The International Steam Pages

Steam in Panama, 1910

The following report appeared in the UK Independent newspaper on May 18th 2000. Similar reports have appeared elsewhere so I guess it is at least part based on an agency wire. My resident expert Chris Walker suggests it is probably one of the bigger French/Belgian 5 foot gauge 0-6-0Ts. By 1910 they would have be around 25 years old. A second picture seems to confirm this. Mike Clendining has since provided pictures of the restored locomotive.

Steam-age gem emerges from a Panama swamp

By Jan McGirk, Latin America Correspondent

More than a century after a French firm went bankrupt trying to dig a canal linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, Panama has been able to recover part of its French legacy from the bottom of a lake.

Salvage crews raised a steam locomotive and 15 carriages to the surface of Lake Gatun this week and there are still dozens more coaches in the depths. They have been under water since American workers flooded a derelict railway yard in 1910 in order to form a reservoir for their lock system.

Ricardo Martinelli, the Minister for Canal Affairs said: "This is a true jewel, a treasure.'' The United States relinquished control of the canal only last December, and Mr Martinelli said: "I think every Panamanian has the right to get to know the legacy left by the French.''

Divers had been studying the sunken train, which is cloaked in algae, for months.

The rolling stock, some of the very few artefacts left from the abandoned 20-year French project, will be cleaned up and put on display. At least two other steam locomotives are believed to be submerged in other sections of the reservoir.

Malaria and yellow fever killed 22,000 workers who tried to dig a sea-level French canal, similar to Suez, through the tropical swamps of the Panama isthmus.

One of the least likely diggers was the painter Paul Gauguin, then in his late thirties, who took up a shovel in 1886 and 1887 to escape his domestic life in France and eventually earn his passage to Tahiti. The French managed to complete about 20 miles of a canal, shifting an estimated 58 million cubic metres of earth, before abandoning the project in 1893.

The three abandoned trains had plied the Peņas Blancas line and hauled both workers and equipment. Colombia granted France a concession to build a canal across its province of Panama in 1835, but it took the enthusiasm of the adventurer Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse to get the project rolling. Panama became a lucrative transit centre during the California Gold Rush of 1849 and many would-be prospectors perished on "The Road to Hell" before New York businessmen funded a single-track railway to link the two coasts in 1855.

Wyse sold all his rights to Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal. French engineers designed a canal which would need no lock mechanisms, but they were plagued by greedy politicians who milked funds from the company and by ever-present tropical maladies.

The Americans took over in 1904, after their military helped Panama gain independence from Colombia. William Crawford Gorgas, a doctor who controlled the mosquito-borne epidemics, now gets as much credit for the success of the United States' efforts as their biggest supporter at the time, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Rob Dickinson