The Panama Railroad

Panama Railroad

The news of the failure of Page, Bacon & Co. in St. Louis reached San Francisco by way of the newly completed Panama Railroad. In February 1855 the fastest means of communication between the east coast of the United States and California was by Pacific Mail Steamship and the Panama Railroad. Work on the railway began in 1850. From it鈥檚 terminal in Aspinwall, today鈥檚 Colon, to the end of the line in Panama City was only forty-eight miles and while there were no difficult engineering obstacles to overcome completion was delayed and the first train did not pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific until January 23, 1855. The route was mostly over level ground with the highest elevation less than three hundred feet above sea level. There were no large rivers to cross, no tunnels to bore, and no deep cuts or fills to make. The New York investors had expected to finish the railroad in only a couple of years and at a reasonable cost.

Chagres River

There were, however, many unforeseen problems. The local workforce, characterized as indolent, ignorant and unreliable, had to be replaced by men from more temperate climates and the death rate among the imported workers was staggering, especially in the swamps around Aspinwall and along the Chagres River. Panama fever, or malaria as we know it today, attacked almost everyone who stayed too long on the isthmus and was often fatal. The rampant disease became a huge problem and added enormously to the costs. Investors such as William Aspinwall and Gordon Howland were afraid the project could not be completed.

Panama harbor

It took a lucrative United States mail contract, secured for the company by Senator William M. Gwin, to assure these investors of a return on their investment, and the line was finally completed. But construction had taken five years instead of two and had cost seven and a half million dollars instead of the one and a half million first estimated. But almost at once the railroad began a tremendous business in both passengers and fast freight and quickly became one of the most interesting and important national railways in the world, and continued in this role until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 took away most of its traffic.


  1. Several years ago John, I was privileged to read the diaries of my great grandfather from his days at sea aboard the RN ship, HMS Shah. He described taking a trip across the Panama Isthmus on the self same rail-road in the 1870’s. By all accounts it was a hair raising journey. 馃檪

    • Panama was a dangerous place, Jack. Malaria and Yellow Fever were rampant along the Chagres River. The railroad helped a lot, mostly by speeding up the crossing.

      Well before he was a famous Civil War General, US Grant got stuck in the Panama mountains with a group of soldiers and their families when Cholera broke out. Many died. I’m glad your great grandfather made it across.

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