January 28

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 28, 1855:

First train crosses the Panamanian isthmus

The Panama Railway, which carried thousands of unruly miners to California via the dense jungles of Central America, dispatches its first train across the Isthmus of Panama.

Even before the United States took California from Mexico in 1848 as a spoil of war, Americans heading for the West Coast by ship often cut months off their voyage by crossing the isthmus to the Pacific through Nicaragua. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill early in 1848, the trickle of western emigrants across the narrow ribbon of land turned into a flood. Before 1855, sea travelers not wishing to endure the long and treacherous passage around the tip of South America would disembark on the East Coast of Nicaragua. They would then proceed by light boat up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua, cross the lake in larger steamers, and complete the final overland leg of the journey via carriages. They traveled on a modern road that deposited them on the West Coast, where they boarded a steamer for San Francisco.

Most of the early travelers preferred to cross the isthmus via this safe and well-planned route through Nicaragua rather than through Panama, because the latter was a dense jungle swarming with malarial mosquitoes. A glance at the map, though, showed that Panama was the narrowest barrier between the two oceans and might offer a faster crossing if properly developed. In 1847, a group of New York financiers organized the Panama Railroad Company to do just that, and in 1850, workers began laying track through Panamanian jungle roughly along the route followed by the present canal. Completed in early 1855, the first train departed from the Atlantic side for the Pacific on January 28.

A ship voyage punctuated by a brief train ride across the isthmus now became the fastest and most comfortable means of traveling to California, and tens of thousands of gold-hungry emigrants were soon racing through Panama every year. The railroad and the California-bound emigrants proved a boon to Panama's economy, giving rise to the prosperous new city of Colon at the Atlantic terminus, where passengers often complained about the greatly inflated prices for room and board. The Panamanians had their own complaints about the hordes of young men headed for the California gold fields, who often brought an unwelcome taste of the "Wild West" to Central America. Boredom, guns, and alcohol proved a volatile mix among the impatient travelers, and Panamanians resented the arrogant superiority and racism many of them displayed.

The traffic of freight and human beings moving both ways across the isthmus kept the Panama Railway busy until 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed in the United States. However, the railway continued to carry a great deal of commercial freight destined for Europe or Asia until the Panama Canal was completed in 1914.

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