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The Panama Railroad
Volume 59: Mon May 30, 2005
Regarding the period when our intrepid adventurers rode the Panama Railroad to Colón and other amusing anecdotes
For our third day in Panama, Amanda and I decided to check out, without a doubt, the most famous feature of Panama—the Panama Canal. Considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world, it's an engineering feat staggering in size and ingenious in construction. And we wanted to get a first-hand look at this modern marvel.
As part of our pre-trip research, we both read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough. (You can even buy a copy for yourself from the link at the right!) Amanda thought the story interesting, though it's definitely heavy reading. I was entranced by the narrative like it was a suspense novel. It had everything! Scandals! Espionage! Bribes! Corruption! Death! Mayhem! Fortunes won and lost, and lives changed forever. During the course of construction, a new country was born. If you're at all interested in historical narratives, The Path Between the Seas is an excellent and educational read.
Our plan for the day was to ride the famed Panama Railroad to Colón—the Atlantic entrance for the Panama Canal—and tour the Gatún locks and dam before riding the railroad back to Panama City. The train left Panama at 7:30 in the morning, so we woke up early, hurried out the hotel and hailed down a taxi. A few minutes later, we arrived at the train station, paid off our taxi driver (three bucks!), and waited for the train station to open. In our enthusiasm, we arrived too early, as it turned out.
The Panama Railroad alone has a story as thrilling and interesting as the better-known Panama Canal. In 1846, Columbia signed a treaty with the United States allowing the construction of the line and allowed the United States the right to protect the line with military force, a precedent that would continue with the Panama Canal to come. The Panama Railroad was completed in 1855. The death toll was staggering—it's said that each tie laid down for the line represents a person who died during its construction. That's certainly an exaggeration—there were 74,000 ties between Panama City and Colón (a distance of about 50 miles)—though it probably didn't seem so to the workers who watched thousands and thousands of diseased bodies carted off. The real number of deaths is not known—no body counts were kept—but estimates range from 6,000 on up. For years, the Panama Railroad supplied much of the world's cadavers for medical schools and hospitals around the world. Panama's reputation as a pesthole solidified as horror stories from the workers reached the public.
Construction was a challenge to say the least, and not just because of the sickness that seemed to permeate the air. Panama was almost completely without resources. Food, workers and supplies had to be shipped in from thousands of miles away. In the first twenty months of construction, a measly seven miles of track had been laid.
The railroad—the first transcontinental railroad in the Americas—turned immensely profitable almost immediately from thousands of people traveling from the east coast of the United States to the gold fields of California. The profits would also spur efforts to construct a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and become a critical tool in the building of the Panama Canal.
And Amanda and I were going to ride this historic railroad cross-country from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean and back again.
When the train station opened, I bought us tickets while Amanda browsed the over-priced souvenirs available for purchase. Considering this was Panama where goods were cheap to begin with, the prices in this giftshop was railway robbery, as it were. She wisely decided not to purchase anything, and we boarded our car near the back of the train.
The railroad car was simply amazing! Hand-painted murals covered panels at each end, the employees wore old-fashioned uniforms that looked like something from the early twentieth century, and the windows stretched from the sides up around towards the ceiling for amazing panoramic views all around. We selected a table on the upper deck on the left side of the train. That's the side where the Panama Canal would be on our little jaunt and we wanted a front-row view!
One of the—for lack of a better term—stewardesses took our drink order which consisted of 'no gracias' since we suspected they'd probably charge outrageous prices for the drinks.
The train car filled up rapidly and we could see the disappointment in the faces of other tourists that didn't get a prime seat on the left side of the train. Ha-ha! You snooze, you lose...
The train started up. Chug, chug, chug, chug.... Our transcontinental railroad ride had begun! The next hour or so was filled with beautiful jungle views mixed in with grand views overlooking Gatún Lake and the Panama Canal. Most of the area within five miles of the Panama Canal is largely undeveloped since the United States essentially owned and controlled all of the land for the sake of protecting the canal. And today the area stands as one of the largest wild areas left in Panama. The Panama Railroad crosses this otherwise undisturbed habitat and for sharp-eyed tourists such as Amanda and myself, one could even spot exotic birds or sloths on the trees.
