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The New York Times, December 3, 1851, p.4:


Letter from Peru--The Route Thither-
The Panama Railroad--Its Condition and Prospects...

Correspondence of The New-York Daily Times.

LIMA, Peru, Tuesday, June 26, 1855.   
    Your Washington Correspondent addresses you from the far-famed "City of Kings..."

    The trip from New-York to Peru is probably one of the pleasantest which can be made anywhere by sea; and now that the narrow Isthmus is spanned by the Panama Railroad, connecting the two oceans within a few hours at most, there is none involving less risk to health.

    I say the Panama Railroad--and be assured I realize the important fact that the great work is actually a fait accompli,--a thing done, and not something only talked of in the future, as some of our doubting Wall-street friends seemed still to suspect when I left New-York.

    In the Fall of 1850 I made a flying trip to California by the way of Panama, and experienced all the delights of the Isthmus transit during the rainy seasons, spending one night in the pestilential miasms of Chagres and Gatun, four additional nights and days in ascending the river to Gorgona in an open canoe, taking the benefit of a drenching shower bath from the clouds about every half hour, and that in company with some half dozen ladies and children, whose pitiable plight may be painted, perhaps by readers of vivid imagination,--others may save themselves the trouble of attempting it.
    During all this time we found little or nothing fit to eat, had no sleep except such naps as we might catch between showers, and while sitting bolt upright on the baggage in the bottom of our "dug out," and with the confident assurance that one rascally native boatman (whom we were compelled to pay some dollars per passenger, in advance,) would desert us on the river bank at the first convenient opportunity.

    Arrived at Gorgona, we obtained a night's rest under a roof, and with bare sacking-bottomed cots under us. In the morning we started for Panama, 18 miles distant, which we reached in two long days of hard traveling on mules, (for which we paid, with our baggage transportation, about $30 each,) through mud and water, over a road such as imagination cannot picture, where the mule and man necessarily alternated in holding the uppermost position, and the risk of suffocation in mire or of breaking one's neck seemed constantly imminent.

    Such was a trip across the Isthmus during the rainy season of 1850. About three weeks ago, also during the rainy season, I crossed from ocean to ocean, in comfortable railroad cars, in four hours, the expense of transit being $25 only, instead of about $60 as before. Don't you think I can appreciate the Panama Railroad under such circumstances?

    ...Nowhere in the United States have I traveled over a railroad which is smoother, or which appears to be more substantially laid, or more solid. It is well known that several miles of the route lay through low swamps and marshes, and the road here was built upon piles driven in the mud. All of these places have now been filled in with stone and gravel, and are a solid as any part of the road bed. I saw nothing which did not indicate that the road is finished from Aspinwall [Colón] to Panama [Panama City], with all its requisite buildings and furniture, except the dépôt at the latter place, which is now erecting.

    I had feared the road would always be subject to serious and frequent damage by swollen and rapid streams; but upon examination I found its liability to such drawbacks far less than almost any other railroad on which I ever traveled. Skillful engineering has located the road bed so as to avoid contact with the streams, except in a few instances, most of which are insignificant; and wherever a stream is crossed, no matter how small, the guards against damage by freshet [flood] are certainly well planned, and calculated for successful resistance to much severer trial than they are ever likely to encounter.
    In a word, I have no hesitation in expressing the conviction that in point of solidity and durability the Panama Railroad will compare most favorably with any road in New-York or New-England.

    I am told by friends who reside at Panama that the local travel and traffic between the terminal of the road are daily increasing, and that the facilities for the transportation of merchandise by railroad are daily more and more availed of by merchants trading between Europe and North and South America. I had not time to get accurate data in relation to the business of the road during the interval between the arrival of steamers from New-York, New-Orleans and San Francisco; but the number who crossed the road the same day with us, and the day before, was about thirteen hundred. These, at $25 per head, foot up $32,500. It would be safe to add to this $1,500 more for express freight and extra baggage--making a total of $34,000, as the proceeds of a single steamer connection.

