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               History of the Las Cruces Trail and Adjacent Canal Area
Part 3  - Panama Railroad, Canal Construction and Modern Era


A Historic Review of the Events and Persons Associated with the Different Trans-Isthmian Crossings and Routes in Panama
from the Camino Real and Las Cruces Trail, the construction of the Panama Railroad and the subsequent construction and operation of the Panama Canal and the Trans-Isthmian Highway


By Susan Harp,
Darién Information Systems, Inc.

Panama City, Panama

June 1, 2001



A new discovery in 1848 sparked a renaissance for the gold route across the isthmus.  On January 24, a man named James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s mill in northern California.  The area was a territory of the United States, having been acquired by treaty from Mexico.  There were only three ways to get to California from the eastern United States: by horse across 3,000 miles of wilderness inhabited by hostile Indians; by sea, over 12,000 miles around Cape Horn; or by sea some 5,000 nautical miles that included a 50-mile shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama.  The Panama route went up the Chagres River from Fort San Lorenzo and then down the Las Cruces Trail to Panama City.  Ships arriving from New Orleans, a southern U.S. port, or from the east coast sailed into the Fort San Lorenzo harbor where passengers disembarked at the town of Chagres.

The “forty-niners”

The first gold-hungry passengers to hurry off the ship in late 1848 and all during 1849 were nicknamed “forty-niners”, and gold fever swept the United States.  They desperately competed for the few boats that could take them up the river and for the few bewildered guides who could lead them from Cruces across to Panama City.  Not only did hundreds of fortune seekers cross the isthmus in this fashion, but also the tons of food provisions and mining equipment that they carried with them.  One dedicated newspaperman even took a 1,200-pound printing press over the route.

Printing press follows the Spanish trail

In early 1850, Judson Ames of Louisiana arrived at Chagres with the largest and heaviest single piece of freight yet to be transported across the isthmus.  It was a 1,200-pound hand-printing press built in New York.  Ames hired a flat-bottomed barge to take the press up the Chagres River, but after leaving the dock, the barge promptly tilted to one side and dumped the press into the river.  The determined Ames was able to drag the press onto the riverbank using ropes and a team of men and set it on the barge again.  The boatmen poled the barge upstream for an entire week before they finally arrived in Cruces, where Ames paid $200 to hire a team of mules to carry the press on their backs to Panama City.  They arrived, exhausted, three days later. 

Ames found that the earliest available space on a ship going north was three months away, so he set up the press to pass the time.  He began publishing the Panama Herald, the second English-language newspaper to be published in Panama City. When he finally arranged for passage to California, Ames sold his accounts to the other English-language newspaper, the Star.  Thereafter, the Star was known as the Star & Herald and continued to be published for more than a century.

New treasure and nineteenth century pirates

During the Gold Rush, the route from the town of Chagres to Cruces soon became a boondoggle for any local resident with a boat.  Each time a ship arrived; hundreds of passengers disembarked and began clamoring for transport up the river.  Boatmen quickly learned they could charge exorbitant prices for any sort of transportation that would deliver a passenger to Cruces.  A collection of mules was worth its weight in gold, for they provided the only transportation from Cruces to Panama City, down the Las Cruces Trail, besides walking.  By 1851, there were five U.S. Mail Steam Line vessels running from New Orleans to Chagres, each one delivering up to 400 passengers at a time.  Eight additional steamers operated from New York to Chagres.

Soon traffic began to flow in the return direction.  Miners and businessmen arrived from San Francisco and carried their wealth across the isthmus for the return trip east.  All this wealth passing back and forth attracted a cutthroat collection of thieves – both local and foreign – to the jungle along the trail.  It was as if the time of the pirates and privateers had returned.  The situation might have been ignored if it had not been for the ongoing construction of the Panama Railroad.

Mail service ignites trans-isthmian transport

A treaty between the United States and New Granada on December 12, 1846, guaranteed a right-of-way across Panama for whichever company won the bid for providing transportation and mail service between the U.S. east coast and the new territories of Oregon and, later on, California.  Two wealthy businessmen, George Law and William H. Aspinwall, won the contract in 1848 and began setting up separate shipping lines that connected in Panama.  Aspinwall took responsibility for the Atlantic route, and Law established ship transportation on the Pacific coast.  They had no choice but to provide mule-train transportation across the Las Cruces Trail in order to link the two shipping lines.  Work began immediately to improve the long-neglected Spanish trail.  The lucky timing of the Gold Rush to California brought an immediate avalanche of paying customers to their road and reinforced the notion that a railroad should replace the mule trains.

