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A Brief History of the Panama Canal Railway

Construction on the Panama Canal began in 1881 as a project directed by France, and was completed in 1914 by the US. This 51-mile (82 km) waterway has served as a major facilitator of trans-oceanic trade since its existence.

But before there was the Panama Canal, there was the Panama Canal Railway, a form of transportation certainly far less known than the canal.

The narrow isthmus of Panama seemed like an obvious choice to ferry goods from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans, but getting enough investment to build a means to cross this strip of land was more difficult.

In the mid-19th century, leaders of countries spanning from France to Panama to the US commissioned studies that searched for the best available route from one side of Panama to the other. Since railroads were still a relatively new development (the first public railway, Liverpool-Manchester, had only opened in 1930), a railway was not the immediate choice of those interested in constructing a trans-oceanic route. A road, canal, or railway were all under consideration.

Yet all of these projects fell through until 1848. William Aspinwall, whose company operated Pacific mail steamships, was able to raise $1 million ($38 million in today’s dollars) in order to construct a railway across Panama. As it turned out, this money was collected at an opportune time. The Gold Rush in California began in the same year, creating an increased demand for people wanting to travel from the east coast cities of the US to the west coast.

By 1850, a route for the proposed railway was drafted, and construction began on the east coast of Panama. The going was difficult, to say the least. The proposed route crossed through swaps filled with alligators, and workers sometimes laboured in swamp water that came up to their waists. Malaria conferred by the thick swarms of mosquitoes claimed many lives, along with diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. Steam-powered tools were still uncommon in this era, and much of the work was completed by hand, including hacking through the thick jungle with machetes.

The slow progress of constructing the railway, combined with the additional costs of shipping food and supplies long-distance to the workers, meant that the $1 million raised was used up quickly. After 20 months, only 8 miles (13 km) of track were laid. The company was able to save itself by earning money through transporting desperate gold seekers across the continent, using a combination of canoes and mules where there were no rails.

The Continental Divide posed particular problems for construction, and constructing the part of the route that was meant to go through this mountainous area was challenging for both the Panama Canal Railway and later the Panama Canal itself. Several large bridges were also required for the railway, and altogether the workers constructed 300 bridges and culverts, channels that allow water to flow under the railway.

On 27 January, 1855, the railway was officially complete at the cost of 5-10,000 lives (the lack of an exact number shows how expendable workers were to the company) and $8 million ($248 million today). In total, the railway was 47 miles (67 km) in length. At the time of construction, the railway was the most expensive per mile of track ever built.

Once in was completed, it immediately became a popular and very profitable Thorofare from the Atlantic to Pacific, just as Aspinwall had originally imagined. Starting in 1881, the railroad provided another important function: transporting materials and workers to begin construction of the Panama Canal. If the railway had not already existed prior to the endeavor of building the canal, the construction of the waterway would have been even more expensive and would have taken longer to build than it was.

After the construction of the canal, demand for transportation via the railroad decreased. Over the next 80 years, the railroad went into a state of decline until Panama’s government offered private companies ownership of the railroad in return for restoring and running it. In 1998, the private company Panama Canal Railway Company (PCRC) took control of the railway, and the company immediately started making the necessary repairs to the route. One of the primary roles of the restored railway was to aid in transporting shipping containers for cargo ships across the isthmus.

The PCRC also offers a passenger service that runs one time a day Monday-Friday, with a total running time of about an hour. The PCRC itself is a company jointly owned by two American companies, Kansas Southern and Mi-Jack Products. Although the US government ceded control of the railway to the Panama government in 1979, it appears that the ownership has come full circle again.

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of a lesser-known railway!


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