The Modernization of Transportation


The gallery images above are property of Mr. Allen Morrison.

In undergoing the intense period of transformation that usually accompanies modernization the average Panamanian today is compelled to cope with all the new changes in their besieged transportation system.

For over one hundred and sixty years our public transportation system has been based on the network of railroad, streetcars, chivas, mini-buses and Diablo Rojo; that is, until now.  Streetcar, by the way, is the American word for the British “Tram”.  Today we are seeing attempts at sweeping away the old and ushering in the new in so far as cleaner, safer and more modern conveyances for the average Panamanian is concerned.

The Street Cars- Two Stories

As with the history of the building of the Panama Canal, our country has also had two histories attached to the building of the streetcar system. During the bustling days of the Silver People back in the latter half of the 19th century when Panama was yet a department of the Gran Colombia, the British were given license to build a tramway system in Panama City. Guess who they employed to do the taxing work involved in laying rails, putting together the cars and organizing the entire network on rail?  The West Indians were also primarily used to lay the cobblestones that still line the streets in many sections of Casco Viejo.

The large pool of West Indian men, mostly Jamaican, who were eager to work again after the building of the Panama Railroad and after the French departure in 1889, numbered in the thousands. They were not only eager but they spoke English, were hard working, and many had diverse skills that the English could seize upon.  They were not just a body of rough, illiterate men as some historians would have us believe.  Some men were almost as knowledgeable on these projects as the white men who employed them.

Since the building of the electric streetcars implied the existence of an electrical plant, this necessity was filled in by Siemens Bros., an affiliate of Siemens and Halske of Germany; the company also laid the track along Avenida Cemtral in Panama City. The British company, United Electric Tramways Co. of London, initiated the entire project on October 22, 1892 upon having the license transferred to them from the Ministry of Public Works in Bogotá.

According to Allen Morrison* the tramway was inaugurated on October 1, 1893, becoming one of Latin America’s first electric powered streetcar services. The service employed six streetcars, two enclosed and four open with comfortable seating capacity for twenty five passengers each. In the early days the technology used was quite advanced and no overhead power cables were used as in most tramway systems.  Unique side mounted power collectors were used.

As this period of time was in such volatility, however, the tram system did not last very long. It lasted from 1893 until about 1902 after the combined blows to the fragile local economy of the French demise in the building of the Panama Canal and the 1,000 Days War ravished the pockets of the people.

With Panama City in a shambles, the tramway system of the British came to an end and the second chapter, the American chapter, opened after Panama seceded from the Gran Colombia in 1903.  Allen Morrison tells us that on October 29, 1906 the new Panamanian government awarded a concession to build a new streetcar service that would be larger and also extend into the budding Canal Zone now in serious need of transportation for its workers.

The contract eventually fell to an officer of the United Fruit Company who, on November 9, 1911, registered Panama Tramways in, of all places, New Jersey. The New York engineering firm of R.W. Hebard, Co. was hired and in 1912 construction was begun with a budget of USD$750,000. The new American tram system was inaugurated on August 1, 1913, with plenty of  time to meet the inauguration of the Panama Canal on August 1914.  The goal of enlarging the streetcar system was met with fifteen closed cars from a New Jersey firm and seven additional electric cars from a Philadelphia company, J.G. Brill.  This time the technology included “trolley poles” which implied overhead cables and some of the cars were steam powered.

The cost of a ride on the streetcars varied between 10 and 15 cents.

Our point in revealing this history, however, is to also highlight the human participation in this wide scale project.  Not even the photographs can hide the fact that West Indians made up the bulk of the work force to build this transportation service both during the British period and the American period.  Rest assured that they also made up the majority of the passengers.

Maybe in a future post we will relate how the Jamaicans were the preferred workers by the renowned British Railway builders of the nineteenth century in the western hemisphere. Without them we would not have many of the train systems we have today in such places as Ecuador. Makes for fascinating reading and it also points to the significant participation of the Black West Indians in the modernization of Latin America.


You can see Allen Morrison’s account here.

Dr. Alonso Roy also gives a refreshing account in Spanish here.

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