History of the Panama Canal Railway
After the increasing movement of settlers to the West Coast of the United States due to the gold rush, the United States focused on ensuring a secure, reliable connection and fast transit between the oceans. Therefore, Congress authorized the operation of two lines of mail vessels: one, from New York to Chagres (Panama), and another, from Oregon and California to Panama City.
At this stage, the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa took four or five days. William H. Aspinwall, the man who had resumed the operation of the company “Pacific Mail Steamships,” initiated a plan to build a railway across the isthmus. Therefore, he and his partners created a company, which raised 1,000,000 US dollars from the sale of shares, and undertook the project.
The project to build the railroad started in August of 1850, but quickly, the difficulties became evident. The heat was suffocating, and the torrential rains for almost half of the year required the workers to work in waters up to four feet deep. Yellow fever and malaria claimed many victims among the workers. Still, despite the constant importation of a large number of workers, some times work stagnated due to lack of labor.
Luck touched again in November 1851, when two vapors were forced to take refuge in Limón Bay due to a storm. At this time, 7 miles (11km) of rail had been placed to Gatun, so that it was possible to disembark the migrants’ cargo ships and transport them by the railroad for the first part of their trip through the isthmus. The company’s directors immediately ordered passenger wagons, and the railroad began operating even with 40 miles (64 km) of rail be placed. This action quickly increased the value of the company’s shares, which allowed the rest of the project to be financed.
In January 1855, the railroad reached Culebra, the Continental Divide, from the Atlantic. By midnight on January 27, 1855, a second brigade working in less demanding conditions, reached Culebra from Panama City. The workers immediately joined rails, and the next day, the first locomotive traveled from sea to sea.
The railroad was proclaimed as the engineering marvel of that era. The line was built with double tracks. The Atlantic Terminal is located in Colon (former Aspinwall); and the Pacific Terminal in Panama City.
Panama Canal Railway and during the construction of the Panama Canal
The railroad played an important factor in the construction of a Panama Canal. During the creation of the Panama Canal, parts of the railroad route had to be moved. At the same time, considerable improvements to the rail system where made. The Canal and the renovation work on the Panama Canal Railway culminated in 1914.
The owners made some additional improvements to the Panama Canal Railroad after the Second World War. The US Government handed over power of the Panama Canal Railroad to the government of Panama in 1979. On June 19, 1998, the government of Panama returned control to the Panama Canal Railway Company (“PCRC”), a joint venture between the Kansas City Southern Railroad and private equity company Lanigan Holdings, LLC.
The Panama Canal Railway Today
The Panama Railway Company prepared the railroad in the years 2000 and 2001 to handle large containers, complementing the cargo transportation of the Panama Canal.
Today, the line is now a single track with some strategically placed double track sections. Since 2006 the driving force includes ten ex-Amtrak locomotives and one GP10 Diesel locomotive. The rolling equipment is composed of passenger wagons with glass domes dating from 1938.
The Panama Canal Railway is part of our tour “Coffee, Rum and Trains in Colombia and Panama.”