Both the English and the French made overtures and expressed interest in building the world’s first trans-continental railroad during various periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but daunted by the projected costs abandoned the idea. The discovery of gold in California in January of 1848 and the resultant influx of “Forty Niners” from around the world again focused attention on finding a quick transcontinental route to Gold Mountain. The Westward land route from New York across the US took six months to cover 2000 miles and had a 90% mortality rate. The sea route to Chagres, then overland to Panama City, for yet another sea voyage to San Francisco, took almost three months to cover three thousand five hundred miles. The third route sailed around the Cape Horn, and through the straits of Magellan that took four months to cover almost fourteen thousand miles.
The US congress opened bids for two steamship mail lines … one from New York to Panama, and the other from Panama to San Francisco. The contract for the latter went to a consortium headed by one William Aspinwall, whose last name still has presence in Panama today. This entrepreneurial group obtained approval from Colombia, then known as Nueva Grande, to create the world’s first transcontinental railroad for an estimated 5 million dollars. Little did Colombia know that this deal would eventually play a pivotal role in the succession and creation of Panama. Originally, the route was to approximate the cobbled stoned Las Cruces mule train trail, which the Spanish used to transport Inca treasures from Peru to Panama City and then to Portobelo and the harbored twice-yearly treasure fleet to Seville.
Locals were not of the temperament to perform the hard labor required to build the railroad so recruits from the Caribbean, China, US, and an untold number of African slaves became the projects muscle. Endemic diseases wreaked havoc on these track-laying men and estimates reach as high as 10,000 incurred deaths for the 47-mile long rail line completed in 1855. One of the most poignant episodes orbits around the first Chinese migration of 1854, when 1000 Celestials came to build the Panama railroad. They brought their priests, dried oysters, cuttlefish, bamboo shoots, preserved vegetable, noodles, tea, and rice. The company store was to provide these commodities and about a dollar’s worth of opium per man – per week to help assuage the homesickness and effects of deplorable working conditions. Well, when word of these drug fiends reached New York, the railroads board of directors halted the poppy juice dispersal cold turkey. The horrendous working conditions, everyday endemic diseases, a recent swath of fever related deaths, and the debilitating effects of drug withdrawal pushed the home sick Chinese over the edge and an estimated 400 suicides ensued.
Throughout construction of the rail line body disposal became such a problem that authorities began pickling the cadavers, and selling them to American medical schools, which, macabre as it sounds, funded the railroad’s hospital. All told the project cost eight million dollars, making it the most expensive rail line ever built, and at one time it was the most valued stock traded on the New York Exchange. Furthermore had the American railroad superintendent not moved all the rolling stock accept one engine and one car to Panama City, the Colombians would have been able to transport troops to quell the October 1903 uprising for independence. Instead, the Colombian officers were shuttled in the remaining passenger car to Panama City and sequestered there during the first hours of the coup. Had the railroad not been part of this subterfuge Panama might still be under the Colombian flag.