Elizabeth Bemis, curator
Katiana Bagué and Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler, exhibit design

*Click on the train icon above for sound*

A Panama Railroad train emitting smoke while traveling through a grassy area

Panama Railroad, n.d.
II.2021.36.106. Gift of Brad Wilde.

Long before a canal cut across the Isthmus of Panama, the first transcontinental railroad charted a similar path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Built 1850-1855, the Panama Railroad transformed the country’s physical and economic landscape. It propelled Panama into a future of exponential importance as a global crossroad and a tumultuous relationship with the United States that lasted 150 years. The impacts, for better and worse, were profound.

The railroad evolved alongside the local and global environment. It replaced mule trains and wooden boats and became vital to the Panama Canal. But it also served more modest purposes like taking people to work, kids to football games, and women in labor to the hospital. This exhibit celebrates the still-vibrant life of the Panama Railroad.

This online exhibit is based on the exhibit of the same name that is currently on display at the Albert H. Nahmad Panama Canal Gallery from April 6, 2024, to March 7, 2025. Unless otherwise noted, all items are from the Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

Panama Route

In 1848, when gold was discovered in California, the “Panama Route” was the fastest way to get from the East to the West Coast of the United States. Yet it was a dangerous and lengthy proposition. Depending on weather, ship schedules, availability of men and animals, disease outbreaks, and money, the trip could take a few days or a few months. Travelers navigated 25 miles of the journey on land with mules. For the remaining 50 miles, people used wooden boats to move through the river.

Map of the Chagres Route, n.d.
2009.46.3. Gift of Margaret Spradlin.

Wine Bottle, c. 1850 – 1870.
2002.125.002. Gift of Rick Williams.

This bottle was found along the Gold Rush route across Panama.

Albertus Del Orient Browere (American, 1814 – 1887)
Crossing the Isthmus, c. 1858. Oil on canvas. 33 x 44 inches. 1984.8. Crocker Art Museum.

The Transit

To cross the Isthmus, travelers would first arrive at Panama City or Chagres by ship which anchored offshore. Locals in small boats then ferried them to land so they could begin the arduous journey. Towns along the way provided hospitality and sanctuary. Once on the other side of the Isthmus, travelers waited for their scheduled departure.

Although people typically used mules and boats for the journey, published accounts and travel diaries include other methods. In Jane McDougal’s diary, she describes being carried in a hammock suspended between two men. Her daughter Sue got a piggyback ride.

For women, the trip was both more treacherous and a liberating opportunity. Many wore men’s clothes, undoubtedly making the difficult and muddy journey easier. It also made them less conspicuous and possibly safer from unwanted advances. Some reveled in the chance to ride “astride” the mules instead of side-saddle, which was typical for women at the time.

Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855 – 1919)
Old Chagres (colorized), print made from 1850 drawing by
Charles Nahl. n.d. II.2024.4.3.

Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855 – 1919)
Women on the Trail from The Century Illustrated, April 1891.

The Great Enterprise

In 1847, American businessman Henry Aspinwall purchased the U.S. government contract to deliver mail between Panama and Oregon. He soon planned to build a railroad across Panama to enhance his investment.

Construction conditions for the Panama Railroad were inhospitable. Many materials could not withstand the damp climate, and finding the proper terrain for tracks was challenging. In some places, solid ground lay up to 185 feet below mud. Finding workers was also difficult. Deadly diseases were a deterrent for many foreigners. While locals could make more money moving travelers on their own. Many laborers left for better opportunities.

The railroad opened in segments and, piece by piece, chipped away at all other transportation. On January 28, 1855, a locomotive passed over the entire line. The first transcontinental railroad was complete.

Panama Railroad Company Stock Certificate, 1871.

Train Schedule, n.d.
2000.29.145. Gift of Ted and Patsy Norris.

Kerosene Lamp from Panama Railroad
Passenger Car, n.d. II.2024.999.1.
Gift of Pat and Dick Bjorneby.

First Continental Railroad, 100th Anniversary,
January 28, 1955. 2003.52.57.2.
Gift of Family of George and Mayno Walker.


The swamp of Manzanillo Island was selected as the Atlantic Terminus of the railroad. For the first few months, the workers lived in the ship they arrived on. They spent their days in waist-deep water, surveying land in search of high ground. James Baldwin, the railroad’s assistant chief engineer, built a shack for himself there. It was the first permanent structure in what would become the city of Colón.

Colón was laid out on a grid, like a U.S. frontier town. This differs from other Panamanian cities that have a city center. The original construction and urban design are still evident today. Many early buildings still stand, including Christ Church By the Sea. Built in 1864 by the Panama Railroad Company, it is the oldest Episcopal Church in Central America.