    There is one thing which ought to be done at Panama, and which must be done before the road can reach its highest point of success, by attracting a large and valuable freighting business,--it must be extended in some direction to deep water, so that vessels may load and discharge without incurring the at present enormous expenses of porterage and lighterage...
    The present place of embarkation is a low sandy beach, distant some two or three miles from good anchorage; and the cost and risks of lighterage of merchandise are so ruinous as to almost prohibit the transportation of anything over the Railroad except for Isthmian consumption. Run the Railroad out so that ships can moor alongside of it, and an immense trade in merchandise to and from distant points must be the almost immediate result.

    It was formerly proposed, I believe, to run the track along the beach some five or six miles down the bay, to the site of Old Panama, but that project was long since abandoned. The present project is to carry the track some nine or twelve hundred rods directly through the City of Panama, across the beach, through the surf, and out to some little islands,--two of which connected would give the Company twenty or thirty acres of land for dépôt purposes, but leave nothing for lot speculations.
    Here is sufficient depth of water for the largest vessels. Careful surveys show the work to be entirely practicable,--and the stockholders will act the part of wisdom if they take the earliest measures for its accomplishment...

    On the way from Panama to Callao, our steamer ran up the Guayaquil River to Guayaquil, the capital of Ecuador, and the seaport for Quito. We saw nothing there of special interest, and heard nothing, except that the very last FLORES expedition had "burst up," and that the country is now considered in a state of quiet.

    We reached this city about two weeks since, at night, and were grandly saluted at 4 o'clock the next morning by a shock of earthquake, which continued its vibrations for about four minutes, creating some commotion among the crockery, but no consternation, so far as I can learn, among the people, who seem to have settled down in the comfortable conviction that Peruvian earthquakes, in this century, are "no great shakes" after all... I must reserve for future communications, however, my description of the city and its "institutions," including earthquakes and fleas...
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    The Republic of Panama is located on a narrow strip of land, the Isthmus of Panama, which connects North America to South America. Panama is bounded by Costa Rica in the west and Colombia in the east, and by the Caribbean Sea (part of the Atlantic Ocean) to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Panama is about 480 miles (770 km) long, but only 31 miles wide at its most narrow point. The capital is Panama City. The area of Panama is 29,157 square miles (75,517 square km), including almost 450 sq mi of coastal islands. The estimated population of Panama for July, 2007 is 3,242,173. The official language is Spanish; about 25% of Panamanians also speak English.

    In the 1530s the Spanish used Panama as a base for their conquest of the Inca empire. For 300 years it was a depot for gold and silver awaiting shipment to Spain.
    In the 1880s a French company tried unsuccessfully to dig a sea-level canal across the narrow isthmus, in the process losing (at that time) about $400,000,000 and thousands of lives. Panama was then a province of Colombia.

    With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.

    On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years.
    With US help, dictator Manuel NORIEGA was deposed in 1989.
    The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were transferred to Panama by the end of 1999. In October 2006, Panamanians approved an ambitious plan to expand the Canal. The project, which is to begin in 2007 and could double the Canal's capacity, is expected to be completed in 2014-15.
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The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1855 was approximately equivalent to $21.97 in 2007 dollars. Thus the $25 Panama Railroad ticket in 1855 cost about $549 in 2007 dollars.

The New York Times, March 19, 1903:


    The most impressive thing about the last step in the adoption by the United States of the Panama Canal project is the fact that it does not impress the public mind in any extraordinary manner. The vote of ratification in the Senate is practically unanimous, and it is accepted by the people, as the shifting fortunes of the treaty from the first have been accepted, with as little excitement as would have attended the appropriation for a new battleship.

    Not that the public is ignorant of the extent of the enterprise or its certain effect upon our trade with the world, or that it is indifferent to these considerations. On the contrary, there has been no great measure of National policy that has commanded a larger degree of intelligent understanding and approval. But an event of this intrinsic magnitude is no longer of great relative magnitude. The people have become used to big things, take their approach as a matter of course, and are at ease as to their accomplishment.

    Here is an engineering work on which already some $400,000,000 has been expended by the French company that originated it, and which we have undertaken to complete at a cost, for franchises, title, and construction, of some $250,000,000. Our experts say that it can be done. Congress has authorized the expenditure. The people are entirely sure that it will be done, and that the process will not disturb the ordinary course of business or in the least strain the resources, financial or other, of the Nation.