Railroad stock issued

Knowing that a railroad would reduce the trek across the isthmus from four days to about four hours, Aspinwall looked for investors to help realize his dream.  He recruited Henry Chauncey, a wealthy New York capitalist, and John L. Stephens, a writer and adventurer, and signed a contract with New Granada stipulating that the railroad must be completed within eight years.

The partners incorporated the Panama Railroad Company and sold stock to raise $1 million.  The route would start at Manzanillo Island in Limón Bay and terminate at Panama City.  The town established at Manzanillo was optimistically named Aspinwall by the newcomers, but the locals and New Granada insisted on calling it Colón after its first European visitor, Cristobal Colón.

The railroad paralleled the Chagres-Las Cruces route.  The difficult terrain and disease slowed construction, and at the end of just 20 months they had progressed only seven miles and run out of money.  Fortune smiled on Aspinwall when the forty-niners discovered the existence of the tracks and began paying $25, and enormous sum in those days, to ride seven miles and $10 just to walk along the tracks.  This new influx of money and proof that passengers would pay boosted investors’ confidence and enabled construction to continue.  But the railroad also took passengers away from San Lorenzo and the Chagres route, causing resentment among the locals who had been earning a good living.

It was not until January 27, 1855, that the rails reached the Continental Divide and were connected to 11 miles of rails coming from Panama City.  Construction of just 47 miles of railroad had cost the investors $7.5 million and taken 12,000 lives from disease.  But, thanks to the Gold Rush, by 1859 the railroad had earned more than half the cost of construction and, by 1862, made a net profit of almost $6 million.

For the first 15 years of operation, the Panama Railroad was the most important link between the U.S. and California.  In the five years ending in 1859, it transported more than $300 million worth of California gold and 100,000 bags of US mail. (Minter 286).  By January, 1865, its total profits were over $11 million.  Between 1856 and 1866, the train transported over 400,000 passengers across the isthmus. (Schott, Howarth)

Sold to France, the United States

But the Panama Railroad lost its California passengers in 1869 with the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States.  The company’s stock value was depressed until 1879, when the French company that planned to build a canal across the isthmus paid $20 million for it.  Later, ownership of the railroad passed into the hands of the United States government with the purchase of the remains of the French construction equipment for $40 million, including only $7 million for the railroad.

The train played a major role in the success of the U.S. construction effort.  When John F. Stevens, a veteran railroad man, served as chief engineer in charge of Canal construction, he modified the railroad route to haul millions of cubic yards of rock and dirt out of excavation sites and move tons of equipment from place to place.  Passengers also used the train to go to their work sites and neighboring towns along the construction route.  Before water filled the Canal, the railroad tracks were moved to higher elevation at a cost of $9 million.  The Panama Railroad continued to provide inexpensive as well as scenic transportation across the isthmus for over six decades.

In 1979, the railroad was handed over to Panama as part of the treaty agreements between the United States and Panama.  It fell into disuse until the end of the century, when it was sold to the Kansas City Southern Railway company.  The company invested millions of dollars to replace the entire train infrastructure, including all rails, ties, locomotives and trailers, and made plans to begin offering shipping container transportation service as well as limited passenger tours during 2001.

A Texas Ranger in Panama

During the first years of Panama Railroad construction, Aspinwall’s efforts were plagued by Panama’s remoteness and tropical climate, diseases that decimated the work crews and highway robbers who preyed on his passengers.  Aspinwall realized his success depended on establishing law and order. He sought advice from the sheriff of San Francisco, California, Colonel Jack Hayes, who recommended the services of Randolph “Ran” Runnels to deal with the highwaymen.

Recruiting a retired Ranger

Runnels had been a Texas Ranger, the Texan roughrider group famous for establishing law and order over the Indians and outlaws who controlled that part of the U.S. Wild West.  He had a reputation as one of the toughest of the Rangers and had served under Colonel Hays as the head of a pack train, using horses and mules to haul supplies during the war with Mexico.

