The Railroad and the Construction of the Panama Canal.
1876, a French company planned to dig a Canal across the isthmus. This would destroy
the already hurting railroad. At Paris the Societe Internationale du Canal
Interoceanique was formed. The leader of the group was Ferdinand de Lesseps,
the man responsible for building the Suez Canal in Egypt. The financial backers
put a price tag of $214 million on a Canal even before visiting the site.
French engineer arrived in Panama and the first thing he did was build a $150,000
mansion near the crest of the Divide. 1,000 snow shovels were then shipped to
this tropical area.
the very beginning the company and the future Canal were plagued by troubles,
most being financial problems. Lesseps was forced to go back to his countrymen
several times to garner funds, often as loans and once as a lottery.
huge piles of supplies accumulated at the wharves, de Lesseps asked the Panama
Railroad to haul the freight across the Isthmus, but was amazed at the exorbitant
freight rates. It would be cheaper just to buy the railroad. Yankee entrepreneurs
sold the French the stock valued at $70 for $250. The Panama Railroad cost the
French $25 million and the sale was completed in 1879.
on the railroad were being made. New ties, new rails, more ballast and bridge
repairs came in 1882. In 1886 the amount of freight hauled was greater than ever
320,928 tons. Passenger tickets were introduced to replace cash fares.
In 1886 a record 799,264 passengers were carried.
and corruption continued until the French spending spree could not continue. On
February 5, 1889 the Canal Company went bankrupt and work on the Canal stopped,
but the railroad was in good condition.
political finagling between France, Colombia and the U.S. on June 28, 1902 the
United States bought the Canal Company from the French for $40 million. During
this time the people of Panama wanted to be free of domination by Colombia. The
Panamanians revolted and according to an 1846 treaty between the U.S. and Colombia,
the U.S. armed forces could be sent to maintain order along the railroad. With
the presence of the U.S. troops the Colombians withdrew. Panama celebrated its
independence on November 4, 1903. In December, the U.S. Congress ratified a treaty
with the new Republic of Panama creating a ten-mile-wide Canal Zone controlled
by the U.S.In May
1904, President Roosevelt appointed an Isthmian Canal Commission to build the
Canal. The railroad was under the jurisdiction of the Commission, and John F.
Stevens was named chief engineer.
The Canal was to
be dug where much of the railroad lay. The rails would have to be moved while
handling the enormous amount of traffic produced by Canals construction.
The entire railroad south of Gatun was moved. Surveys began in 1906 and the actual
relocations started in June 1907. On the swampy land between Gatun and Gamboa
it was necessary to build 167 embankments from 58 to 74 feet high. There were
16 million cubic yards of dirt used in the fills in the area where the artificial
Gatun Lake was created (at that time the worlds largest man made lake) by
damming the Chagres River.
relocation cost $9 million, $1 million more than the entire railroad had cost
65 years earlier. The move was completed on May 25, 1912 and the old railroad
was abandoned in 1913.
Canal construction was underway, freight and passenger business continued, except
in 1910 when an embargo was placed on large, bulky items, which could interfere
with Canal work. The Canal opened on August 15, 1914.
the Big Ditch (the Panama Canal) began operations, freight business
on the railroad almost disappeared except on occasions when the waterway was blocked
by landslides. Local freight also left the rails when a highway across the isthmus
was completed in April 1943. The railroad had lost most of its importance as a
link in world commerce.
from the National Railway Bulletin, Volume 64, Number 5, 1999.