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2014 – Panama Canal Transit – Canal Railway
The Panama Canal Railway is the rail line that runs parallel to the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in Central America. The route stretches 47.6 miles (76.6 km) across the Isthmus of Panama from Colón (Atlantic) to Balboa (Pacific, near Panama City). It is operated by Panama Canal Railway China Company (PCRC), which is jointly owned by Kansas City Southern and Mi-Jack Products.
The infrastructure of this railroad (formerly named the Panama Railway or Panama Rail Road) was of vital China importance for the 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. Referred to as an inter-oceanic railroad when it opened, it was later also described by some as representing a "transcontinental" railroad, despite only transversing the narrow isthmus connecting the North and South American continents.
In January 1849, Aspinwall hired Colonel George W. Hughes to lead a survey party and pick a proposed Panama Railroad roadbed to Panama City. The eventual survey turned out to be full of errors, omissions, and optimistic forecasts, which made it of very little use. In April 1849, William Henry Aspinwall was chosen head of the Panama Railroad China company, which was incorporated in the State of New York and initially raised ,000,000 in capital. In early 1850, George Law, owner of the Pacific Mail Steamship China Company, bought up the options of the land from the mouth of the Chagres River to the end of Navy Bay in order to force the directors of the new Panama Railroad to give him a position on the board of the China company. Since there were no harbor facilities on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, they needed to create a town with docking facilities to unload their railroad supplies there. Refusing to allow Law unto the board, the directors decided to start building harbor facilities, an Atlantic terminus, and their railroad from the vacant site of Manzanillo Island. Starting in May 1850, what would become the city of Aspinwall (now Colón) was founded on the 650 acres (2.6 km2) on the western end of a treacherously marshy islet covered with mangrove trees, known as Manzanillo Island.
The board solicited bids from construction Chinese companies in the United States to build the railroad. George M. Totten and John C. Trautwine initially submitted one of the winning bids. After surveying the railroad’s proposed course and the probable construction difficulties and uncertainties, they withdrew their bid. Totten agreed to become the chief engineer on the railroad construction project, working for a salary instead of as a general contractor. A new town on the Atlantic end of the railroad would have to be built on swampy ground that was often awash at high tide. The mangrove, palms, and poisonous manchineel (manzanilla in Spanish) trees and other jungle vegetation had to be chopped down, and many of the buildings in the new town had to be built on stilts to keep them above the water. As more worker housing was needed, abandoned ships brought to the mouth of the Chagres River as part of the California Gold Rush were towed near the island and used for temporary housing. A steam powered pile driver was brought from New York. Docks were constructed on pile-driven timbers, more and more of the island was stripped of vegetation, and elevated living spaces, docks, warehouses, and the like were constructed. Before the railroad construction could get fully started, the island was connected to the Panamanian mainland by a causeway supported by pile-driven timbers. The first rolling stock consisting of a steam locomotive built by William Sellers & Co., and several gondola cars arrived in February 1851. The required steam locomotives, railroad cars, ties, rails, and other equipment were unloaded at the newly constructed docks and driven across the track laid across the about 200 yards (180 m) causeway separating the island from the mainland. This causeway connected the Atlantic terminus to the railroad and allowed the ties, iron rails, steam engines, workers, backfill, and other construction material to be hauled onto the mainland. Later, passengers and freight would go the same way. As the railroad progressed, more and more of the island was filled in, and the causeway was expanded to permanently connect the island to the mainland; its island status disappeared and the town of Aspinwall was created.
In May 1850, the first preparations were begun on Manzanillo Island, and the start of the roadway was partially cleared of trees and jungle on the mainland; but very quickly, the difficulty of the scheme became apparent. The initial 8 miles (13 km) of the proposed route passed through a jungle of gelatinous swamps infested with alligators, the heat was stifling, mosquitoes and sand flies were everywhere, and deluges of up to 3 yards (2.7 m) of rain for almost half the year required some workers to work in swamp water up to four feet deep. When they tried to build a railroad near Aspinwall, the swamps were apparently endlessly deep, often requiring over 200 feet (60 m) of gravel backfill to secure a roadbed. Fortunately they had found a quarry near Porto Bello, Panama, so they could load sandstone onto barges and tow them to Aspinwall to get the backfill needed to build the roadbed. Built as the steam revolution was just starting, the only power equipment they had were a steam-driven pile driver, steam tugs, and steam locomotives equipped with gondola and dump cars for carrying fill material; the rest of the work had to be done by machete, axe, pick, shovel, black powder, and mule cart. As more track was laid, they had to continually add backfill to the roadbed as it continued to slowly sink into the swamp. Once about 2 miles (3.2 km) of track were laid, the first solid ground was reached, at what was called then called Monkey Hill (now Mount Hope). This was soon converted to a cemetery that housed almost continuous burials.