"I think I saw a toucan!" says Amanda.
I look around. "I didn't."
This dialog went on for quite awhile—Amanda seeing something she thought might be a toucan, but the train was moving too fast to positively identify it. And by the time I turned to look, it was already long gone, whatever it was. I was more entranced by the views overlooking the Panama Canal and the occasional massive ship seen sailing along its length. Looking for things in the nearby trees that passed by at lightning speeds was just too exhausting for me to do.
The whole train started buzzing when some monkeys were spotted swinging on a tree at one point—and yes, I missed those too. At least Amanda could be sure she saw some monkeys with the confirmation that everyone else on the left side of the train saw them too. Well, everyone but myself. =) Nobody else ever seemed to see these toucans that Amanda kept seeing, though.
Finally, our train pulled into Colón. Colón, for those who don't realize it, was named after Christopher Columbus or, as his name was known in Spanish, Christobal Colón. Mr. Columbus landed nearby during his last trip to the New World—still convinced he was somewhere in Asia rather than a previously undiscovered continent.
My dad had told me a little about Colón before the trip—he had been there when we was stationed in Panama for "jungle training"—something that sounds so unappealing I'd probably rather eat dirt. And he explained that Colón was the armpit of Panama, though not exactly in those words. It was dirty, ugly, tough, and had absolutely nothing to offer. All of our guidebooks agreed and added additional persuasive arguments such as the streets are extremely dangerous and you should never walk around—even in the day. Never walk outside any farther than required to get into a taxi. Though one guidebook that suggested this also said things were "much safer" than in years past. Yikes!
However, the train dropped us off in Colón, and we had over six hours to kill before we had to get back for the return trip. What to do, what to do?
We found ourselves a taxi driver and immediately left town. That's what we did. =) We asked to be taken to the Gatún Locks, perhaps 10 kilometers outside of Colón and, allegedly, the best view of any of the three sets of locks that make up the Panama Canal. At the entrance, we went through a brief security search to ensure we had no dastardly plans up our sleeves, and we hiked up a staircase to a viewing area.
We sat there for probably 20 minutes watching the workings of the lock. It was fascinating, watching all the workers down below—both on the ship and those on each side guiding the ship into place. Ships around the world are designed with the exact dimensions of these locks in mind: 305 meters long and 33.5 meters wide. Each passage of a ship releases a whopping 52 million gallons of fresh water into the ocean.
Ships pay for passage according to their weight with fees averaging around $30,000 per ship. With nearly 14,000 ships passing through each year, that amounts to about $420 million per year. Just in case you were wondering how much that darned thing brings in. The lowest amount paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton who, in 1928, swam through. The canal is run as a not-for-profit enterprise—they charge only enough to pay for ongoing maintenance.
Another fun trivia question for you—if you were in a boat on the Atlantic and sailed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific, in what direction would you be sailing? East or west? Of course, it's a trick question—the correct answer is east. The canal goes more-or-less south from Colón, but slightly eastward on its way to Panama City. You'll have to check out a map if you don't believe me, though.
As fun as these statistics are, it the history of the canal that's even more interesting.
The idea of a Panama Canal was first broached by King Charles V of Spain in 1524. Of course, in that day and age, it was technically infeasible and nothing was done about it for centuries. It was the French that would make the first stab at building an interoceanic canal in the last half of the 1800s. Ferdinand de Lesseps had recently completed the construction of the Suez Canal and if anyone could build a canal through the Americas, everyone assumed this was the guy to do it.
Unfortunately for him, he took many of the lessons he learned from the Suez Canal and tried to apply them to the Panama Canal. The Suez Canal was built in a desert where water was scarce and the land around it largely flat. The Panama Canal had to be built where water was too plentiful and the terrain much more mountainous. And from the very beginning, Ferdinand de Lesseps demanded a sea-level canal—anything else would be madness, he declared. His own engineers suggested that Nicaragua would make a better site for a canal, but he vetoed that idea. Nothing could stop the French and darn it, it was his way or the highway.