In 1850, one of Aspinwall’s men, wearing a black overcoat and a stovepipe top hat, road a mule out to Runnels’s family ranch near San Antonio, Texas.  He found that Runnels had retired from the Rangers and made his peace with God.  Who knows what motive caused Runnels to go with the man, leaving the arid, open plains of Texas for the humid jungle of Panama, but he did, never to return.  His sister, Octavia Charity Marsden, claimed that Runnels had seen the request for help as a calling from the Lord. (Schott)

The Isthmus Guard

Runnels arrived in Panama in 1851 and set about his mission working undercover as a mule-train packer.  Each of the legitimate mule-train owners donated a few of their animals to Runnels, as they were desperate for him to establish safe passage for their customers and cargo.  Runnels frequented the bars and cafés, getting to know the locals.  He began identifying the outlaws and secretly recruiting “employees” whom he organized as a vigilante group called the Isthmus Guard.  Some 40 men were sworn into the secret organization.  Runnels composed a list of known highwaymen, referred to as the Derienni, from the information they gathered. 

In early 1852, the Guard struck suddenly one night.  Masked vigilantes entered Panama City’s saloons, gambling halls and brothels and rounded up 37 men.  The next morning the prisoners were found hanging along the seawall.  In addition to the bodies of several known highwaymen, those of several wealthy and prominent businessmen who had been profiting from illegitimate business dangled as a lifeless lesson to all.

For a few months, the Las Cruces Trail was safe, even for lone travelers on foot.  A cholera epidemic struck during the rainy season (May through November), its toll taking the place of the damage formerly done by highwaymen.  The thieves’ memories were apparently short however, and a few new unsavory characters arrived from abroad.  Banditry started up again with the dry-season traffic in December.  Seven miners returning home from California were brutally murdered and robbed on the trail between Panama City and Cruces.  The Isthmus Guard struck again, and at dawn citizens found 41 more bodies hanging from the seawall timbers, five of them named as the murderers of the seven miners.  Runnel’s nickname became “El Verdugo”, The Hangman.

Labor dispute in Cruces

Railroad construction and the arrival of Gold Rush travelers launched the town of Cruces into a center of activity again.  The builders recognized that they needed the Las Cruces Trail for access during railway work and began building an improved the road.  George Totten, the engineer in charge of construction, paid laborers 80 cents a day with a backpay promise of and additional 40 cents a day to each who stayed on to work on the railroad.

Observing all the new activity around him, the mayor at Cruces sought an opportunity to enrich himself.  He decided he could use his official authority to force the railroad company to pay the workers the full $1.20 a day from the very beginning.  He would make a profit by receiving an “honorarium” from the workers.  He collected one dollar from 150 workmen based in Cruces and waited for Totten to arrive on one of his regular inspections.  When Totten showed up, the mayor threw him in jail and sent word to railroad headquarters on Manzanillo Island that he would release Totten when the pay raise was announced.

Two days later, Runnels and his armed riders galloped into town to take control of the situation.  As he reigned in his horse at the construction foreman’s shack, Runnels shouted out that the workers had 60 seconds to get back to work.  As the men scrambled for their picks and shovels, Runnels grabbed a sledgehammer and headed for the jail.  While his men held the soldier guards at gunpoint, Runnels smashed the lock and released Totten.  They proceeded to the mayor’s house, found him cowering under a bed and dragged him to the main square, where Runnels publicly flogged him and left him tied there with a note in both English and Spanish saying: “This man was punished for interference in the peaceful and legal business of road building.  Next time, he and anyone who helps him will get killed.”  That ended the labor dispute at Cruces.  (Schott)

Future U.S. president confronts cholera epidemic

On July 16, 1852, Ulysses S. Grant arrived on the isthmus from New York.  Grant would later serve as the commanding general for the Union (northern) Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and then become president of the United States from 1869 to 1877, But in 1852 he was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army and the quartermaster in charge of logistics for moving the 4th Infantry regiment to California and setting up a military garrison.  That July, the 29-year-old lieutenant disembarked at Aspinwall leading a group of 550 souls that included both the soldiers and their families.

Optimistic beginnings

They had been informed that a cholera epidemic was raging in Panama, but the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bonneville, haughtily assumed that they could cross the isthmus in a matter of days and be on their way before anyone was exposed.  They found that railroad tracks extended from Aspinwall to just one mile short of Barbacoas, on the west bank of the Chagres River.  The last mile was cleared and level enough for the troops to walk the rest of the way.

Even the women and children volunteered to walk the last mile, happy to stretch their legs after eight days at sea despite the humid and rainy weather.  From Barbacoas, they set out for to Cruces by dugout canoes large enough to hold 30 passengers or more, stopping overnight at a village where a drunken wedding party was going on.  The next morning, July 18, they roused the hung-over boatmen and pushed on to Cruces. 

