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The Panama Railroad

September 4, 1855, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

Completion or the Isthmus Telegraph.

The telegraph wires between Panama and Aspinwall were all up on the 11th August, and on the following day about 9 o'clock the first electric message was dispatched across the isthmus by Mr. J. W. Johnson, the Superintendent of the Panama station, Mr. Oscar Willis being the operator. It was as follows :

"George M. Totten, Esq., Chief Engineer of the Panama Railroad:
Compliments of J. W. Johnson. We are ready to hear from the other side. Telegraph completed on Sunday, August 12, 1955.

T. W. Johnson,
Superintendent Telegraph office,
Panama, R. R."

Panama Railroad Company.

The Panama Star says that it was amusing to see the astonishment of many of the people who never saw an electric telegraph at work before, many of whom could not be persuaded of its reality, and to whom the idea of asking what o'clock it was in Aspinwall and receiving an answer back again in Panama in thirty seconds, seemed altogether a matter of impracticability. Many went away fully convinced that it was magic, sorcery, or some contrivance of his Satanic Majesty himself.

May 26, 1856, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

Full Particulars of the Catastrophe
Narrative of Circumstances Attending the Collision
The Crash of the Accident Incidents
The Horrors of the Scene Recapitulation of Losses.

The Alta California has been furnished by Mr. Washington Wright with the following account of


The greatest of railroad calamities has been reserved for the thick wilds of Panama; and the terrible event transpired at about 5 o'clock p. m., Tuesday, May 5th, on the Panama railway, three and a half miles from Aspinwall.

On the 5th inst., the steamship George Law, with between 1100 to 1200 passengers, arrived, after a voyage of fifteen days. The passengers were landed for transit, and on the morning of the 6th, two trains, composed of nine cars, which were crowded with people, even to the outside platforms, were arranged for the trip. Previous to their departure, another was started, containing the mails, express matter and baggage.

The other trains followed, and when they had reached Matchin, 17-1/2 miles from Panama, it was discovered that the locomotive of the first train was off the track at Obispo Bridge, with no immediate prospect of being replaced. The passenger trains were now united, and as there were no accommodations for remaining over night, started back for Aspinwall, with but one locomotive, the other being retained to assist in clearing the track. The train, though run at an unusual rate of speed, proceeded safely until within a short distance of Monkey Hill Grave Yard Station, when the forward car separated from the engine and leaped from the rails. Eight of the other cars leaped upon it, and the whole nine were torn, splintered and heaped into a mass of fragments, beneath which were buried most of the persons belonging to that end of the train. The scene was appalling in the extreme. Instantaneously hundreds of those who that morning had expected before night to behold the Pacific, and tread the decks of the vessel that was in waiting to bear them to new homes, lay dead, and mangled beyond recognition; or were groaning from the pains of frightful wounds.

The accident occurred just over a culvert, at a point where the forest seems impenetrably dense where the ground is low, wet and marshy and where, on each side of the road, there is a deep ditch filled by recent rains. Portions of the wreck were thrown into the ditches, carrying with them numbers of the dead and wounded, some of whom were found far in the mud and decomposing weeds and foliage. The nature of the locality rendered the wreck accessible only with difficulty, the surviving passengers being compelled to stand in water to the knees while endeavoring to assist the sufferers. Several, however, succeeded in extending relief; yet, though they toiled all night before the ghastly spectacle, it was not until late in the morning that the broken cars were sufficiently removed to induce the belief that all, or nearly so, of the unfortunates had been taken out.

The locomotive in becoming detached from the train, was not thrown off the track, not stopping to inquire into the extent of the ruin behind him, the engineer hurried on to Aspinwall. Upon his arrival, a train was immediately dispatched to the scene of the catastrophe, and returned at 8 o'clock in the evening, with a part of the wounded and uninjured. This train continued to run during the night, but the majority of these occupying the broken cars remained in them, wet and without food, until conveyed, on the afternoon of the 7th, to Panama.

