The Panama Canal was a by-product of the Panama Railroad built in 1855, fifty-nine years before the Canal was inaugurated in 1914. The railroad project was an immediate financial success.
Having, as it did, a monopoly on the Panama transit, the railroad was a bonanza. Profits in the first six years after it was finished were in excess of $7,000,000. Dividends were 15 percent on the average and went as high as 44 percent. Once, standing at $295 a share, Panama Railroad was the highest-priced stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The reduction in time and distance traveled was no less than dramatic. From New York to San Francisco around the Horn was a months-long voyage of thirteen thousand miles. From New York to San Francisco by way of Panama was five thousand miles, or a saving of eight thousand miles. From New Orleans to San Francisco by Panama, instead of around the Horn, the saving was more than nine thousand miles.
The volume of human traffic alone—upward of 400,000 people between 1856 and 1866—gave Panama a kind of most-beaten-path status unmatched by any of the other canal routes talked of.
The infrastructure of this still functioning railroad (now called the Panama Canal Railway Company) was of vital importance for construction of the Panama Canal over a parallel route half a century later. The principal incentive for the building of the rail line was the vast increase in traffic to California owing to the 1849 California Gold Rush. Construction on the Panama Railroad began in 1850 and the first revenue train ran over the full length on January 28, 1855.
The little railroad was to begin in 1850, with the idea that it could be finished in two years. It was finished five years later, at a cost of $8,000,000. six times beyond anyone’s estimate. Not only financial resources were in great numbers, but also in human lives. It’s estimated that more than twelve thousand persons died during the construction of the railway.
For a generation of Americans there was something especially appealing about the picture of this line across Panama, of a steam locomotive highballing through the jungle, pulling a train of bright passenger cars, a steam whistle scattering monkeys to the treetops—“ocean to ocean” in something over three hours. It was also the world’s first transcontinental railroad—one track, five foot (or broad) gauge, exactly forty-seven and one half miles long—and the most expensive one on earth on a dollar-per-mile basis, expensive to build and expensive to travel. A one-way ticket was $25.00 in gold.
William Henry Aspinwall, a wealthy New York merchant, was the founder and guiding spirit of the the railroad venture. He was later joined by a banker named Henry Chauncey and by John Lloyd Stephens.
Stephens was the first president of the Panama Railroad Company and its driving force until his death at age forty-six. He was the one member of the threesome to stay with the actual construction effort in the jungle, and result was an attack of fever, a recurrence of which was fatal in the fall of 1852.
I was there at the Balboa old passenger railroad station last Sunday. Several commercial sites have been rented by the Panama Government to local businesses, one of them is a MacDonald’s restaurant. Most, if not all of these businesses are closed. The site is not an attractive commercial area.
I took some pictures of the original structure of the railroad station for your information and enjoyment. Here we go.
Photograph of the upper section of the Balboa railroad station. The logo is that of Ferrocarril de Panama when the Republic of Panama operated the railway for only a few years. As of 2008 it is jointly owned by the Kansas City Southern Railway and Panama Holdings, LLC. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
Photograph of the platform where the passengers boarded the trains. In the distance you can see the port of Balboa moving a large quantity of containers. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A closer view of the Balboa train station. As you can see, the shell of the building is in a pretty good condition, after all these years. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
View of the same previous image, but with a Black and White touch. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
Even though the Panama Railroad was opened in 1855—154 years ago—it’s still a profitable business. Millions of containers are transported from Balboa to Cristobal and vice versa every year. Mr. William H. Aspinwall knew what he was doing back then. Good Day.
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