John L. Stephens (1805 - 1852), with Henry Chauncey and William H. Aspinwall, played a crucial role in the planning, financing and promotion of the Panama Railroad, the first commercial link between the Atlantic and Pacific that traversed the Isthmus of Panama.
An attorney by profession, Stephens tired of his legal career and, using health as an excuse, began a two-year voyage in 1834 to Europe and the Mediterranean. Beginning in 1837, Stephens published accounts of his travels: first, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, then, in 1838, Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, and Russia and Poland. Because of the popularity of these travelogues, Stephens gained the title "the American Traveler."
In 1839 President van Buren sent stephens on a confidential diplomatic mission to Central America, during which he explored extensively the Mayan ruins. After this trip he published his two-volume Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. He returned to the Yucatan in 1841 for further explorations, and then published Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
After his travels, Stephens became a director of the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, and was a supporter of the Hudson River Railroad. His greatest contribution to transportation, however, was his connection with the Panama Railroad.
Stephens was elected vice-president of the Panama Railroad Company at its formation in 1849, and he was responsible for negotiating the contracts with the government of New Granada (later Columbia) in Bogota. Because of his previous explorations in the area, Stephens also spent two years supervising the surveys and personally overseeing preliminary work.
John L. Stephens died in New York City in 1852, apparently after contracting some tropical disease during his stay in Panama.
The Stephens-Chauncey Collection consists of fifteen letters from John L. Stephens to Henry Chauncey, his friend and partner in the Panama venture; one letter from Stephens to William H. Aspinwall, the other primary mover of the Panama Railroad; and one letter from General Pedro Alcantara Herran, Minister from New Granada in Washington, to Stephens.
The letters range from 1848 to 1851, and reveal Stephens' original anxiety about the difficulty of the project and his rising confidence as it progressed. The letters also show the relationships among those in the Company, and discuss, to some extent, the costs involved in the undertaking, as well as the probable profits.
These letters will serve as an interesting source for the history of the Panama Railroad, and will be indispensible to any future biographers of John L. Stephens.
The collection also contains photocopies of some newspaper, magazine, and book article covering the history of the Panama Railroad.
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Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.