The French Building of the Panama Canal


From the air, Panama appears to be the perfect spot for digging a canal to link the Pacific and Atlantic. Clearly it is the shortest distance between the two oceans, just a sixty-mile strip. It is only by traveling the distance on the ground as visitors on Panama tours may do that it becomes obvious, no site could be worse.
Several elements conspired against the French in their endeavor. The weather was brutal, the soil intractable and the workforce kept dying in annual disease epidemics. With the tools available, work was slow. The arrival of each rainy season, lasting over half of the year, forced excavation work to stop. The inevitable mudslides would cause excavated material to move back to where it had started. Like children at the sea shore building a sand castle as the tide comes in, for the French, the power of nature continued to trump the efforts of man.

Some soils were more problematic than others. Worst was what the laborers encountered at the base of Culebra Pass, comprised of blue clay overlaid by a dense amalgam of lava, mud and gravel that clung to shovels and required another hand tool to scrap it off. It wasn't until the advent of steam shovels three times the size of those available to the French that material could be moved quickly and efficiently. Digging a canal on flat terrain under these conditions would have been difficult enough. But workers were forced to excavate through the Continental Divide, some 250 feet above sea level, ten miles before reaching the Pacific.

Then there was the river that would have to be both widened and stopped. The many tributaries of the Chagres fan out east of the canal, flowing forty-five miles north to the Atlantic; and fifteen miles south to the Pacific from the Continental Divide. During the rainy season, the Chagres might overflow its banks by ten to forty feet in a day. These were problems that could not be solved by digging. They would need a solution based on physics.

When the French finally acknowledged in 1887, four years into construction, that locks were the way to go, the project was running out of money and couldn't afford to shift to a new design. By then it was obvious even to de Lesseps, that the sands and dry weather of Egypt were distinctly different from the slide-prone muddy glop of Panama's terrain and its disease-promoting humidity.

With the canal years from completion after spending $287 million and France on the verge of bankruptcy, the project ended as it had begun, still at the mercy of nature. Now it was the bankers, not the dreamers, in charge. Dissolved in February of 1889, the Societe Civile Internationale du Canal Interoceanique du Darien halted its work. Equipment remained in place as though workers were yet again waiting for the rainy season to end, left to rust. Worker camps and hospitals were abandoned.

The company's last act of business was to reorganize with the goal of recouping part of its loss by selling the project. Incorporated in October of 1894, Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama with the original company's last chief engineer, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, at the helm, negotiated a two-year extension to the contract with Colombia and prepared new drawings based on a canal design with locks. The new company kept the railroad operating and excavated only enough material to stay within its contractual obligations.

When it was over, there was enough blame to go around. Some of the 800,000 angry investors sued de Lesseps and other canal officials (including de Lesseps' son, an engineer) in 1893. The group was prosecuted on the charge of "misappropriation of funds" for bribing elected officials to vote for continuing canal appropriations and bribing journalists to prevent them from poisoning public opinion with candid news articles about the project's problems. Though de Lesseps was sentenced to prison, a higher court reversed the decision. He died, humiliated, in 1894, ten years before the American project got underway, too early to know that a canal through Panama would be built after all.