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The Panama Railroad
by Peter Pyne
Published by: Indiana University Press
In 1848, a group of ambitious American entrepreneurs decided to embark upon a remarkable engineering feat—they would build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The creation of the Panama Railroad ranks as one the boldest capitalist ventures in the 19th century, and would require battling climate, disease, and geography before it was completed. On a human level, it would transform the destiny of thousands of lives in America, Panama, the West Indies, and Asia, as well as in Ireland.
The Panama Railroad provides the first comprehensive account of the railroad's construction, going well beyond the known stories of the titans of industry involved with its construction, such as William Aspinwall, George Law, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. It seeks to correct false claims and address numerous gaps in past histories, and in particular showcases the stories of the ordinary Irish workers willing to travel halfway around the globe to pursue an uncertain future and a perilous undertaking in the hopes of escaping the devastating aftermath of the Great Famine of 1845–49.
Part I: Construction
1. The Grand Design
2. A False Start
3. Slow Progress
4. A New Departure
5. Hopes Dashed
6. The Final Push
Part II: The Workers
7. The Men Who Built the Railroad
8. Working Conditions
9. Workers' Amenities
Part III: The Irish
11. The American Irish
12. The Men from Cork
Part IV: Epilogue
13. Railroad-Government Relations
14. The Aftermath
Peter Pyne was Lecturer in history in the Adult Education Department of Ulster University at Magee University College, Derry, before his retirement. He lives in Derry, Northern Ireland, where he and his wife run a bed and breakfast.
"Peter Pyne writes with clarity about the dramatic story of the construction of the Panama Railroad, the world's first inter-oceanic rail line. He describes the on-going struggles of this herculean undertaking, including labor recruitment and retention, recurring bouts of illness and deadly disease, and leadership and political disputes. Readers will view the formative history of this historically significant railroad with fresh eyes. The Panama Railroad, the product of meticulous research, will be the standard reference work on this magnificent American-led project."~H. Roger Grant, Kathryn and Lemon Professor of History, Clemson University
"Rarely do construction projects grab readers' imagination the way Peter Pyne's The Panama Railroad does, from the first pages until its soaring conclusion. Begun a mere 20 years after the first train rolled along rails between Manchester and Liverpool, the rail link across Panama stands among the great pioneer railroads in history. What is more, it coincided with the American expansion west and the gold and silver rushes there, making possible the rapid incorporation of lands seized from Mexico in 1848. Pyne has done deep and thorough research into the construction era but also into the labor force, its travails and conditions, and the impact on Panama and the surrounding region. This welcome addition to the Panama bookshelf provides a masterful narrative, engaging story-telling, solid documentation, and clarity about historical myths surrounding the railroad."~Michael Conniff, San José State University
"Peter Pyne's The Panama Railroad eloquently illustrates the adage about empires built on the bones of the poor. This deeply-researched, well-written, and compelling book recounts the epic story of the construction in 1849-55 of the first shipping and transportation link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Although Panama's later Canal is more famous, it was the Railroad that began what we now call "globalization," enforced then as now by Wall Street finance and US imperialism, with its corporate super-profits and ecological destruction. Pyne gives due attention to entrepreneurs and engineers, but his principal focus is on the international, multi-racial workforce of 17,500 ordinary railroad laborers—at least a fourth of whom perished of sunstroke and disease—and especially on the 3,700 Irish immigrants who had fled British colonialism, famine and poverty in their homeland, only to struggle, sweat, and often die in Panama's pestilential swamps. "~Kerby A. Miller, author of Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America
"The construction of the Panama Railroad in the years 1849-55 marks a key episode in the development of the infrastructure of transport and communications that was a prerequisite for globalization. A feat of engineering and of buccaneering capitalist investment, and built by a multi-ethnic labor force, including a sizeable Irish and Irish-American component, the construction of the Panama Railroad illumines key aspects of the rise to world dominance of American capitalism. It is a story that is thoroughly investigated and vividly recounted in this scholarly and engrossing study."~Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, National University of Ireland, Galway.
"This book is the product of many years of research in diverse archives around the globe. Pyne's The Panama Railroad fills an enormous gap. It is a comprehensive, fundamental and necessary work for understanding the history of Panama and its global connections in the context of the general history of the mid-nineteenth century."~Alfredo Castillero Calvo, editor of Historia General de Panamá
"The first thing that readers will notice about this book is that it is the result of a very thorough examination of the railroad's construction. The extensive research that Pyne undertook in order to present this comprehensive story is commendable."~Bill Hough, NRHS Bulletin
"Pyne's work captures the challenges the railroad builders faced, allowing the reader to appreciate the enormity of the undertaking and what success meant in transforming maritime travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans."~Michael K. Bess, Technology and Culture
"Pyne provides detailed analyses of the immense engineering challenges of the initial construction phase, particularly on the Atlantic side, the many twists and turns of the financing and commercial operations of the line in both New York and Panama itself, and the increasingly conflictive relations between the railroad concessionaires and the Panamanian and Colombian authorities."~Lowell Gudmundson, Latin American Research Review
Hear Peter Pyne discuss The Panama Railroad on The Last Frontiers Webcast