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British Industrial History

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Panama Railway

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The infrastructure of the Panama Railway, (formerly named the Panama Railway or Panama Rail Road) was of vital importance for the construction of the Panama Canal over a parallel route half a century later. The principal incentive for the building of the rail line was the vast increase in traffic to California owing to the 1849 California Gold Rush. [1]

1850 Construction began and the first revenue train ran over the full length on January 28, 1855.[2]

The Panama Railroad by Percy F. Martin.

"The Panama Railroad Company dates from the year 1847, when a concession was granted for the construction of a railway across the Isthmus of Panama. The recipients were a small syndicate composed of several Frenchmen, who were represented by M. Mathieu Kline. The Syndicate, however, was possessed of more enthusiasm than capital, with the result that shortly after its formation it failed through lack of funds, and the contract which had been granted was forfeited. With the consent of the Colombian Government, all the rights and privileges of the concession were transferred, in the month of December, 1848, to a group of North American citizens, Messrs. Aspinwall, Chauncey, Stevens, and others. They at once formed a company, known as the Panama Railroad Company, having its headquarters in New York, and a capital stock of 7,000,000 dollars, (£1,400,000), divided into shares of 100 dols. (£20) each. Out of the 70,000 shares which were issued the De Lesseps Canal Company, during the few years anterior to its collapse, purchased 68,500. From the day that the American syndicate took up construction things proceeded more actively, and in due course the first trans-isthmian railway was built. But the route selected was soon found to be a poor one, and it has since been proved to have been badly surveyed, for the railway met with numerous physical troubles which have indeed, until to-day, entailed an enormous amount of expenditure for repairs and partial reconstruction.

Nevertheless, owing to the enormous charges which have been made for freight and passengers, the railway has, on the whole, proved financially a great success. Even those still closely associated with the enterprise playfully own that while the Isthmus of Panama has long been recognised in history as the seat of operations of some of the greatest robbers known in history, and among whom the delectable Sir Richard Morgan was a shining example, "the greatest robber of all has been the Panama Railroad Company...." Read more.

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