Panama Railroad

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Panama Railroad

Panama Railroad, the world's first interoceanic railroad. Completed between 1850 and 1855, it linked the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean by a 47-mile track along the east-west axis of Panama. While the idea of an interoceanic route had existed since the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, it was realized only in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of expanding U.S. trade and strategic interests in the world, and, thus, the need for better and faster transportation across the isthmus. Concrete plans for the Panama Railroad began in 1846 with the signing of the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty, which guaranteed rights of transit to both Colombians and North Americans across Panama, then a Colombian province. Construction of the railroad by the Panama Railway Company (formed in 1847) began in 1850 under the terms of this treaty. Swamps, rivers, rough ground, and Panama's tropical climate made it a challenge for both workers and engineers. Despite this and other problems during the second year, the railway was completed in January 1855, successfully linking the Atlantic port city of Colón with Panama City on the Pacific side.

The Panama Railroad not only facilitated the transit of gold seekers bound for California after 1848 but also stimulated the commercial growth of Panama. The new port city of Colón became a major stopover for travelers and a source of business for merchants. Furthermore, despite completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States in 1869, the Panama Railroad continued to turn a profit for most of the rest of the century. Because it brought many foreigners into Panama for the first time, the railroad increased tension between foreigners and natives. In 1856, for example, the tragic Watermelon Riot occurred when unruly and armed "forty-niners" clashed with locals, resulting in the deaths of sixteen people. The railroad continues to operate in the mid-1990s, but its importance has been lessened since completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.

See alsoPanama; Panama Canal; Watermelon Riot (Panama Riot).


Joseph L. Schott, Rails Across Panama: The Story of the Building of the Panama Railroad, 1849–1855 (1967).

David G. McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 (1977).

Sandra W. Meditz, ed., Panama: A Country Study (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Davidson, Frank Paul, and Kathleen Lusk-Brooke. Building the World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

De Masi, Kenneth F., and R. J. Stahl. Panama Canal: Building the 8th Wonder of the World. Amawalk, NY: Jackdaw Publications, 2003.

Morgan, Juan David. El caballo de oro: La gran aventura de la construcción del ferrocarril de Panamá. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones B, 2005.

                                            Pamela Murray