The exact number losing their lives by this fearful calamity will never be known. The fate of many now moldering by the dreary roadside, can only be surmised by friends in failing, after a long while, to receive tidings promised at the last parting. So far as every circumstance would admit of a close and laborious inquiry, and from the most plausible basis, there appears to be little doubt that the number killed, including those who were too badly injured to long survive, is nearly one hundred.


The cause of the accident is easy of explanation. Its primary origin belongs to the running off at Obispo bridge of the locomotive attached to the mail train, making it necessary to unite the two passenger trains behind one engine, giving it a burden so heavy and unwieldy as to be scarcely manageable on the grades and curves. The locomotive of the mail train was in charge of an engineer named Williams, whom the Superintendent, Mr. Center, found to be incapable of reinstating his machine. The Superintendent learned that there were two engineers among the passengers, whose names are Abraham Jones, of Poughkeepsie, New York, and John Halpin, of the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Rail he persuaded them to take charge of putting the engine on the track; this they soon skillfully accomplished. The length and weight of the returning passenger train compelled the engineer to run rapidly over level places to obtain a momentum sufficient to make the summit of ascending grades and long curves, which constitute the greatest peculiarity of the entire road. The loose nature of the soil, the decaying effect it readily has upon the wooden material used in the construction of the road, and its constant absorption of moisture, endanger every train unless run at a very moderate speed; and the danger is increased by the fact that where the ties begin to soften with rot, destructive insects lend their aid in weakening and consuming the durability of the wood.

Combined, these everlasting agents have destroyed the adhesiveness of the spikes; consequently the rails are neither permanent nor capable of any considerable jar or strain; hence, when the long train had attained a velocity of twenty-eight miles an hour which was the case at the time of the present accident the ties refused to hold, the rails spread apart, the forward trucks of the second car sunk into the slight embankment and the dire event of the day was the result. Notwithstanding these indisputable proofs that the Panama Railroad perhaps unavoidable to a partial degree is an imperfect thoroughfare, as perilous as it was difficult to construct, it lacks proper care in keeping it in repairs and caution in the management of trains always loaded too full of people. There was a palpable fault, an unpardonable wrong, in allowing the unfortunate train of the 6th to be run at the speed it was. No excuse can be offered in the least calculated to palliate the wrong committed, or remove the opinion that the horrible slaughter was accompanied by a recklessness demanding prompt and unanimous public condemnation.


A series of accidents attended the departure from Aspinwall. First, the boatswain of the George Law fell from the cars as they were moving out of the town and was much bruised; next followed the failure of the mail train to pass Obispo bridge; an engine near Matchin broke a "rock shaft," then came the huge smash up, succeeded by the disabling of another locomotive in switching to a side track.

Everything tended to make the situation of the uninjured passengers peculiarly unpleasant. It had rained just previous to the accident, and as darkness approached thick clouds hung over the spot dripping a chilly and penetrating mist, the heated earth sent up a stench putrid with the vapors of a malarias surface, and the insect host of the marsh set the woods to echoing with their varied and discordant buzzing and croaking, while the groaning of the maimed and the sighing and sobbing of those who had lost relatives mingled with the cries of young children whose dead mothers lay gathering upon their distorted lips the cold dampness of night, established and maintained a mournfulness too complete for any to withstand its influence. No food, no lights, and universal exhaustion enhanced the gloom prevailing, and each shivering tenant of the crowded cars deemed himself in the most pitiable condition.

The appearance of the crowded cars immediately after the catastrophe was wonderful and shocking. Deep pools of coagulating blood had formed on the larger pieces of the roofing and panel work, and from the smaller ones the yet warm gore was dropping into the waters of the ditches. The force of the crash was tremendous, and the space occupied by the fragments did not appear largo enough to receive, at the same height, the ruins of more than one or two cars. When the trucks hit the ties the whole nine cars shut together, like so many light boxes compressed into each other, with such startling violence that they were shivered to atoms.

