went as high as 44 per cent in 1868. Once, with its price per share $295, the Panama Railroad was the highest listed stock on the New York Exchange. There had never been a railroad to stand comparison with it.

The explanation was obvious enough. The road had a total monopoly on the isthmian transit, and until the completion of the Union Pacific in 1869 it had no competition for the California traffic. Furthermore, the rates set for passengers and freight were, on a cost-per-mile basis, extremely high.

The story is that the original rate card was drawn up purely for fun in Colon and sent on to New York for the further entertainment of the head office. But the head office took it seriously. A one-way ticket was twenty-five dollars in gold (about two hundred dollars in today’s money), which came to fifty cents a mile and made it easily the most costly ride on earth. Anyone who objected was of course free to cross in the old manner—up the Chagres, over the Cruces Trail—or, if he preferred, to walk across along the path of the railroad. But the old way generally wound up costing fifty dollars or more (for canoes, mules, guides), and just for the privilege of walking on its right of way the railroad charged ten dollars. Few people ever wished to spend a moment more than necessary en route—because of the terror of disease—and so almost everyone gladly paid the twenty-five dollars, and the rate stood for years.

“And it must be recorded,” wrote Tracy Robinson, “that while there was not the least extravagance in the conduct of affairs, but on the contrary, great simplicity, the officers, clerks, and employees generally were paid generously for their services and the lives of themselves and families made as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.”

Food and housing were provided by the railroad. Headquarters was at the railroad’s hotel at Colon, the Washington House, a long, galleried frame ark facing the Caribbean. “There the officers gathered for their meals, with the chief [Totten] at the head, in true family style,” Robinson recalled. Medical and hospital care were provided free of charge. (Dr. Manuel Amador, chief surgeon for the railroad for many years, a native of Cartagena, would become the first president of Panama in 1904.) There was a library of sorts, a billiard room, and a stone church, built mostly with railroad money, that still stands.

Many Irish, French, and Italian workers stayed on, as did Jamaicans and other black West Indians, and their descendants are to be found at every level of present-day Panamanian society. A blue-eyed Panamanian with an Irish surname is not uncommon.

The beginning of the end came in 1880, with the arrival on the isthmus of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Totten, by then retired, came down from New York to join the tour. Both men were now in their seventies—two whitehaired figures whose respective efforts on two strategic isthmuses had so reduced the size of the world.

As early as 1849 tne great pioneer oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury had declared that the true value of a Panama railroad would be the precedent it would establish: “… by showing to the world how immense this business is, men will come from the four quarters to urge with purse and tongue the construction of a ship canal.” And such had been the case, except that de Lesseps was the first to arrive with anything approaching a purse (he was then in the process of organizing his Paris-based Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique).

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.


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