Question: What feat of engineering made possible by a “body for every tie” was later upstaged by a famous canal?
Answer: The Panama Railroad
Though the Panama Canal first comes to mind when many Americans think of Panamanian engineering wonders, that project wouldn’t have been possible without first having a railroad there to carry workers and supplies to construction sites. While the canal’s story is legendary, the tale of the railroad’s creation is no less dramatic.
When construction began in 1850, it was nightmarish. The first dozen miles or so were through jungle swamps, where sand flies and mosquitos were so prevalent that workers had to wrap their faces in veils. When it rained, men were sucked in seemingly bottomless pits of mud to drown, and even on the best days, alligators lurked in the mire. The air smelled bad—the workers were surrounded by avicennia, whose blooms give off a rancid smell. The heat and humidity took their toll on workers, to the point that locals claimed there was one dead body for every tie of the track.
This made it hard to keep workers. At first, indigenous Panamanians were hired, but they were not experienced in this kind of labor and, when it proved deadly, they had no reason to stay on the job—they could just go home. What followed was a succession of attempts to import the right crew. 800 Chinese workers were brought in, but once arrived, they were told they could not use opium, since U.S. law was being applied to the work zone. Facing incredible physical toil and withdrawal, depression set in and hundreds committed suicide.
A wave of Irishmen, recruited from Cork, fared no better, the heat alone out-maxing their capacity. English and German men also took to the line, but attrition remained sky high. An estimated 6,000 workers died in the process, so many that Panama started exporting cadavers and skeletons to med schools globally, and one hospital had an informal bone museum purportedly showing the differences between nationalities.
It wasn’t until the arrival of West Indian workers—already accustomed to the tropical climate—that serious progress could be made. Once this indefatigable crew came aboard, eventually comprising 3/4 of the entire workforce, the railroad really sped up. Conditions, however, were horrible right to the end: in 1855, the final rail was hammered into place, during a soaking midnight rainstorm that made the landscape a muddy mess. Nonetheless, the railway opened, setting the stage for the famous canal to come 59 years later.
11 Fast Facts About the Panama Railroad
- To get U.S. mail from the East Coast to California in the 1840’s meant sending the letters aboard a ship to the Atlantic Coast of Panama, carrying them through 50 miles of jungle on foot, and then sailing them aboard another ship from the Pacific Coast.
- To solve this, in 1845, three U.S. businessmen bought the rights to create a railroad line across the isthmus, which would create the first transcontinental railroad on earth in the process.
- They estimated the job could be done in 6 months with a price tag of a million dollars.
- Construction was launched in 1850, but the first part of the terrain was so awful, it took 20 months to lay seven miles of track.
- Cholera, dysentery, smallpox, and other fever diseases were so common that the average laborer was able to work only one week of every three.
- Americans were especially ill-suited for the conditions: 48 of 50 engineers and surveyors brought from the U.S. died, as did 150 of 200 infantrymen and their family members.
- At one point, the builders ran out of money, only to be saved when 1,000 gold rushers arrived at the coast by steamer, and paid $35 each to ride the completed portion of the track (less than ten miles) and to have the right to walk the cleared path the rest of the way.
- 170 bridges had to be built, including a 300-foot bridge across the Chagres, which was erected too low and got wiped out by flooding just before completion.
- Completing the route required shaving 40 feet of earth off the Continental Divide.
- When completed, the 47-mile railroad had taken five years to build and cost $7,000,000.
- The day of the railroad’s inauguration defied the history of bad weather: the sun shone brightly on the cheering crowds, for what the newspaper described as “the most sublime and magnificent nuptials ever celebrated on the planet, the wedding of the rough Atlantic to the fair Pacific.”
Immerse yourself in manmade wonders and natural splendors alike during your Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United Small Ship Adventure.