Cholera strikes

They were making fast headway, but at Cruces the Gold Rush phenomenon stopped them short.  The Army had contracted to pay for mule transport to Panama City along the Las Cruces Trail, but at a government rate of just $16 a person.  Gold Rush passengers who arrived on the same boat with the regiment were willing to pay between $20 and $40, and of course they got first pick of the scarce mules.  Consequently, Grant’s group became stranded in Cruces.  On the second day of waiting, a soldier succumbed to cholera.  Soon more soldiers and their wives and children fell ill.  After five days, Grant threw his budget out the window and began hiring mules at any price to get them out of the town.  He also rescued six nuns who were stranded, paying native bearers to carry them to Panama City slung in hammocks.  Many of the group ended up walking the trail, where at least three died and one man fell into a sinkhole and disappeared before he could be rescued.

Escape to the sea

On July 23, the passengers were shuttled out to the Golden Gate, a steamer anchored at Taboga Island off of Panama City.  Cholera had already broken out on the ship.  Eventually, the sick were segregated onto a hospital ship, where two or three died each day.  Passengers on the Golden Gate heard the bugle blowing “taps” several times a day from across the water as the dead were buried at sea in a burlap shroud weighted with a cannon ball.  Then the bugle blower himself succumbed.  The Golden Gate finally sailed on August 4, after undergoing a thorough fumigation with poisonous chlorine.  In just 19 days, 150 of the group had died.  Grant, who escaped with his health, was profoundly impressed by the hellish experience and spoke of it frequently for the rest of his life.

Canal expeditions

During Grant’s presidency, he authorized seven expeditions to Central America, including to Nicaragua and Panama, between 1870 and 1875.  The purpose was to find the best route for building a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Grant’s Interoceanic Canal Commission evaluated the findings and favored a route across Nicaragua.  Shortly after, the French Société de Géographic announced it would sponsor an international congress to discuss the scientific considerations for choosing a route.  It seems the French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, mistrusted Grant’s commission findings.  (Schott, McCullough)

Ferdinand de Lesseps

Count Ferdinand de Lesseps was a hero in France, having overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to build the Suez Canal between 1854 and 1869, almost the very same time span of the Panama Railroad heyday.  He was not an engineer, but a diplomat and dealmaker.

Choosing a route

In 1879, de Lesseps was the president of the Geographical Society (Société de Géographie) of Paris and almost 75 years old.  The Society organized an international congress to study the accumulated knowledge of possible routes for an inter-oceanic canal and make a definitive recommendation for the best one.  The American delegates favored a Nicaraguan route that included a locks-type canal design and the use of Lake Nicaragua for ship navigation.  But de Lesseps favored the findings of a Frenchman named Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, who recommended building a sea-level canal across Panama.  Coincidentally, the rights for building a canal in Panama belonged to Wyse and a group of French investors, while rights for Nicaragua belonged to the Americans.

Visit to Panama

Raising capital

The promoters founded a public company, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique.  However, the new company had difficulty raising funds through stock sales.  De Lesseps reasoned that sales would improve if he personally inspected and approved the project, so he sailed for Panama, taking his young wife and three children to show that he was not afraid of the fevers that gave Panama such a dangerous reputation.  They arrived on December 30, 1879.

During the train ride from Colon to Panama City, the passengers had to leave the train at Barbacoas and walk over a damaged bridge that spanned the Chagres River in order to board another train waiting on the other side.  As they walked across 600-foot-long bridge, they looked 40 feet down to the sedate river below, hardly believing that it could rise to cover the tracks, as it had in November.  The tropical rains had been so intense that the mighty Chagres had risen 46 feet, covering the tracks with six feet of water and damaging the bridge.  The incident should have sounded a clear warning to de Lesseps about the forces of nature at work in Panama; but he arrived at the end of December, dry season had already begun, and the sunny days painted a misleading rosy picture.

