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CHAPTER III

THE PANAMA RAILROAD

With the sack and abandonment of the old city of Panama, which is described elsewhere in this volume, its once great commerce expired. The new site enjoyed no such facility as the “ paved road,” which had connected Panama Viejo with its Atlantic port. The need of convenient interoceanic communication was recognized before the discovery of gold in California made it urgently desirable. In 1848, John L. Stephens, W. H. Aspinwall, and Henry Chauncey applied to the government of New Granada for a concession to operate a transit line. It was granted two years later, by which time developments in the newly acquired territory of the United States upon the Pacific coast had created a promising outlook for what, at the time of its inception, was generally regarded as a wild enterprise. At best the undertaking was a hazardous one, fraught with enormous difficulties and beset by innumerable uncertainties.

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In 1849, surveys were made for a railroad, and it was decided, though why it is difficult to understand, to locate the Atlantic terminus on the Island of Manzanillo. In May, 1850, the work of construction was commenced. imposing ceremonies inaugurated breaking the ground. Two American citizens, leaping, ax in hand, from a native canoe upon a wild and desolate island, their retinue consisting of half a dozen Indians who clear the path with rude knives, strike their glittering axes into the nearest tree; the rapid blows reverberate from shore to shore, and the stately cocoa crashes upon the beach. Thus, unostentatiously, was announced the commencement of a railway, which, from the interests and difficulties involved, might well be looked upon as one of the grandest and boldest enterprises ever attempted.” 1

Then commenced a splendid fight against tremendous obstacles, - a long, wearing struggle with unfamiliar conditions that was to end triumphantly five years later. A two hundred ton vessel brought Chief Engineer Totten and his assistants to the Isthmus. The craft was anchored off Manzanillo and furnished the headquarters of the force. For a long time it was impossible for them to sleep on shore and they made their home on the boat. Here they were able to escape the mosquitoes that harassed them through the day, but the cockroaches which swarmed over the ship were hardly less annoying. The country through which the line had to be carried was wild and covered with jungle. The way had to be cut through the tangle of vegetation, and in this work the men were exposed to the attacks of noxious insects and reptiles. Often they had to labor waist-deep in the mire of swamps. The construction had been begun at the beginning of the rainy season, and, for the following eight months, heavy downpours and humid heat were added to the other difficulties. Not one of the party escaped the wasting calentura, as the jungle fever of Panama is called. Soon they were all thin and pallid, but not one gave in until he had reached the last extremity of endurancer

1 "Handbook of the Panama Railroad," F. N. Otis. Out of print.

It was as daring a piece of engineering work as the world has ever seen, and it was carried out with superb heroism. The eldest of these men, Col. G. M. Totten, was a veteran in experience, though not more than forty-five years of age. His youngest assistant, James L. Baldwin, was barely thirty but he displayed such remarkable ability and enterprise that it was not long before he became the right hand man of his chief. It was Baldwin to whom the extremely arduous task of locating the track was entrusted. Plunging into the wilderness with a small band of Indians and two or three American aides, he accomplished the work in a surprisingly short time.

Among the engineers who were conspicuous for the part they took in this pioneer undertaking, were J. C. Trautwine and J. J. Williams. It is claimed for each of them that he had the honor of breaking the first ground, but however that may be, both did their fair share in the trying labors that ensued.

Parties of gold-seekers had already begun to cross the Isthmus on their way to California, and the work on the road was pushed with feverish activity in order to meet the needs of this traffic as soon as possible. When the contracts were placed for the construction it was hoped that the line might be completed in two years. But the calculations had been made, and necessarily so, without any definite knowledge of the work to be accomplished or the expense of doing it. The contractors experienced unexpected difficulty in securing suitable labor. The natives of the country were not equal to the labor, either in the matter of intelligence or physique. The cost proved to be vastly in excess of the estimates. At the end of the second year, instead of having the road finished, the contractors had reached the end of their resources and threw up the sponge.

This was a severe blow to the directors of the Company, but they did not falter in their purpose. The bankrupt contractors were promptly released, and the construction was taken into the hands of the Company. Enthusiastically backed by the officers, the engineers attacked the task with redoubled zeal, but they were constantly retarded by unexpected setbacks, and the climate was a perpetual obstacle. Every kind of labor available was tried. Whites from the United States, though picked for their stamina, quickly succumbed under the trying conditions. Negroes were little better. A contingent of Chinese was enlisted in the work. They soon sickened, and a large proportion of them committed suicide in despair. So many laborers were constantly on the books of the

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