An Iron Road Across the Isthmus of Panama


The personality of a nation is molded by the series of historical events that take place during the formation and evolution of a country.  The way the people think and behave—idiosyncrasy—is greatly influenced by historical events that happened within a  specific geographical area.

In the case of Panama, four outstanding historical events determined its culture and  personality as a nation:

  1. The colonization of the Isthmus of Panama by Spain in 1501.  Spain gave us their language, their architecture, their religion and part of their culture.
  2. The construction of roads and trails across the land, like the Camino Real (King’s Highway) and el Camino a Cruces (Cruces Trail).
  3. The construction of the Panama Railway in 1855.
  4. The construction of the Panama Canal in 1914.

Thousands of book have been written about each of the four items mentioned above.  In this post, I will refer to important highlights of the construction of an inter-oceanic railroad across the isthmus during the middle of the 19th Century. This road of iron across the land represented the world’s first “transcontinental” railroad.

The route stretches 48 miles across the narrow Isthmus of Panama from Aspinwall (now called Colón) to Panama City (by way of Gatún, Bujio, Barbacoas, Frijoles, Gamboa, Matachin and Summit).

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—five years later.

One of the Panama newspapers papers wrote:

“On the arrival of the train near Panama, it was met by a large proportion of the native population, who were anxious to behold the fire-eating steed with his train of carriages.

On the approach of the train, they seemed stupefied with amazement, but when he engineer opened the steam whistle, their wonder was changed to fear—and some of the women and children were so entirely bewildered and horrified, that they started for the woods, screaming at every jump.

The impression upon the entire population, on the appearance of the train at the city, was the most exciting character, and after the first paroxysm of wonder was over, the people crowded about the train so closely as scarcely to leave room for it to move upon the track.”

Building this band of iron across the narrow land was not a walk in the park.  The heat was stifling, and deluges of rain for almost half the year required the workers to operate in water up to four feet deep. The swamps were apparently endlessly deep often requiring hundreds of feet of gravel backfill to secure a roadbed.

The only power equipment they had was the railroad; the rest of the work had to be done by hand and mule cart. Cholera, yellow fever and malaria  took a deadly toll, and despite the continual importation of large numbers of new workers, there were times when the work stalled for simple lack of alive and semi-fit workers. All supplies and nearly all food stuffs had to be imported from the United States greatly adding to the cost of construction.

“Sickness took such a terrible toll that the men could work only one week out of three. How many did actually die is not known. The company kept no systematic records, no body count, except for its white workers, who represented only a fraction of the total force employed over the five years of construction. (In 1853, for example, of some 1,590 men on the payroll, 1,200 were black.)

However, the company’s repeated assertion that in fact fewer than a thousand had died was patently absurd. A more reasonable estimate is six thousand, but it could very well have been twice that. No one will ever know, and the statistic is not so important as the ways in which they died—if cholera, dysentery, fever, smallpox, all the scourges against which there was no known protection or any known cure.”

The labor for the project was a complex mix of Europeans,  Chinese, the Caribbean Islands inhabitants, Colombians, and Americans.  The Chinese became suicidal.  Chinese hung themselves on trees all around the  construction area by their own hair.  Other joined hands in small groups and walked to the ocean and drowned themselves full of nostalgia and melancholy for their distant motherland.  It is estimated that over 12,000 people were killed during the construction of the railroad.

In the end, the company discovered that for heavy work in the tropics, no race of men could match West Indian Africans descendants. Slow-moving, accustomed to heat, resistant to the fevers, these cheerful and humble people played a most honorable part in the realization of man’s dreams on the Isthmus.  They are the real heroes behind the construction of the Panama railroad.

The train closed soon after it was turned over to the Panamanian government in 1981 and reopened again in 2001 under the direction of the Kansas City Southern Railroad. In the past year the railroad has taken over 20,000 tourists across the isthmus.

Everyone has seen the concrete Panama City Train Station located in front of the Plaza Cinco de Mayo, which is now a museum.  The wooden building shown in this photo is the original Panama Railroad Passenger Station that was replaced by a more modern building in 1913.

This is the concrete building I photographed a couple of weeks ago.  It still has the  same regal look it had way back at the turn of the century.  As you can see, its architecture style follows the path of the structures built by ancient Greece, (i.e., the Parthenon) during its Golden Age also known as Age of Pericles.

These are the photographs of the Panama Railroad Passenger Station of 1913.  Here we go:

Photograph of the Passenger Railroad Station located at Plaza Cinco de Mayo in Panama City, Panama.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
Photograph of the Passenger Railroad Station located at Plaza Cinco de Mayo in Panama City, Panama. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
Another picture of the Railroad Station in Black and White which adds richness to the picture because of the position of the sun.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
Another picture of the Railroad Station in Black and White which adds richness to the picture because of the position of the sun. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
A closer view of the railroad station which exhibits the beauty of the structure of the building.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
A closer view of the railroad station which exhibits the beauty of the structure of the building. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)
The same view of previous photograph but in a Black and White version which makes it more dramatic due to effect of the sun light on the structure.  (Credit:  Omar Upegui R.)
The same view of previous photograph, but in a Black and White version which makes it more dramatic due to effect of the sunlight on the structure. (Credit: Omar Upegui R.)

When I photographed this building, the memory of more than 12,000 persons who gave their lives for this enterprise came to my mind.  Not a cross, not a name, not a trace is there to remember them.  They are the nameless heroes of one of the most important historic events of the Republic of Panama.  Good Day.

Source:  History of The Panama Railroad

4 thoughts on “An Iron Road Across the Isthmus of Panama”

  1. Hello Michael:

    You’re welcome. When I researched the subject, I had no idea that the project had cost so many lives. Twelve thousands people is a great sacrifice to build a railroad in only five years.

    In perspective, almost seven persons died each day during the construction of the railroad. As of today, nobody knows who they were. Pretty sad picture.

    I’m working on my pictures, but it’s a steep hill. Photography is not a piece of cake. It requires a lot of practice and concentration. But, I’m hanging in there.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Omar.-

  2. Most interesting post, Omar. I remember reading about Panama and the building of the canal but it was many years ago. I remember the steam engines (trains) and their tracks in the canal hauling out loads of stuff when it was under construction. Seems like a long time ago now and I guess it was.

  3. Hello Abe:

    Thank you for you comments. It was indeed a long time ago. The canal was finished in 1914, just when WWI started.

    Experts say, the construction of the Panama Canal equals in magnitude the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. It was a colossal enterprise carried out by the will of President Teddy Roosevelt.

    I plan to go the the canal and take as many pictures as I can; specially of places nobody goes to. For example, the ditch the French excavated and abandoned after their project failed. Few people in Panama know where it’s at.

    Have a great day,

    Omar.-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s