Colón, Panama, n.d.
2007.51.9.2. Gift of Pat Bjorneby.

Baldwin Print from Fessenden N. Otis’ Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad, 1861. Harper. F 1563 .O87 1861.
Latin American and Caribbean Collection Rare Books,
George A. Smathers Libraries.

Christ Church by-the-Sea Fundraising Pamphlet, n.d.
II.2022.5.17. Gift of Heywood Garlington.

Vanderbilt et al

The “Panama Route” wasn’t the only option available to travelers. In 1851, Cornelius Vanderbilt, shipping magnate and founder of SEC rival Vanderbilt University, opened a transit route across Nicaragua. He capitalized on the more temperate climate, advertising that the diseases that plagued passengers in Panama were not a problem for those traveling via Nicaragua. A ship-railway across Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec was proposed but never realized. However, with the opening of the Panama Railroad, no other transit route could compete, and most were rendered obsolete.

Elmer L. Corthell (American, 1840 – 1916)
The Atlantic & Pacific Ship-Railway Across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, In Mexico, January 1886. II.2020.42.8. Gift of Michael Ellman.

Daily Alta California, Vol. 4, No. 58, February 28, 1853.
Courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside.

Panamanian Independence

The railroad played a role in Panama gaining independence from Colombia in 1903. To stop the Colombian military from advancing across the country, the U.S. closed the train to all troops.

Aminta Melendez, “the heroine of the Panamanian Revolution,” took the train from Colón and alerted Panama City revolutionaries about the arrival of Colombian troops. Because of her young age and gender, she traveled without suspicion.

Collier’s Weekly, November 28, 1903.
2004.27.746.40. Gift of Pat Bjorneby.

Porfirio Meléndez and Aminta Meléndez from Ernesto J. Castillero’s Episodios de la Independencia de Panama, 1958.
Panamá Departamento de Bellas Artes y Publicaciones del Ministerio de Educación. 986.204 C352e. Latin American and Caribbean Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries.

Letter from John Hubbard to Elisco Torres, November 4, 1903.
Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress
Manuscript Division. Accessed through the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library,  Dickinson State University.

Canal Construction

After 50 years in operation, the Panama Railroad became the backbone of the Panama Canal’s construction. Trains and railway equipment moved dirt and tracks, transported workers, and distributed supplies.

Yet, the Canal’s path eventually required the relocation of the main rail line. The tremendous number of people and goods once carried by trains now moved through the waterway. From this point on, the train would play a supporting role in the life of the Canal and the Canal Zone.

Miraflores Lower Locks, August 16, 1912.
II.2022.93.11. Gift of Mickey Fitzgerald.

Unique Cars

The Panama Railroad has used many different cars and trains to meet its unique needs. Special ironclad cars transported gold from California. Tourists rode observation cars to view the Panama Canal’s construction. Liberty trains carried sailors and soldiers of the U.S. military. And pay cars distributed wages to the workers who rode the labor trains to work every day. It took three days for the pay train to distribute 1,600 pounds of gold and 24 tons of silver currency in monthly wages to Panama Canal employees.

Liberty Train, n.d.
II.2021.23.106. Gift of Brad Wilde.

Observation Car, n.d.
II.2018.40.13. Gift of Kathi Schue.

Pay Car at Gorgona, April 1907.
II.2021.23.106. Gift of Brad Wilde.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal. He became the first sitting president to travel outside the continental United States. A special tram was decorated for this historic visit. Foreman William Ashton sits at the controls of the tram while his daughter Emma stands at the far right.

Theodore and Edith Roosevelt Touring the Panama Canal Construction, 1906. 2013650928.
Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

During Panama Canal construction, railroad cars were used as temporary housing for workers. Railroad cars also housed some of the 12,000
residents who lost their homes in the 1915 fire in Colón.

Family Living in Railroad Car, n.d.
II.2018.78.3. Gift of Jennifer Glucoft.

Colón Fire. Fire Victims Housed in Panama R.R.
Box Cars and Other Temporary Shelters,
May 1, 1915. II.2019.999.554.

Mr. Peart Living in his Railroad Car, August 23, 1968.
The Panama Canal Spillway.

Named after Jeanne Bensen, the “Jeanne B” was a new caboose dedicated by the Panama Railroad in 1978. Bensen was the highest-ranking female employee in the Railroad Division at the time. The red, white, and blue car read “Gracias Por Embarcarlo por Ferrocarril” (Thanks for Shipping It By Rail) on the side.

