Panama Railroad

The Panama Canal Railway is a transportation system completely renovated Canal that runs parallel to essentially along the original route of the first transcontinental railroad in the world. At present, the railway is mainly dedicated to moving containerized cargo between ports of the Pacific and the Atlantic. Passenger trains provide regular service, offering great views of the Canal, the tropical rainforest and the natural beauty of the flora, fauna and rugged terrain. The route, which is made in modern cars with air conditioning, takes less than an hour, and trains have outdoor platforms where you can take great pictures.


While the Camino Real, later Camino de Cruces, served communication across the isthmus for over three centuries, in the nineteenth century it was increasingly evident that a less expensive and faster alternative was needed. Given the difficulty of building a canal with available technology, a railway seemed the ideal solution.

President Bolivar of Colombia commissioned a study on the possibility of building a railway from Chagres (on the Chagres River) to Panama City; This study was conducted between 1827 and 1829, and announced that such construction was possible. However the idea was not put into practice.

In 1836, President Jackson of the United States commissioned a study on possible routes for interoceanic communication, in order to protect the interests of Americans traveling between the two oceans. This resulted in the acquisition of a franchise for trans-isthmus rail, however, the project fell victim to the economic panic of 1837, and came to nothing.

In 1838 a French company it was awarded the rights to build a road, railway or canal across the isthmus route. A first engineering study recommended a canal from Limon Bay to the Bay of Boca del Monte, twelve miles (19 km) west of Panama, but the new project failed for lack of funding.

Following the acquisition of Alta California in 1848, and the increasing movement of settlers to the West Coast due to fever unleashed gold in the region, the United States, once again, focused on ensuring a secure connection, reliable and fast between the oceans. Therefore, Congress authorized the operation of two lines of mail ships: one, from New York to Chagres; and another, from Oregon and California to Panama.

At this stage, the actual transit through the isthmus was performed by the old route, which was damaged. Usually the traffic would take four or five days. William H. Aspinwall, (nephew of Samuel Howland and Gardiner Greene, founders of the firm Howland and Aspinwall), the man who had resumed operation the company “Pacific Mail Steamships” initiated a plan to build a railway across the isthmus; he and his partners created a company, which raised US 1,000,000 shares from selling dollars and launched the project. His company was singularly timely, since the discovery of gold in California triggered an avalanche of immigrants wishing to cross the isthmus.

In May 1850, with the first shovelful he kicked off the project, but quickly, the difficulty of it became clear. The heat was stifling, and torrential rains for nearly half the year required the workers to work in waters up to four feet deep. Yellow fever and malaria claimed many victims, despite the continued importation of a large number of workers, there were times when the work stalled due to lack of manpower.

Luck played again in November 1851, when two steamers were forced to take refuge in Lemon Bay because of a storm. Since that time the railroad dock had been completed, and had placed seven miles (11km) from rail to Gatun was possible to land cargo ships of migrants and rail transport vehicles -using construction- at least the first part of their journey across the isthmus. The directors of the company immediately ordered passenger cars, and railroad began running 40 miles (64 km) rail place yet. This greatly increased the value of the shares of the company, which helped finance the rest of the project.

In January 1855 Culebra the top of the Continental Divide of the Americas in the region, was hit from the Atlantic side, thirty-seven kilometers of track had been placed from Columbus. To midnight on January 27, 1855 a second brigade, working in less difficult conditions, it completed eleven miles (18 km) of rail from Panama to the summit. The next day the first locomotive transited from sea to Mk.5 Upon completion, the route 47 miles, 3,020 feet with a maximum of sixty feet stretched mile. The level of the top, that is 37.38 miles from the Atlantic and 10.2 miles from the Pacific, was 258.64 feet above the Atlantic and 242.7 feet above the Pacific, being 263.9 feet above mean tide of the Atlantic Ocean, and the top of the ridge 287 feet above it nivel.6

Certificate for 100 shares of Panama Railroad Company (Cert # 16669) dated New York, August 18, 1871. (The Cooper Collections)

The construction of the railway would cost about 8 million dollars (eight times the initial estimate in 1850), and presented significant engineering challenges, from across mountains and through swamps. more than 300 bridges and culverts to build the entire route is needed.

