“The voyage (to California) by way of Cape Horn will occupy on an average, five or six months, while by the Isthmus route, the trip is accomplished in as many weeks!”
-- Gregory’s Guide for California Travelers via the Isthmus of Panama, 1850

What Is an Isthmus?

An isthmus is a narrow neck of land surrounded by water that joins two larger land masses. Although the Isthmus of Panama and the Isthmus of Suez are the most famous, isthmuses are found throughout the world. In the 19th century, these land forms were viewed more as impediments separating nations than as links between continents. This attitude reflected an era when long-distance travel was primarily by sea, and tantalizingly narrow isthmuses stood as time-consuming barriers.

Nineteenth-century developments in machinery, transportation, and communications put the Western world in motion. Ports were bustling with people and brimming with raw materials and finished products destined for distant markets. Finding ways to ship goods faster and cheaper was essential to continued commercial expansion. Water transport offered many advantages over rail, including inter-oceanic access.

In addition to their commercial importance, canals had nationalistic and military significance. The French saw an isthmian canal as a magnificent private enterprise reflecting the glory of France. Americans like Theodore Roosevelt viewed an American-controlled canal as critical to U.S. domination of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In 1869, after 10 years of work by the French, the Suez Canal joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas. About 100 miles (161 km) long, the sea-level canal shaved off thousands of miles and months of travel between Europe and Asia. Initially, Egyptian laborers drafted as forced labor did the digging and hauling away with picks and baskets. Later, European workers took over, using dredges and steam shovels. Except for a few rocky areas, most of the excavation was through sand.

Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94), the mastermind behind the Suez Canal, was a career diplomat, not an engineer. His success in marshaling the political, financial, and technical forces needed to build the Suez Canal made him an international hero. Less than a decade later, the charismatic Lesseps was able to mobilize support for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. In 1878, he became president of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama, which was formed to finance a French-built canal.

In the 1840s, engineer Napoleon Garella surveyed possible canal routes on the Isthmus of Panama for the French government. Remarkably farsighted in the engineering he proposed, Garella was terribly wrong on some non-engineering points. He believed that yellow fever did not exist on the isthmus and so failed to predict the health hazards that would claim thousands of workers’ lives during construction of the canal.

German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt explored regions of South and Central America for the Spanish crown in the early 19th century. His report on the trip identified five possible routes for a canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He favored a path through Nicaragua rather than Panama, although he had not traveled to either location.

Before the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855, travelers had to cross the isthmus’s swamps, rivers, jungles, and narrow mountain passes by foot, canoe, and pack animal. In 1851, a herd of camels was imported to the isthmus to serve as beasts of burden, but the animals were no more effective than the mules and horses already in use.

With the 1849 discovery of gold in California, the isthmus teemed with fortune seekers looking for the fastest route to the gold fields. Passage was made easier when the New York-based Panama Railroad Co. completed a rail line across the isthmus in 1855. Between 1855 and 1869, the railroad transported tens of thousands of “forty-niners.” The importance of the line lessened after 1869 when the U.S. transcontinental railroad was completed.

By requesting that this letter be sent via Panama instead of around Cape Horn, the writer acknowledged the time-saving isthmian route. Written in the beginning of December, the letter was in transit across the isthmus by the end of the month.