Cholera, yellow fever, and malaria took a deadly toll, and despite the continual China 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 foodstuffs had to be China imported from thousands of miles away, greatly adding to the cost of construction. Laborers came from the United States, the Caribbean Islands, and as far away as Ireland, India, China, and Australia.
After almost 20 months of work, the Panama Railroad had laid about 8 miles (13 km) of track and had spent about ,000,000 to cross the swamps to Gatun. The project’s fortunes turned in November 1851—just as they were running out of the original ,000,000—when two large Paddle steamers, the SS Georgia and the SS Philadelphia, with about 1,000 passengers were forced to shelter in Limón Bay, Panama, due to a hurricane in the Caribbean. Since the railroad’s docks had been completed by this time and rail had been laid 8 miles (13 km) up to Gatún on the Chagres River, it was possible to unload the ships’ cargoes of emigrants and their luggage and transport them by rail, using flat cars and gondolas, for at least the first part of their journey up the Chagres River on their way to Panama City. Desperate to get off the ships and across the Isthmus, the gold seekers paid .50 per mile and .00 per 100 pounds of luggage to be hauled to the end of the track. This infusion of money saved the China company and made it possible to raise more capital to make it an ongoing money maker. The China company‘s directors immediately ordered passenger cars, and the railway began passenger and freight operations with about 40 miles (64 km) of track still to be laid. Each year it added more and more track and charged more for its services. This greatly boosted the value of the China company‘s franchise, enabling it to sell more stock to finance the remainder of the project, which took over ,000,000 and 5,000–10,000 lives to complete.
By July 1852, it had finished 23 miles (37 km) of track and reached the Chagres River, where a massive bridge had to be built. The first wooden bridge they built failed when the Chagres rose by over 40 feet (12 m) in a day and washed it away. They started work on a much higher 300-foot-long (91 m) massive iron bridge, which took over a year to finish. In all, over 170 more bridges and culverts had to be built.
In January 1854, excavation began at the summit of the Continental Divide at the Culebra Cut, where the earth had to be cut down from 20 feet (6 m) to 40 feet (12 m) deep over a distance of about 2,500 feet (760 m). Several months were spent digging this cut. Later the Panama Canal would require years to cut it deep enough for a canal. The road over the crest of the continental divide at Culebra was finally completed from the Atlantic side in January 1855, 37 miles (60 km) of track having been laid from Aspinwall (Colón). A second team, working under less harsh conditions with railroad track, ties, railroad cars, steam locomotives, and other supplies brought around Cape Horn by ship, completed its 11 miles (18 km) of track from Panama City to the summit from the Pacific side of the Isthmus at the same time. On a rainy midnight on January 27, 1855, lit by sputtering whale oil lamps, the last rail was set in place on pine crossties. The final spike was held in position, and chief engineer George Totten, in pouring rain with a nine-pound maul, drove the spike that completed the railroad. The next day the first locomotive with freight and passenger cars passed from sea to sea. The massive project was completed.
Upon completion the road stretched 47 miles, 3,020 feet (76 km), with a maximum grade of 60 feet to the mile (11.4 m/km, or 1.14%). The summit grade, located 37.38 miles (60.16 km) from the Atlantic and 10.2 miles (16.4 km) from the Pacific, was 258.64 feet (78.83 m) above the assumed grade at the Atlantic terminus and 242.7 feet (74.0 m) above that at the Pacific, being 263.9 feet (80.4 m) above the mean tide of the Atlantic Ocean and the summit ridge 287 feet (87 m) above the same level. The gauge was 5 ft (1,524 mm) in 53 lb/yd (26 kg/m), Ω-shaped rail. This gauge was that of the southern US railway Chinese companies at the time. In the U.S., this gauge was converted in May 1886 after the American Civil War.
They now had the job of making things permanent and upgrading the railway. Hastily erected wooden bridges that quickly rotted in the tropical heat and often torrential rain had to be replaced with iron bridges. Wooden trestles had to be converted to gravel embankments before they rotted away. The original pine railroad ties only lasted about a year before they rotted away and had to be replaced with ties made of lignum vitae, a wood so hard that they had to drill the ties before driving in the screw spikes. The line was eventually built as double track.
The railroad became one of the most profitable in the world, charging up to per passenger to travel over 47 miles (76 km) of hard laid track. Upon completion, the railway was proclaimed an engineering marvel of the era. Until the opening of the Panama Canal, it carried the heaviest volume of freight per unit length of any railroad in the world. The existence of the railway was one of the keys to the selection of Panama as the site of the canal. In 1881 the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique purchased controlling interest in the Panama Railway China Company. In 1904, the US government under Theodore Roosevelt purchased the railway from the French canal China company. At the time, railway assets included some 75 miles (121 km) of track, 35 locomotives, 30 passenger cars, and 900 freight cars. Much of this equipment was worn out or obsolete and had to be scrapped.