Construction began in 1881—a time when the source of malaria and yellow fever was thought by the scientific community (and the public at large) to come out of the ground. Disturbing the ground with excavation explained why the disease flourished during construction much more so than before construction started. Ultimately, over 22,000 people would die trying to build Ferdinand's dream before his company became bankrupt in 1889.
If that was the only problem, perhaps he would have succeeded in building the canal. His sea-level route was preposterous and he had no answer to the water problem. Even if he dug the canal at sea level, where would all of the water draining into it go? Some of the mountains in Panama get over ten feet of rainfall each year! A sea-level canal would constantly be inundated in water.
And another unexpected problem was the unstable ground. As the canal grew deeper, enormous landslides would fill it in again. The only solution was to build a shallower cut. The amount of excavation required was grossly underestimated. This is a problem that would continue to plaque the Americans when their turn came to work on the canal, and even after the canal was opened!
In any case, it was a losing battle for the French. When Lesseps's company finally went bankrupt, almost everyone in France had a stake in it. Over $300 million dollars was poured into the company—a staggering sum by today's standard much less in the 1880s! The main participants, including Lesseps, were put on trial. It was learned politicians had been bribed, the real progress and problems covered up. Oh, the scandals! There was very real talk if the government of France could survive or if a revolution was in the making.
There wasn't a revolution, happily, though by this time, the United States was seriously considering building its own canal. One of Lesseps' chief engineers, Philipee Bunau-Varilla, formed a new canal company and wanted desperately to sell the work the French had already done in Panama and the rights to build the canal to the USA. He was fighting an uphill battle, however, since the general consensus in the United States, after seeing the disaster the French made in Panama, was to build the Nicaragua canal instead.
The engineers, however, being the clever lot that they are, considered another plan in Panama. Panama has an abundance of water and the question of what to do with it was a big problem. The engineers had a solution: Build a gigantic dam along the Chagres River creating the world's largest man-made lake with locks on each end to raise and lower the ships to the lake level. Instead of looking at the water as a problem, it suddenly became a valuable asset! The water through the dam and locks could generate electricity to run itself. The artificial lake would be deep enough for ships to easily pass through—several dozen miles with no excavation at all required! Instead of digging a canal, they would create a lake to float over it using all that excess water. It was an ingenious idea.
An unexpected benefit of this strategy was that it would also kill barnacles living on the hulls of these sea-water ships as they entered the fresh water Gatún Lake. I don't think that was ever a deciding factor in the strategy, however. ;o)
Another idea that was suggested but later discarded is pretty amusing: Create a gigantic railroad that could pick up an entire ship, transport it cross-country, then replace it back on the opposite ocean. Ships back then weren't nearly as large as they are today, so it was actually taken more seriously than you might think. Fortunately, however, the concept was thrown out.
In 1903, Bunau-Varilla asked for the Columbian government's permission to sell the canal right to the Untied States. When Columbia refused, the country of Panama was born—as you read about in the previous adventure. The United States supported the independence movement in Panama and Columbia was no longer part of the picture. Bunau-Varilla, as ambassador of Panama, signed a treaty with the United States giving the USA 'sovereign rights in perpetuity over the Canal Zone' and the right to intervene in Panamanian affairs. The friction between Panama and the United States lasted for decades until Jimmy Carter, in 1977, signed a new treaty that would gradually phase out US control of the canal.
The United States began construction of the canal in 1904. The top concern from the very beginning was how to eliminate the tens of thousands of deaths from diseases that gave the French so much grief. A revolutionary discovery that malaria and yellow fever was carried and spread by mosquitoes was originally met with skepticism. For hundreds of years, everyone "knew" the source was from disturbed dirt, and a claim to the contrary was not popularly believed.