Scattered all about the wreck were reeking bodies, some cut and torn asunder at the middle; some driven into shapes that, in any other place, could not have been identified as belonging to mortality; some twisted as though they were flimsy cloths, and others piled one upon another like slain combatants in battle resting in the blood of the carnage. Under one heavy piece of a car lay a woman holding in her stiff and mangled arm, her breathless child; under another sat an old man, upheld by a splinter passing through him, his protruding eyeballs apparently gazing in mute horror at the awful scene. Near one of the tossed rails was a human head severed clean from kinship with the body; a little way on the entire facial part of another hung to the end of a broken tie, and just beyond the upper portion of a skull, holding the brain of its possessor, clung by the hair to the edge of a ditch. But worst of all, a woman advanced in pregnancy was killed in a manner which exposed through her wounds the unborn child!

Yet in presence of all this there were those who hastened to rob the dead. Several of the passengers were seen to cut off money belts and search the pockets of the killed and helplessly wounded. Some thus rifled had large sums in gold, besides watches, revolvers and jewelry about them. While conveying the injured to town, and old German, suffering from a broken thigh, cut, with a pocket knife, a main artery and bled to death; preferring to die in this way to remaining in the hospital. In searching for the dead around the wreck the foot of a colored man was observed projecting above the ground, his entire body sunken from view. An effort was made to pull it forth, but in the attempt the leg was torn away. This circumstance causes the writer, who was an eye-witness, to believe that more of the killed still lie imbedded in the soft sand in the vicinity of the spot where the accident happened.

A young infant, whose mother, Mrs. Crowan, was killed, and whose father is supposed to reside in San Francisco, was found in the ruins unharmed, and given to the women in the remaining cars. They, considering it a burden, passed it from one to another, but finally it disappeared, and was not heard of until morning, when it was picked up on the sea shore in front of the town, by a French merchant, and placed in the care of his wife, who now has it. Six other children, all young, were left orphans, and came on the Golden Age, dependent upon the charities of this community.

The dead were buried on the morning of the 7th, without shroud, or coffin, or funeral service, in pits dug near the road, under shadow of Monkey Hill, the rude cemetery where six thousand victims of Panama disease were placed while the road was being built. A train was run out from Aspinwall with all the passengers that had gone to town. At the burial pits a few went to see the blackening bodies thrown into the earth. A brief gaze sufficed, and then the train started for the coast of the Pacific.

The following is as near a statement of the facts as could be made by us the morning after the terrible tragedy:

Nine cars, containing 60 persons each, were destroyed
Killed almost immediately and taken up dead
Died on the cars going to Aspinwall
Died after arriving there
Sent in badly wounded and left at Aspinwall
Left at Panama wounded
Slightly wounded (a few rather severely) now on board
Escaped unhurt from the demolished cars

This account should not be closed without mention being made of the valuable aid of Dr. R. F. Paris and his brother, of Sacramento, the only medical men in the cars at the time of the accident! Nothing was left undone by them during that horrid night to relieve the sufferers so far as they could, and save life.

Colonel George Muirson Totten

November 5, 1857, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

Col. George M. Totten, the pioneer of the Panama Railroad, and, since its construction, the chief engineer of the company, favored me with his presence and extensive information of what relates to this part of the Isthmus. To him, and to Allan McLane the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's Agent, who placed the steamer Tobago at my service tor the examination of the Bay of Panama, I was indebted tor every facility that they could afford me. Commander Hoff, the senior officer present in the Bay of Panama, furnished a boat to verify the chart which accompanies this report. By this it will be seen that the water is shoal for a considerable extent, both to the east and west of the city of Panama. It is supposed that the canal could be united with the waters of the Pacific on either side of the city, and that a channel might be dredged to the depth of thirty feet, to meet the navigable waters for ships of large draught The bay then expands into an ample harbor, where the winds are said never to blow with violence, sufficiently comprehensive for the commerce of the world, and studded with islands, convenient for all the great purposes that the condition of things would call for, by the construction. a canal through the isthmus. The isthmus itself seems to present no serious obstacle to science for the construction of a canal. The whole extent from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean is made up of swamps, hills and plains, and the highest point of land where the railroad passes is no more than two hundred and eighty-six feet above the level of the sea. On the whole route most, if not all, the hills through which the canal would pass would be required for embankments over the plains and swamps, and I can perceive no insuperable obstacle to piercing the highest part, so as conveniently to make the waters of the Chagres and Obispo and Rio Grande available tor the wants of a canal.