    The $50,000,000 needed to clear the way will be paid out of the till of the Treasury from the surplus already existing there. The $200,000,000 for construction, or even a larger amount, is to be raised on bonds that bear 2 per cent interest, and must be sold at par at a time when the British consols bearing 2½ per cent sell at about 92.
    But there is no real need that this sum should be borrowed. It could without serious embarrassment be paid as the expenditure is required from year to year out of the annual income. The entire amount could be raised in five years from the taxes that have been repealed since the close of the Spanish war, and the effect of the general business of the country would not in all probability be felt.

    Measured by similar enterprises, the Panama Canal is practically unapproached in cost. The Suez Canal is estimated to have cost $100,000,000, and was in its time the wonder of the world. The Pacific railways received advances from the Government to the amount of some $65,000,000, which the interest brought up to some $116,000,000, together with about 40,000,000 acres of land. Both the Suez Canal and the transcontinental railways were for a long time regarded as hopelessly visionary. Neither of them at present would be considered formidable either as to difficulty of construction or as to cost.

    Certainly we move rapidly in our day, but there is no reason to think, judged by the strictest possible tests, that we do not move steadily and safely. The pace of the modern fast train would have seemed utterly destructive to that grave member of Parliament who asked Stephenson what would happen to his locomotive if a cow should get on the track.

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1903 was equivalent to $22.79 in 2007 dollars.

The New York Times, September 22, 1912, p.X6:


Drawbacks and Perils or Construction Described by Stephan Bonsal...

    The Isthmus of Panama runs nearly east and west, and the canal traverses it from Colon, on the north, to Panama, on the south, in a general direction from northwest to southeast, the Pacific terminus being twenty-two miles east of the Atlantic entrance.

    The greatest difficulty of the canal project, now nearing completion, was and is the control of the Chagres River and its many tributaries. The Chagres runs a circuitous, serpentine course backward and forward across the Isthmus from its source, in the San Blas Mountains, to the Caribbean Sea, a mile or two west of Limon Bay. One of the merits claimed for the canal plan as finally adopted is that it converts what was an obstacle into the motive power of the colossal project.
    The American canal consists of a sea-level entrance channel from Limon Bay to Gatun, about seven miles long, 41 feet deep at mean tide, and with a bottom width of 500 feet. At Gatun the canal become a high-level canal... Here a mammoth dam has been constructed across the valley, by which the waters of the Chagres River are impounded and a lake, which will have an area of about 164 square miles, is formed. This high level is maintained until Pedro Miguel, thirty-two miles away, is reached. Here the Pacific side of the lake is confined by a dam between the hills, and here also the descent toward a lower level begins through the locks.

    The Gatun Dam, which is the bulwark of the reservoir lake, is nearly one mile and a half long, measured on its crest; fully half a mile wide at its base, and about 400 feet wide at the water surface, and the crest as planned will be at an elevation of 115 feet above mean sea level and about 30 feet above the normal expected level of the lake.
    Of the total length of the dam only 500 feet, or one-fifteenth part, will be exposed to the maximum water head or pressure of 85 feet. As a matter of fact, this bulwark is a mountain rather than a dam, and it is confidently expected that a view of its colossal proportions will disarm those critics of the project who have ever thought to see in an earthen dam the fatal weakness of the high-level plan.

    On the Pacific side of the cut, or continental divide, the canal work consists, in addition to the locks already enumerated, of the breakwaters extending from Balboa to Naos Island, a distance of a little more than three miles, and the excavation of the canal and ocean channel to deep water in the Pacific.
    At the Pacific entrance of the canal the fluctuations of tide are considerable, amounting to about twenty feet. The arrangements in the form of gates in the tidal lock, by which the obstacle is to be met, are new and untried, and there is no absolute certainty that they will work successfully...

    The length of the canal from shore line to shore line is about forty miles. From deep water to deep water it is ten miles longer. There are no lazy turns throughout its course, a thing which the mariner notes with delight. The changing course is met by a succession of twenty-two clean-cut angles without excessive curvature in any place such as would retard or endanger navigation...

    The men who are building the great water gates at Gatun treat appliances, that handle fifty-ton weights as though they were feather dusters, with as much nonchalance as if they were sewing machines... Each leaf of the mitred gate costs, I believe, a hundred thousand dollars...

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1912 was equivalent to $21.21 in 2007 dollars.

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