Trains at Work on the Panama Canal

The first image featured today is an informal photograph included in an album of film negatives that were taken in 1909 by A.G. Bedell. It shows a work crew standing on the tracks by a locomotive while a steam shovel loads a dirt car in the background. Beyond the year and photographer, we don’t have any additional information about the image.


As mentioned in a previous post, there were many photographs taken by laborers during their time working on the Canal. The next two images are from the same series and, like the one pictured above, are informal shots in which the railroad’s role in construction is evident. We have very little information about the images and would welcome your input.

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Finally, the last image showing the railroad in use is an official government photograph that was shot in 1904. This terrific photograph really captures the complexity of the work that was done in the Culebra Cut, showing steam shovels, locomotives with French dump cars, and (zoom in to see details) men with shovels digging on the sides of the banks.


As always, we welcome any specific details you might have about the photographs, as well as any recollections about ancestors who worked with the railroad during construction or any other comments you would like to add.

Celebrating 160 Years of the Panama Railroad (1855-2015)

One Comment

  • Fred Sill

    When the U.S. took over, the French Company dump cars were found inadequate, and were replaced by larger ones. But for the French, theirs had been a major improvement, considering the woven wicker baskets used by Egyptian workers during the construction of the Suez canal twenty years earlier. At that time, long lines of workers emptied their baskets into boxes carried by camels. Fortunately for both the workers and the camels, much of the excavation of the Suez canal could be done by dredges.

    By enlarging the photo, one can see a team of workers apparently involved in the shifting the rails used by the locomotives hauling the dump cars — an ongoing process as the excavations progressed. The rails were welded together to make the job less difficult, and later it became easier when one of the engineers devised a “track shifter”, which was a locomotive with a long apparatus in front which could actually lift the rails, shift their position, and proceed on its way. (Construction day film footage my dad had showed this apparatus in operation.)

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