Lighthearted inauguration

On January 1, New Year’s Day, 1880, de Lesseps’s young daughter, Ferdinande, officially inaugurated the start of construction of the inter-oceanic canal during a formal ceremony.  Unfortunately, she was not able to dig the first dirt from the banks of the Rio Grande River – the Pacific terminus of the new canal – as had been planned.  Delays had caused the steamboat full of celebrities to leave the dock very late and miss the high tide, making it impossible to reach the spot chosen for the ceremony.  In order to save the day’s festivities, the ceremony took place on board the boat, and the child ended up swinging a shiny ornamental pickax brought over from France into a champagne crate filled with sand.  Conveniently, enough champagne had been consumed to provide the empty crate, and the formally dressed ladies and gentlemen were spared from disembarking onto the muddy riverbank. 

The trumped-up inauguration was an ironic foreboding of events to come.  Deception, lack of solid engineering and a taste for expensive trappings would eventually result in failure for de Lesseps and his company.

Engineers finalize their plans

While in Panama, De Lesseps met with his engineers and worked out a final route that would begin at Gatun on the Chagres River and roughly follow the same route as the railroad to Cruces, crossing the Continental Divide through a seven-kilometer-long tunnel at Culebra.  They also definitively decided on building a sea-level canal.  De Lesseps’ public relations journey worked, for upon returning to France and declaring the project feasible, stock sales skyrocketed and financing was ensured.  Thus began the project, with two major flaws from the very start:  the choice of building a sea-level canal instead of a locks-type canal, and deception of the public through the press.  A third flaw was their inability to control deadly fevers on the isthmus.

Construction and disease

Construction began, and in 1881 the French company purchased the Panama Railroad for more than $20 million to support the excavation effort.  By 1883, some 10,000 men were employed, and the next year brought an all-time high of 19,000 workers, mostly from Jamaica and the West Indies. 

Almost right away, in June 1881, the first worker succumbed to yellow fever.  The idea that a mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, spread the yellow fever parasite would not be proven until 1901 (by Dr. Walter Reed working in Cuba).  While working in India in 1897, another doctor, Ronald Ross, discovered that the Anopheles mosquito carried malaria, but it took a long time to convince the general public that mosquitoes and not “tropical vapors” triggered these diseases.

Malaria quickly became the main killer of French canal laborers and engineers alike, with the death toll from both malaria and yellow fever peaking in 1885.  The French hospitals in Colon and Ancon unknowingly contributed to their spread.  To keep ants and other bugs from crawling into the beds, the staff placed the four bed posts in bowls of water.  The stagnant water provided a mosquito-breeding environment right next to the already infected patients.  Upon hatching, the mosquitoes had only to bite the nearest patient to become infected with yellow fever or malaria parasites and begin spreading them.

The true number of dead during this time will never be known, but an estimated 1,300 died in 1883.  By 1884, forty-eight officers of the company had died of yellow fever, and laborers were dying at a rate of perhaps 200 a month.  Later, Dr. William Crawford Gorgas would review the French hospital records and estimate that perhaps as many as 22,000 died.

Meanwhile, work in the most problematic area, Culebra at the Continental Divide, did not progress well because of repeated landslides.  By 1887, it was apparent to the engineers that a sea-level canal was not feasible or affordable, and the company began to suffer economically.  Engineers began designing a new canal that would use a series of 10 locks to lift ships over the Divide.  Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, won the contract to construct the locks.

Funds run out

In 1889, the French canal company ran out of money before it could make progress with the locks scheme.  Shareholders voted to dissolve the Compagnie Universelle.  The failure caused a major scandal in France, with hundreds of middle-class families who had invested in canal stock losing their entire savings.  It came to light that the French promoters of the effort had been paying the media to write favorable articles designed to increase stock sales.  This revelation opened a court case in which de Lesseps and his son, Charles, were accused of misleading the public and bribing the press.  They were tried and convicted of fraud and breach of trust.

Further attempts to continue the work under a new company founded by Charles de Lesseps, the Compagnie Nouvelle de Canal de Panama, ended in failure in 1894.  Negotiations with U.S. President William McKinley for the Americans to buy the rights and equipment from the French began in 1898.  But the U.S. Isthmian Canal Commission was wary about Panama and still favored a Nicaraguan route.

Presidents and treaties

Theodore Roosevelt

The assassination of U.S. President William McKinley in 1901 catapulted his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, into the presidency.  Roosevelt strongly supported the construction of a canal to strengthen U.S. dominance of the oceans, and thought the Panama route was viable.  But the U.S. Congress was leaning toward choosing a route across Nicaragua.  To make a point that Panama was geologically more stable, supporters of the Panama route sent each senator a letter with a postage stamp depicting Nicaragua’s active Momotombo volcano to remind them of earthquake dangers in Nicaragua.  The message struck a nerve, for the senators chose the Panama route by an eight-vote margin.  When Colombia balked at signing a favorable treaty, U.S. diplomats began courting a faction that supported Panama’s independence from Colombia.

