History of The Panama Canal - The French Project - Conception


After the successful completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the French were inspired to tackle the apparently similar project to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and were confident that this could be carried out with little difficulty. In 1876, an international company, La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique, was created to undertake the work; two years later, it obtained a concession from the Colombian government, which then controlled the land, to dig a canal across the isthmus.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was in charge of the construction of the Suez Canal, was the figurehead of the scheme. His enthusiastic leadership, coupled with his reputation as the man who had brought the Suez project to a successful conclusion, persuaded speculators and ordinary citizens to invest in the scheme, ultimately to the level of almost $400 million.

However, de Lesseps, despite his previous success, was not an engineer. The construction of the Suez Canal, essentially a ditch dug through a flat, sandy desert, presented few challenges; but Panama was to be a very different story. The mountainous spine of Central America comes to a low point at Panama, but still rises to a height of 110 meters (360.9 ft) above sea level at the lowest crossing point. A sea-level canal, as proposed by de Lesseps, would require a prodigious excavation, and through varied hardnesses of rock rather than the easy sand of Suez.

A less obvious barrier was presented by the rivers crossing the canal, particularly the Chagres River, which flows very strongly in the rainy season. This water could not simply be dumped into the canal, as it would present an extreme hazard to shipping; and so a sea-level canal would require the river, which cuts right across the canal route, to be diverted.

The most serious problem of all, however, was tropical disease, particularly malaria and yellow fever. Since it was not known at the time how these diseases were contracted, any precautions against them were doomed to failure. For example, the legs of the hospital beds were placed in tins of water to keep insects from crawling up; but these pans of stagnant water made ideal breeding places for mosquitoes, the carriers of these two diseases, and so worsened the problem.

From the beginning, the project was plagued by a lack of engineering expertise. In May 1879, an international engineering congress was convened in Paris, with Ferdinand de Lesseps at its head; of the 136 delegates, however, only 42 were engineers, the others being made up of speculators, politicians, and personal friends of de Lesseps.

De Lesseps was convinced that a sea-level canal, dug through the mountainous, rocky spine of Central America, could be completed as easily as, or even more easily than, the Suez Canal. The engineering congress estimated the cost of the project at $214,000,000; on February 14, 1880, an engineering commission revised this estimate to $168,600,000. De Lesseps twice reduced this estimate, with no apparent justification; on February 20 to $131,600,000, and again on March 1 to $120,000,000. The engineering congress estimated seven or eight years as the time required to complete the work; de Lesseps reduced the time to six years, as compared to the ten years required for the Suez Canal.

The proposed sea level canal was to have uniform depth of 9 meters (29.5 ft), a bottom width of 22 meters (72.2 ft), and a width at water level of about 27.5 meters (90.2 ft), and involved excavation estimated at 120,000,000 m3 (157,000,000 cu yd). It was proposed that a dam be built at Gamboa to control the flooding of the Chagres river, along with channels to carry water away from the canal. However, the Gamboa dam was later found to be impracticable, and the Chagres River problem was left unresolved.

Read more about this topic:  History Of The Panama Canal, The French Project

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