The truth is, that in a climate less favorable to the white man, I do not think the question of "feasibility" would be raised. It seems to be conceded, from experience, that the African race can alone persistently labor in this climate. A few thousands of free blacks might be obtained from the West India Islands, but this resource would be inadequate, as was experienced by the operations on the Panama railroad. The want of men to labor would seem to be the great obstacle to the successful accomplishment of a work of so much magnitude. To illustrate the topographical features of the Isthmus by the route of the railroad, and near which the canal must pass, I have the honor to refer you to the accompanying profile, which has been kindly furnished by Col. Totten. On the Atlantic side the canal would enter the bay of Aspinwall, the chart of which is herewith referred. In In approaching this point it would pass a few miles from the Chagres, and enter the bay near the river Chindi. Here it will be seen, as in the bay of Panama, extensive dredging for a channel to meet the deep water would be necessary. The bay expands for the distance of about five miles, between two headlands, and is open to the sea. A breakwater would be necessary here. With such a one as would afford the necessary protection against the ocean swell, the bay of Aspinwall, like the bay of Panama, would afford ample room for the commerce of Europe, as well as America; and in contemplating these two bays with the eye of a seaman, and in reference to the great work in question, it would look as though nature had provided them for the special convenience of man in his laborious undertakings for be extension of commerce, and a place where all nations may meet in their varied pursuits on the great highway of the ocean.

Panama Railroad Company.

In a work like that of a canal through the Isthmus of Darien, it is to be supposed that the requirements of commerce and navigation in its most extended application would alone be considered; and taking this for the standard, a canal two hundred feet wide and thirty feet deep would seem to be the appropriate dimensions. With such an avenue from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the stormy and distant seas of the extreme South would be abandoned by Europe as well as America, and we should meet here on neutral ground, pursuing with a common purpose the paths of peaceful industry, which, by its means, we may suppose, would affect a moral revolution such as the world has never known, and surpassing in importance that which would be effected in the revolution of the commercial world. In making this report, as well as in the performance of the service, I trust that I may have fulfilled the wishes and expectations of the Department : and if I have failed in anything, I desire it may not be ascribed to a want of zeal, but rather that a laborious naval life has rendered me unequal to the task imposed by the Department.

I am, very respectfully, your ob't scrv't,
H. Paulding, Flag Officer Commanding the Home Squadron.
The Hon. Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy,
Washington. D. C. N. B.

Appended to this report is a paper submitted by Col. G. M. Totten, containing dimensions and other data for the proposed ship-canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Dimensions and Other Data of the Proposed Ship Canal Across the Isthmus of Panama. Length from shore to shore. 45 3/4 miles. Length from five fathoms water in Navy Bay, on the Atlantic, to three fathoms water in Panama Bay, on the Pacific, 48 3/4 miles. The prism of water to be 150 feet wide at the bottom, 270 feet wide at the surface, and 31 feet deep. The lock to be 400 feet in clear length of chamber, and 90 feet in clear width. The summit level will be 150 feet above mean tide of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The summit cut will be about 4 miles long. The deepest cutting on this level will be 136 feet, and the average depth of the cut will be 49 feet. The river Chagres yields an ample supply of water for the canal at all seasons of the year. The summit level will be supplied by a feeder about 24 miles long, which will tap the river Chagres about 21 miles above the town of Cruces, where the level of the river is about 185 feet above the mean tide, and about 35 feet above the summit level. The cost of this canal, including the requisite harbor improvements at each end, will not exceed $80,000,000.

G. M. Totten, Aspinwall, September 14, 1857.

Mr. Toucey will submit this report to Congress, but will make no recommendation on the subject. He does not come from the proper quarter to take the initiative in a vast enterprise of this kind. He becomes giddy over the contemplation of such an appropriation, and all Connecticut could not induce him to name to Congress an appropriation of eighty millions of dollars.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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