The work was largely built and financed by private American companies. Among the key people in the construction of the railway were William H. Aspinwall, David Hoadley, Muirson George Totten, and John Lloyd Stephens. Originally the railway was built and acquired through a public tender for a company based in the city of New York, the “Panama Railroad Company,” and then was incorporated by the State of New York on April 7, 1849, and its shares will eventually would be the highest value of the time. The company bought the exclusive rights to the government of Colombia (then known as the Republic of New Granada of which Panama was part) to build the railroad across the Isthmus.

Example of the first type inverted U rails 24kg, nails type “screw” and wooden sleepers lignum-vitae used to build the railway from 1851 to 1855. (The Cooper collection)

While still under construction, the railroad transported a significant traffic, still unfinished sections traffic was transported by mules. Initially this was not foreseen, but people who crossed the isthmus to California were eager to use this route as had been established. Although only had completed 10 km of rail, the railroad was getting a good deal, for each train trip is charged $ 25 per person and an additional $ 10 to walk across the rest of the 60 km as right of way through the isthmus. By the time the line was officially completed on January 28, 1855 the first passenger train journeyed throughout your level, more than a third of the cost had already been paid for freight rates and tariffs.

Medical and engineering problems Panama Railroad made the most expensive (per mile) ever built at that time. It was discovered that some swamps required fillings over 100 feet (30 m) deep before you can build a solid fill.


It is estimated that more than 12,000 people died in railway construction, in addition to the victims that was in the watermelon war were about 15 dead, a negligible figure beside which caused diseases like malaria and weather affecting people. The Panama railroad company gave no official data and the total could have been higher. Diseases such as cholera and malaria were charged life countless workers. Railroad workers came from the United States, Europe, China, West Indies, including some African slaves. Many of these workers had come to Panama to seek his fortune, and had little or no identification. Most of the dead its origin is unknown, death to his closest relatives were not notified, and many do not even know his name.

Marketing Corpse
Exhaustion and diseases spread mainly by mosquitoes that quickly grew by marshy climate conditions Panama life of a number of workers were charged. For those with the right connections eliminating these bodies was a good deal. Medical schools and teaching hospitals demanded cadavers for their students, and paid generous sums for unidentified bodies kept in barrels brought from the tropics. The Panama Railroad Company sold the corpses abroad, and revenues were sufficient to sustain their own hospital. A journalist reported seeing the medical director of the hospital of the Panama Railroad Company chemically treating skeletons of workers to form a museum with bones of all races who worked on the railway construction.

Completion of the Work
Information on the opening of the Panama Railroad, January 28, 1855, The Portland (Maine) Transcript [Newspaper], February 17, 1855. (The Cooper Collections) [transcription available]

Completed the 48 miles (77km) railroad was proclaimed as the engineering marvel of the time. The line was built as double track.

Atlantic terminal is in (former Aspinwall) Columbus; and the Pacific in Panama City.

Until the opening of the Panama Canal, the railroad transported the increased freight volume per unit length than any other in the world. The existence of the railroad was instrumental in the selection of Panama as the site for the construction of a canal. In 1881 the French company Compagnie du Canal Universal acquired the rights Interoceanique control of the Panama Railroad Company. In 1904 the US government bought the French railroad company. By then the railway assets included some 75 miles (120 km) of track, 35 locomotives, 30 passenger carriages, 900 freight cars.

The construction and opening of the Panama Canal

The railroad was a great help in building the canal, which closely parallel and in some places the control of the rail line was assumed. Parts of the rail route were moved during construction of the canal, the railway system and considerable improvements were made. In addition to the channel, the reconstruction and improvements to the Panama Railroad culminated in 1912.

Pos Panama Canal
After World War II some additional improvements to the Panama Railroad, due to the decline in which it was then realized that the US government handed over the government of Panama in 1979. On June 19, 1998, the government of Panama returned control to the Panama Canal Railway Company ( “PCRC”), a joint venture between “Kansas City Southern Railroad” and the private equity firm Lanigan Holdings, LLC. In 2000 and 2001 through a mega project to rail improvements for handling large containers they were conducted to supplement the cargo of the Panama Canal. The line is now a single stretch with some strategically placed sections of double track. Since 2006 the driving force includes 10 ex-F40PHs Amtrak and 1 GP10. The rolling stock is characterized by glass domed cars dating from 1938.

Road width
Originally the Panama Railroad had a track gauge of 1,524 mm, its reconstruction in 2000, was changed to 1,435 mm for rolling stock could be used standard. The original was elected usual in South America before conversion to standard, after the Civil War.

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