A doctor named William Gorgas, who survived a bout with yellow fever years before and therefore was immune ever since, was put to work to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the disease. All standing water, the breeding grounds for mosquitoes, were removed and destroyed. Pools of water were coated with oil. Infected workers were enclosed in wire-screen tents. Windows for the worker barracks were covered with wire screens to keep mosquitoes out of the living quarters.
And it largely worked. Yellow fever was completely eradicated from Panama and malaria significantly reduced. During the following ten years of construction, more than 75,000 workers helped to build the Panama Canal with a total number of deaths estimated at around 5,000. Still significant by today's standards, though vastly superior to the French's record.
Landslides continued to be a problem. While Gatún Lake solved the water problem and eliminated dozens of miles that otherwise would have required excavation, there was still an enormous quantity of excavation required—especially through the Culebra Cut. Months of excavation work would be wiped out overnight with a single landslide. As the cut got deeper, the pressure from the mountains on each side of it would actually lift the ground the workers were excavating.
The Panama Railroad was an asset the French never fully utilized to move all this dirt. Some of the debris was used to create the causeway near Panama City. Other debris was moved to the construction site for Gatún Dam. The Panama Railroad would be one of the most important tools utilized for the creation of the Panama Canal—the very railroad we took out to Colón and where Amanda thinks she saw toucans. =)
We watched the locks for quite some time. Several ships were lined up off the coast of Colón waiting for their turn through the locks. Each day, for several hours at a time, ships pass through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, then it reverses and all ships move from the Pacific to the Atlantic. At this time of day, the ships were moving into the canal from the Atlantic. We watched the massive ships rising to the next lock with just inches between the ship and the sides of the canal. It really was quite remarkable what a tight fit those ships had in the canal! And as the water raised the ships, they were carefully controlled not to bang into the walls of the locks.
From a visual standpoint, when the locks are full of water, it largely looks like a swimming pool and isn't especially impressive looking. As the lock drains of water and you can see how deep it goes, it's much more visually impressive. But the thing there—you're still only seeing maybe half the depth of the lock! The locks, naturally, cannot be completely drained because there are huge container ships that are supposed to be floating on them! The best place to get a good hint at the true size of these locks are pictures taken during its construction before the locks were flooded with water.
Our taxi driver suggested we should move on to the dam or else we'd have to wait another half hour or more before we'd get another chance. The dam was on the other side of the locks and only during a short period of time between ships were vehicles able to drive over a small drawbridge to the other side. If we missed this opportunity, we'd have to wait for the next ship to pass before we could continue on.
Just as we were leaving, we saw some fish in the locks jumping out of the water. Cool! But we left the enthralling dance of the ships and fish below us and walked back to the taxi.
And driving over that small drawbridge was perhaps the best view of all! The bridge was a single lane and followed along near the base of the bottom lock allowing our car to drive right next to the giant locks that towered above us. Wow! We didn't realize what a show driving over the locks would be!
Gatún Dam was perhaps another mile down the road. We got out and looked. It was a dam. There wasn't anything particularly extraordinary about it. It was a good-sized dam and that was that. Rather anti-climatic, we thought, though at the time the dam was built, not only was it the largest in the world, but held the world's largest man-made lake behind it.
Something occurred to me. "Hey, Amanda, welcome to North America!"
She looked at me kind of strangely, so I explained that until then we'd always been on the South American side of the Panama Canal. As soon as we crossed that little drawbridge, we had crossed over to the North American side of the canal. I'm not really sure where South America ends and North America begins—officially speaking—but the Panama Canal seemed like a logical dividing place of two continents.
The Panama Canal opened in 1914 with little fanfare. World War I broke out the same month the canal opened putting any festivities that had been planned on hold.
We returned to our taxi and told him to take us back to Colón. He suggested some other nearby sites, but we weren't really interested in any of them. We wanted lunch and Colón looked like the best place for that.
