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A New Railroad for Panama - After the Digging

Relocation of the Line
1906 - 1912

After a full half-century of existence, during which it had rendered to the progress of the world a service immeasurably greater than any dreamed of by the most imaginative of its indomitable builders, the original Panama Railroad was abandoned to make way for the canal in whose construction it had been the chief instrument. Its rails were torn up and its roadway for the greater part of its length disappeared forever beneath the waters of Gatun Lake.

At the time of its abandonment very little of the original road except the alignment remained. When the American canal-builders arrived on the isthmus they found as the transportation agency of the great task before them a railway that in every important respect was a quarter of a century behind the times. Its rails were too light to sustain the weight of modern locomotives and spoil cars, its culverts and bridges were in the same condition, and it had only a single track. They began at once to convert it into a double-track system, with heavy modern rails, to strengthen or rebuild its bridges and culverts, to equip it with modern locomotives and cars, and to supply it with an up-to-date personnel.

When the road was taken over, in 1904, it had about 47 miles of a single track and 26 miles of siding, with a rolling stock that was virtually worthless. Five years later the total trackage was 160 miles: 50 miles of main track, 35 miles of double track, all re-laid with 90 pound rails; the equipment, thoroughly modem, comprised 150 locomotives, 1,500 freight cars, 50 passenger cars, and 4,000 spoil cars. Over the main track there passed daily 574 trains, including 160 trains of spoil cars. The number of passengers carried in 1910 exceeded two and a quarter millions, the amount of commercial freight exceeded one and a quarter million tons, and the amount of excavation spoil over its various tracks was nearly or quite 40,000,000 tons. It was indisputably the busiest railway, large or small, in the world.

Fifty-two years after the original Panama Railroad had been opened to traffic the construction of the new one was begun. The surveys were made in 1906 and in June of the following year work was begun.

The situation was in striking contrast with that which had confronted the builders of the original road. Those brave pioneers had begun their task in a pest-ridden and barren wilderness through which they must cut their way foot by foot. They had only hand implements with which to work, no land habitations save rude huts in swamps and jungles, no food supply which would be considered tolerable in these times, for cold storage was unknown, and no accurate medical knowledge with which to counteract and overcome tropical diseases. The only road that it was possible for them to build was along the lines of least resistance, that is, through the river valleys, where the natural obstacles were the least formidable. They worked waist-deep in the slimy water of swamp and morass, piling up slowly the low embankments upon which to place their road-bed, and compelled to abandon all progress from time to time because of sickness which incapacitated the entire force. The labor which they were able to command was of the poorest and most ignorant quality, for the curse of pestilence was upon the land and intelligent laborers could not be induced to enter it.

A half-century later what a marvelous transformation had been wrought! The isthmus had become a land of health and plenty. The progress in mechanical invention and in the science of engineering had been so great that such a thing as an insurmountable natural obstacle to railway construction no longer existed. There was assembled on the isthmus, for the construction of the canal, a mechanical equipment which em-bodied all the latest and most efficient results of scientific achievement, and which had never been equaled in size and perfection anywhere else in the world. There was assembled also a working force of about forty thousand men, trained and disciplined in construction work, well housed, well fed, and carefully safeguarded against disease. The railway constructors had this equipment and this force to draw upon as they desired, and while the task before them was a formidable one, with such an agency at their command it was far from being insurmountable.

What they had to do was to construct a high level railroad through what was mainly a low level country. They must have the level at all points higher than the 87 -foot level of Gatun Lake. In building it they must cross wide and deep valleys and pierce rocky ridges. The valleys were covered with dense jungle growth and traversed by numerous small streams. Their ground levels, which were from 20 to 25 feet above sea-level, proved on examination to be composed of a mass of soft clay, decomposed wood and vegetation, from 150 to 200 feet in depth, resting upon a rock foundation. This mass had near the top a hard stratum of clay and sand from 20 to 30 feet in thickness, but the space between this crust and the foundation was filled with soft material. Across these valleys - one of them, that of the Gatun River, being about three miles in width - huge embankments to be constructed, ranging in height from 58 to 74 feet. When the weight of these became too great for the crust to sustain, it pressed that down upon the material beneath and forced it to the surface on either side. This action added greatly to the amount material in the embankments, for the upheavals had to be counterweighted, virtually doubling the width of the foundations, and the settlement of the ground surface, varying from 25 to 60 feet, added the distance in each case to the height of the embankment the center or road-bed line.

Some conception of the magnitude of the task may be formed by the statement that there were in all 167 embankments, containing a total of 16,000,000 cubic yards of material, and 164 cuts, the heaviest varying depth from 60 to 95 feet. The three-mile fill across the Gatun Valley alone contained 5,000,000 cubic yards of material, and of the cuts one was 95 feet deep at the highest point, another 84 feet, another 80 feet, and another, through solid and very hard rock, 75 feet. It is not surprising, in view of these formidable obstacles, that the road cost nearly $9,000,000, or about $200,000 a mile; It had to be constructed where it was because higher ground could have been reached only by going outside the Canal Zone and over a much longer distance, and at a larger expense.

As originally planned, the line from Gamboa to Pedro Miguel was to run through Culebra Cut on the berm of the canal, but this route had to be abandoned because of the slides. It became necessary to run the line around Gold Hill through a very difficult region, for a distance of 9 1/2 miles, a change which added $1,200,000 to the cost.

The work was completed and the road was turned over formally to the Panama Railroad Company on May 25, 1912, five years after construction began Its length is a trifle less than that of the old line, the time of construction was about the same, and its cost about a million dollars greater. There all comparison ceases. The old line had no embankments worth mentioning, and only one cut, whose depth was 24 feet. Such a road as the new line would have been an utter impossibility a half-century earlier, for its difficulties would have been insurmountable and its cost, if construction had been attempted, would have been so tremendous as to be prohibitive.

It is an interesting fact, worthy of recording perhaps, that the original roadway was laid with ties of native wood which decayed so rapidly that soon after the road was open to traffic these were replaced almost entirely with ties of lignum vitae brought from Cartagena, the northern province of Colombia. When the old line was torn up these ties, after being in the ground for a full half-century, were in almost perfect condition of preservation. Many ties of similar wood have been placed on the new line, but the greater part of its road-bed is laid with ties brought from the United States.

During the first two years of construction the work was in charge of Ralph Budd, chief engineer of the Panama Railroad. He resigned in September, 1909, and was succeeded by Lieutenant Frederick Mears, U.S. A., who was in charge till the road was completed.

The Panama Gateway, by Joseph Bucklin Bishop

Photo Credits and historical data:

Rails to the Diggings, by Charles S. Small
The Panama Gateway, by Joseph Bucklin Bishop
Panama,- Kanal, Land und Leute, by Lous Wagner
America's Triumph - Panama, by Ralf Emmett Avery
Wilson and Company - Engineers & Architects and Marble Street Studio
George Chevalier - Historian and Contributor
Vicente Pascual - Historian and Contributor