Independence and a treaty

On November 3, 1903, Panama declared independence from Colombia and, with the help of the United States, won it without bloodshed.  Just one month later, on December 2, Panama ratified the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granting the United States the rights to build a canal and also a concession in perpetuity for control of both the canal and a “Canal Zone.”  The Zone included a 10-mile-wide strip of land across the isthmus, the centerline of which would be the canal itself.

Canal Zone protects Spanish trail

The Zone included a large portion of the almost forgotten Las Cruces Trail stretching from the Chagres River at Gorgona through Cruces toward Panama City.  When the Chagres River was dammed at Gatún in 1912, the resulting reservoir would flood Gorgona, but the trail from Cruces toward Panama City lay on higher land and was preserved.  Because of the Zone’s policy to leave the 10-mile-wide strip largely undeveloped in order to protect the Canal watershed, remaining traces of the trail stayed undisturbed in the park-like preserve.  Portions of the cobblestones are still visible to hardy hikers who enter the forest from the Forest Preserve Road for the long trek toward the Chagres River.

Eradicating the fevers

When the U.S. canal construction effort began on May 4, 1904, one of the first great challenges was to rid the isthmus of yellow fever and malaria.  Sick men could not work, and few would willingly sign on to work in a death trap.  Fortunately, Roosevelt sent Colonel William Crawford Gorgas to organize health care for the project.  Doctor Gorgas arrived from Havana, Cuba, where he had worked with Dr. Walter Reed in stopping yellow fever and malaria epidemics by cleaning up garbage and other mosquito-breeding areas.  Working in Panama City, Colón and all the construction work sites, Dr. Gorgas set about installing drainage ditches, eliminating standing water and fumigating to kill the mosquitoes.  By 1905, yellow fever was completely wiped out and malaria was under better control.

Canal design and construction

In 1906, President Roosevelt visited Panama to see “his” canal.  The trip was historical because he was the first president to leave the continental United States while in office.  He made a point of visiting the excavation sites, and took advantage of a photo opportunity when, wearing his white suit, he sat at the controls of a huge excavator and operated the controls. 

Roosevelt’s first choices for chief engineer of the construction, William Wallace and then John L. Stevens, both civilians, resigned before the first three years of construction had passed.  Exasperated, Roosevelt appointed an army colonel, George W. Goethals, to the post.  Goethals vowed to stay with the project until it was done, and he was successful.  One of his major changes in the original design was to widen the size of the locks chambers from 95 to 110 feet.  He did so at the recommendation of the U.S. Navy to accommodate the USS New Jersey, a new Navy ship that was still under design but would have a beam of 108.1 feet.

Towns disappear under rising waters

The American locks design called for the damming of the Chagres River to create a freshwater lake 80 feet above sea level.  Ships would be lifted by locks at the Atlantic entrance, cross the lake and go through a narrow, 8.5-mile-long channel cut through the Continental Divide before being lowered to sea level again.  The dam was placed at Gatún, one of the settlements along the river portion that connected with the Las Cruces Trail.  As the water rose, it covered the original town of Gatún as well as other towns along the way:  Lion Hill, Ahorca Lagarto, Bohío Soldado, Frijoes, Tabernilla, Barbacoas, Gorgona and Matachin.  Today, the relatively new town of Gamboa sits at the confluence of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal right in the middle of the isthmus, and is located quite close to the original town of Cruces, which escaped inundation.

Service to the world

Canal opens new “gold route”

The Panama Canal officially opened for business on August 15, 1914.  The date coincided with the 395th anniversary of the founding of Panama City by Pedrarias, the Spaniard who had ordered the building of the first Camino de Cruces trail between Portobello and the shores of the Pacific.  Almost four centuries had passed, and the Canal symbolized a new kind of gold route for Panama – one that would attract international commerce to its shores and renew its importance as a link between two oceans.  Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I eclipsed the happy news and disrupted normal peacetime shipping traffic.

86 years

The new all-water route was a success despite these quiet beginnings.  The United States continued to operate the Canal for 86 years, following a policy of complete neutrality toward all ships arriving for transit. 

