Physicist, Oceanographer, Aerospace Technologist, Rancher, Land Developer and Lecturer
Building the Panama Railroad
Perhaps the most important element in the construction of the Panama Canal was the building and then the operation of the Panama Railroad
This entire section is being reworked and will soon be included with many photos
A group of railroad builders from New York in the United States saw the possibility of making a lot of money in constructing a transisthmian railroad across Panama. Gold had been discovered in California and there was a mad rush for people to reach that locale from all over the world, especially from the East in the U.S. Little did the builders know of the problems they were in for. Labor was brought in from the West Indies and Africa by the thousands. A land route was laid out parallel to the Chagres River where it came out of the mountains almost to the Continental Divide. But in order to reach that point, where the present day Gamboa sits, dozens if not hundreds of rivers and streams had to be crossed.
In addition, the first five miles of the building on the Atlantic side was through gumbo and mangrove swamps that did not seem to have a bottom. In addition tothe building obstacles, the builders also ran into the terrible diseases of the jungle, and additional diseases brought in by the laborers, namely malaria and yellow fever. There was such a great loss of life over the five years of the building that no more room could be found to bury the dead. Those that were buried were put into graves stacked five or more high. Others where no burial space could be found, were put into barrels, pickled and sold to medical schools in many parts of the world.
In spite of the obstacles and the huge death count, the railroad, begun in 1850 was successfully completed in 1855. More than 25,000 lost their lives during the construction. But if it had not been for this successful and costly effort, the success of the building of the Panama Canal many years later would not have been accomplished in the manner it was. The railroad was to prove the kingpin in the later canal construction.
Users of the railroad included those that rode the trains and paid high premiums to do that, and those that walked the railroad tracks from one ocean to the other. This wasn't free, however, for there was a charge even to walk the tracks. The railroad became a fantastic investment for those that had put their money on its completion.
It wasn't long before the French Canal Company made its bid with the country of Colombia to build the Panama Canal. The French builders recognized the importance of the railroad and purchased it from the group out of New York. The French Canal Company immediately started using the existing rails and building new tracks that led to and from the locations where the digging was to take place. This will be described more completely in the next sub-section, the French effort to construct the Canal. The railroad was to play a very important part later when Panama was seeking its independence from Colombia after the failed French effort to build the canal.
Colombian soldiers and their officers were sent to Panama to quell any possibility of a revolt by those in Panama to break away from Colombia. The railroad, run at the time by Americans who had reclaimed it after the French Canal Company failure, was to be used by the Colombian forces to get their troops from Colon on the Atlantic side to Panama on the Pacific. They found, however, that the trains had conveniently been sent to the Pacific side before they could be used, and only one small engine with one small passenger car was dispatched to Colon and could only accomodate the officers of the Colombian troops. The troops were left in Colon. Upon arrival in Panama City on the Panama Railroad, the Colombian officers, without any backing of their troops were quickly neutralized, and in a bloodless coup, Panama thus won its independence from Colombia.
The railroad was subsequently purchased by the United States after the Panamanian independence as part of the payment to the French Canal Company. It was immediately put into use as the Americans began their digging efforts.
Throughout the days of the building of the Panama Canal, everything moved via railroad tracks. All the digging equipment, earth moving equipment, concrete pouring towers, concrete making set-ups, everything! The railroad made the building of the Canal possible. There were no trucks, no backhoes, no bulldozers, no front loaders. Only the railroad made the construction a success.