The Panama Railroad Steamship Company
By James Donahue
Before the Panama Canal was built people wishing to travel from New York to California either went
by horse and covered wagon, or they boarded a ship for a long passage south around the southern tip of South America. Either
way proved to be a long and often dangerous journey.
It was inevitable that a canal would be constructed across the 51-mile wide isthmus of Panama. In
fact, Spanish explorers actually surveyed for construction of just such a cut in the Sixteenth Century. It was not until 1899
when the US Congress created an Isthmian Canal Commission that serious planning to build a canal began. It was completed and
opened to ship traffic in 1914.
In the meantime, the Panama Railroad Steamship Company attempted to fill that gap. This company was
incorporated in New York in 1849 for the purpose of building and operating a railway across the Isthmus of Panama, and providing
ports at both ends for ships load and unload merchandise and passengers. This service began in 1855.
The company was originally a railway service, with links to various shipping companies providing service
between New York to Colon, then known as Aspinwall, and from Panama north to San Francisco on the Pacific side. In 1893 the
Panama Railroad formed its own shipping company, the Columbian Line.
On May 4, 1904, the line was passed to the U.S. government after the canal project was started. From
that time on it was operated by a Board of Directors appointed by the Secretary of War. Its fleet of steamers, the Finance
and Advance, built in 1883 and 1882 for the United States & Brazil Mail Steamship Company, and Allianca.
In 1905 the Ward Line’s ships Havana and Mexico were chartered for the service. These vessels
were renamed Panama and Colon, respectively. These vessels played a critical role in the canal construction.
The Finance sank after a collision with the White Star liner Georgic on Nov. 26, 1908, off Sandy Hook.
Later vessels to join the fleet and become the mainstay of the service were the Tremont and Shawmut,
both purchased from the Boston Steamship Company in 1908. Like the others, these ship’s names were changed to Cristobal
Historically the Alliance was the first ship to pass through the Gatun Locks in the new canal in 1914.
Cristobal was the first to make a test passage through the Canal, and Ancon was the first ship to make an "official transit"
that year on August 15.
The Cristobal and Ancon were refitted in 1919 and 1920. This work included installation of new oil
burning engines and accommodation for 150 passengers. The ships maintained regular eight-day sailings to Cristobal. Two lake-class
freighters, the Buen Ventura and Guay Aquil were purchased in 1923 and 1925 to maintain cargo service.
The railroad’s involvement in steamship service was phased out in the 1930s because of opposition
by privately-owned shipping companies that opposed having to compete against a government-owned line. The Panama Railroad,
however, remained under U.S. control until 1979 when its control was handed over to the Panama government. The following year
the railroad was turned over to the control of a private Panama Canal Railway Company.
The PCRC continues to run both passenger and freight trains between Panama City and Colon to this
day. It remains the only functioning railroad in Panama and is considered the oldest transcontinental railroad in the world.