More treaties

But Panamanians resented having their country split in two, with the Canal Zone serving as barrier to both local residents and commercial port development along the waterway.  After years of resentment and conflict, Panama convinced the United States that it could and would run the Canal.  U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama General Omar Torrijos signed a treaty in 1977 in which the United States vowed to turn over operation and ownership of the Panama Canal to the Panama government at noon on December 31, 1999.  After 22 years of preparation, the event was carried out, with Carter returning to the isthmus and symbolically signing the final transfer papers with Panama’s first woman president, Mireya Moscoso.

Parks preserve historic trail

Although the Canal Zone ceased to exist, Panama established three parks that help protect the forest and the Las Cruces Trail on the eastern side of the Panama Canal.  On May 27, 1980, the Panama government established the 22,104-hectare Soberanía National Park that stretches from the center of the isthmus toward Colon.  Five years later, it protected 265 hectares of forest adjacent to Panama City and named it the Metropolitan Nature Park Trail.  The 4,000-hectare Las Cruces Trail National Park was created on December 30, 1992, and provides a vital forested link between the Metropolitan and Soberanía parks.  It also contains and protects a large portion of the original Las Cruces Trail.

Visitors to the trail fill their senses with all the sights, smells and sounds that Spanish conquistadors and other gold seekers experienced.  The trail and the Panama Canal that parallels its course remain historical and modern symbols of the 400-year spanning horse- and sail-power to computers and space-age technology.  Four centuries ago, explorers sought the link between the oceans; today, perhaps they seek the link between worlds.


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1975  A Voyage to South America, Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University,Tempe

Lindsay, Philip
1932  Panama is Burning, Farrar & Rinehart, New York

Marshall, Logan
1913  The Story of the Panama Canal, L.T. Myers Copyright

McCullough David
1977  Path Between the Seas, Simon and Schuster, New York

McGehee, Patricia A.
1994  Portobelo Chronicles, Self-published in the Republic of Panama

Minter, John Easter
1948  The Chagres: River of Westward Passage, Rinehart and Company, New York

Otis, F. N.
1861  Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad, Harper & Brothers, New York

Peixotto, Ernest
1913  Pacific Shores from Panama, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York

Prebble, John
1969  The Darien Disaster: A Scots Colony in the New World, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

Reclus, Armando
1958  Exploraciones a los Istmos de Panamá y Darién en 1876, 1877 y 1878, Revista “Lotería”, Panama City, Panama.  Reprinted article from a publication by the same name, originally printed in Madrid in 1881

Romoli, Kathleen
1953  Balboa of Darien: Discoverer of the Pacific, Doubleday & Company, New York

Schott, Joseph
1967  Rails Across Panama, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., New York

Selfridge, Thomas Oliver
1847  Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Practicability of a Ship Canal by the Way of the Isthmus of Darien, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Sterne, Emma Gelders
1963  Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Tomes, Robert
1855  Panama in 1855, Harper & Brothers, New York

John W. Geary
2000  Crossing of the Isthmus of Panama, The Maritime Heritage Project, www.maritimeheritage.org




Panama Railroad Heyday, 1848 - 1869. 46

Gold Rush across Panama. 46

The “forty-niners” 46

Printing press follows the Spanish trail 46

New treasure and nineteenth century pirates. 47

Panama Railroad.. 48

Mail service ignites trans-isthmian transport 48

Railroad stock issued. 48

Sold to France, the United States. 49

Adventure along the Panama Railroad - Las Cruces Trail route. 50

A Texas Ranger in Panama. 50

Recruiting a retired Ranger 50

The Isthmus Guard. 51

Labor dispute in Cruces. 52

Future U.S. president confronts cholera epidemic. 53

Optimistic beginnings. 53

Cholera strikes. 53

Escape to the sea. 54

Canal expeditions. 54

French canal – 1879 to 1898. 55

Ferdinand de Lesseps. 55

Choosing a route. 55

Visit to Panama. 55

Raising capital 55

Lighthearted inauguration. 56

Engineers finalize their plans. 56

Construction and disease. 57

Funds run out 58

Engineering dream solidifies, 1903 – 1914. 58

Presidents and treaties. 58

Theodore Roosevelt 58

Independence and a treaty. 59

Canal Zone protects Spanish trail 59

Eradicating the fevers. 59

Canal design and construction. 60

Towns disappear under rising waters. 60

Service to the world. 61

Canal opens new “gold route” 61

86 years. 61

More treaties. 61

Parks preserve historic trail 62

Bibliography. 64