Unfortunately, the drawbridge was raised and we'd have to wait about a half hour before we could cross back to the South American continent. The taxi driver left the vehicle running so we'd still be able to enjoy the air conditioning and we sat around, bored to tears, waiting for our chance to continue. A digital countdown on a sign by the bridge told us how much longer we could expect to wait—much too long for our tastes but there wasn't much we could do about it but wait.
After close to a half hour, our turn was up and we hurdled down the streets back to Colón. Not knowing anything about Colón except that it was a particularly dangerous place for tourists to be wandering around, we asked to be dropped off near the cruise terminal with the uninspired name of Colón 2000. We figured there would be lots of tourists and tourist places to visit, including food. Our taxi driver suggested another nearby place that had much cheaper food so we went with that. I was convinced the taxi driver would get a cut of whatever money we spent at the restaurant, but we still had close to five hours before our train left town with absolutely nothing else on our agenda to do before we left. We'd check out his suggestion.
The restaurant he took us to wasn't in any of our guidebooks, which didn't concern us in the least—Amanda and I enjoyed the thrill of someplace local rather than hanging out with a bunch of tourists from the states. It was in a gated area, though, to keep out the riff-raff that plagued most of the city.
I don't know the name of the restaurant—I didn't see any names listed anywhere, but it was on the eastern side of the city with a view towards the cruise terminal. The restaurant was very plain and completely empty of people. We took a table and reviewed the menu and decided it would do. I think I got a hamburger. Just because we didn't want to hang out with tourists didn't mean we couldn't eat like one! ;o)
After the meal was over, Amanda and I had the taxi driver take us to Colón 2000 where we finally ditched him. He offered to come by later to pick us up—just give us a time, but we paid him and waved him off and said we could hail a taxi off the street when we were ready to leave. Actually, we didn't even have to leave the parking lot—plenty of taxis drove through the parking lot on a regular basis. Getting transportation back to the train station would not be a problem.
We still had hours to kill before our train would leave. We hadn't planned our trip to Colón very well at all: with nothing to do, and another five hours to kill. Had we not purchased round-trip tickets for the train, we'd have gone to the bus station and taken the bus back to Panama City.
Amanda enjoyed looking through all of the tourist shops which were very empty since there wasn't a cruise ship docked at the time. Lord knows why any cruise ship would stop in that pesthole. I'd demand a refund myself. But even the tourist shops weren't enough to keep Amanda occupied for more than a half hour or so, and we found ourselves standing outside wondering what to do next.
We decided on Café Iguana, a little eatery on the second floor of the complex, to waste our time away. Having just eaten lunch, we weren't hungry, but the place was air-conditioned, comfortable, and had a view out the second-floor window. We took a table and ordered drinks. I read a bit from some reading material I brought, but we were both bored out of our minds. The only way I could truly describe the boredom we found would be to tell you about it for the next two hundred thousand words, but I will not subject you to that torture.
After a couple of hours and several drinks later, we needed to move again. We hailed a taxi from the parking lot and asked to be taken to the train station—we'd wait there until our train was ready to leave—in another two hours!
Our driver took us past Zona Libre, or the Free Zone. Our guidebook describes it as a "huge, fortresslike walled-off area of giant international stores selling items duty free." It even goes on to claim that it's the world's second-largest duty-free port after Hong Kong. This is shocking to me. Colón? How did the world's second-largest duty-free port end up in Colón of all places? We didn't stop there, however, since our guidebook warned that it isn't set up for tourists and window shopping isn't interesting. It did look like a modern day fortress with the large walls surrounding probably over 50 square blocks of the city.
Our taxi driver took us through some sketchy areas of town that our last driver didn't take us through. It was disturbing. We'd seen poor people on the streets before, but these people somehow managed to look even more desperate and frightening. Sad too. You know, I think that's what the difference here was. The other poor people we'd seen in Panama and elsewhere in Central America were poor, but they still seemed happy. Perhaps not with their lot in life, but they made the most of it, told jokes, and laughed. These people we drove past just looked like they'd never laughed once in their lives. For the first time in my life, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the poverty around me.
