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History of the Panama Canal: Part 1


It’s Panama Canal week! Transiting the Panama Canal is one of the greatest spectacles in travel. The man-made marvel is on the bucket list of many travelers, as it presents a grand adventure from an historical, cultural and pictorial perspective. Are you thinking about taking one of our exciting Panama Canal cruises? Let us share the history of the canal with you and perhaps this will entice you to join us!

In 1512 the Spanish explorer Balboa was the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean. Soon after Balboa’s discovery, the King of Spain ordered a survey for a canal across the Central American isthmus. He wanted an easier way to get the gold, silver and pearls from the Pacific across the isthmus to be shipped to Spain.

The only crossings of the isthmus that came during Spain’s occupation of Central America was a system of roads and trails. One remnant of their system that remains today is a section of Las Cruces Trail. Another remnant is The King’s Bridge, located at the site of the Original Panama City. This stone bridge is considered to be the oldest bridge in the Americas.

Over the centuries that followed that original survey, many other countries looked at the idea of building a waterway across this narrow strip of land.

The United States was among those countries looking at building a canal somewhere across Central America. In 1846 the United States signed a treaty that gave them authority to build a transportation facility across what we know today as Panama. This treaty was signed with the country of New Granada that was made up of what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.

By 1846 the United States had also negotiated treaties with Nicaragua and Honduras for the exclusive rights to construct a canal in those two countries. The U.S. was covering the possibilities of the most favorable canal routes.

The narrow isthmus of Panama was the favorite place for the short land portion of this journey. During the Gold Rush over 600,000 people made their way across the Panama Isthmus on their way to California. All of this traffic resulted in an American company building the Panama Railroad. The railroad ended up being very successful. It was 47-1/2 miles long, and cost $8 million to build. By 1905 it had returned dividends of over $38 million. At one time it was the highest priced stock on the New York Stock Exchange.

It was during this general time period that a very important figure in the history of the Panama Canal came into the picture.

The Frenchman Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps had been successful in masterminding construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, and he built on his reputation from that effort to get support and financing for construction of a canal across Panama. With his reputation, it was easy for him to get the French Government’s backing for the sale of construction bonds. These were bought by thousands of French citizens.

De Lesseps started construction on his Panama Canal in 1881. His company used bucket-type excavators that dumped the dirt and rocks into railroad cars behind them. Even though his engineers advised against it, he was convinced a canal across Panama could be built at sea level, with no locks. And de Lesseps was convinced he would be successful. He could not believe this 50-mile long canal would be more difficult than the Suez Canal, which was twice as long. But he did not take into proper account the differing conditions between the desert of Egypt and the jungle of Panama.

In time there were 25,000 workers employed on what was to be the largest earth-moving project in world history. Disaster soon struck this French effort. Rain caused problems for the canal builders just as it had for the railroad builders. They also had the mudslides to deal with. And disease hit them hard also. Part of the problem for the French was that they did not know the cause of the diseases. They blamed ground vapors, swamp gases and crawling bugs. They called the common malady The Chagres Fever.

But, the major diseases — yellow fever and malaria — were spread by mosquitoes. Even in light of all the problems, de Lesseps kept pushing the project forward. His company continued work for 8 years, but he went to Panama only twice. And both times were during the dry season. His lack of on-site control led to many problems. Time was wasted in having decisions made. There he was in France, directing a project in Panama. His subordinates ordered inefficient equipment, much of it from their friends. That meant it was generally overpriced.

The subordinates took on the easy work, and deferred the hard work. This way their production reports made their effort look good.

The biggest construction problems the French faced were in Culebra Cut. This is an area about 8-1/2 miles long, where a huge trench had to be cut through the Continental Divide. As de Lesseps continued to push for a sea level canal, it meant cutting deeper and deeper into this mountain range.

As they cut deeper into the mountains, the earth slides increased. 1885 was a major turning point for de Lesseps. He finally agreed that a canal across Panama would need locks. By this time de Lesseps’ company needed additional capital. Again, with the Government’s backing, bonds were sold. De Lesseps’ concession to a lock-type canal, and the infusion of additional funds, came too late. His project failed, and his company was dissolved in 1889.

Three years later, investigations began into de Lesseps’ funding schemes. Charges were eventually made that over 100 members of the French parliament had taken bribes, and even three former premiers were named in the investigation. There were also a number of newspaper editors charged for taking bribes to write favorably about selling de Lesseps’ bonds. This scandal resulted in the French government collapsing in November 1892.

In the end the failed project had cost more than 1.4 billion French francs. That was about $287 million in American money.

Even though the French failed to build their canal across Panama, several other countries had continued their surveys to find the best location for a canal across Central America or Mexico. The U.S. Senate became the body to make a major decision about building a canal across Panama or Nicaragua.

Among the supporters of a Panamanian route was Philippe Bunau-Varilla. He was a Frenchman who had been involved with de Lesseps in the French venture. Just before they were to vote on the issue, Bunau-Varilla came up with a great idea. He mailed each member of the Senate a Nicaraguan stamp. On that stamp was a picture of Mt. Momotombo erupting in Nicaragua. Below the stamp he had penned these words: An official proof of the volcanic activity of Nicaragua.

His strategy worked. The Panama location won.


How did the Panama Canal get completed? Stay tuned…

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