Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Isthmian Iron

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, its chain of mechanical locks lifting ships from sea level to lake level and back down again to cross between Atlantic and Pacific was considered (and still is) one of the greatest technological feats of all time. The fifty-five mile waterway halved the distance American commercial and naval shipping had to travel to trade coasts, negating the need to loop way south through the stormy oceanic junction at the lower tip of South America.

One hundred and fifty-four years ago today the Panama Canal's cross-isthmian predecessor officially opened. The Panama Railroad's completion through malarial swamps and snake-infested triple-canopy jungle owed its impetus to the California Gold Rush. Forty-niners headed from the East Coast to the gold fields were taking ships to Nicaragua and caravanning cross-country in an arduous foot and boat journey through that country's mountains and lakes to reach shipping waiting for them on the Pacific coast, and thence on up to California. This trip was still considered preferable to the much shorter distance across Panama at its narrow waist due to the aforementioned malarial swamps and snake-infested triple-canopy jungle. The Panama Railroad effectively by-passed Nicaragua, taking that country off the commercial trade route like an American small town center left aside and dried by an interstate. Nicaragua lobbied hard for the American canal to be built there instead of Panama, but a Nicaraguan postage stamp (I kid thee not) showing a smoking volcano was used to convince the decision-makers that Panama would be a safer location for the canal.

There was a trail across the isthmus that the Spanish had built a couple of centuries previous to carry their gold loot between ships plying the Atlantic and Pacific. Cobble-stoned segments of the Las Cruces Trail are still visible--or at least were when I hiked the trail as a Boy Scout in the early 70's. Whole segments of the trail, (and lost gold shipments, local legends say) now lay below the surface of the man-made Gatun (hosts the between-locks shipping channel across the isthmus) and Madden (controls the water source for the locks, impounding the upper Chagres River during the wet season to provide water during the dry) Lakes created by damming the Chagres River. In its glory days, nearly four centuries ago, the Las Cruces Trail carried the wealth of a nation. It is all but forgotten, today. Likewise, the Panama Railroad, carrying fortune seekers west and east between oceans, created an economic boon at each port terminus.

The glory days of the Panama Railroad ended with the completion of the American Trans-Continental Railroad which took the freight traffic previously carried between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Panama Railroad continued to carry passenger traffic between coasts until the re-United States gave control of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999. It fell into disrepair, shortly thereafter. A cross-isthmian highway system now carries that traffic.

I last traveled aboard the Panama Railroad in 1979, while on a training deployment with the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines to the now, sadly, defunct Jungle Warfare Center at Fort Sherman. It was a short trip--less than two hours between Colon on the Atlantic and Balboa on the Pacific--but its route through the largely uninhabited interior of Panama was like going back centuries in time. Hadn't thought of the connection until this morning, but my trip on the Alaska Railroad last May was a similar experience--riding the rails through history.
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