French Dreams of a Panama Canal


By the time the French took on this daunting yet irresistible project, the country's reputation for engineering prowess was at its zenith. Already known for the canals crisscrossing its own country, it also had under its belt the spectacular success of linking the Mediterranean and Red seas by building the Suez Canal. The opening had been a huge media event, complete with the building of the Grand Opera House in Cairo for the dedication ceremonies and the commissioning of opera's most foremost composer, Giuseppe Verdi, to write a new work of great pomp and circumstance appropriate to the grandeur of the undertaking itself, Aida. The Man of the Hour was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a lawyer by profession, who had overseen the completion of the Suez in 1869, making him a celebrity worldwide and the logical person to head the French building of the Panama Canal.

To build a canal across Central America made sense to most everyone. Only insiders realized that the selected route would require excavating through a mountain at Panama's highest elevation, but swept up in the moment, most of them went along with the idea anyway. From his knowledge of the terrain, one of the few skeptics, French engineer Baron Adolphe Godin de Lepinay, proposed damming the Chagres and Rio Grande rivers to create two lakes as part of an engineering design with locks, an idea that was rejected as unnecessary.

After all, seventy-four year old de Lesseps reasoned, if the 105-mile long Suez Canal could be built at sea level without locks in ten years for $100 million, surely the 60-mile long Panama Canal could be built in twelve (though he thought more likely six) at a cost of $214 million, a sum he regarded on the high side. The route would parallel the Panama Railroad, completed by the Americans in 1855, enabling supplies and excavated material to be transported.

While the plan looked great on paper, it was also true that certain elevations along the route rose over 200 feet above sea level and that the Chagres River which comprised almost half of the route could be counted on to overflow its banks during an extended and unpredictable rainy season. To de Lesseps, flooding and terrain were surmountable challenges noted, but not addressed, in the plan.

It is only by witnessing it for themselves on Panama tours that visitors can fully appreciate the French folly of the Panama Canal.

Southern Explorations Panama tours all visit the Panama Canal including the Miraflores Locks. Two include trips to Gatun Lake among the Panama tours, the eight-day Panama Adventure and Panama Family Adventure trips.