The Panama Railroad story is as amazing and tragic as the canal itself, and without the railroad there could be no canal. The railroad defined the canal route, proved the need for transporting both people and cargo, and then carried equipment, supplies, and excavation debris.
The impetus for the Panama Railroad was the acquisition of Oregon and California by the United States. The new territories were nearly inaccessible to the settled east. One could walk or ride the Oregon and California trails across the continent, or take the dangerous sail around the Horn, or, per one writer who obviously had not tried it, make the “pleasant” voyage to Panama, stroll across the fifty miles of isthmus to the Pacific, and, after another easy sea voyage, find himself in San Francisco.” Then–GOLD!
The Panama Railroad Company was formed April 15, 1850. It was thought the road could be built in six months at a cost of a million dollars. Twenty months later, seven miles of track had been laid, the funds were gone, and thousands of workers had died. People claimed one death per railroad tie, which is an exaggeration, but also a description of the horrors of climate, accident, and disease.
The railroad was saved by the arrival of two paddle-wheel steamers with over a thousand gold seekers who paid whatever the railroad asked for that seven miles of transportation. No matter that they had to walk, or ride horses or mules, for the rest of the journey across the isthmus.
The gold-seekers’ money completed the railroad, mile by mile, by the end of January 1855.