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#182 George Totten, Class of 1827, Built the Panama Railroad

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Norwich Was There

George Muirson Totten attended Captain Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy from 1824 to 1827. He was a native of nearby New Haven, Conn., and attended the prestigious Hopkins School before entering the Academy. Though Totten’s hometown was very close to Middletown, Conn., where the Academy moved while he was a student, he initially traveled to Norwich, Vt., to attend at the original campus.

Totten completed his studies at the Academy, known for its engineering program, during the era of canal transportation. His first job was as an assistant engineer on the Farmington Canal in Massachusetts. He worked as a canal engineer in Delaware and Pennsylvania before transitioning to the railroad industry in the 1830s.

He rose through the ranks until 1843, when his career took a decidedly international turn: He was appointed chief engineer of the Canal de Dique in Colombia. From there, he embarked upon the most laborious and substantial project of his career. In 1850, Totten was appointed chief engineer of the Panama Railroad.

The railroad across the Panamanian isthmus would be completed a decade and a half before a transcontinental railroad was completed across the United States by another Norwich alum, Grenville Dodge. Totten’s railroad was thus an essential component of 19th century trade and commerce, and remained the primary route across the isthmus until the famous canal opened in 1914. While overseeing the project, Totten worked alongside William Parker, a colleague from the academy at Norwich. When the railroad was complete, Totten remained a consulting engineer for the Panama Railroad until his death in 1884.

While continuing to consult on his iconic Panamanian project, Totten led and consulted on both railroad and canal projects in Venezuela and around the United States. In 1879, he returned to Panama and served as chief of staff and the only American engineer advising the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lessep on his failed attempt to build a canal across Panama (de Lessep was later a key developer of the Suez Canal).

For his work abroad, Totten received commendations from both the French and Venezuelan governments. He had four children with his wife Harriet; one of his two daughters married the son of another Norwich man, Isaac Smith from the class of 1829.