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The Race to Cross Panama

The Race to Cross Panama

By Luke Carothers

Despite the earliest plans for a project of its type being drafted in the beginning of the 16th century, the Panama Canal was not completed until 1914 when the United States finished its decade-long project.  This roughly 50-mile stretch of locks, dams, and man-made lakes shortened the nautical distance between the East and West Coasts of the United States by nearly 8,000 nautical miles.  At a time when the United States was rapidly expanding Westward, the Panama Canal proved to be a vital source of travel for sailors and income for the United States government.

Prior to the United States, several countries and kingdoms took aim at creating the vital passage.  From King Charles V of Spain ordering a survey in 1534 for the construction of a route to ease travel to the colonies in Peru to Thomas Jefferson imploring the Spanish to find a less treacherous route around South America, there have been no shortage of ideas for the construction of a route across the Panama Isthmus.

By the mid to late-19th century, engineers around the globe were beginning to perfect the creation of canals.  Massive projects such as the Suez and Erie Canals gave several people the confidence to build a man-made waterway across Central America.  One such was a French man named Ferdinand de Lesseps who secured a concession from the Columbian government (who controlled the territory at the time) to build a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

Lesseps was a big figure after successfully developing the Suez Canal, and he had no problems raising the funds for the project.  Despite objections from several notable engineers such as Adolphe Godin de Lepinay that a sea-level canal would not be feasible in the terrain, work began on the doomed project in 1881.  As is often the case, the engineers were correct in their judgements.

Engineers working on Lesseps canal project soon found out that they were not nearly prepared to handle the conditions posed by the terrain nor was their equipment suitable for the job.  Lesseps plans were based on his experience from the construction of the Suez Canal, which took advantage of Egypt’s dry, arid climate.  The constructions teams were not prepared for the challenges posed by a tropical environment that was humid, hot, and brought torrents of rain.  Lesseps and his team found that the heavy machinery that easily dug into the soft, desert soil on the Suez Isthmus did not come close to performing in the tough inland portions of the Panama Isthmus.

Additionally, workers from Europe were unaccustomed to the humidity and mosquitoes as well as the death and disease that followed.  In the first three years of the project, approximately 200 men died every month from disease and accident with many succumbing to Yellow Fever and Malaria.

After close to a decade of failure and mismanagement, the French Panama Canal project was dropped.  In the ensuing fallout, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son found themselves in criminal trouble as a result of the project’s mismanagement after being sentenced to five years in prison for mishandling public funds.

The efforts of the French engineers were left in ruin for over a decade following the aftermath of the failed project before the United States formally took control of the canal property and began construction.  The United States approach to the construction of the canal was vastly different than that of the French, opting for a high-level canal with locks.

With a better understanding of the challenges that faced them—controlling the spread of disease, working in wet conditions, and a better plan in general—the team of Americans was able to complete the project in 1914.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.