At the train station, the guards turned us away. The train didn't leave for two hours—we weren't allowed to wait early. *rolling eyes* Now what? We certainly didn't want to go back where we came from—we'd already been there! Our taxi driver suggested another restaurant a few blocks away at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and we figured that sounded good to us. It was even close enough where we could risk walking back to the train station when our train was ready rather than hailing another taxi.
We took a table and ordered up some more cold drinks. We also ordered some garlic bread while we were at it because, well, why not? =) And continued our miserable wait to leave Colón.
A half hour before our train was to leave, we decided it was finally time to go back. We paid our bill and walked back to the train station where, happily, our train was there. A line had already started forming to board, and we slid in at the end of it.
The trip back was as enjoyable as the ride to Colón. This time, the sun was setting over the canal and I made a much greater effort to document the ride back to Panama City with my camera than on the trip out. The view was just too good not to!
Back in Panama City, we got off the train and were immediately assaulted by a taxi driver asking if we needed a ride. Well, yeah, as a matter of fact, we did. Cuanto dinero? How much?
He told us three bucks, which was good enough for me and out of habit asked if that was for both of us. No, he explained, three bucks for each of us.
Woah! Now that was just highway robbery. First, taxis don't charge by the person and I knew this. And second, it only cost three bucks to get both of us out to the train station from our hotel. It certainly shouldn't cost us six dollars to get back! I told him no and said it only cost three dollars total to get out here—no way we'd be paying six.
He shook his hand at us and left to rip off some other poor unsuspecting tourist.
I looked around the parking lot for other taxis, but strangely, it seemed devoid of them. Hmmm.... Well, I wasn't too concerned. If a taxi didn't show up soon, I'd just go out to the busy road and hail one down.
Amanda watched the taxi driver trying to heckle some other tourists into his car who also rebuffed him. A few minutes later, he came back to me and said, "Okay, five bucks." I laughed. That was too funny. I wasn't going to pay five bucks for a taxi ride that I knew shouldn't cost more than three. But I was in a good mood and decided to bargain. "Four," I offered.
He waved his hand at me, pretending to be insulted, and left to look for some other unsuspecting tourists. Amanda asked about how we were going to get out of there if we couldn't find another taxi. Don't worry, I assured her, there's already been two dozen of them who've driven past on the road over there. We can hail one down from there, if it comes to that.
The taxi driver, not having much luck conning anyone into ridiculously expensive fares, came back to me once again. "Okay, four dollars."
"That's four dollars for the both of us, right?"
"Yes, four dollars."
I knew we were being ripped off, but the extra buck was worth the amusement the taxi driver had provided us, I felt. =)
As Amanda and I were getting into the taxi, he tried one last time to get some other tourists—a gaggle of three, cute girls—to also ride a taxi offering them four dollars for the ride. At least they didn't have to bargain down to the price like we did!
They agreed—the three of them. I was kind of perplexed at this because the taxis aren't very large. Perhaps the size of a small sedan, and now he had five passengers to carry around in a car meant to only carry a maximum of four. Three in the back seat and one in the passenger seat. This would be interesting indeed. I was already in the passenger seat and Amanda was in the back, and the three additional girls piled into the backseat with Amanda. Curses! Why didn't I take the backseat? It was awfully snug back there. Oh, well... *shrug*
One of the girls knew fluent Spanish and she talked quite a bit with the taxi driver while I tried to listen in and keep up with talk. They girls were visiting from Germany, though the one who was speaking Spanish had been studying the language for the last seven months which is why she was so good at it. I didn't quite catch where she was studying it, but I assume it was probably in Central America somewhere if not in Panama.
The driver took them to the Albrook bus terminal, which I considered rather fortunate for us. I wanted to know exactly where it was and get a sense of it since that's where Amanda and I planned to go the next day to leave for other destinations in Panama.
The girls got out and left for wherever they were leaving for (I didn't pick up their ultimate destination while eavesdropping) then the taxi took us to our own hotel where we paid the four bucks and called an end to the day. Our third day in Panama had come to an end....
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