The Panama Railway dispatched its first locomotive across the Isthmus of Panama
Last year, we celebrated the 100th year anniversary of one of the world’s greatest civil engineering achievements – the construction of the Panama Canal. But it was today, 160 years ago, that the Panama railroad was completed and saw the first train travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean connecting the east to west.
The Panama Railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Panama Canal, constructed 50 years later. But it was the growing pressures of western immigration that triggered the railway’s dawning.
After the United States claimed California as a result of the Mexican War in 1846, only a trickle of American settlers had made the arduous trek from the east to the western coast. After many shelved ideas and propositions, the United States once again turned its attention to securing a safe and quick link between the Atlantic and the Pacific with the prospective movement of settlers to the west.
Panama was the narrowest crossing between the two oceans and offered the obvious and quickest connection from east to west. In 1847 the Panama Railroad Company was set up to achieve just that, and by 1850 work had begun to lay down the tracks.
The discovery of gold in California one year after the railroad plans were made only heightened the importance of its completion to many prospectors wanting to head west in search for their fortune.
The California Gold Rush of the late 1840s saw thousands of people catch “gold fever” and embark on the adventurous journey to the wild west. By the end of 1848 thousands of excited people from the eastern coast of America to as far as Chile planned big trips to California.
Travellers from the east coast had three travel choices: Travel by sea around the tip of South America, take the shortcut through Nicaragua near Panama, or travel by land.
Travelling by sea around South America’s southern tip of Cape Horn was a very popular route in the early days of the Gold Rush with hundreds of ships embarking on the 13,000 mile voyage. But the trip could last up to eight months and ships were jammed with passengers causing discomfort, scurvy and frustration.
Most people opted to travel by land, but this had to be a carefully planned journey at the right time of year if travellers and their cattle were going to reach the grassy plains before others reached the best grazing lands. Many didn’t make the well marked Oregon Trail without catching cholera from the muddy river waters. Even if they survived disease there was still the punishing Forty Mile Desert to endure and many men, horses and cattle became exhausted and perished before completing their pilgrimage.
A dense jungle, humming with swarms of malarial mosquitoes, the temptingly narrow stretch of Panama awaited any brave traveller heading for the West Coast in search of gold. But many wanted to avoid the tropical diseases of Panama, and so to shortcut the lengthy voyage around Cape Horn, disembarked on the east coast of Nicaragua crossing the Lake Nicaragua to then complete the final leg of the journey in large steamers and carriages to San Francisco.
When the Panama Railroad was finally completed in early 1855, it was a far-reaching transport success that changed the course of history and kick-started a migration of tens of thousands of emigrants to the new gold rich western lands. It was by far the quickest and most comfortable means to get to California and as a result Panama’s economy thrived.
Read detailed accounts of the Panama Railroad in The Engineer journals below:
The Panama Railroad – The Engineer 1902/10/10
The Panama Railroad by Percy F. Martin