April 15: The Middletown Man Who Built the First Transcontinental Railroad – But in Another Country.


Back when they taught such things in the classroom, many Connecticans learned this palindrome (a phrase that says the exact same thing read backwards or forwards) in geography class: ” A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama.”  What we were not taught, though, is that men made plans to make transportation across Panama a reality over a half a century before the Panama Canal was built, and that one of  those men was Henry Chauncey of Middletown.  (Perhaps that’s because “A Man, A Plan, A Train: Panama” doesn’t have the same ring to it – or work as a palindrome).

John Stevens, William Aspinall, and Henry Chauncey, founders of the Panama Railway.

In 1845, three businessmen – Henry Chauncey, William Henry Aspinwall, and  John L. Stephens, realizing that the journey to transport goods and people east to west around South America could be shortened by 8000 miles by using the latest in transportation technology,  started the Panama rail project by acquiring rights to build a train line across the isthmus from the government of New Granada. This was to be the world’s first transcontinental railroad and, if successful, it was sure to be a business windfall. Not only would  a convenient overland route across Panama save travel time, it would  mitigate the dangers associated with  ship travel  around Cape Horn.

The men’s timing was excellent, as gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s. On April 15, 1850, they signed  a contract to secure land and begin the railroad’s construction. Between the hazards of the terrain and the perils of disease for workmen,  the work was brutal and progress slow. But after five years and eight million dollars the railway  was completed, and its first train ran on January 28, 1855.  Shortly thereafter, prospectors going to and from the California Gold Rush paid as high as $25 in gold per ticket to shorten their journey  to and from the east and  west coasts. During the American Civil War, the railway was  used to ferry troops, material, and gold across the continent.

Eadweard Muybridge, Stereopticon image, “Monument to Aspinwall, Chauncey, and Stephens” Colon, Panama, Library of Congress

In recognition of their monumental achievement, a monument to Chauncey and his partners was placed in Aspinwall, Panama, the  city created to serve as an Atlantic-side terminal and supply depot for the rail line. (Today the city is known as Colón). The Library of Congress holds a photograph of the monument from the late 19th century, taken by Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer famous for his work in early stop-motion imaging.

Over the next half century,  the railroad was purchased by the French, and then acquired and upgraded by the American government in 1904. It paralleled the route of the Panama Canal, and was an  indispensable component of canal construction, carrying workers and supplies, as well as removing hundreds of car loads of excavated earth daily. In 1913 the rail line was reported to have “the heaviest per-mile traffic of any railroad in the world.”

S.S. Henry Chauncey (California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento)

Henry  Chauncey,  though  a very, very wealthy man as a result of the railway, made little news after it was completed. He died in 1863 and was interred in the impressive Alsop-Chauncey-Mütter Mausoleum in Middletown’s Indian Hills cemetery.  He did, however, hit Connecticut headlines  again in the 20th century, following State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni’s  investigation into the vandalism of the Chauncey’s mausoleum in the early 1990s by a practitioner of satanic rituals.

Further Reading

Planning the Panama Railroad,” Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University

The Panama Railroad Era,”  Panama Canal Museum

John H. Lienhard, “No. 1208, The Panama Railroad,” Engines of our Ingenuity 

Nicholas Bellantoni, Podcast, “When Tombs Are Also Crime Scenes,” Grating the Nutmeg