Ethel Jeanne (Johnson) Bensen Christening Railroad Car No. 98 the “Jeanne B,” n.d. 2005.17.2. Gift of Donald Bensen.

The Jeanne B Caboose, n.d.
2003.93.5. Gift of Sue Greer.

Economic Impact

The opening of the railroad in Panama had an extraordinary impact on the local economy. Once passengers and goods crossed the Isthmus quickly without local muleteers, boatmen, lodging, and food along the way, the established ways of life and consistent income were decimated. The money that had once provided economic independence to the working class now moved into the pockets of the U.S.-owned railroad and steamship businesses.

Some towns from the original transit system, like Gorgona, withstood the arrival of the railroad. Yet most did not survive the subsequent Panama Canal construction and the flooding of Gatun Lake. The residents of Gorgona and many other towns were forcibly relocated. Significant changes along the crossing once again disrupted their livelihoods and homes.

Gorgona, Panama from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, n.d. 2004.27.746.51.

Moving Buildings in Sections. Gorgona, Canal Zone, 1913.

Remains of the Village of Frijoles on Old line of Panama Railroad,
January 1912. II.2019.999.554.

The railroad significantly increased imports and trade in Panama. Many communities were impacted, including the indigenous Guna. They saw greater access to fabric, needles, and thread. The increase in materials affected the evolution of their clothing.

The Guna are known for their molas, a unique fabric panel most often used in blouses. Artisans create molas with a reverse applique technique that involves several layers of colored fabric. The multiple layers are sewn together, and then parts of each layer are cut away to reveal the design.

Railroad Stoplight, n.d.

Panama Railroad Commissary Needle Dispenser, n.d.
2004.045.021. Gift of Norma S. Martin.

Mola, n.d.

Everyday Use

The business of the railroad wasn’t always business. Much like mass transit in a large city, people used the train to travel for their daily lives. People took the train to work, to shop in neighboring townsites, and to visit the hospital. High school students rode the train to rivalry football games.

Ticket Booklet of Edward A. Doolan, 1952.
2008.65.20.2. Gift of Trustees of Edward Doolan.

Ticket Booklet of Frank M. Hill, 1910.
2000.29.68. Gift of Ted and Patsy Norris.

Zonian, Balboa High School Yearbook, 1977.

“The Jamboree Train of ’76 carried to the Atlantic side four coaches of enthusiastic B.H.S. students. It was a time of togetherness and a time of spirit. This was a year of sweet victory as the powerful Big Red Machine brought the Jamboree trophy home!”

Conductor Davis with grandson Eddy Dolan from
Write of Passage, n.d.

Conductor’s Hat Emblem, n.d.
2005.65.1. Gift of Jerry Stephenson.

Panama Railroad Station, Gamboa, Canal Zone, March 1941.
NAID: 202801411. Photographs Related to the Operation and Development of the Panama Canal Zone, National Archives.

Tourist Train

Throughout its history, the Panama Railroad has offered a novel experience to many. Special train trips and keepsakes celebrated major anniversaries. Souvenirs served as reminders of the trip for sightseers and mementos for residents.

Tourist Train, 1910.

Tourist Brochure, n.d.
2002.75.9. Gift of Robert and Marcia Jones.

Snack Box, n.d.

Souvenir Glass, n.d.

100th Anniversary Souvenir Pass, 1955.
2005.58.1. Gift of Douglas Schmidt.

150th Anniversary Souvenir Pass, 2005.


The Panama Railroad has adapted and evolved throughout its long life. It saw less traffic after the 1869 opening of the transcontinental railroad across the United States, the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, and the construction of the first highway across the Isthmus. The ever-increasing number of roads and cars also reduced its importance in the everyday lives of residents. As part of the Canal Treaty, the U.S. transferred railroad control to Panama on September 30, 1979.

In recent years, the railroad has played a critical role in the Canal’s daily functions. When the level of Gatun Lake is too low, ships must offload cargo to become lighter and higher in the water. This cargo is put onto the railroad and moves to the opposing port, where it goes back onto the ship after it has crossed the Canal.

Envelope, 1979.
II.2019.13.4. Gift of Dennis McAuliffe Jr.

Train Near Pedro Miguel Locks, n.d.
II.2022.96.3. Gift of Valerie McAlister-Hageman.

Mi-Jack Crane Loading Cargo onto a Train, n.d.
Gift of the Panama Canal Museum.

This online exhibit is based on the exhibit of the same name that is currently on display at the Albert H. Nahmad Panama Canal Gallery from April 6, 2024, to March 7, 2025. Unless otherwise noted, all items are from the Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

Scroll to Top